Problems on the Path of Return: Pathology in Kabbalistic and Alchemical Practices

Soul Ladder

To the left of the house of Hades under a graceful white cypress a well offers spring water. Don’t drink there. Find the well by the lake of memory. Guardians protect the cold water. Tell them:….” — The Hymns of Orpheus

Psychological Effects of Pathworking

The effects of pathworking are to greater or lesser degree well documented. Once the basic concepts of what each sphere represents in terms of psychological elements on the Tree of Life is understood, then the links which they form are realized either through ritual, mythological metaphor, meditation, or a combination of the above. However, in the rush to realize magical powers, altered states of awareness, celestial beings, and interior worlds, one of the most significant and important facts of pathworking and all magical work in general is often overlooked.

The majority of all so-called magical, mystical, alchemical, or esoteric work, as much as 90% of it, is nothing more than glorified psychotherapy.

In fact few people stay with any system long enough to realize the genuinely spiritual aspects of the Work they are doing. The need for genuine self-honesty and purification on the level of the ego and the repressed areas of the subconscious, before the refined and powerful forces of the soul can shine freely and effectively through the ego and not be overly distorted by it, must be recognized by students if they are to derive full benefit from the Work they are doing.

To this end, the following examples of kabbalistic pathworking are being given, as well as possible psychological benefits as well as pathologies which their working (particularly out of sequence) can evoke within the psyche of the operator. While no single path is ever worked exclusively, only realized as such by our outer self (i.e. ego), the effects are seen predominantly when particular paths are undertaken as ritual or esoteric operations. The paths are numbered in a working sequence for a reason, it is best to follow that sequence if disharmony and psychic disruption is to be held to a minimum. Each of use carries within us the seeds for healthy and unhealthy uses of the forces we are made from and contain. When ever we approach a particular sphere or spheres, we also approach their reflection in the qlippoth, as the qlippoth is nothing more than imbalanced force or an excess of a particular virtue, so much that it becomes a vice.

Dr. Israel Regardie stated that it is important for the would-be magus to undertake psychological counseling prior to, or as an adjunct with, esoteric training. Unfortunately, this is rarely done, and few psychotherapists are qualified to undertake the dual task of mental health clinician and initiator. The reverse is also true of many would-be initiators and their qualifications, or lack thereof, to be a valuable psychotherapist. A true psycho-therapist, or healer of the soul, is as rare as a genuine psycho-pomp, or guide of the soul. This abyss is made even larger by the failure of esoteric movements to place enough emphasis on personal growth, and the therapeutic community’s failure to even attempt to understand the experiential significance of ritual and the possible legitimacy of esoteric practices.

While many therapists and esotericists are familiar with the writings of Carl Jung and have applied them in some form to their respective work, the realm of therapy that is most important to esoteric students during practical alchemical and ritual work is more closely akin to Freud than Jung. Depth psychology is often overlooked in the rush to the mountaintop, and Jung has been gutted by many of his would be advocates of his psychoanalytical content. Yet even both of these systems combined will only give a glimpse into the interior worlds, as they lack effective techniques for the kind of initiation that most esotericists seek.

The works of the Italian Renaissance hermeticist Marsilio Ficino are of immense value, in that they bridge the gap between psychology and magic to a great degree. Unfortunately, they can be difficult to obtain, and deal with a style of kabbalah stylistically different from the more famous modern schools, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its off-shoots. Some of Ficino’s insights will be considered as well.

Despite this lack of effective interface between the parent art and science of occultism and its

insolent step-child psychology, some inroads have been made to bridge the gap both in terms of technique and theoretical understanding. The most effective to date being Psychosynthesis, as outlined by Roberto Assagioli, Piero Ferrucci, and Jean Hardy. Peter Roche de Coppens, Ph.D. (The Nature and Use of Ritual for Spiritual Attainment, 1985; The Invisible Temple, 1987) has begun an effective synthesis and comparison of the effects of basic kabbalistic work and it relationship to Psychosynthesis, however, a look at the effects of Pathworking as explained in any psychological framework or school appears to be lacking.


“I am a child of the earth and of starry heaven, but my race is of heaven.” The Hymns of Orpheus, cont’d.

The fundamental premise behind Psychosynthesis is that we must first construct, purify, and then surrender our sense of self (ego) if we are to realize our spiritual nature as expressed in transpersonal and humanistic psychology. We posses within us several overlapping and interpenetrating fields of awareness.

One of these fields represents our repression, feelings of fear and guilt, libidinal (sexual-psychic-creative) drives, and other forces that risk bringing chaos into our world, as well as power, if directed and controlled. This is our lower unconscious (Yesod and Elemental forces).

We also posses a field of middle unconscious (traditional subconscious) into which we have our imaginative facilities, memory, and ready access information needed for daily life (Chesed-Yesod).

A higher unconscious, or superconscious (Keter), which is the transpersonal or genuinely untainted spiritual aspect of our awareness.

And a middle area of awareness around which all of this stuff revolves, or sense of self the “I”. Outside of it exists the collective unconscious (Binah-Hockmah)of our clan, tribe, nation, world, and all of creation.

Then there is the Self, or Higher Self (Tiphareth), which we seek to express in and through the little self, and in the functions of the various levels of our unconsciousness. These levels are designated as unconscious for the obvious reason that they exist and function within our psyche regardless of whether we are aware of them or not. We only become conscious of the effect they have in our lives when we seek to break through the layers of external conditioning that have been used as reference points for our sense of being.

