by Alan Kazlev
That said, it seems that there are several distinct but overlapping methodologies that esoteric cosmologists tend to use. These might be called the psychological, the mystical, and the occult methodologies. It is important not to make too sharp a distinction between them; sometimes they are just teh same reality described from different perspoectives.
The first maps the inner levels of consciousness in terms of realities that can be understood in psychological states. Above is the rational or mental self. Above that are levels of higher intuition and superconsciousness, while below one finds the layers representing the irrational (orectic/emotional) psyche and the phsyical body. This distinction between irartional and rational soul seems to be ubiquitious in esotericism since at least the time of Plato and Aristotle. Plotinus added a third gradation, the noetic soul, which is above the rational.
A detailed psychological approach is taken by Buddhism, which distinguishes between the higher (corersponding to the mental) form and formless realms, and the lower (representing the orectic and physical) desire realms. All in all, there are 31 lokas are each associated with specific psychological and meditative states. Here it seems that the psychological element is primarary, and that the mythological and cosmological was used as a sort of elaboration upon or interpretation of that.
More metaphysical in approach is the idea of series or gradation of distinct levels of self. The earleist example of this is the Taittiriya Upanishad, with the series "food" (body), prana (vitality), manas (mind), vijnana (gnosis), and ananda (bliss, representing Brahman, the Absolute). This had a big influence on Advaita Vedanta and later Yoga Psychology , although the interpretations of, say, Shankara and Sri Aurobindo, are light years apart regarding this.
A parallel series is found in the classical West in Middle Platonism, the Corpus Hermetica (matter - vital spirit (pneuma) - psyche - divine mind (nous)), and Neoplatonism (matter (hyle) - irrational, rational, and noetic psyche - nous - Absolute). One might say that the psyche is the same as the manas, and the nous as the vijnana (or the noetic psyche as the Shankaran vijnana kosha). All of this leads also of course to the idea of subtle bodies.
More theosophical, cosmological or cosmotheological mysticism uses original gnostic revelation or at least comparitive esoteric study to intuite the universe or macrocosm as a whole, and relates individual levels of consciousness to that. It maps the levels or planes or hypostases in terms of realities in terms of a universal, objective unfolding. Generally there is a common esoteric and gnostic theme of the perennial philosophy, there is a series of subtle planes or universes which emanate from the Supreme Absolute and progress through increasing degrees of density and materialisation, culminating in the physical universe. While reference is also made to subtle bodies and soul-levels, these are elaborated with much less attention to detail than the overall cosmology or cosmotheology. In Later Neoplatonism (Iamblichus, Proclus, etc), Gnosticism, Kabbalah, and the Theosophy of Blavatsky, we find elaborate detailed consideration of planes of existence, gods, angelological powers, and so on.
Finally, there is the occult methodology of leaving the physical body for a while (soul travel, astral travel, out of body experience) and exploring the various realms and planes of existence that one encounters. Examples here are original Shamanism, soul ascension in Gnosticism, Kabbalah, etc, the occult researches of Max and Alma Theon, Radhasoami and Eckanker soul travel, and modern day astral travellers and OOBE research (Robert Monroe etc). Esoteric cosmologists of this sort may describe the various worlds, universes, or pleromas can be recognised by the particular colours (Theon) or light and sounds (Sabda Surat Yoga / Sant Mat), or magical beings (Hermetic Kabbalah - e.g. Golden Dawn) native to each. Perhaps such an experiential phenomenological approach can lay the foundation for a truely universal and empircal esoteric science.
Fortunately it is possible to combine all of these approaches, and to see the levels or bands of the former as referring to the microcosmic equivalent of the pleromas or universes of the latter (indeed such equivalence plays an important part in Lurianic Kabbalah (e.g. Jacob's Ladder and the ascent of the Soul) and is specifically mentioned by Mirra Alfassa/The Mother (ref xxxx) and in post-Blavatsky theosophical diagrams of C.W. Leadbeater and Alice Bailey (example of the latter at the top of this page), as well as the psychological terminology Theon (who was Mirra's teacher in occultism) used for the lower four cosmic levels.
This gives (Theon, Leadbeater, Mirra, New Age) the equivalence of the emotional or desire nature (called the Nervous by Theon and the Vital by Mirra) with the "Astral Plane", and therefore the rational psyche or mind with the next universe up, and the life force principle or prana with an "Etheric plane" that is lies between the physical and the Astral (re this latter see Steiner - Occult Science and elsewhere - and the Leadbeater and Bailey cosmic diagrams). In this was one can equate the visionary universe with specific psychological strata (in addition to phenomena native to that universe)
Gradations of Planes versus Levels of Self
Thus, it is easier to understand those sub-planes or bands that are "closer to" the objective physical, and make up our ordinary surface being (what Sri Aurobindo calls the Outer Being), then it is to understand the larger and more visionary, pure supraphysical realities. This should be taken into consideration when drawing up any tabulation or map of universes or pleromas or levels or worlds of occult consciousness and super-consciousness.