The terms "Vertical" and "Higher and Lower" are used here in a purely symbolic or metaphoric sense. Symbolically, this particular axis of reality is represented microcosmically in the human body in terms of a vertical arrangement of chakras, as well as in traditional mythologies as a world-mountain, tree, or pole, and in esoteric metaphysics as a series of plane sor worlds on aboove the other. Above and Below are representative of grades of density, and are not value judgements. The Absolute Itself equally includes and embraces and incorporate both higher and lower as complementary polarities.
Central to the paradigm presented here is the assumption that the individual Self consists of various levels of being, constituting a hierarchy of octaves. Most of these levels or grades are not discriminated between in either contemporary-modern or premodern/perennial psychologies. This is because secular modernity admits only the materialistic, or at most (when religious) the supernatural-dualistic position with its excluded middle (Metaphysical Dualism is now out of fashion).
Materialism and its alternative, the duality of body and mind/consciousness/soul (or matter and spirit) (shown left) are far too crude and simplistic an ontology (theory of being) to be of any use. Dualism, which is the simplest non-reductionist worldview - represents a poor (although popular) compromise between the perennial tradition and secular modernity and physicalism. Sometimes it seems here that mind is identified with the rational mind only, leading to the popular misinterpration of Descartes' "I think therefore I am" as identification of the self with the rational intellect ("think" when in fact Descartes was referring to "consciousness"), which is the "ghost in the machine" (a popular expression introduced by the positivist philosopher Gibert Ryle, who argued there is no ghostly entity called 'the mind' inside the mechanical apparatus called 'the body.'") of the physical-material body
In contrast to Dualism and Materialism, many Wisdom Traditions present a metaphysic based on a "Vertical" hierarchy of Planes or Octaves of Existence and levels of self, an ontological gradation, according to which the Cosmos can be divided "vertically" into a number of worlds or states or gradations of being. This is the conventional "great chain of being" which - while rejected by the contemporary western physicalist consensus reality - forms the basis of most esoteric cosmologies, from Neoplatonism to the present day. But the concept of a vertical cosmology goes even beyond that, in the universal theme of the vertical world-axis, a cosmic mountain or tree or pole, is a common theme, which is found in Siberian Shamanism, Nordic paganism, and Traditional Hindu and Buddhist cosmography (Mt Meru), as well as in sacred architecture (such as the Buddhist stupa). Again, we find the theme, in Tantric iconography and subtle physiology, of the seven chakras, as an ascending series of states of consciousness.
With the occult revolution of the 19th Century, the concept of Seven "Planes" of existence was codified by a H.P. Blavatsky and Max Theon, and further developed by Sri Aurobindo, Alice Bailey, Gurdjieff (the "ray of creation") Sant Mat, and the New Age movement. Following Blavatsky, Aurobindo, the Sant Mat tradition, and other esoteric teachers and teachings, the term "Plane" (originally derived from Proclus) or "Universe" is here used to designate each of these "vertical" divisions of reality, although this is used interchangably with "reality" and "octave" (popularised in this context by Gurdjieff (Ouspensky 1977 pp.124-137 etc).
Yet for all this, the concept of chakras remains today the archetypal example of the "vertical" ontocline in the minds of most people, because very few, even in the world of transpersonal psychology, integral studies and alternative academia, are aware of or familar with occult cosmologies as such. But because "chakras" have been popularised by the New Age movement, and there is an abundance of books on the subject, mostly of a practical exercise manual type, whilst occult cosmology is known to only to those few who study these subjects in greater depth.
Huston Smith (1977) refers to four metaphysical grades of self and cosmos - Body/Physical, Mind/Intermediate, Soul/Celestial, and Spirit/Absolute. Of these, the Absolute is beyond the realm of manifestation. On the basis of esoteric teachings, I would suggest the following: Universe of Material Form (Gross and Subtle Physical), Affective, Spiritual Mind, Higher Spiritual, and Divine.
The following tabulation presents a view of the "perennial philosophy" in terms of ontic gradations or octaves; each corresponding to a distinct States of Consciousness/Existence. As an "orientating generalisation" (Wilber ref) we can say that the various esoteric teachings all describing the same realities, although in different terms and from a different standpoint (Kabbalah for example is theological, Late Neoplatonism and Theosophy are both intellectual and to some degree abstract, and Sri Aurobindo is yogic and practical). A more detailed description in cosmological terms can be found in the page describing the macrocosmic planes.