This movement from psycho-spiritual sleep to wakefulness is the Work of the initiate. The results of its successful completion, or at least working completion, can be seen in the expression of a powerful, harmonious, intuitive, and creative personality that is generally unaffected by the petty, worldly entrapments that seek to draw us away from the powerful resources of our central Self.

As the self (created by the world and our response to it) is progressively undone and reconstructed so that it may identify to greater degrees of efficiency with the Self, conflicts arise and are resolved. When Self and self become, even if momentarily a functioning conscious unit, then the opportunity for even greater influx of Light, Life, and Love come through turning our attention to the realms of the superconscious (Keter). This however, would constitute the Work of the Paths above Tiphareth, and the 13th Path in particular, as part of the Middle Pillar exercise.

How one makes these attempts at parallels between the Tree of Life and psychological models such as presented by Psychosynthesis is somewhat arbitrary. Exact matches across the board rarely occur. Function is what designates similarity, and function in Kabbalah is often a matter of perspective more than anything else. Several models exist for placing the Worlds on the Tree as well as their psycho-spiritual functions. The models put forth by Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi are quite different from the generally accepted Golden Dawn models of the psyche. However, since it is these models, derived from interpretations of late 19th and early 20th century British occultism that most students are familiar with, it is their designations of the Worlds and Sepherotic function that will be applied.

In Hardy’s work, A Psychology with a Soul, these areas of consciousness are examined in light of the traditional hermetic methods and kabbalah. Ferucci in What We May Be takes his mentor, Assigoli’s thesis, and explains consciousness in laymen’s terms, devoting substantial material to the pathologies that can arise in psycho-spiritual work.

“Pathology of the Sublime”

“This you know. I am parched and perishing.” — The Hymns of Orpheus, cont’d.

“Whoever acts like an angel makes a devil of himself” — Pascal.

While the four major existential fears of annihilation and death, responsibility and freedom, aloneness, and meaning, (Existential Psychotherapy, Yalom) are the fears most deeply rooted in the ego (Assiah/Malkooth) and can be said to be a result of the transient nature of the Elements from which it is created. These conflicts are not the result of internal instinctual strivings, or of encounters with our internalized images of significant adult authority figures during the infantile stage of our development (as in Freudian work), but with the inescapable givens of our existence in this world (Yalom, p. 8.) The pathological responses to psycho-spiritual work, that is work that seeks to reshape and reform the outer for the exposure and glorification of the Inner, is more deeply rooted in our interior impulse of involution, the very force and cause of our ‘descent’ from potential being into creation so that we might ascend and become an actualized Being.

In What We May Be, Ferucci describes seven basic forms of spiritual pathology, or psychological dysfunction which may occur during periods of psychological integration and awakening of consciousness to spiritual realities. While it would be easy to suggest that each of the following forms of dysfunctional response to the awakening process can be assigned to either a planetary or sepherothic function, in truth, they may occur at any time, and more likely have their occurrences during the Paths more than the Spheres.

The pathologies most often encountered are: repression, projection, compensation, desacralization, defensive pessimism, routinization, and dogmatization. (Ferucci, p. 155-162)

Ferucci states that repression of the sublime is the most common defense mechanism of the ego and is often the cause for deep melancholy, a subject treated at length by Ficino. It results in our feelings of loss, dissatisfaction, boredom, and feelings of inauthenticity. (Binah/Saturn)

Projection results when we encounter the divine, accept it as real, but refuse to make it a part of ourselves, and instead, see it as a manifestation of another person, place, or thing. This is the belief in a savior without having to do any work on ourselves, or guru worship in some form. However, it also includes the obsession with ‘spiritual technologies’ such as aura meters, ‘energy field enhancers’, crystals, or the mythological idealization of native or indigenous religious forms. Messianic projections either in the form of a returning Christ, a new avatar, or extra-terrestrials also fall into this category of pathology when they take the place of psycho-spiritual development instead of supporting it. This form of spiritual laziness is accompanied by feelings of self-doubt, anger, frustration, and low self-esteem, as we do do not feel capable of being the qualities idealized and instead see them only as possessed by another, resulting on anger at our own unworthiness. (Yesod/Luna)

Compensation is the embracing of views, ideals, or activities opposite of those sought and experienced in the transpersonal and spiritual realms. Love results in anger, lofty experiences in base living, or similar forms of embracing the opposite of what we seek. (Netzach/Venus)

Desacralization is the destruction and minimalizing of anything that is representative of the superconscious or spiritual. (Hod/Mercury)

Defensive pessimism is seen in individuals who see their problems as unsurmountable. They are easily discouraged and indulge in self-pity, resulting in resentment and stifled self-expression. To some degree, Millennialism, Apocolypticism, or obsessions with “Earth Changes” or persecution for believing in a non-traditional form of worship fall into this category. (Tiphareth/Sun)

Routinization manifests when the superconscious is formally accepted, but is so organized that the creative element is stripped from it. Slogans, empty rituals, and other trademarks of partial understanding are seen here. Concrete truths from the past are held in preference for spontaneous and creative experiencing of the truths themselves in the present in the consciousness of the individual. This is a particularly dangerous pathology that tends to strike organizations and groups focused around a single leader. (Chesed/Jupiter)

Dogmatization is the opposite of routinization, in which spiritual realities are affirmed so strongly that it becomes a duty that must be done for others, humanity, the environment, but never for one’s self. The idea of growth becomes simply another goal on a long list of goals, and the genuine joy it offers is lost in its metamorphosis into duty. (Geburah/Mars)

It may seem strange that someone who has entered onto a spiritual path, or at least one of self discovery should seek to avoid the very thing they are seeking. However, the human ego is a strange and complex creature, and like any living organism, often fights change. As new energy and expanded awareness is experienced and increasingly rooted to daily life, the ego and all that it has built up begins to feel threatened. The new ways of living, feeling, praying, loving, and being are so different, even if in reality they are only minor initiations so to speak, from the ego’s perspective, they might as well be an intrapsychic coup d’etat!

