Four Levels of Nullification
In Kabbalah and Hassidism, a distinction is made between four ascending “worlds.” From top to bottom these are the World of Emanation, the World of Creation, the World of Formation, and the World of Action. Our exploration of how a person can achieve nullification of his ego (the false sense of independent existence) in each of these four worlds begins with the fourth and lowest—the World of Action.
The World of Action (Asiyah) is the world in which one's state of consciousness is purely practical. For people who function at this level of consciousness, the feeling is that reality is the result of the processes and actions that occur in the physical world. At this level, the measure for success in nullifying the ego is measured specifically by how obediently the individual performs God's commandments. This obedience results from recognition that one's actions should be precisely those that God wills. The individual must similarly recognize that all his good deeds are performed through the talents with which God blessed him, “For He is the One Who gives you the power to succeed.” As mentioned previously, this recognition is not merely an intellectual grasp of the idea, rather an internalized knowledge and experience of this truth that consciously, yet automatically, leads to the appropriate action.
The World of Formation (Yetzirah) parallels the world of emotion in the human psyche. This is the main arena for the nullification of ego. At this level of consciousness, the person experiences an independent, egocentric existence. In contrast to this experience of the world as existing solely to the extent that it is a part of one's consciousness, the service of nullification creates a new experience, in which one's own existence is no longer taken for granted. This new awareness produces a more considerate attitude towards one's fellowman through an understanding that he too is a Divinely created entity.
At the level of the World of Creation (Beriyah), which parallels the world of human intellect, nullification acts to uproot our confidence in the objectivity of human logic, and opens us to a new awareness of the limits of rational thought. Consequently, we become conscious of the unlimited power of the Divine.
At each of these three levels, self-nullification is categorized as bitul ha'yesh, “nullification of substance.” Despite having nullified the ego, one retains a certain level of separate consciousness that recognizes that God, as an apparently separate entity, is constantly renewing one's existence. This “nullification of substance” can only generate a “lower unification,” a unification that reveals a mere point of nullification within a world whose general consciousness is separate from God.
The World of Emanation (Atzilut) is the world of the completely righteous, a world that is totally good. Because of the abundance of Divine awareness in this world, created beings do not experience themselves as being separate from God at all; thus, the nullification achieved here is bitul bimtziut, “nullification of existence.” This creates a “higher unification” wherein lower states of consciousness are totally embraced by awareness of the Divine.
God created the world in order for there to be creatures capable of relationship with their Creator. “Nullification of existence,” which is the task of the righteous, although very elevated, would seem to negate that purpose, for in a state of total “nullification of existence,” there can be no room for creatures. This nullification is therefore obviously not the ultimate purpose. On an even more elevated level there must be a stage at which the Creator reveals Himself to the creatures, yet simultaneously leaves them with self-awareness and an albeit subtle sense of existence.
Thus, at the height of the level of nullification reached in Atzilut there is a return to the bottommost level of awareness in Asiyah, achieving the illumination of the highest nullification into base human awareness. The source of this level is in a “place” (the supernal “crown,” keter), higher than the general state of consciousness of the World of Emanation, where two opposites become one. Here, a new idea is manifested, inverting all of the above concepts by revealing how the most elevated light is revealed precisely in the bottommost place.
According to the Maggid of Mezeritch, these “worlds” are not similar to different stories in a building, one above the other, wherein the people who live on one floor cannot relate to the activities of a higher floor. Instead, he teaches the novel idea that “Atzilut is also here,” in our world. Thus, even the simple Jew who may normally live at a lower state of human awareness has some link to the elevated services of the World of Emanation, Atzilut.
This unification, which is indeed an existential paradox, being comprised as it is from absolute nullification of self while retaining self-awareness, is enabled by an awareness that is a “Natural Consciousness.” This concept will be expounded upon later in the chapter entitled “Natural Consciousness.”2
2 As stated above, man is characterized by his unique faculty of consciousness. Human consciousness, especially when it perceives its existence as independent from God, causes his subsistence on the one hand, and his “separation” from God on the other. Surprisingly, precisely this self-aware and self-subsistent view possesses an advantage that no other creature possesses. This view, precisely in its physically related self-subsistence, reflects the ultimate subsistence of God, of Whom alone it is fitting to say that “His existence is from His Essence.” Only God is able to reveal His true existence through the base subsistence of the physical world. Thus, we can see that the unification at the level of the supernal “crown” should not be such that it totally nullifies man's existence. Rather, its purpose is to reveal how physical matter actually hides and reflects the presence of the Essence of God.