Friday, 12 October 2012

The Subtle Body

The Subtle Body

Behind the obvious physical being is a series of more subtle vehicles of consciousness, each with its own aura (shown here as concentric ovoids around the body) and energy dynamics.  The set of small circles down the mid-line of the body are the chakras.

illustration (c) by external linkMartin Brofman

Note added 17 January 2009: As with "soul", "spirit", and so on, the term "subtle body" is unfortunately used in a very vague sense, with different esotericists using it to describe different things. "Subtle body" can refer to :
  • as any of a number of distinct "subtle bodies" note or vehicles of consciousness that exist as frequency levels on the Subtle Physical (I had referred these perviously to the Etheric Plane, but now consider this to be too limited a definition).  The word "subtle" here is used to distinguish these bodies from the gross physical body.
  • as the "astral body", the individualised orectic nature which consists of a finer "substance" or prakriti than the physical
  • as the "yogic body", consisting of chakrasnadis, and ch'i or pranic energy, regardless of whether this is considered ontologically real or a visualisation to aid concentration (traditional esoteric systems did not feel the need to discriminate between the two, unlike secular modernity which is bound to a literal belief in scientism and materialism)

The following is some of my earlier speculation, dating from 1998 to 2001 (the first and second phases of the Kheper website). I no longer interpret things in terms of simple correspondences, but see Reality as much more multidimensional. However, rather than delete or rewrite all this material, I have brought it here on one page, and leave it as an example of my earlier phase of work.

the subtle body
Connected, © Jason Wolf

The Subtle bodies in different spiritual traditions

Comparing the ancient Egyptian conception of soul/self levels, Indian five-self doctrine of the Indian Vedanta (derived originally from the Taittiriya Upanishad), the Neoplatonic-Hermetic classification, the Theosophical system Rudolph Steiner's Anthroposophy, we have the following rough consensus:

LevelEgyptVedanta (Kosha)Neoplatonic-HermeticBlavatskyLeadbeaterSteiner
Spiritual BodyAkh (in part)Ananda
Nous/Mind - SunUpper Manas ("Ego") Causal subplane and bodyEgo - Spirit - Devachan
Ideational BodyManasLower Manas ("Mind")Mental subplane and body
Astral BodyBaSoul - MoonKama ("Desire") Astral/Emotional planes and bodySoul - Astral plane / Soul world
Etheric BodyKa (in part)Prana (vitality)Vital SpiritPrana (Vitality)
Sukshma (Astral Double)
Etheric subplane and bodyEtheric body of formative forces
Physical bodyKhaAnna "Food"  (Physical body)Body - EarthSthula (Gross body)Gross Physical subplane and bodyPhysical
This table is actually somewhat simplistic, because Steiner's Devachan is not necessarily the same as the Adyar-Theosophical Mental Plane.  And moreover there is a frequent tendancy among many esoteric writers (especially those coming from an Adyar Theosophical-based tradition) to confuse the various planes and bodies.  But, quibbling aside, there is indicated here the basic sequence of "vehicles of consciousness":
  • the physical body first;
  • then a subtle or supraphysical formative life-force body (which the Adyar Theosophists and many occultists call the "etheric body"), or a series of such subtle bodies or auric energy fields.
  • then a totally non-physical body, popularily referred to as the "astral body"; independent enough to be able to leave the physical body and wander around on its own; the so-called "out of body experience" or phenomenon of "astral projection";
  • and finally a very transcendent level or levels, which pertain to the region of pure ideation, Platonic archetypes, and so on.  Sometimes termed the mental body, especially when it is confused with the mental etheric auric body, it can perhaps better be referred to as the Ideational body.
  • Frequently confused with the preceeding is the most subtle and elevated body, which consist of pure feeling, thinking and spiritual nature, the so-called "Causal body", which serves as the "vehicle" or body of the Higher Self, or in fact may be identical with the Higher Self.
This general schema can be represented diagrammatically by concentric circles.  The physical body is the most "external" or visible part of the being.  Within this, according to the standard theosophical paradigm, is the etheric body, then the astral and the mental bodies, and finally the Higher Self
A distinct approach (which involves resonances but is not identical to the above sequence) has the physical body in the middle, and various etheric bodiesas successive "auras" or atmospheres around it.