However, as Ferrucci states, journeys into the Inner Worlds are not without their own dangers, even into the higher ones.

“Intense spiritual stimulation may bring inspirations, but it may also penetrate directly into the lower unconscious, where it throws light on and excites demons, instinctual energies, forgotten memories, and so on. These then tend to rise to consciousness, causing all sorts of trouble to the surprised conscious personality. When the demons are thus aroused, the contrast between different sides of out nature is felt with particular intensity.” (p. 160)

He also points out that intense mental stimulation from transpersonal contacts may result in insomnia, as well as delusions of knowing the answers to everything, often through complex associations, and correspondences. Abstraction, a pathology most common to the mystical, can result in a rejection of the physical world, and an inability to integrate spiritual experiences into mundane life. Emotionally, hypersensitivity may result and an over identification and sympathy with the world’s pain. The peaks and depths of human experience can become difficult to bear if not recognized as being part of humanities cycles of evolution. Hypersensitivity can also result in the belief of having ‘found it’ and being insensitive to the needs of others to find ‘it’ on their own. Feelings of inadequacy and suicidal tendencies can also result for some from superconscious contacts. This is the result of our not realizing that we are a part of those things we experience, and not separate observers or bystanders. Some can even burn out, or ‘bliss out’ from rushing in to quickly for superconscious experiences. (Ferucci, p. 158-161)

This is not meant to detract from the genuinely ‘magical’ results that can occur from esoteric exercises, but instead to show that true spiritual development can only occur in a conscious complex where psychological health exists. Until the vehicle is made ready, everything is just ‘house cleaning’.

Pathworking and Fairy Tales

“Give me cold water from the lake of memory.” -Hymns of Orpheus, cont’d.

The relationship between esoteric Pathworking and childhood fairy tales is well established. However, in our quest for individuation, self-reliance, and separation from our parents, social rules, and religious-sexual taboos and restrictions, we abandon our childhood means of development for a more active one in the material world of experience. To guide us in picking our experiences, we leave behind our old fairy tales and chose new ones, be they the modern mythologies of Star Wars and Star Trek, or soap operas of a different sort, such the long running shows of Dallas, M.A.S.H., or similar movies or musical themes. While most entertainment offers little genuine entertainment value and is mostly designed for the absorption of our life force and time, all forms of story telling offer a moral lesson and cosmological view whether we recognize it or not.

The view of the universe offered in Star Trek is slightly different than Star Wars in that it has yet to answer certain existential questions and address the spiritual question sufficiently. Star Wars on the other hand from the beginning offered us ‘the Force’ and introduced two generations to the ideas of spiritual warriorship, our personal and collective Shadow (Dark Side), redemption, and the unity of creation as an experiential reality, and not just an abstraction of quantum physics. The same is seen, or heard, in the endless tails of suffering, failure, alcoholism, and neediness in country and western music, or the unrequited love in jazz and blues, turning towards drugs and alcohol as a result. Rap and heavy metal offer their own metaphors, cosmologies, and world views as well.

In short, all that we watch, listen too, and participate in has the potential be a pathworking on some level. However, what separates such randomness and potentially harmful psychic exchanges, is that kabbalistic Pathworking is organized, progressive, and ultimately transpersonally oriented.

The words of child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (The Uses of Enchantment) are applicable here:

“Each fairy tale is a magic mirror which reflects some aspects of our inner world, and one of the steps required by our evolution from immaturity to maturity. For those who immerse themselves in what the fairy tale has to communicate, it becomes a deep, quiet pool which at first seems to reflect only our own image; but behind it we soon discover the inner turmoils of our soul — its depth, and ways to gain peace within ourselves and with the world, which is the reward of our struggles.”


“Initiation essentially aims to go beyond the possibilities of the individual human state, to make possible the transition to higher states and finally to lead the individual beyond any limitations whatsoever.” Rene Guenon, Aspercus sur l’initiation (Glimpses of Initiation)

The function of these esoteric, or psycho-spiritual exercises, is to make us aware of a broader sense of what we are, and what we may become if we so desire it. They are to assist us in fulfilling the Greek adage, “Know Thyself in order to know the universe and the gods!” In our ‘becoming’ the alchemists claim, we realize that we are in many ways self-created beings. Much of what we do, are, and experience, we are directly or indirectly responsible for, despite our cries to the contrary. We are as the golden adepts say, a ‘son of his works’.

Until this century, the most common method of esoteric learning was either through a teacher-student relationship, or affiliation with an esoteric lodge. The principle means of instruction and initiation was often ritualistic, and would involve one or more persons who has experienced the ritual or its equivalent previously. The initiator, and/or initiatic team, would proceed to create a condition wherein the energies of the psyche would be awakened and brought to the surface of consciousness. However, for this to work effectively, it requires that those energies being awakened in the initiate already be alive and well in the psychic body-consciousness of the initator. This is a critical point, and the failure of this condition being met, is the principle cause for esoteric initiations as a whole being of questionable value.

These sudden flashes of insight and alteration of consciousness can in some instances be called initiations, some being minor, and others more significant. Unfortunately, the concept of initiation in esoteric circles is filled with many misconceptions, and in psychology, it has no equivalent term or phrase, although several might be suggested.

