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12-Steps, Kabbalah, and Self

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Those of you in recovery from addiction may be familiar with the saying, “Ego means Edging God Out.” In addiction treatment and especially in 12-Step programs, a tremendous amount of treatment time is given to really understanding this concept.

In fact, 12-steps encourage people to incorporate a type of self-nullification in their lives. The idea is to admit that you are powerless over your addiction and to get in touch with, (and for some, to submit to) a Higher Power (or God, if one prefers the non-PC term).

According to 12-Steps, Kabbalah, and virtually all traditional Jewish mysticism and philosophy, arrogant self-centeredness, which is a false sense of self, is the poison that prevents us from refining ourselves and developing a meaningful relationship with God, self, and others.

To a certain extent, creative autonomy isn’t foreign to traditional mysticism—but one must put this autonomy in context. We are taught that it can only occur because we are imbued with traits, qualities, and life-situations given as a free gift from the Creator. If we say we have God-given talent that isn’t boasting if we believe that any attribute we possess is a gift from God.

The idea is that this realization, once internalized, will relieve emotional suffering by infusing you with joy at being so endowed with unbelievable gifts—from each breath you take to the gift of your many personal talents. Also, by recognizing your source you will be better able to strengthen your resolve.

At the ultimate level of reality, according to Kabbalah, there is total oneness. However, through a series of contractions and filtering, God has hidden “part” of Himself and limited our ability to perceive this oneness in order to give us the gifts of self, autonomy, and free-will.  According to the ancient wisdom, by willfully subjugating our egos (and desires) for loftier purposes, by exploring how ultimately, everything is One, we end up coming back to self, enriched and strengthened.

From a Kabbalistic perspective, to meditate on nothingness or emptiness or even “Oneness” without ending up at God would be like participating in a psychic tape-loop, going from self to self to self. Like riding a pretty carousel. Notwithstanding the benefits of most types of meditation (lessening of anxiety, lower blood pressure, and so on), Kabbalah views meditations that are focused on “becoming one with nothingness” and so forth, as limited and even self-indulgent.

Kabbalah meditation only finds value in the experiences of oneness or nothingness when the goal is one’s connection to God.* It posits that the purpose of of meditation isn’t in fact to become one with nothingness, because there really is no such thing as true nothingness. That’s because the mystics tell us that God fills and surrounds everything infinitely.

The purpose of meditation therefore is to set aside self and become momentarily empty. In this way you can understand how much you have been given.  The idea is to end up feeling profound gratitude for the gift of life (and then go on to act accordingly).

There are numerous ancient, esoteric commentaries on Moses’s humility and his ability to completely nullify himself in order to be a vessel for prophecy. In fact, all the Biblical prophets** are considered to be masters of bitul or nullification (or utter humility), who spent many hours in Kabbalistic meditation. Yet, their sense of self is strong—they are unique individuals with unique personalities, talents, and life-missions.

The similarities with the aims of 12-Step programs are striking.

*(This refers strictly to the traditional Kabbalistic/Biblical sense, of God as a loving, all-knowing, Creator intimately involved with each and every aspect of our lives).

**From the Hebrew Bible (aka the “Old” Testament

12-Steps, Kabbalah, and Self

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2010). 12-Steps, Kabbalah, and Self. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 13, 2019, from


Last updated: 6 Dec 2010
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