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The Subtle Physical

reality: Inner / Subtle Aspect of the Physical, and vice versa

objective qualities: "Yogic anatomy", chakras, nadis, etc

subjective qualities: Inner Facet of Body / Matter, inner elemental presence, Tantric and Taoist states of physical transformation, Awareness of Body, Inner Physical Consciousness, Spontaneous action ("Zen and the art of archery")


The Subtle Physical refers to the inner, etheric and formative regions of the physical, as opposed to the lower dense physical or the objective outer physical. However, all these regions and subdividions intergrade, and the Subtle Physical itself includes a vast number of different realities.

At its densest and most objective, this region corresponds to paraphysics, alternative healing modalities, auras and the etheric or subtle bodies, orgone energy, Earth energies, Anthroposophy, and other phenomena on the fringes of science, considered quackery because they don't fit within the secular-reductionistic paradigm that recognises only the material-physical.

At a more subtle level, this shades into the region of dreams, astral travel, shamanic vision, clairvoyance, and so on.

In Ishraqi and Sufi cosmology, this is the Imaginal Realm - Barzakh (Interworld) of Suhrawardi, the Mithal (Imaginal realm) of Ibn Arabi, "the 8th Clime" of islamic geography and cosmology. It is the region of pure Forms intermediate between the higher spiritual and Divine hypostasis of Light and Divine logoi, and the Cosmic Physical reality.


Barbara Brennan's description of the auric levels is suggested as the Type Description (although the higher auric bodies seem to pertain to spiritual realities, which implies either vertical divisions of physical, astral, and spiritual nature.)

It is mentioned by the Theosophists or by Rudolf Steiner. Higher mystic states of martial arts training would seem to derive from here, also states of Tantric development.

Sri Aurobindo would call (in his Letters on Yoga - Planes and Parts of Being) refers to it as the Subtle Physical. There is also the Inner Physical; presumably the two overlap

Suhrawardian and later derived concepts regarding the Interworld / Barzakh; but these also might include the Inner Gross reality, or at least aspects of it

Jung's account of the collective unconscious, divested of its biological reductionism ("racial memory") might be a good example of the Subtle Reality. Jung is very weak on metaphysics; his strength lies in his superb phenomenological descriptions - taken from classic mythological, alchemical, and esoteric literature as well as the accounts of his patients and later, his own experiences as well, provide a rich source of material on the phenomena and dynamics of the Subtle reality inasmuch as it interacts with the outer human psyche or physical consciousness (Gross Being). However, some of what he describes also pertains to the Eso and Inner Gross reality; also the vague quality of what defines an archetype means that archetypes could pertain to anything of transpersonal nature (e.g. mystical experiuences are experiences of archetypes).

As with all the regions, the Subtle Physical itself could be thought of as consisting of a number of resonances or subplanes.  One might for example postulate subplanes such as: the Divine, Higher Spiritual, Illumined, Higher Mental, Mental, Emotional, Vital, Mundane Physical, Chthonic or Subphysical, and Hylic or Inconscient. (Subconscient and Inconscient are useful terms borrowed from Sri Aurobindo but possibly deriving from Theon's Tradition). As in all these cases, the higher planes are only poorly understood, pertaining as they do to very elevated and spiritual states of existence.  Those who are familiar with the teachings of Theosophy or of Anthroposophy (Rudolf Steiner), will have come across the distinction between the Physical or "Gross Physical" and the Etheric or "Subtle Physical" Planes, but the lower two planes are not mentioned in those teachings, although they are indicated to in writings of Sri Aurobindo

Archetypal Attributes

The Physical Plane can also be described in terms of the four or five archetypal attributes or elements.

The Four Elements
Ether-Akasha-Spirit - the fifth element

The Chinese system of Elements is somewhat different

Correspondences according to Stan Gooch

In the psychological system of Stan Gooch it is "System B" taht corresponds to the Eso being and "System A" to the Outer being

The polarity between these two modes of consciousness is described in detail by in his book Total Man. Gooch uses a physiological explanation, whereas I agree with the Islamic esotericists in suggesting a metaphysical one. Nevertheless the following pairs of opposites proposed by Gooch are good poetic indicators for these two realities (of course there are other realities too)

Subtle Physical
Outer Physical
System B
System A
emotion, feeling
thought, thinking
magic (`illogic')
religion art
left-wing politics (Labour, Communism)
right-wing politics (Fascism)

[from Stan Gooch, Total Man, Abacus, 1972, pp.82-3]

The exploration of the eso or inner realities, via clairvoyance, lucid dreaming, and shamanic visioning, can serve as the basis for new State-Specific Sciences, of the type proposed by Dr Charles T Tart in the 1970s.

"Vertical" Subplanes

In occult psychology there are a number of subgrades that belong here. Here is a rough and tentative association:

Physical subdegree Greek element
Samkhyan Element (tattwa)
projection from
Max Theon
"Cosmic Tradition"
= sub-subdegrees
Sri Aurobindo
based on "Planes and Parts of Being" vol. 1, pp.351-2
(Letters on Yoga vol.1)
Gurdjieff / Ouspensky Rudolf Steiner
Carl Jung
Barbara Brennan
"Human Energy Field" (aura)
Spiritual Subplane Akasha Essence subdegree of the physical (Spiritual Physical) n/a Consciousness higher bodies represent different Planes (Astral and Spiritual-Orectic)
Mental Subplane Air Mental subdegree of the physical Mental Physical Intellectual Center Thinking Mental Body
Intuitive Subplane Fire Emotional / Heart subdegree of the physical Psychic Physical Emotional Center Intuition, Will
Emotional Body
Emotional Subplane Water Nervo / Lower Emotional subdegree of the physical Vital-Physical Instinctual Center Feeling Etheric body
Objective Physical Earth Physical subdegree of the physical Physical consciousness Moving Center Physical body Physical body

Subplanes - Comparative

Beyond the obvious physical are other planes or subgrades. I would associate these with the lower four of Theon's subdivisions, and the corresponding lower four of Barbara Brennan's sequence of seven energy bodies (the physical body making up the eight body). These can also be associated with the four elements of Greek thought, the four subdivisions of the sefirah Malkut in Hermetic Kabbalah, and so on. This is shown in the following table (the colours are approximately those attributed by Barbara Brennan:

Physical Reality element Max Theon
"Cosmic Tradition"
The Objective Plane
Alice Bailey Barbara Brennan - "Human Energy Field" (aura)
Divine Spiritual Physical / Logoic Spirit Free Intelligence subdegree of the physical 7. x Logoic n/a
Higher Spiritual Physical / Monadic Pure Spirit subdegree of the physical Monad
Middle Spiritual Physical Light subdegree of the physical 6. Spiritual-emotional Soul
(atma-buddhi-higher manas)
Lower Spiritual Physical ("Logoic") Noeric Intuition subdegree of the physical
Mental Physical Air Mental subdegree of the physical 5. Mental-emotional Personality (lower manas-emotional) Mental body
Physical Emotional Water Soul subdegree of the physical 4. Passional-emotional
3. Physiological-emotional
Emotional body
Etheric Plane Warmth, Fire (life force) Nervo / Astral subdegree of the physical 2. Instinctual Etheric Etheric body
Mundane Physical Earth Physical subdegree of the physical 1. Sensuous Physical Physical body

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
this page uploaded 13 June 2005, last modified 7 September 2007
includes material originally uploaded 19 July 1998 and 6 September 2001, relocated to new directory 4th April 2008, last modified 19 April