The writings of Von Durckheim combine depth psychology, Christian mysticism, and Zen practices in such a fashion as to allow for the realization of one’s interior life with Christ, a purpose in harmony with both Psychosynthesis, and traditional Western esoteric Pathworking. His writings are a significant contribution to this area, even though they use the language of orthodox Christianity, and are a valuable tool for bridging this gap between psychology, mysticism, and even esotericism.

The Paths

“They will give you water from the sacred spring and you will live a lord among heroes.” — The Hymns of Orpheus, concluded.

The ‘+’ or ‘-‘ notation after each Path designates that Path as one which ‘returns’ energy to the initiates consciousness (+) on the Path of Return up the Tree of Life, or does not (-). Those Paths which return power, can be seen as more active and energetic in orientation, those which do not, more passive and reflective in design. In reality, each combination of psychological potentialities, or Pathworkings, returns something to the consciousness of the mind traveling them. Returns is not even the proper word, for such qualities have always existed in the soul, but only in potential. It is through the experiences of life incarnate, and the desire, the need, to make sense of it through psycho-spiritual philosophies, techniques, and initiations, that it becomes a reality, or actualized in our consciousness.

Those who have done esoteric work, particularly kabbalah, will find that in the beginning the Sphere and Paths are very rigid entities. However, as one works with them, and they become internalized, they become more fluid and interrelated on a level that cannot be expressed in words. It is these progressive interior experiences that allows one to experience levels of spiritual initiation.

We say that these initiations are part of progressive interior experiences.

This designates the psychological, the mystical, the genuine transpersonal aspect of growth from the purely sensational. The experiences undertaken by students of kabbalah, alchemy, or Psychosynthesis, are progressive. That is they build on the previous experiences and have a direction or purpose. They are interior states, in that they are wholly personal, even if experienced in a group or in the presence of others. They may match the descriptions given by others in traditional writings, but are the ‘property’ of the one who experiences them. They are an internal response to the pleadings of the self for expansion and integration. They cannot be experienced for another, nor given to another, except by highly integrated individuals known as adepts. Even then, the gift is just the psychic equivalent of a ‘jump start’ as one does to a dead or weak automobile battery on a cold day. They are also as the word says, experiences, not thoughts, ideas, conjectures, or philosophical postulations, but experiences often of a profound and energetically charged nature.

The Paths are thirty-two in number, ten belonging to the Spheres and twenty-two to the connections between them. They are arranged in hierarchical order, ranging from the most dense (32) to the least dense (11). In the order given here, the names of the sepheroth have been substituted with their planetary equivalents for those who are unaware of traditional kabbalistic terminology.

Earth to Moon — uncontrolled psychic impressions, lack of discrimination or ‘testing of the spirits’, possible obsession or even possession (in the most extreme). Willingness to believe anything that comes over the psychic ‘chat line’. (+)

Earth to Mercury — an abstraction of mentalism to the extreme. Too scientific or rational, and ignoring of the spiritual or even psychic (possibly as a rejection of its pathological aspects). From no discrimination to all discrimination. (-)

Moon to Mercury- Psycho-scientific babble. Lack of discrimination in areas of magical, occult, or alchemical information. Belief in extreme forms of conspiratorial thinking, a rational form of irrationalism. The more bizarre, the better, and more easily believed. A UFO goes from being defined as an Unidentified Flying Object, to an identified alien spacecraft from beyond the solar system. Everything they read they believe, National Inquirer thinking, or even X-Files as hidden social history being disseminated for our indoctrination. (+)

Earth to Venus — Naturalism taken to the extreme with no logic or reason, purely emotive. This would be an example of the radical environmentalist who wants everyone to give up technology and live in a fictional harmony with nature. In its own way it is very materialistic and earth bound. A nature religion without a god. (-)

Moon to Venus — Psychic powers of a natural sort, i.e. highly sexual and primitive. An idealizing of the ancient ways and crafts religions without a genuine historical context of their reality. Sexual magic gone haywire. Fairy tale fantasies of a Golden Age of magic as an escape from the reality of modern civilization. Where as one escapes into technology in the 30th Path, here they escape from it into a false and idyllic view of the ‘natural world’. (-)

27 — Mercury to Venus — This path represents the balancing of the intellectual forms of the mind with the emotional creative forces of the mind through an act of will (symbolized by the planet Mars). This is a struggle for many who find that they prefer the playground of abstraction and theory to the reality of generative and creative power. It is an uphill swim, literally and figuratively, as it goes against the current of Mezla. When it is accomplished much power is returned to the initiate and the foundations of the fundamental task of psychological preparation have been completed. This allows for much energy to flow into the work, but is still an energy of diffusion and stimulation. The flow of force can lead to an increased sense of complacency at having done what few have accomplished, and a fear of having to proceed further on the path to the Path of Death and surrender. This brings vibrant light to the astral world, and a power to exercise control over it. The sphere of illusion can reign hard at this point, as well as unresolved psychological issues that reject their coming death if further progress is made. As a result, the initiate may seek to escape up the Pillar of Severity or Mercy, thereby believing that they can avoid the inevitable. (+)

The lunar world of Yetzirah is the astral world and has three fundamental aspects symbolized by the spheres of Hod (intellectual), Netzach (emotional), and psychic/imaginative (Yesod). When they are combined as an effective unit, the initiate can think, feel, intuit, and create on the astral level. This level or world can then be experienced in depth on several more levels symbolized by the remaining planets or spheres. When the initiate tires of this world, or receives an impulse to proceed, a greater degree of Solar forces will be felt. These impulses are from the mental world of Briah, and provide the impetus for the initiate to cross the threshold to higher realms of purer awareness.