The octaves can be provisionally listed as follows:
|Level||Universe and Plane||
symbolically associated Chakras
(tentative - pending closer research)
||Free Intelligence||Adi/ Divine/ Logoic||Overmind|
|enl.3||Enlightened Spiritual Mind||Divine-Intuitive||Sahasrara||Spirit||Anupadaka||Intuition|
||Ajna||Thinking Mind||Higher Manas||Mental|
||Anahata||(not clearly distinguished)||Emotional|
|1||Kosmic Physical||Higher planes||Muladhara||Physical||Linga Sthula||Subtle Physical|
|0||Material Physical||Dense Physical||Physical|
|-1||Patalic||Klippot/ "Husks" (not evil)||
note: Enl. means Enlightened level of Consciousness. See also The Prakritic Planes - the Spirit-Matter Gradation for a more cosmological approach.
Although the above table, and most esopteric systems, assume a one on one relationship between the microcosm, represented by the occult physiology of seven chakras or centers of consciousness, and/or alternatively a series of subtle bodies, koshas, auras, or whatever, and the macrocosm or larger cosmic reality, things are not that simple. Blavtasky seems to have been aware of this, because she says (find ref) that the seven principles of man are not ina one on one relationship with the seven cosmic planes, even though she gives the same or similar terms to each.
For example, macrocosmically, the "vertical" ontic gradation ends with the physical; the physical-material plane is the densest stratum of the cosmos. Where sub-physical realities are mentioned, these generally have a "subtle" (astral or etheric) nature, such as popular mythological and shamanic concepts of the Underworld (beneath the phsyical, but still "spirit" Whereas the Underworld should be even denser than the physical. Similarily the Christian concept of Hell, which is (probably correctly) associated with the lower astral planes that constitute an after life purgatory or purification / transition, again, more subtle than the physical, despite being located "beneath".
Yet microcosmically (see diagram at left), the vertical axis extends an indefinite extent both "below" and "above". The two are balanced, as in the shamanic cosmology, Sri Aurobindo's Subconscient/Inconscient and Superconscient, and the Lower and Higher Unconscious in Roberto Assagioli's Psychosynthesis "Egg Diagram". Popular Shamanic, Mediterranean, and folk-Christian (including American fundamentalists with their simplistic obsessions with hell etc) mythologies fit this subjective psychological model better than objective occult-esoteric cosmological one.
I gave the problem of reconciling these two some thought. What I finally came up with was a two-fold inetrepretation.
I had realised for some time that the "vertical" ontocline is repeated fractally in every subtle body and subplane, hence there can be a "subphysical" lower astral which is still more subtle (less material) then the dense physical objective consciousness. But this explanation in itself is incomplete without the second one, the main insight here. This is that microcosm and macrocosm can be symbolically/metaphorically inversely related by means of an exponential curve, by which a few levels of higher (vertical) consciousness may correspond to many (higher) cosmic planes (so it is (relatively of course) easy to rise through the planes to the Absolute. Conversely many lower levels of consciousness correspond to only very few or even one lower cosmic plane. Hence the difficulty in descend to the inconscient or dense consciousness within material physical reality. Between the two is a transitional stage in which there are (from our anthrapocentric perspective at least) equal levels of consciousness and cosmic planes. This is shown in the diagram below, in which the vertical axis represents the microcosm, and the horizontal axis the macrocosm.
On the left we see the chakras as symbolically representative of the vertical microcosm. For an extended meaning of these, see the diagram at the above left, or the table of the psychology page. Above the highest (Crown / Sahasrara) chakra is the Higher Spiritual / Enlightened Mind and Superconscious, and the attainment of higher heaven states (including rising through objective occult heaven planes, as in Sant Mat yoga and Theon's technique.
In the middle is the ordinary consciousness with its three-fold division of Physical, Emotional/desiring/affective, and Mental faculties (as described by Leadbeater, Sri Aurobindo, Gurdjieff, and others)
Beneath the ordinary Conscious and equivalent Middle Unconscious are atavatistic levels of Subconscious / Id / Lower Unconscious, beneath them many levels of Inconscient. It is easy to see why most teachings prefer the ascent, which is relatively easy and leads to more pleasant and blissful other-wiorldly (and world-negating) states, rather than the descent into the underworld that is necessary for transformation. As Sri Aurobindo and Mirra pointed out, ascent is easy; if the purpose of the Integral Yoga was Enlightenement they would all be enlightenmened. It is the descent (and bringing down of the divine light and consciousness into the Subconscient and Incosncient) that is arduous, but necessary for the total transformation. For this reason I have shown human (and presumably other higher sentient) consciousness in the top half of the diagram, rather than at the middle.
Turning to the base of the diagram now - actually this is just as "vertical" as the microcosmic ontocline, but only shown "horizontal" to represent it in this two-dimensional diagram - we see a fractal series, in which each plane or ocatve or universe contains a full complement of planes/ocatves/universes, albeit in a lesser degree. So (right at the bottom of th diagram) there are the series of primary universes: Material Form, Affective Power, Ideational Thought, higher Spiritual Mind / Enlightenement and so on.
