FIVE DIMENSIONS OF THE SOUL IN FIVE WORLDS
According to Kabbalah, creation is composed of five major categories of consciousness, called worlds or universes.1
They are not separate universes, but are concentric, one within the other. Assiyah is the world of physicality; yetzirah, the world of emotions; beriyah, the world of the intellect; atzilut, the world of the spirit; and adam kadmon, the primordial source. Although we give different names to the worlds, they are not really separate from each other.
Each of these worlds is a lens through which we gain a unique perspective of reality. Thus, the Kabbalah teaches that the soul has five levels, five dimensions of awareness. Each soul dimension has a unique relationship with its world and this is the vehicle through which we mysteriously connect with various realms. Some aspects of soul relate more to our physicality, while others dwell, so to speak, in different realms of awareness. One aspect of the soul is always joined with the center of creation, and this is our eternal link with truth.
Briefly, the soul dimensions are as follows:
Nefesh: The World of Action
The nefesh is the level of the soul most connected with physicality. In essence, nefesh is the soul of atomic structure. Every particle of matter has a nefesh, every rock, every plant, every celestial body.
In human terms, the nefesh is associated with body awareness. It is the part of us most linked with the world. After death, it is the aspect of the soul that lingers around the deceased for the longest period. It is also the part of the soul that is most involved with the process of purification after death.
The nefesh is sometimes called the "animal" soul. The Zohar has a beautiful description of it: "Nefesh is the lowest stirring to which the body cleaves, like the dark light at the bottom of the candle-flame which clings to the wick [body] and exists only through it. When the candle is fully kindled, this dark light becomes a throne for the white light above it [the next higher soul level: ruach]. When both are fully kindled, the white light becomes a throne for a light which cannot be fully discerned [still a higher level of the soul: neshama]. So there is formed a complete light."1
Thus, although the nefesh is the densest part of the soul, the least connected with its divine source, it is the foundation of all the soul levels and the most directly associated with the body. This aspect of the soul is integral with life itself, and virtually any Jewish law can be overridden for the single most important commandment, that of the mitzvah of saving life, called pikuach nefesh.
Many forms of physical matter, such as elementary atoms, neutrons, protons, and electrons only have a nefesh and nothing else. However, just as physical matter can be organized in increasingly complex forms, from single celled organisms to the human being, so too can the essential soul develop aspects, higher levels of the soul, that are more closely united with the central source of creation. This process distinguishes human life.
Ruach: The World of Formation
Ruach means wind or spirit. It is associated with elementary consciousness and information that moves through the senses. In the human, ruach is related to speech and emotions, both of which are constantly moving within the body. Whereas nefesh is associated with body awareness, ruach is more correlated with emotional awareness.
Our "spirituality" is founded upon the ruach level of soul. It inexpressibly moves us to tears when we are touched by a poem, a glance, a work of art or a simple moment in nature. Love on this level is more real to us, and longer lasting. Our sense of purpose and meaning in life depends a great deal upon the extent to which our ruach is nourished.
This nourishment is the result of how we live our lives, where we spend our time and the raw material we ingest through our senses. Just as a body is sustained by food, our soul is supported by our experiences. In many traditions, foods are classified by qualities, such as: agitating, soothing, stimulating, disturbing, calming, strengthening, and so forth. In the same way, experiences affect the spirit.
When the ruach is raised to its highest elevation, we attain a state of awareness that is described as ruach hakodesh. This means "holy spirit," and is a state of being that transcends ordinary awareness. With ruach hakodesh we dwell in other dimensions of reality and gain a clear sense of the way life will unfold. All of the biblical prophets had ruach hakodesh; this level of prophesy is one of the aspirations of intense contemplative work in Judaism.
Neshama: The World of Creation
The word neshama has the same root in Hebrew (NShM) as the word for breath. This soul level is associated with higher awareness and angelic realms, it is a defining quality of human consciousness.
The Zohar describes the neshama as follows: "The nefesh and the ruach intertwine together, while the neshama resides in a person's character. This is an abode which cannot be discovered or located. Should a person strive towards purity in life, he or she is aided by a holy neshama. But should the person not strive for righteousness and purity of life, this person is animated only by two grades: nefesh and ruach."1
Whereas we all have the power to develop the neshama aspect of our souls, there is no assurance that we will do so. In some ways, this is analogous to a potter's kiln. Some glazes require a specific temperature for a fixed length of time. If this temperature is not reached, the glaze will not set.
From a spiritual perspective, our life is fired by conscious action (fuel) and clean living (oxygen). We need a good mix of the two to get the temperature high enough to vitalize our higher soul potential. Once this is accomplished we have access to expanded realms of awareness.
Even though our power to nurture our highest soul level is not guaranteed, it is assumed that the purpose of human existence is to parent this lofty objective. The Zohar says: "At first a person has a nefesh. Then she or he is crowned by the grade that rests upon the nefesh, which is the ruach. After this, a superior grade that dominates the others, the neshama, takes up its abode, and the person becomes worthy of the world to come. Nefesh cannot exist without the help of ruach, and ruach in turn is sustained by neshama. The three form a unity."1
Simply said, human life is not complete without the neshama.
The neshama emanates from an elevated source, while the ruach emanates from a somewhat lower origin. When these two sources unite, they shine with a celestial light and are called: "lamp." This is found in Proverbs, where it says that "the lamp of God is the neshama of humankind."1
In many ways, the neshama is an essential aspect of creation. As the neshama is an aspect of soul that is directly connected with the divine source of life, it is via the neshama, and the higher levels of soul, that we co-partner with God in the continuous unfolding of creation.
The neshama is pure in its essence. It cannot be blemished. When we die, it immediately returns to its source.
Chayah: The World of Emanation
There are two additional, much more highly refined levels of soul. The chayah, which means living essence, is so etheric it has little connection with the body and mostly dwells in other realms. It is too subtle for our consciousness and we only gain awareness of this level when we enter altered states. In those rare moments that we experience oceanic unity and a bright light of pure oneness, we are tapping into chayah consciousness.
Nothing can be said about this soul level except that it represents the highest degree of awareness accessible to human beings. This is the kabbalistic realm of "wisdom" (chochma) which is the source of all "understanding" (binah). (Spiritual exercises to develop chochma and binah consciousness appear in the final section of this book.)
The experience of Jewish enlightenment, merging with God, dwells in the soul dimension of chayah.1
It is too subtle to describe, too bright to be contained by concept.
Yehidah: The World of Will
The soul level most connected with the source of awareness is called yehidah, which means unity. It is the center point of the soul and as such it disappears into the infinitude of creation. Some would say that this is the aspect of the soul that is "hard wired" directly into the essence of the Divine. It is not "with" us but we are never apart from it.
This is where duality dissolves. It is far too subtle for human consciousness. Yehidah is our ultimate link with God, the part of us that can never be separated from the Divine. When all else fails, the awareness of our yehidah endowment may be sufficient to carry us through our most difficult of times.