When this World of Briah, the Solar world as it is called because it is dominated, or all things in it are perceived through the intuitive powers of the Sun (Tiphareth), the often confusing image dominated realms of Yetzirah fall behind. This does not mean that they are forgotten, or even ignored. Quite the contrary! These foundation experiences are built upon, and even further strengthened by the purer, more direct methods of experience provided by Briah. In the emotion, dream like, image filled world of Yetzirah, the relationship was always one of ‘subject-object’. Similar to our earthly experiences, only with the added advantage or disadvantage of having our thoughts become reality before us. In Briah, the relationship changes to one of pure knowing, without having the often confusing world of symbols get in the way.

In Atzilooth, the relationship changes again, to one of pure being. This however, is for the most part, beyond the scope of most practical work.

In Pathworking, the Veil of the Second Death, that of the ego and the astral images it has built up, occurs when contacts with the Briah are made, particularly through the 26th, 25th, and 24th Paths. If these Paths are avoided in the crossing, that is, the initiate attempts to go straight up the Pillar of Severity or Mercy first, severe repercussions may occur which will be examined later.

These three Paths are called the Veil of the Second Death or the Dark Night of the Soul. They are trying paths, meant to purify us of our mental, emotional, or psychic fears and attachments. While esoteric work is meant to do this all the time, it is through the conscious decision to pursue one or more of these paths that we accept the responsibility of recognizing and purifying what maybe very unpleasant aspects of our personality that we may have felt was previously done away with.

These unrefined aspects of our psyche and/or ego (id) act as filters between our awareness and pure experiencing of the Light Within. Thus, each time we make the decision to limit the effects of a vice on our personality, we are in effect, removing one or more of the threads in the web of our mind that prevents a fuller realization of Cosmic Consciousness. Through repetitive Pathworking, in a systematic manner, we remove those threads in an orderly and balanced manner, thereby assisting in a more harmonious series of interior experiences. However, making it easier does not make it easy! An orderly and systematic approach only reduces negative side effects, it doesn’t eliminate them.

When a sufficient level of awakening has occurred on the Solar level, or as some say, on the level of the soul, the sign language of the psyche gives way to direct conversation with one’s Self. This Divine Spark, is seen as not existing at the level of Tiphareth, as it belongs to Kether (Crown), but may be talked to openly and directly, or more accurately, at this level, we listen to it more openly and directly. While communication has taken place previously, it is only when we transcend the limitations of our own unconscious prejudices and preferences that we can hear the Voice of God Within. But to get there, a part of us must die. Herein are the three aspects, or Paths, of the Dark Night of the Soul.

24 — Mercury to the Sun — This path requires that we let go of our nice, neat, little boxes that we have created in order to understand the universe, so that we can go from understanding to experience. It is a path of extreme obstacles in that a leap of faith is required where the mind would rather intellectualize. This is a particularly difficult path for those who enjoy explaining the nature of things through symbols but can never put it in plain language. Gematria, notarikon, and secrets hidden in similar manners are a trap that this path represents when they are seen as an end in themselves and not a means to stymie the intellect so that it can be transcended, similar to the fashion of a Zen koan. The need to meet physical masters in a mysterious fashion, or belief in the power of egregores is here. To free oneself from the gravitational pool of ‘spiritualized materialism’ in all of its forms is the task present here. The collection of esoteric pedigrees, titles, diplomas and lineage is the curse. Mistaking the form for the essence. “My way, lodge, order, group, teacher, etc. is better than your way, teacher, etc..” can be seen to some degree here. In the 30th Path tools are made, here they are hung on to, and become obstacles to our real interior development if we believe that we must have them in order to do the Work. Instead of being stepping stones, they become stumbling blocks, and our rituals, meditations, work, what have you, lacks power and the commitment that comes from the experience of really knowing. Intellectual pride mixed with spiritual pride born of ignorance and fear is the test of this Path. (-)

Moon to the Sun — This Path represents the uniting of our subconscious and psychic realm with our ability to consciously enter into a genuine spiritual contact. This Path is very experiential and direct. For some, the entering may occur only when asleep or when the psychic mind can be fully entered into, and through sincere desire, transcended. It is often described as part of the Way of the Mystic (the Middle Pillar) and while it does not directly impart power to the initiate, it does impart transcendent states of bliss, harmony, and genuine spiritual insight. The problem with it is that one may make the mistake of having seen the Light, and mistaking themselves for the Light. In essence, their perception of God, i.e, God of their realizations, for the God of Creation. They may even see themselves as a channel for this newfound wisdom, and believe themselves to be invested with a messianic mission. (-)

26- Venus to the Sun — This Path is more difficult emotionally than the other two in that it goes against Mezla and imparts power to the initiate on the Return. It requires a facing of ones own death and mortality more so than before. Here the Terror is more powerful than before, as the ego knows what is in store for it and seeks to build strength through a variety of physical, emotional, and psychic delusions. Here the so-called kundalini is more active, and a certain amount of it flows palpably through the psychic centers. This inner fire brings about a reassertion of those things which we previously thought we had put behind us, but which still hang on in the sock drawers of our mind. It in essence bring about a so-called ‘Mid-life crises’ in the initiate, regardless of their physical age. (+)

All of the Paths associated with Tiphareth or our Solar element bring with them on some level the risk of spiritual pride. This is because the solar fire, that is the energy of our core being, as it reflects the Light of our Highest Self, God if you will, empowers all that it touches. Thus, if not sufficiently cleaned out, our intellectual delusions and feelings toward self and the world will be exaggerated in Hod (Mercury). Our passions and creative instincts and impulses, whether they be artistic, sexual, or simply as emotional expression will be exaggerated in Netzach (Venus). In Yesod (Moon), our sense of spiritual communion, purpose, and mission will be empowered or distorted depending on our degree of psychological health.