The Material Universe, like all of the others, can be subdivided, in this case (reading the next row up) Dense matter, Subtle/Etheric, Astral, Causal, Archetypal, and so on.
The Etheric or Subtle Physical can in turn (like the otehr planes) be divided into Physical, Etheric, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual.
While all of this constitutes three distinct octaves and separate realities, the vertical microcosmic gradiation of consciousness is the same for all, and there is an equivalence or relationship of correspondence between these fractal iterations.
So we could say that the Ajna chakra corresponds to the Mental body and subplane of the Subtle/Etheric Plane, and to the Causal plane of the Material Universe, and to the Ideational Universe of Manifest Reality, as well as to the equivalent ideational resonance on all the universes (see for example Cosmos as Copy for a table showing the Sant Mat version of this, the same chkaras are repeated in the various octaves of microcosmic being.
These correspondences also allow an easy connection or resonance or flow of consciousness between the various planes and subplanes that have this correspondences. (This can also be aplied to practical magic, hermetic pathworking, and so on).
See also the page on Psychology for more on spychological levels.
|term used here||shamanism||Neoplatonism; Corpus Hermetica||Kabbalah
(world of Asiyah)
Rudolph Steiner; Alice Bailey
|Sri Aurobindo||John Lilly|
|subtle physical and higher||spirit world||psyche and naature (physis)||sefirot from Keter to Yesod||Higher 6 principles||Etheric and higher||subtle physical and above||+6 state
|physical/ mundane||earth||world of senses;
|Malkhut||Sthulu||Gross Physical||physical/ material||+24 state
|chthonic||under world||not represented (except mythologically - underworld)||klippot||not reperesented||not represented||subconscient||-12 state
|hylic/ inconscient||not represented||hyle
(formless matter - non-being)
|klippot||not represented||not represented||inconscient||-3 state|
When this vertical substance sequence is plotted against the horizontal (inward) soul sequence, there result the following:
(also vertical association)
|-3||-6 -12||-24 48 +24||+12 +6||+3|
|subtle physical and above||negative formlessness
|negative consciousness - pain, fear & despair||subtle bodies||spiritual consciousness;
yogic body of bliss
|inner Light of Spirit in matter/
divine soul consciousness
|physical||utterly meaningless||meaningless physical matter||ordinary physical reality||the body as full of joy and bliss|
|subconscious||subconscious||the underworld as source of life|
|hylic||complete inconscience; the Nothing pole of reality||inconscience||the dim consciousness within matter||consciousness within matter|
This ontological series is proposed to designate the primary hypostases of the vertical gradation. I have mostly followed, but in no way simply restricted myself to, the teachings of Sri Aurobindo. Because most people obviously are more familar with the physical reality, I begin there and progress up. Note that each of these "planes" - actually octaves or harmonics might be a better term, because "planes" implies a sort of material concept that is inapplicable here - can not only be divided into innumerable subplanes, but also a near infite number of fractal divisions and subharmonics.
Because each of these Planes or Octaves can be subdivided, fractally, into subplanes and subsubplanes (as illustrated in the esoterics of Kabbalah, Theon, and Blavatsky, and the psychology of Gurdjieff and Sri Aurobindo), one can still classify modern knowledge esoterically; in fact this would be a similar but, to my mind superior, system to the Four Quadrants of Wilber, and the vMEMES (neo- Spiral Dynamics) of Wilber and Beck.
Form: The Universe of Material Form is usually called the Physical, but the Kosmic Physical is simply one sub-plane or sub-octave or series of such in a much larger reality. A lot of confusion comes about because of the "fractal" nature of reality, in that fractal sub-levels are confused with larger universes or realities, and vice-versa. Following Steiner (but adding further insights), I would distinguish a number of realities here. Similar classifications could be made for all the universes and planes (and each of the resulting subplanes, and so on)
More on the Universe of Material Form
Psychic/Affective: Beyond the physical and other regions of forms, according to occult and esoteric knowledge, is the psychic reality or realities, which include various psychic and occult phenomena, forces, formations, and planes, worlds, and octaves of existence. This includes zones of power and above that the Angelic Universes (Sri Aurobindo uses the term "Vital", but this is confusing as it can also be applied to the subtle etheric). Many psychic experiences, revelations, religious experiences, and so on, come from here. When we take into account all the fractal and dynamic combinations of the various sub-(sub- etc) planes and vertical gradautions, and the other three ontological axii we find this is a truely vast region, far more diverse than physical reality. This is the realm of study of occultism and esotericism. The esoterics give explanations that it can be suggested are either correct or, if false in a literal sense, are at least symbolically true.
