Overview of Planes and Bodies

We humans are multidimensional. We exist in physical reality in a body, each cell of which has its own consciousness. Another dimension of us exists as souls in nonphysical reality. Our egos straddle these realities, allowing us to move back and forth between physical reality and the soul by shifting our focus of consciousness.

The soul has access to a variety of alternative realities, sometimes called planes of consciousness, thereby increasing our multidimensionality. But most of us have spotty access to this aspect of our beings.

When we begin to explore astral projection, we open up to and develop our multidimensionality. We learn to perceive and move around on these planes. To do so, we need an energy body suitable for each. In contemporary Theosophy, these energy bodies are called vehicles of consciousness.

Contemporary Theosophy is a spiritual world view first articulated by H. P. Blavatsky (1831-91) in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In her monumental The Secret Doctrine: A Synthesis of Science and Religion, Blavatsky brought together teachings from many ancient wisdom traditions, including information on the planes and vehicles of consciousness.
I first became aware of the idea of vehicles of consiousness in a roundabout way, through a posting on the Saltcube Forum, an Internet discussion group focused on out-of-body experiences (OBEs), astral projection, and lucid dreams. This posting led me to an article about a book published in 1900 by the theosophist Annie Besant: Man and His Bodies. I was lucky enough to find the book in a local library.

Besant explains that a vehicle of consciousness is one of our several nonphysical bodies. These vehicles surround our physical form as different layers of the human aura. They also act as modes of perception and transportation within various aspects (levels, planes, or zones) of nonphysical reality, which I call Otherwhere, because the rules that govern it are so different from (other than) those we're familiar with in physical reality.

This notion of vehicles of consciousness accords with my own OBE adventures, as well as the experiences recorded in Robert Monroe's books, and those of a number of other out-of-body explorers. I believe that they also explain some of the difficulties beginning out-of-body experiencers (OBERs) may have, especially when they find that their range of exploration in the out-of-body state is extremely limited.

Man and His Bodies is based on several assumptions, having their origin in ancient Vedic (Hindu) teachings, going back several thousand years:

1) The Self (Sanskrit: atman, something like the soul in Western religions) is enclosed in five layers or sheaths (Sanskrit: kosha), with the physical body being the outermost.

2) These sheaths are also vehicles of consciousness that allow the Self to travel in various realms, both physical and nonphysical.

3) Their makeup reflects various degrees of physicality or nonphysicality (subtlety), with the physical body being the most dense (or gross), and the inmost sheath being the finest (most subtle).

These bodies were first described in the Taittiriya-Upanishad (2.2-5), where they are called:

  • anna-maya-kosha: the body made of food
  • prana-maya-kosha: the body made of life force
  • mano-maya-kosha: the body made of mind
  • vijnana-maya-kosha: the body made of awareness
  • ananda-maya-kosha: the body made of bliss

In Theosophy, these bodies are given the following English names:

  • the physical body
  • the etheric body (or etheric double)
  • the astral (or desire) body
  • the mental (or mind) body (and the causal body--see below for explanation)
  • the buddhic body

Each of these bodies is ideally suited for operation as a vehicle of consciousness in a certain physical or nonphysical realm. In Theosophy, this realm is called a plane. I would call it a Zone.

These planes are arranged in a hierarchy from lower (more physical, coarse, or earth-oriented) to higher (more nonphysical, subtle, or Otherwhere oriented, as I would call it). There are seven such planes:

  • physical plane
  • astral plane
  • mental plane
  • buddhic plane
  • nirvanic plane
  • monadic plane
  • divine plane

The physical and etheric bodies are limited to the physical plane. Both last for a single lifetime and dissolve back into their elements after death.

The etheric body is separable from the physical body, but is not able to go far from it. It has the same shape as the physical body, but is not visible to physical eyesight. It may, however, be perceived by the inner senses, e.g., clairvoyant vision.

