The Chakras and The Sefirot: Relationship and Lessons
In Kabbalah (mystical Judaism), God is “Ayn Sof”, meaning infinite, endless, limitless; inseparably one. At the same time, this Ayn Sof is said to emanate in 10 different ways, which are called “sefirot”. These are characteristics, or stages of creation, and crucially are also mapped onto our human experience (since we are created in the image of God, and part of the infinite God).
Thereby, though divine, sefirot present many compelling ways of thinking about our human experience.
In Hindu/Yogic philosophy, the chakras are the seven primary energy centers in our body. Though they correspond to areas along the spine, chakras exist in our subtle (non-physical) bodies, and each one maps onto specific ways energy (prana) flows through us, influencing our existence.
Chakras, and specifically their balance, are said to have a strong effect on our wellbeing and daily experience.
I’m a student of both Kabbalah and Yoga, and each system has informed and expanded the ways that I think about, and use, the other in my practice. This is me sharing a little about how.
Chakras have played a fundamental role in how I think about meditation and yoga and my own energy. Sefirot don’t have the same robust system of practice, being more on the contemplative side, but therein they also have shifted my perspectives. And as I’ve studied both of them, I’ve found the overlap between the two systems compelling.
After all, once we get past the words (God, Ayn Sof, Brahman, Prana, etc etc), we’re all made up of the same ‘stuff’.
The list below lays out the 10 sefirot and the 7 chakras, and explores some of the ways I perceive the two systems overlapping, and, crucially, “speaking” to one another. It’s far from perfect or thorough, but is meant to be more about meaning/utility/practice than anything academic.
A note on direction:
Both Sefirot and Chakras flow any and every direction, and even a linear concept is limiting. But in this exploration I decided to present the two systems from a “top down”, or “subtle to gross”, direction.
My reason is that when I think about the divine (or ineffable) manifesting in our lives, it’s in that higher-to-lower direction. (Albeit then back again… not to overcomplicate (yet), but this direction also has a better “payoff” at the end in terms of day-to-day practice and usefulness…)
And I use the chakras for the numbering, since some chakras correspond (in my model) to two sefirot.
Let’s do it
Sefirah: Keter / Crown
Chakra: Sahastrara / Crown
Keter is nothing. It’s an initial arousal of a desire for something, but still empty. It’s incomprehensible, apart from anything we’d call existence.
Even though Keter is empty, it’s also said it’s pure compassion since it’s welcoming of everything in its emptiness.
Sahastrara is higher consciousness, divine energy. It is the absolute, before anything relative – including the other chakras.
I love that both sit apart from us. Just as the physical crown is above the head, the crown chakra is said to sit an inch or two above the top of the head. (For this reason, some Kabbalalistic systems exclude Keter, while some Tantric chakra systems exclude the Sahastrara – the crown is above.)
They are not connected to us, even though they can be core to perceiving something greater, a connection to both the divine, and crucially, to other people.
Sefirot: Chochmah and Binah / Wisdom and Intuitive Understanding
Chakra: Ajna / Third-Eye
Chochmah and Binah represent the beginning of existence, something created from nothing. First comes the seed of wisdom (Chochmah), followed by the contemplation or perceptible formation of that wisdom (Binah). The two sefirot are inseparable in that, since there is no understanding without inspiration. The path is transcendence, turning to tangibility.
Ajna is the third eye: intuition, wisdom, and insight. It is also the energy center of both our rational and irrational minds. While it’s where we can connect with the divine, it’s also associated with awareness and intellect.
Both are about our connection to the divine, tangibly and intangibly. They are where that which is greater than us reaches us.
When learning kabbalah, I really appreciated the two-stage approach: starting with the intangible seed of something ineffable (Chochmah) before anything can be grasped. This aspect is usually my focus in Ajna meditation, in fact – when I meditate on the third eye I veer towards the pre-verbal, pre-conceptual.
But there is also a benefit to the intangible, experientially, when we take the next step in contemplating it – and this requires another step “down”, towards language and rational mind (Binah).
(Note that in some kabbalistic systems, “Da’at”, or knowledge, exists one level down here – which for me doesn’t fit, because I view knowledge as external. At the same time, Da’at illustrates that Chochmah and Binah are higher than that “very tangible” intellectual/knowledge level, making them, to me, correspond to the third eye.)
Sefirot: Chesed and Gevurah / Love and Power
Chakra: Vishuddha / Throat
I love this lesson in Kabbalah: Chesed and Gevurah (Love and Power, or Grace and Judgment, or openheartedness and obedience) are necessarily linked, because each needs the other. Too much love becomes limiting to the loved one, and needs to be tempered by discipline (as every parent knows). And judgment without love is evil.
In any event, Chesed and Gevurah are how the previous internal sefirot get shared into the world. We have our contemplation and creation of wisdom, which then get manifested and shared in our experience with others.
The Vishuddha is similar, in that the throat chakra is the locus of our communication. It is the energy center around how we communicate and express ourselves to the world.
The challenge expressed in both systems is in how we share our minds with the world. What words and feelings do we share? How much truth and authenticity is in our expression? How much love, or judgment, is there when our bodies give rise to what is happening inwardly?
If the throat chakra is too closed, we are timid and fearful to express ourselves authentically; if it is too open we may be too transparent, critical, or loose in our communication. Thinking about this in terms of the sefirot, I think there is a delicate balance of self-contraction so that our discernment/judgment don’t overly inhibit our communication of love, while overly contracting will indeed prevent us from the vulnerability we need in communicating love.
