the mysterious ladder of life

If I asked you to name a famous ladder, it’s likely that something quite ancient would come up as the answer: Jacob’s Ladder. It was the subject of a dream that the biblical Patriarch Jacob had while he was fleeing from his brother Esau, in chapter 28 of the Book of Genesis.

(Above the picture of Jacob’s Ladder from the original Luther Bible of 1534. Source Wikipedia CC by SA)

The biblical God is all-powerful by ‘his’ very nature. He does not ‘transport’ Jacob to heaven – or any other place of safety. He offers him a path; in this case a rather different path to what one might draw on a map of a landscape. The key here is that Jacob still has to climb the ladder; he is not given freedom from the conditions below except by his own efforts. The higher has provide a way. The lower has to climb this narrowly defined route. In so doing, he or she will be transformed. That is the nature of all true developments of the self.

This idea of a vertical path is one taken up in the study of the Qabalah (also Qabala, Kabbalah), whose most famous diagram, the Tree of Life, is often considered to be a ‘ladder of lights’ linking the ordinary ‘earthly’ state of consciousness with a progression to a higher nature that already belongs to us. The Tree of Life is a strange kind of ladder, and offers us multiple routes for most of the journey… but not all.

(Above: the Qabalistic ‘tree of life’ which offers not, one, but two routes between the ground and the heavens)

The idea of stone steps, or, later, a ladder, has always had a magical or mysterious property. In the case of a rugged path up a hill or mountain, the route is created by nature. But in the case of steps or ladders, the making is by the human. It is engineered to take us – all of us who might wish to travel – from one level to another. Not only that but it does so in stages. Each representing an equal amount of effort, safely fashioned to the needs of the human self. A ladder that had gaps of a metre would be little use to us…

The steps may be equal, but the result of taking each one is that our position over the landscape becomes higher each time, and thus introduces an element of risk. If, in the act of mastering the first few steps, we do not learn the importance of staying true to the principles of how the ladder was constructed, we risk moving our balance beyond its centre of gravity and toppling ourselves and the ladder to the ground below. This reflected both the observation skills and the self-discipline of the mystical path. It is no accident that the word disciple resembles discipline.

(From the Ryder-Waite Deck; the card of the ‘Lightning-struck Tower’ is a reminder that the intellect of mankind can only take us so far in our ‘ascent’)

Here, we might be reminded of the Tarot card ‘the lightning-struck tower’. Towers have internal steps leading to a position of greater viewing; a wider perception of the landscape, giving us more contextual information with which to make decisions, though we are now far from the ground and must descend to the world of the ‘ordinary’ if we are to effect changes in the world we inhabit, physically. This is an important point, for the ladder, or set of steps, does grant us the power to better understand the relationship for higher to lower. Careful study and some assistance may allow us to discover a set of ‘creative laws’ by which the lower came into existence from the ‘higher’. To operate with will in this higher ‘plane’ requires a dedication to the truth…

This is the subject of mysticism, or so-called magic. Mysticism is the identification and partaking of a life based on an understanding of how things happen in the higher and lower worlds. Before physics, these were deemed to be ‘God’s work’. Now, we see them as natural results from often invisible causes: for example, electricity. But physics deals with the physical. For the metaphysical, we need to understand our selves.

Magic is the working in harmony with the natural order of creative forces as they ‘descend’ or ascend the invisible ladders of life. The Tree of Life is particularly good at illustrating this, but a deeper discussion beyond the scope of this post.

As humans we have both visible and invisible layers of our ability to do. One of the most powerful of the invisible powers is our gift of imagination, whereby we are able to visualise the state of change we wish to bring about – ideally for the good of all. Morally, this is a tricky issue, for it presumes the practitioner has a better view of reality than other who might be affected as a result…

For this reason, sacred admonitions like ‘Do no harm’ have reverberated down the ages to ward the unwary or the egoic-centred away from use of what is at the top of the ladder.

The mystic tends more towards the contemplative view that we are better to harmonise our consciousness with what we find up the ladder, than to inject our egoic nature to force things… That way lies disaster, most of all for the soul of the practitioner. Seeing oneself as ‘working with the good’ is a sure guide for individual action. Even then, we still turn to the above to understand, in depth, what is truly ‘good’. One person’s good is another’s interference. We cannot venture on such a path without taking responsibility for our actions, and understanding that though we are capable of seeing and feeling the good, we may also miss the subtlety of that which operates in a far more intelligent way than we are capable of grasping.

To close this piece let’s return to the simple ladder…

(Above: the humble wooden ladder, and its most wonderful and often overlooked attribute)

The story of Jacob’s Ladder could just as easily have been ‘Jacob’s steps’; but it wasn’t. I can’t speak for the great minds that wrote this part of the Bible, but it’s noteworthy that a humble ladder was depicted as Jacob’s means of ascent. Our final attribute is that you can take a ladder with you, unlike stone steps. At this level, the ladder becomes a metaphor for method rather than physical object. We begin to see how this method of personal growth is reliable because we can take it step-by-step, but we can also take it with us. Each step brings a new internal view of the ‘landscape’, safely adding its stable revelations to the one before. This may remind us of the ancient initiations, by means of which men and women progressed through degrees of understanding, with time to reflect, digest, and put into action what was learned as they rest between the levels.

Like the best symbols, the humble ladder offers a wealth of consideration, and can form the basis of a meditation where we envisage our present state of being to be the result of a the loss of a forgotten ‘land’ above us. Closing our eyes, we let go our cares for a moment and climb that first rung – one of only three – envisaging that we are in a more peaceful yet powerful state. Above us, now, is something we have no conception of… Dare we risk taking another step to glimpse its nature? Mystery Schools are so named for a reason…

©Stephen Tanham 2021

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.

http://www.thesilenteye.co.uk and http://www.suningemini.blog

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