Many OBErs, including Robert Monroe, have reported that once out of their bodies, they were confined to a limited range surrounding the physical body (frequently, the dimensions of their bedroom). Perhaps they were operating in the etheric body as their vehicle of consciousness. The ancient Egyptians had a similar notion: the ka was separable from the body, but not able to move very far from it.

The astral body may move freely in the physical or the astral plane, but is not able to access the higher planes. This body is the usual vehicle of conscious for out-of-body travel from point to point in the physical world. It also functions as the vehicle of consciousness for dreams and certain phases of the Afterlife.

The astral body often makes perceptual errors in evaluating what it experiences on the physical and astral planes, although it can improve with practice. I suspect that this is the result of carrying over various assumptions that pertain to the physical body and physical plane into the astral body and the astral plane.

For example, beginning OBErs often have trouble perceiving anything at all once out of body. They seem to be blind. But if they give themselves the command to open their eyes so they can see, their physical eyes open and the OBE is over.

The astral body seems to correspond to the ancient Egyptian notion of the ba, which is able to move freely between physical and nonphysical reality and within the nonphysical reality of the Afterlife.

In Theosophy, the astral body is eventually abandoned at a certain stage in the Afterlife, whereupon it disintegrates (on the astral plane) into its elements.

The mental body is the vehicle of consciousness in the mental plane--but only on the lower four (out of seven) subplanes of that plane. The mental body loses its human form and usually appears on its own plane as an egg-shaped energy field, its size varying according to the evolutionary degree of the Self it contains.

The mental body may range freely on the physical or astral planes. It is less susceptible to making perceptual errors on that plane than is the astral body. It may assume human form at will.

This body too will eventually be left behind on the mental plane, at a late stage in the Afterlife, and will disintegrate into its elements.

The causal body is without form, although it may assume the human form if it wishes, and often does so when traveling on the astral plane.

Some OBErs have reported that they seem to be operating as a point of light or awareness rather than a replica of the physical body. They may be using the mental or causal body as a vehicle of consciousness. The ancient Egyptians have a similar concept, akh, which refers to consciousness when it appears as a dazzling light. The akh, however, is limited to nonphysical reality.

In Theosophy, the causal body is the reincarnating self: "all causes that effect [generate] future incarnations reside in it." [Besant, Man and His Bodies, 108]. Besant goes on to say that "People do not remember their past lives because they are not yet conscious in the causal body as a vehicle." [Ibid. 109.]

In Theosophy, the causal body is the true self, the immortal aspect of human consciousness, immensely greater than one’s personality or individuality in any given lifetime. It’s the repository of everything that has been learned in a particular lifetime, and the sum of the wisdom acquired in all of one’s lifetimes.

The vehicle of consciousness on the buddhic plane is the buddhic body, or body of bliss. This body is used as a vehicle of consciousness by advanced yogis in deep meditation. In it, they may experience a blissful sense of the unity of all life. This is all that Besant has to say in Man and His Bodies on this topic.

From further reading in Theosophy, I learned that the nirvanic (sometimes called atmic) body is the vehicle of consciousness for highly evolved souls called Adepts or Masters.

The monadic body is our highest self, one step removed from becoming one with the divine.

Not much is known about the divine body. It corresponds with the consciousness of the creator and sustainer of our reality/learning system--made up of the physical planet Earth and its associated nonphysical planes–our solar system, or universe. Mastering the divine body would mean achieving oneness with this divine creator, which in Theosophy is called the Logos (Greek for Word, with a reference to the first chapter of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word.”)

My adventures in consciousness so far involve the etheric, astral, mental, causal, and buddhic bodies. I can’t speak from direct experience about the others. In the Astral Projection Log, you can read about these adventures.

The title of each adventure indicates the body I was in and/or the plane I was on. Bracketed comments within the account make these associations somewhat clearer, especially when the adventure involves moving between vehicles of consciousness.

In the sequel to The Multidimensional Human: Astral Projection as a Spiritual Practice, I intend to go into detail about how to differentiate between the bodies and the planes, so you’ll always know where you are when traveling in nonphysical reality.