Falling through the Tree of Life

extract from the Introduction

The Kabbalah is a living, breathing magical system that invites us to remember our intrinsic belonging to the universe in every moment. We are one with the divine, and all that is. The Tree of Life reveals step-by-step the unfolding pattern of becoming – the journey of spirit into matter, and the great expansive arc from the Big Bang through to the outer stretches of the universe – as well as the place of living matter and individual consciousness that we inhabit. Here we weep, breathe, sigh, laugh, and delight in the layered push and tumble of mysteries, knowing our own bodies are temples and every moment a gateway to the divine.

This is an invitation to step inside the realms of Kabbalah. Previously you may have gazed at technical diagrams of circles and paths that seem to have no relation to embodied, human life. Falling through the Tree of Life makes sense of those diagrams, because we learn how to inhabit them not just with our minds but with our bodies, emotions, and lived experience. The Tree of Life is not purely an abstract concept but a dynamic magical force. Working this way can open the doors to further Kabbalah study, reading, or magic.

The Kabbalah has often been presented as obscure, inaccessible, and dense, especially in books. Partly this is because it is an oral tradition, meant to come to life between teacher and students, and the direct relationship between participants and the mysteries. Embodied Kabbalah asks us to recognize that we are alive! The Tree is alive! We are in direct communion with the mysteries, and our teacher is the divinity we were born from, and on death, return to. Right now our living bodies are within the Tree of Life, and in discovering the wonders of the Tree we discover ourselves. The Tree unfurls branch by branch as we inhabit, dance, and make love with this living magic. We fall in love at each step of the journey, meeting the world and pieces of ourselves in an unfolding map of the universe.

The Tree of Life has taken me and reshaped me and in fact gave birth to me in the first place. I′ve seen the resonances in my dreams, how it′s wrenched my magic about and forged it with starlight and rooted it in the body and left it spinning maps and stories in my head. It′s freed me from everything and given me to everything and left me believing I understand something. Writing this book I thought: if I can put this on the page, if I can offer this in digestible form, then all of my life makes sense. Perhaps I′m not qualified in the usual ways of Kabbalah. I′m qualified instead by sap and bud, by adventure and magic and love. It′s a code, a force, a language made of sparks of fire – so impossible it was written by the gods. Except that it wrote the gods.

As I child I desperately wanted to understand: explain it to me. The universe, life and death, why am I here, what should I do? How can I live with this? I got hints and I always thought the answer lay in dreams, in forests and rivers and fairy tales, in geometry, and in sex. Those things, specifically. Now – almost unbelievably – I think I have it. Dreams, forests, rivers, sex, fairy tales, and geometry come together in the Tree. That understanding I wanted so fiercely; the Kabbalah gave it to me. Opened the door and I went through. It′s impossible to write down, of course, or really explain it to anyone else. But maybe I can describe the door? Or, at least, the pathway towards the door?

The only way I was able to learn about Kabbalah – after years of trying to make headway through books that seemed written almost in another language – was to draw out a Tree of Life, in chalk, on a large wooden floor, and move into it and create magic there. From the first moment I walked onto that map the Tree of Life began to resonate through my body. I felt things. Saw things, understood things, concepts came into my mind and words came out of my mouth. I felt the living Tree moving and speaking within me, and I was within it.

Each student of Kabbalah has their own Kabbalah. Mine is the Kabbalah of Broken Butterflies. The briefest and brightest. Humans – all living creatures of this earth – are bright and beautiful. And compared to the Tree, to the divine, to the universe, we are impossibly brief. Almost impossible – but then, miraculously, possible. Existing anyway, in spite of our brevity. What could we understand, in these few moments of universal time granted to us? Hardly anything. And yet – something. Butterflies eat the leaves of the Tree, on their way to becoming butterflies. They bind themselves to a tree, in their process of transformation, trusting it to hold them as they dissolve their bodies and allow the wondrously named imaginal cells to recreate them. The butterfly form that will be birthed, open its wings – and fly – through the Tree.

How much can a butterfly know of a tree? It is fed, sheltered, birthed by the tree. Like the butterfly we stretch our metaphoric wings and flutter through its leaves and branches. The Tree formed us and so we belong to it, but we only know a tiny part, and that imperfectly from our butterfly or human experience. Rather than understand it, it would be more true to say we are it, the butterfly is the tree, in butterfly form. I am the Tree of Life, in human form. And living, I′m breaking. Breaking open from the chrysalis, breaking my heart with this life, breaking free from old selves, and breaking down my form as I fall through life′s journey from birth to death.

I think of us as shards, sparks of life flung out from the beginning of the universe, falling into this momentary form as human, just as the Tree breaks apart into its many selves, its ten sephirot. They′re always still part of the one, the All, just as we are. Merged together we are unbroken, and the very atoms of our cells remember that. But as individual selves, we′re always broken – broken off from the divine, though striving to remember and return with every heartbeat, every lover, every mystical quest and heart-stopping ritual. Breaking. It′s not a bad thing, but an opening, a remembering of who we really are. Like a butterfly, the tiny, color-drenched feathers on their wings brushing off here, there, parts of them crumpling and tearing, each one of their lives a song to the glory of life. Like us. Flying and falling, intrinsically a part of All and yet just separate enough to hold the reflection.

Flying but falling. In the Tree of Life we fall from the very top of the diagram – Kether, the divine, where all things are one – to the very bottom, Malkuth. It′s like gravity – the only thing to do is to fall. Malkuth is the living world we are part of, where we live and die and create love. We fall into this life – born through another human′s body, and at the end we fall out of it, through the gateway of death. Alive, we fall in love – with ideas, with other humans, with land, with magic, and if we are lucky, with life itself. Falling is surrendering, letting gravity take us, toppling from the divine to the human. It mirrors the biblical descent, from Paradise to earth, and the fall of the angels. Falling is about separation and union – we fall away from the other, the beloved, the All, but we fall into the embrace of the lover, the dark earth, and fleshy incarnation. It′s all about falling.

I′m writing this book to dare the dark stretch of the universe, to attempt to capture the bright sparks that whispered the gods into being, to redeem meaning. I′m a butterfly, merely, perched or falling through a tree so impossibly beautiful, the structure of the universe etched in its branches, the poetry of its leaves and buds. I ate of this tree, the cells of my body were formed by this tree as I lay, bound in a cocoon to a twig of this tree in the imaginal realms, unknowing of what could emerge or how brief and bright my life would be, transformed and falling, so delicate and pigment-drenched with life force and dying in each moment. I fell in love. In love with the breath of the Tree and each breath, of mine, shared with/from/through the Tree. The tree wrote me, the tree sees me, breathes me, holds me, forms and unforms me. My body, the tiny scraps of breaking wings will nourish the earth-drenched roots but in the moment I fly, flutter through the spaces cut out in space by this tree and celebrate, dance, glory in what I am reflecting and born from and born for: this moment of Treeness called butterfly.

I′ll write as the butterfly flies, falling, on its brief and terrible journey, catching a wing and tearing those delicate feathers of color, time eating it up faster than it can fly, falling. I′ll write for the butterfly, and for love, and impossibility.