What can make this even more confusing is the lack of adequate language to describe the various states and levels of experience. We talk of one Tree, but Four Worlds, and a Tree within a World, or even sphere. Fortunately, computer programs give us some useful metaphors to help explain the ancient metaphors we are using. Each sphere can be seen as text inside of a greater file. Every time we open one, we have the opportunity in some fashion to open another related to it. Each sphere is like a ‘window’ that when opened, can cause an internal cascade of connections to other related ‘windows’ or files. Only when we have fully explored all of the file (spheres) in a folder (World) are we able to see how it all hooks together. In essence, we create these internal files, folders, windows, so that we can digest the material in small pieces. In reality, we are working on all spheres and paths simultaneously. However, we only become aware of them one at a time. When we have a sufficient level of understanding of all spheres on some level, then we are said to have working knowledge of a World. With each World, this knowledge, via experience, deepens, and so does our degree of initiation. We are also given glimpses of what lies ahead at certain points along the journey. When we experience the harmony of the physical world, we get an impulse to sense what lies beyond it (the psychic, Yetzirah). When we experience the central unity of the emotional-astral world (Yetzirah) we get a glimpse of the awesome guiding intelligence behind it in the World of Briah. When the harmony of this world is experienced, we get a sense of what remains on our journey home. Thus, we can travel each path four times, on the levels of possible experience. It is however, in the world of Yetzirah, that the most important part of our Work is done. It is on the lowest paths, those leading up to Tiphareth on some level, that we need to focus our attention. There we are to go beyond the Veil of the Second Death and be of genuine Service, not just being self-serving under the guise of spirituality.

All of the Paths may be experienced on the level of Yetzirah, but not all of them are directly, or principally concerned with it. Those Paths leading to Tipahereth are concerned with the structure and purification of the ego, our sense of self and how we deal with the world. Those Paths leading from Tiphareth in the world of Briah are concerned with our expressing of those values in daily life, and as service and sacrifice. They are more concerned with the experiencing and directing of the energy of the Soul (Superconsciousness). The Paths leading beyond the Abyss, and in the world of Atzilooth are concerned principally with contacting directly the undifferentiated energy of God (Collective Consciousness). This is why work on the lower Paths is so critical. If one jumps to the higher paths, or works them out of order, then they risk triggering impulses within themselves and environment that they will be unprepared for. The energy will not flow smoothly, it will eradicate blocks as it goes, and psychic, physical, or social ills may result from it. Once the energy hits a block, it will flow like water through whatever channel is available, be it a weakness or a strength.

Skipping the Center

As a result of some of these blocks, some seek to avoid the conflicts and sacrifices that occur along the Way of Return. This is most dangerous when the initiate seeks to cheat nature’s demands and climb up the sides of the Tree, that is enter the higher realms of the superconsciousness (Tiphareth) without having made the required sacrifice of the ego’s dominant features. This happens when the Path between Mercury and Mars, or Venus and Jupiter is chosen prematurely.

Mercury to Mars — This path will give the initiate additional focus and energy for their chosen work, but if prematurely taken, it can bring arrogance, intellectual pride, militancy in ones esoteric, intellectual, or material life that is disproportionate to what is required, and as such, be qlipothic. Destruction of what is imperfect in others, justification and rationalization of military adventurism may occur. Extremely critical of others in their activities, with a need to correct (or fine tune) another’s statements, actions, thoughts, etc. will occur. Self-righteousness coupled with failure will be seen, since no other emotion than anger, fear, bitterness, and distrust or out right dishonesty are expressed. Fear of uncontrolled change. (-)

Venus to Jupiter — The problem presented by a premature awakening of this Path is that the sense of beauty and sensuality present in Venus is strengthened by the material needs of Jupiter. In short, selfishness, greed, debauchery, are reinforced. The desire for fame, fortune, and glory at whatever expense can be seen. (-)

The preference for which Pillar to climb will most likely result in earlier preferences; that is, an opening of Venus without Mercury will lead to a high-strung and irrational approach to one’s endless material and sensual desires, but if Mercury is open, then the probability of them manifesting is likely. Here one uses his or her intellectual powers simply as a means to satisfy his or her earthly desires and lust for power.

If Mercury is opened, but Venus isn’t and the energy flows toward Mars out of the ego’s fear of emotional power and need to be reduced in priority for the Solar light to be more pronounced, then neuroses, anxieties, and fear will dominate, as the initiate only has the power of ‘well laid plans’ which never manifest before them. Since their is no real passion, even in the most selfish sense, their is no psychic or creative power present.

The problems then presented are simple. The power of the higher sphere must be abandoned and the proper corrections made, or the more highly refined psychic energies unleashed will fall like a weight upon the unrefined and weak psychic structure below, reducing it to rubble. If the energy (under direction of a panicking ego) seeks an escape from this ‘fall’, then it can only increase the complexity of the issues stated by climbing to the top of their respective pillars; follow the course of involution not evolution on their return to Tiphareth; or attempt further premature Path crossings, this time across the Abyss, resulting in possible long term psychological damage.