More on the Affective
Ideational / Spiritual Mind: Beyond the affective or psychic worlds is the universe of Pure Intellect or pure Ideas, the Angelic Universe, the Causal region in which Thoughts directlky create reality, the World of Beriah (Creation) of Kabbalah. Because this region is more remote than the everyday consciousness, it is less often acessed or understood. In some spiritualist and New Age teachings this seems to be considered a higher visionary region of light (find refs?).
More on the Ideational / Mental
Higher Spiritual / Enlightenment / Illumination: Beyond the regions of creative conceptual ideation is the universe of immediate Illumination or Enlightenment. In the Life Divine Sri Aurobindo distinguishes three higher levels of spiritual mind above the pure thinking mind. One finds similar ideas in Theon's cosmology and in Sant Mat, both of whom distingusih between a lower region and a higher, more difficult to access, region of worlds or planes. In Sant Mat cosmology these are referred to as Saguna (Form) and Norguna (Formless) respectively. These are very high visionary states and universes and hierarchies of existence; humans who access these levels are enlightened by ordionary standards, although this is not the same as the Buddhist nirvana, Hindu moksha, and similar, which refer to states of non-existence (nirvana) or liberation (moksha) beyond all worlds and planes and manifest realities.
More on the Universe of Enlightenment / Illumination
Overmind / Divine or Cosmic Consciousness: - at the summit of creation are the Divine Worlds, Cosmic Gods and Godheads; intermediate between the Infinite Noetic Godhead (Logos) and the Manifest Temporal Cosmos. Here is where the One Light of the Logos or Transcendent Nous becomes a prism of many radiances, archetypes, gods, sefirot, or lights, which in turn supervise the creation below. The most detailed descriptions are found in Kabbalah (the World of Atzilut or Divine Emanation) and Sri Aurobindo (the Overmind). This is a region of profound cosmic and esoteric mysteries, in which there is no distinction between oneself and the cosmos [Sri Aurobindo].
More on the Divine
This particular map of reality provides a good starting point for formulating an integral classification of all possible states of consciousness, although it needs to be integrated with the other three parameters and the representation of hypostases of the Absolute for this to be so. For one thing this "Vertical" ontocline is fractal in nature, so that each division includes innumerable subdivisions; for another it can just as easily (and perhaps more profoundly) be shown in the form of a branching tree of possibilities. Then there is the problem, as always in metaphysics of the "patchiness" of the overall map in different esoteric teachings, with some emphasising one reality and ignoring others, and other systems taking a different approach.
It is suggested here that, in addition to their existence as worlds, universes, and phenomena in their own right, these various planes, octaves, and resonances exert occult influences on physical evolution; and that emergent physical evolution involves the embodiment and physicalisation of successive resonances or ocatves from the "vertical" ontocline.
Often also one finds in esoteric and New Age literature and teachings that this "vertical" scale is confused with the inner-outer series (e.g. Advaita and pop gurus), or with the noetic/monadological levels of self (Theosophical and theosophical based (e.g. Alice Bailey 1925) diagrams). Just as - with the Age of Enlightenment and birth of Western science - mythopoeisis and esotericism had to be distinguished from natural philosophy to get a true scientific understanding (and for that matter a true occult understanding, although this latter has lagged uptil now), so the various intertwined parameters of consciousness and reality have to be teased apart, in order to formulate a universal map of reality.
note - Amazon links are top the current edition, the edition cited may be out of print
Sri Aurobindo (1971), Letters on Yoga, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust
Sri Aurobindo (1977), The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust
Bailey, Alice A., A Treatise on Cosmic Fire. New York: Lucis Trust, 1925
Brennan, Barbara Ann, (1987) Hands of Light : A Guide to Healing Through the Human Energy Field, Bantam Books
Chic Cicero, Sandra Tabatha Cicero, Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition: A Complete Curriculum of Study for Both the Solitary Magician and the Working Magical Group (Llewell)
Colton, Ann Ree The Third Music, Ann Ree Colton Foundation of Niscience, Inc (external link)
Colton, Ann Ree & Murro, Jonathan Galaxy Gate II: The Angel Kingdom, Ann Ree Colton Foundation of Niscience, Inc, (external link)
Ouspensky, P.D. 1977, In Search of the Miraculous, Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, New York & London
Israel Regardie, Cris Monnastre, Carl Weschcke , The Golden Dawn: A Complete Course in Practical Ceremonial Magic (Llewellyn's Golden Dawn Series)
Smith, Huston. (1977) Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition. New York: Harper & Row.
Steiner, Rudolph.  1947. Knowledge of the higher worlds and its attainment. Trans. Henry B. and Lisa D. Monges. New York: Anthroposophic Press.
_____  1969. Occult science - An Outline. Trans. George and Mary Adams. London: Rudolf Steiner Press.
_____  1970. Theosophy: An introduction to the supersensible knowledge of the world and the destination of man. London: Rudolf Steiner Press.
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