WorldSoulGross realmSubtle realmVery Subtle realm
not applicablenot applicableMerkaba

not applicableastral bodyspiritual astral
EthericEtheric Body Emotional Body Mental BodyMiddle Emotional BodyEtheric Template body Celestial body Ketheric Template (Causal) body

Khaphysical bodyInner Body ConsciousnessJungian Unconsconscious
Here is a tentative and speculative interpretation of the suble bodies.  Four "vertical" worlds - the physical, etheric, astral/psychic, and mental/ideational - are suggested.  Corresponding to these are three grades of increasing subtleness - the gross (representing physical consciousness), the subtle, representing psychic/interpersonal, and the very subtle or causal, corresponding to the transpersonal, the Theosophical Devachen and Steiner's "Spirit" realm.  A fourth grade, the transcendent, could be added, but this is generally beyond mundane consciousness.  So there is a dual parameter framework, not unlike the Neoplatonist Proclus' scheme of hypostases.
Thus according to this hypothesis there would be three distinct "vertical" grades of subtle body, with the physical as a fourth. lowest level.  Of course, not everyone has the same level of development.  Very few have a well developed spiritual mental body, which is why so many people have to rely on dogmatism, literalismfundamentalismguru-ism, and other forms of stupidity.  They are unable to mentally perceive things on their own, hence they have to rely on the thoughts and mentality of others, which they adhere to rigidly.
Similarily, only a few individuals have a developed transpersonal consciousness (equivalent to the "Very Subtle"/"Causal" column of the above table).  Although such faculties exist in potential or germinal form in everyone (and in all sentient beings), it is only in some that they are brought out.
Kabbalah says that only the lowest grade of soul (nefesh) is inately developed, all the others have to be attained through spiritual discipline.  One findsGurdjieff, the Taoists, and others saying the same thing.

The Etheric Bodies

The Etheric Bodies collectively correspond to what the Ancient Egyptians referred to as the Ka.  The various subtle bodies constitute the energy blueprintsboth for those subtle bodies below them, and for the gross physical body and physical consciousness.  Although the subtle bodies are invisible to our normal sense-perception, certain individuals have - whether through innate ability or training - developed a higher or extended sense perception, and have, on this basis, described these subtle bodies, and various associated phenomena.  These individuals are known as Clairvoyants.   There is no doubt that clairvoyants do perceive something, even if the majority are very limited in their abilities.  They only see a little bit, and then they claim on this basis to know everything.  There are however rare clairvoyants who do have exceptional abilities.  Such higher clairvoyance seems to be always associated with both a great spiritual development and a very strong Healing ability.
Most forms of Clairvoyance - seeing auras, colours, chakras, and so on - pertain to the various resonances of the Subtle Physical.  Here we have what inTheosophical and especially in popular New Age occult terminology are called the Etheric, Emotional, and Mental bodies, also called "koshas", "subtle bodies" or "vehicles of consciousness".  Each has its own emanated field of influence, its own atmosphere or aura.  All writers on this subject are in agreement that the aura of the Etheric body is the smallest in extent, whilst the Mental aura is the largest of these three.  The higher spiritual auras are larger again.  However, these clairvoyants all differ as to the precise size or extent of each aura beyond the physical body (usually it ranges from a centimeter or so to a meter or more, depending on the subtle body).
In all of these planes and bodies one finds individualised resonances of higher worlds.  So the physical intellect or "Mental Body" is the lower octave, or resonance, of the Noetic Universe, and the instrument of reason and imagination, or in short, thinking.  The "Emotional Body" is the lower octave, or resonance, of the Psychic Universe, and pertains to feelings, desires, and emotions; in short, teeling.  And the somatic-physical represents the basic nature of that particular plane itself (Chthonic, Material-Physical, or Etheric), and constitutes the "consciousness of the body";
Basically we can speak of three grades of etheric subtle body:
This classification of the person into Physical, Emotional, and Mental or Intellectual faculties is familiar to anyone who has encountered theGurdjieff/Ouspensky theory of "Centers", Rudolph Steiner's faculties of thinking, feeling, and willing, Da Free John's first three "Stages of Life", and Sri Aurobindo's psychological divisions, to give just a few examples.
In addition to the Etheric, Emotional, and Mental bodies which are innate in everyone, there is also the possibility of further evolution in developing higher levels of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo for example refers to the Higher MentalIlluminedIntuitiveOvermental, and finally Supramental states of consciousness that lie beyond the ordinary intellect or Mental body.  I would associate these higher faculties with the NoeticDivine, and even (according to Sri Aurobindo in the case of the Supramental attainment), the Manifest Absolute realities.
In addition each grade of body exists in each of planes of being.  So what we have are a series of octaves, which can be represented as follows:

Higher facultiesactualised through spiritual evolution "fifth kosha" of Ann Ree Colton, the Supramentalisation of Sri Aurobindo, etc.
Mentalmental body
imaginationcausal body
Emotionalemotional bodyinterpersonalcompassionate body--
Ethericphysical etheric bodypsychic ethericspiritual etheric--
further grades to be actualised through spiritual evolution
Each grade or resonance of being is represented by a subtle body, and each subtle body has its own emanated field of influence, its own atmosphere oraura.  All writers on this subject are in agreement that the aura of the Etheric body is the smallest in extent (only slightly larger than the boundaries of the physical body), whilst the Spiritual aura is the largest.  However, these clairvoyants all differ as to the precise size or extent of each aura beyond the physical body (usually it ranges from a centimeter or so to a meter or more, depending on the subtle body).
Most modern spiritual and esoteric teachings consider the subtle bodies to constitute a "vertical" scale of planes or worlds of increasing Spirit, culminating in the Godhead.  But if this was so the higher "bodies" would be progressively more formless; until finally they would not be bodies at all.  As we shall see, this is indeed the case considering the principles of consciousness on the astral and higher planes; but it is certainly not the case regarding the sequence of subtle bodies.  All the subtle bodies only exist within the Spiritual Physical Plane itself.