The problem placed by the Abyss, or Daath, is that it represents Knowledge, or a state of Awareness, not accessible to the limitations of the ego. That is, it is access to unrestricted Deity and as such shatters all restrictions. On the descent, the energy coming through Daath begins to form the nucleus of our ego, so on the ascent, this same energy can only undo or de-form, the ego if any is present. Daath is crossed several times, and can even to some degree be seen in our experiences of our unconscious with its psychic, sexual, and repressed drives and inhibitions (Yesod). Here we are taken back by the new world of dreams, fantasy, and psychic reality that awaits us, but must first face the Terror of the Threshold that awaits us. This terror, loss of control, and devastating encounter with genuine reality would only crush the ego we have so carefully built up over the ages and our whole sense of being with it, if we did not first, slowly, layer by layer undo and rebuild ourselves from self to Self. This is not to say that those who have crossed the Abyss in some form do not have egos or a sense of self in the world, but that through training, experience, and Divine Grace, have been able to temporarily set it aside so that they may enter into higher states of awareness.

Ficino and Renaissance Psychotherapy

Marsilio Ficino was a fifteenth century priest and physician who’s work, Libri de Vita was first published in 1489, and was subsequently the most popular of all his writings. Like most medical texts of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Ficino’s work liberally used astrological symbolism and methods for prescribing cures for various diseases. Just as genetics would be taken for granted in a modern medical text, in Ficino’s period astrology would be as well.

What set Ficino apart however, was his suggested use of talismans for the curing of diseases, in particular melancholy, a disease ruled by Saturn, and as such, its bordering on crossing the fine line into magic, in an era where even the accusation of such practices could cost one their reputation or life.

Ficino’s natural magic was similar to many of the ideas put forth by psychologists today, only he structured it in the language of the period, and, had genuinely magical (i.e. Neoplatonic/Greco-Egyptian) applications through the use of talismans.

In summary, Ficino stated that we are, or become, the images that we surround ourselves with, and that we can ‘draw down the life of the heavens’ through the application of plants, food, scents, colors, and animals that correspond to a particular planet (i.e. quality) which we seek.

Ficino prescribed for his clients that they surround themselves with the images of universal harmony, as well as those representing particular virtues. Paintings, murals, mechanical clocks of the solar system, anything which the mind could imagine, was to be put to the use of reminding the observer of the underlying influences it represented. In fact, Ficino and his contemporaries would go so far as to say, not just represented, but incarnated, thus moving Ficino from pure psychology into magic.

Crossing this threshold from pure practical psychology into the realms of magic is a critical step, both internally and externally. In doing so, Ficino, or one practicing his ‘prescription for what ails us’, no longer is just a passive participant in creation, but an active agent in its unfoldment. The powers move from being a closed, internal, personal experience, into an interchange with cosmological forces, accessible to all of us.

The same theory of association and connecting spiritus was applied to music and song, through singing the invocations of the Orphic Hymns.

Most of the images suggested by Ficino are similar to those presented in the Picatrix, and are composed mainly of planetary symbols with the ancient gods in their normal forms. The use of these mundane images, is justified, as working only with the ‘worldly forces’ and not ‘demonic’ or ‘spiritual ones’, and is thus, ‘natural magic’.

Thomas Moore points out in the introduction to his work, The Planets Within, that for Marsilio Ficino the soul pervaded and embraced everything. To encounter the soul and its power, Ficino suggested the use of images, like so many hermeticists before and after him, and suggested the constant and regular use of imagery. Psychological health for Ficino could even be measured in the degree that a person used imagery in their lives and had a well-nourished imagination. Not unlike our later-day psychotherapist and magician Dr. Israel Regardie who is often quoted as saying, “Invoke often!”

The principle idea behind Ficino’s psycho-spiritual hermeticism is in the practice of experiencing an imminent deity. By recognizing our psychological tendencies through astrology (or reflection or therapy) we can begin to develop our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This is done primarily through experiencing those qualities we seek to embody through association.

If we surround ourselves with beauty, we become beauty. If we surround ourselves with wisdom, we become wisdom, and so forth. Images are formed in the mind, and as much as possible, created in the material world. Thus, divinity is not limited to abstraction, and flights of fancy, but made incarnate in our daily experiences.

In the ritual setting, the decorations of the temple will often be colored, scented, and resounded, with those things most closely associated with the spheres/planets involved in the pathworking. Images both internal and external will be imagined and created to focus the consciousness on the task at hand. Here we see a direct connection between Renaissance magic, modern magical pathworkings, psychology, and initiation.

Alchemical Pathologies

“Remember — many pretend; few know.” — Hymns of Orpheus

The difference between the alchemical methods of return and kabbalistic methods is more in the technique than the actual effect. Just as an alchemist creates tinctures, medicines, and alchemical products such as oils, or Stones, the kabbalist produces talismans, charged (or ‘loaded’) objects, such as crystals, metals, or fluids. Both are designed to have effects on the psyche of those who use or come into contact with them, and are outer manifestations of the inner development of the one who prepared them.

To some degree, much of what has been said about the Paths on the Tree of Life is applicable to those undertaking alchemical Work. Since each sphere has its own equivalent in the metallic and plant kingdoms, and many students of alchemy follow the planetary paths on the Tree when creating tinctures of Stones, the same warnings as well as insights may apply.

In alchemical Work, the student first begins with plant materials, and then proceeds through the metallic, and mineral realms. Each of these realms, or Kingdoms, represents a deepening of the previously learned material, through its application on a new level. The effects of a plant medicine may last for only a week or so, but the effects of a metallic medicine of the same planetary correspondence will have a much deeper and more permanent effect. The effects we are talking about of course, are changes, i.e., broader and more comprehensive expansions of consciousness.

The effects of these medicines may be most readily seen in the psychic or dream world of those who ingest them. Since the effects of plant medicines are the most transient and gentle to our psychic physiology, they will most likely make themselves known when we are most passive and receptive to their influences, such as periods of rest, meditation, or sleep. The effects of metallic of mineral medicines are more profound, and have a greater potency and chance of breaking through and effecting our daily awareness without our having to be receptive to them.