(This is one chakra where directionality plays an explicit role, but also where Kabbalah has changed my viewpoint therein. With the classic 1 through 7 chakras, the throat chakra (the 5th chakra) governs how the heart (the 4th chakra) is communicated. And crucially so – I still usually meditate/contemplate the heart chakra relative to how that energy is shared. In other words, meditating on speaking from a place of love. However, I think there is also tremendous value in thinking about how wisdom in addition to love is communicated, and that pure love outwardly can be problematic.)
Sefirah: Tiferet / Compassion
Chakra: Anahata / Heart
Tiferet is where Love and Power are synthesized and integrated, and is also known as the sefirah of beauty and harmony. Love is sufficiently tempered and thereby considers the other, not just our selves.
The Anahata chakra is the seat of giving and receiving love, and of feeling compassion and trust.
Crucially, this chakra sits at the center and is the bridge between the lower 3 (material) chakras, and the higher 3 (spiritual) chakras. This lesson, when applied to Kabbalah, illustrates the crucial role compassion and harmony have in balancing the lower and higher realms in our lives.
It’s also said that the Anahata is closed by logic, rationality, doubt, and philosophy. Too much contemplation and tempering of love holds us back. For me, this is a key point in my practice, in that compassion and love for others is empowered by being detached from rational discernment of them. Thereby, we can hold compassion for, and see beauty in, every human being.
Sefirot: Netzach and Hod / Victory and Splendor
Chakra: Manipura / Solar Plexus
We hit a turning point in both systems here. In the sefirot, once we descend beneath Tiferet we arrive at what humans do with the divine, as opposed to what the divine bestows onto humans. In the chakras, the bottom three are material focused, about our human worldly interaction side as opposed to higher, subtle energies.
But in Kabbalah part of the move down is a result of the higher sefirah of Tiferet. Tiferet, or compassion arising from our balancing of love, yields Netzach, or Triumph/Victory. We feel good with what we’ve accomplished, integrating the sides of ourselves into harmony – and we celebrate our greatness.
This is balanced by Hod, on the other hand, which is connected to gratitude, and submission therein. Seeing the splendor of the world leads us to be grateful for what we’ve been given, and to those who helped us arrive there. We rejoice in the mystery.
The Manipura chakra is about confidence. It is where we digest what the world gives us, turning it into energy and action and manifestation. It is very much about doing and accomplishing in the world.
When out of balance in one direction, this solar plexus chakra can lead to envy, anger, violence – all the ways that the desire for power can turn toxic in the world. Being out of balance in the other direction leads to meekness, shame, and unnecessary submission.
In the sefirot these two polarities are separated, but the end result I believe is the same. We should be channeling our higher natures to change the world, with confidence and zeal, but we need balance to prevent our efforts from getting caught in arrogance and ego. The interplay between the two sefirot, or between the two polarities of the Manipura, (in addition to how they interface with the love above), have arguably the greatest effect on how we show up in the world and work with those around us.
Sefirah: Yesod / Foundation
Chakra: Swadhisthana / Sacral
In Yesod, our Glory and our Submission are balanced. Additionally, it is here that all of the sefirot’s forces are gathered before being transmitted to the “real” world. The Foundation is about growth and maturity, and therein drives communication, connection, and creation in the world.
The Swadhisthana is the seat of our emotional intelligence, and our core creativity. It’s about how we relate to our emotions and those of others. Moving down from the solar plexus chakra, the sacral chakra is tangible creation and interaction. Moving up, as the step above the root chakra, this is where our animal instincts start to interplay with others.
Both the sefirah and the chakra are about personal development and creation, which can go awry if we don’t channel these energies into/from the higher spiritual realms. In other words: from which direction do we create?
Both of these are also highly sexual, and about sexual creation. In each system, moving upwards, this is where sexual desire and creation turns outward – from the material and selfish reality of procreation to one of connection. But, as especially illustrated in the chakra system (which has influenced the way I consider the sexuality of the sefirot), if sex remains at this level, one misses the subtle, spiritual, transcendent opportunities that sexual connection can provide.
Sefirah: Shekhinah / Presence
Chakra: Muladhara / Root
The Shekhinah is the divine feminine, the source of life on earth, and the presence of God in the world. It is the realm of the physical world.
The Muladhara is the chakra of physical needs and survival. It’s about feeling grounded and safe in the world, and preserving ourselves.
Any primal instinct can be done from a place of the Muladhara. The previous example mentioned sex, which if done from the Root chakra, is done for our own genetic survival. Eating is another great example: we can eat from a place of simple bodily survival.
But in Kabbalah, the Shekhinah is explicitly not non-spiritual. Without the Shekhinah, all of the upper realms wouldn’t manifest to existence. There is in fact a constant flow of energy between the Keter/Crown Sefirah and the Shekhinah, top to bottom, feeding our daily experience with divine presence – should we choose to see it.
In this way, the Shekhinah animates how I consider the Muladhara. If we choose to see it, every primal urge and physical need can be bestowed with the divine (this is the core of Hindu Tantra: every action, no matter how mundane, is a spiritual opportunity).
We can choose to place the divine in every bite of food, elevating our experience to the profound. Every breath and every step can be transcendent. Every sex act can be divine.
I see this as one of our primary tasks as humans living on this material plane: bringing the energy of the highest realms down to the lowest.
I believe that the real job of prayer, ritual, and practice are about this effort exactly – since bringing the higher and lower realms together completely alters the way we experience life.