Each subtle body has its own set of chakras or energy-centres.  According to the Theosophical paradigm (widely adopted by the New Age movement and to a lesser extent contemporary Hermeticism) the chakras serve as receiving stations or subtle organs that seem to have four distinct functions:
  1. They process and assimilate the etheric energy of that particular plane.
  2. They act as "voltage transformers" that enable the higher frequency consciousness-energy of the more spiritual subtle bodies to be received and assimilated by the subtle body in question.
  3. They allow the consciousness of higher dimensions of self to function within the subtle body, just as the brain and nervous system does for the physical body.
  4. Finally, quite apart from these "outer" energy-centre chakras, there are totally different "inner" organs of subtle consciousness, also called chakras, which allow the functioning of even more inward dimensions of self.

Octaves of Subtle bodies

The subtle bodies seem to be defined according to two sets of parameters - the division into "Physical", "Subtle", and "Spiritual" on the one hand, and the distinction between "etheric", "emotional", and "mental" bodies (or willing, feeling, and knowing consciousnesses) on the other.  Barbara Brennan also describes these subtle bodies as constituting an alternating sequence of fixed "form" (i.e. structure, or blueprint) and fluid substance (i.e. "matter"), which would indicate a sort of alternating wave-pattern.  The whole series can be tentatively represented in the following table:
tentative equivalence of planesVajayana- vayus & lightschakrasRudolph Steiner
levels of self
Barbara Ann Brennan -
7 energy bodies
TranspersonalVery Subtle Mind
Clear Light
Sahasrara higher spiritual hierarchieshigher energy levels?
1st Psychic resonance
The Spiritual Mental Body
Black subtle mindSpirit Man
7. Ketheric template
2nd Psychic resonance
The Spiritual Emotional Body
Red  subtle mindAjnaLife Spirit
(higher etheric)
6. Celestial
(transpersonal emotional)
3rd Psychic resonance
The Spiritual Etheric Body
White subtle mindVishuddhaSpirit Self
5. Etheric Template
(higher etheric)
4th Psychic resonance
the Psychic Emotional Body
Air = gross mindAnahataSpiritual Soul
(Christ love)
4. Astral
(interpersonal emotional)
1st Etheric resonance
Mental Body
FireManipuraIntellectual Soul3. Mental
2nd Etheric resonance
Emotional Body
WaterSwadhisthanaSentient Soul
Soul Body
2. Emotional
(selfish emotional)
3rd Etheric resonance
Etheric Body
EarthMuladharaEtheric Body1. Etheric
The table shows the seven "winds" (vayu) or etheric energy frequencies, and their associated "minds" or consciousness-levels, according to Tibetan Buddhism, the seven chakras, and the seven levels in the formulations of Rudolph Steiner and Barbara Ann Brennan.
Although there are an indefinite number of frequency-resonances, and hence of potential subtle bodies constituting every physical being, in Man there are apparently seven subtle bodies in total.  These define the human condition.  Further subtle bodies are actualised in Adepts and Enlightened Beings, whilst animals and plants are described as having fewer (although I am sceptical of this claim).  Even if this is true, this does not make them spiritually inferior or "lacking a soul", as arrogant religions and chauvanistic esotericists claim, because spiritual evolution is dependent on the degree of development of the Evolving Higher Self, and it would frequently be the case that an animal - or even a plant! - has a purer and more developed Higher Self than a human, even though the human has actualised more subtle bodies.

The Physical Subtle (Etheric) Bodies

The Gross Physical, Physical Etheric, Physical Emotional, and Physical Mental Bodies together make up the Gross Psycho-physical entity, the being that is separate from other beings, and which ceases with the death of the physical body.  The higher subtle bodies however continue in varying degrees even after the death of the physical body.

The Spiritual Etheric Bodies

The first spiritual body, the Psychic or "astral" Etheric Body constitutes the psycho-energic body transitional between the Physical and Spiritual Subtle-Physical dimensions.  Qabalistically, it is represented by the Sefirah Tifaret, the transitional stage between the lower and higher sefirot.
With the three higher spiritual bodies we enter the realm of the universal.  There are three subtle bodies to consider here, being the form (etheric), emotion, and mental bodies repeated (or originally arising) on a higher octave.

Kheper index page
Esotericism Topics
Subtle Body

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