It is for this reason, along with needed safety and procedural conditioning, that we are advised to undertake the Lesser Work of plants before we undertake the Greater Work of the Metallic and Mineral Kingdoms.

There is however, a subtle point being made here. The Plant Kingdom for the most part represents our psychic, or Yetziric nature (Lower Astral/Emotional), where as the Metallic Kingdom represents our personal World of Briah (Higher Astral/Mental). In short, jumping into the Metallic Work without plant preparation is the alchemical equivalent of starting kabbalistic Pathworking with all of the Paths above Tiphareth, while having done none of the Paths below it!

The Plant Kingdom concerns itself mostly with the areas of the psyche, and material creatures that are most easily effected by the moon. Lunar tides are taken into account when certain forms of ceremonial magic are performed, as well as when plant tinctures are prepared, worked on, and completed. This concern with the subtle effects of lunar forces on the mind, emotions, and fluid nature of the operator and its being transferred to the medicine being prepared, demonstrates this point.

While this overlap of kabbalah, The Tree of Life, and alchemy strays from the path set down by Paracelsus, it is one that most modern students of alchemy are familiar with, either through the writings of Frater Albertus, Manfred Junius, the Rose+Croix University Alchemy Classes (AMORC), or the teachings of The Philosophers of Nature (PON).

Taking this model a step further, failure in one or more of the procedures of spagery or alchemy signifies an internal ‘gap’ or ‘pathology’ in the psychic body (emotional-mental make up) of the operator. A gap which needs to be identified internally, and repaired, if the process is to succeed in the outer world of creating medicines. The failure to create a medicine designed to heal primarily the psyche of oneself or others signifies that the one creating it has yet to heal that part of themselves. Hence the alchemical maxim, “You cannot make gold unless you have gold”.

This gap in our ‘wholeness of Being’ is only further emphasized in more complex Work, be it alchemical, kabbalistic, or both. The more complicated the psychic state, the more pure it is, and less personal, the greater the chances of fragmenting of the personality, or personifying these states, so as to make them manageable. The more complex the psychic state is, the more it will take on the sense (from our perspective) of being, or needing, personification . (Alchemical Studies, C.G. Jung, Princeton University Press, 1983. P. 53)

Here, maybe the biggest risks to the alchemist are rushing in to ‘more advanced Work’ before they are ready; minimizing the importance or effect of plant work; and over materializing the Work. That is, becoming so familiar with the chemical and material aspects of what they are doing, that they are unaware of its psychic equivalent within themselves. That is, if Mercury is the chemical equivalent of alcohol, or even actual Hg, what does that translate into in the psychic realm of the operator? If I am creating the Red Stone, or Philosophic Mercury, what does this mean as far as internal changes within my psyche? If I can only achieve in the outer once I have achieved in the inner, what does this chemical problem translate into as far as my personal maturity and growth goes?

While it may appear that the differences between the ceremonial path and the alchemical path are great, in reality they are quite small and suffer from the same strengths and weakness. Both fall under the domain of Hod/Mercury, the area of the mind and intellect, and are susceptible to the same obstacles on the Path.


To undertake the task of the Path of Return, we need to recognize the many facets of our psyche, how they relate to one another and interact, the problems and potentials that are set forth at each step of the journey. To this end the Tree of Life is a useful diagram, map, and tool. Only in its application however, do we find the subtleties that exist within us. By “Making haste slowly” we can unravel the tangled web of our interior life so that the Inner Light, the Light of initiation can be revealed. When this is done, the promise of Comte de Gablis to his student is understood, but only if we undertake the task set forth:

“I praise the Eternal Wisdom for inspiring me to conceal from you none of her Ineffable Truths. How happy you will be, my Son, if she is gracious enough to put into your soul the resolutions which these High Mysteries require of you. Soon you will command all Nature, God alone will be your Master, and only the Sages your equals. The Supreme Intelligences will glory in obeying your desires, the demons will not dare to be found where you are, your voice will make them tremble in the depths of the abyss, and all the Invisible Peoples who dwell in the four Elements will deem themselves happy to be the minister of your pleasure. I worship Thee, oh mighty God, because though hast crowned man with such great glory, and hast created him a Sovereign Monarch of all the works of Thine hands. My Son,” he added, turning towards me, “do you feel within yourself that heroic ambition which is the infallible characteristic of the Children of Wisdom? Do you dare seek to serve God alone, and to master that which is not of God? Do you understand what it means to be a Man? And are you not weary of being a slave when you were born to be a Sovereign? ….consider seriously whether you will have the courage and strength to renounce everything which might prove an obstacle in attaining that eminence for which you were born.”
Comte De Gabalis, by the Abbe N. Montfaucon de Villars, published by The Brothers, New York, New York. 1914.

Questions we will all be able to answer someday.

Mark Stavish, M.A. holds degrees in Theology, and Counseling, and has been studying and practicing esotericism for over twenty years. He is the current Director of ORA, the Occult Research and Application Project of The Philosophers of Nature, and his writings have appeared in numerous occult, New Age, and magical publications. The author welcomes responses, comments, or criticisms, of this articles, as it is a “work in progress”. Personal experiences are most welcome. Also individuals who would like to participate in research projects involving alchemical, kabbalistic, or hermetic orientations may contact the author at: Mark Stavish, P.O. Box 2920, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 18702. Research results will be published in The Stone, the Journal of The Philosophers of Nature and be made available to all participants.