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Levels of Selfhood

Most religions and many philosophies interpret Man [1] as a single consciousness or soul or spirit in a physical body. But, although an improvement over gross Materialism[2], this interpretation is actually extremely naive, for it ignores all the manifold aspects and dimensions that human consciousness includes.

A more sophisticated understanding is that the so-called individual is made up of a multiplicity of "souls" or levels of being. The human entity (and for that matter, every evolutionary entity) is thus a synthesis of a number of elements of being, corresponding to different dimensions or planes of existence. In the present essay, these various levels of body, soul, and spirit can be defined as follows:

Table 1. The various levels of self and corresponding planes of existence
Level of being or self ('microcosm") World or Plane ("macrocosm") Associated experience
Unmanifest Absolute Unmanifest Absolute Shunya, Sachchidananada, etc
Transcendent Higher Self  Manifest Absolute Eternal Consciousness
Immanent Higher Self Inmost Being Inner Divine Consciousness
Spirit (Noeric Ideational) Plane 
(Spiritual/ Angelic)
gnosis, wisdom
Soul Imaginal Plane 
(Higher Psychic)
Intuition, Love,
Spiritual purpose
Double  Astral Plane 
(Lower Psychic)
Dreaming, Imagination, "Astral travelling"
Physical Psyche Etheric Plane 
(Subtle Physical)
Physical Consciousness
Physical Body Physical Plane  Body Consciousness

One can use Egyptian, Indian, Greek, and Kabbalistic terms to supplement the imprecise and ambiguous English equivalents like "spirit" and "soul". If you look at other esoteric [3] teachings, you will notice all use pretty much the same schema, although differing in details and terminology.  A few examples of these inter-doctrinal equivalences are given as follows:

Table 2. The various levels of self in different esoteric systems
Level of being or self ('microcosm") Egyptian equivalent Taoist equivalent Neoplatonic equivalent Sufi equivalent Blavatsky
Theosophical equivalent
Theosophical equivalent 
(Adyar School & others influenced by)
Aurobindo equivalent 
(Integral psychology)
Absolute Self ? Tao The One ? not represented not represented Paramatma?
Transcendent Higher Self   ? ? Henad Divine Name Atma Monad Jivatma
Immanent Higher Self "Memphite Theology" (Old_Kingdom) Ka; 
New Kingdom
Khu (in part)
Shen - immortal spirit  Augeoides ayn thabitha Immortal Ego Soul;
Higher Triad
(Atma-Buddhi- Manas)
Psychic Being
(Chaitya Purusha)
Spirit Khu (in part) Hun (Spirit) Noetic Soul aql (intellect) Buddhi Manas Higher Mental (Causal) Mental (in part)
Soul Ba (soul)
Ab (heart)
Hun (Spirit) Soul qalb
Kama Manas Higher Emotional/ Astral Vital (in part)
Double  Sahu;
Ka (Double) 
P'o (yin nature) Irrational Soul nafs
Kama rupa Lower Emotional/ Astral Vital (in part)
Physical Psyche Ka (in part) Ch'i Vegetative soul nafs
Sthula Etheric body Subtle Physical
Physical Body Khat body Physical Physical Sukshma Physcal body Gross Physical

Physical, Spiritual and Causal

Taking the five "lower" principles in Table 1 - the Body, Psyche, Double, Soul and Spirit - these each correspond to a particular "vertical" Plane or stratum of existence, from pure "matter" to pure "spirit" (the higher three principles do not lie on the Spirit-Matter axis at all).   In addition to this "vertical" axis, there is a "horizontal" one, which constitute a sequence of "frequency octaves" equivalent to the energy levels in an electron orbital shell around an atom's nucleus

Just as there are an infinite number of possible quantum energy levels in an electron's orbit, so there are an indefinate number of "vibratory" or "frequency" levels of consciousness on each plane. In Indian Vedantic and Tibetan Buddhist metaphysics, these frequency levels are grouped into Gross, Subtle, and Causal [4]; whilst Western Esotericism [5] refers to Physical, Psychic and Spiritual.

 Table.3 illustrates the relation between the "horizontal" and the "vertical" gradations of manifestation, and gives the terms used here.

Table.3. The Frequency octaves in the Physical Body, Physical Psyche (or "subtle bodies"), Double, Soul, Spirit, and higher grades of existence.
Pure Spirit
Higher Planes
Spiritual Being ...
Ba Spiritual Ba ...
Ka/Astral double Spiritual Ka ...
physical psyche
Etheric body Emotional body Mental body Psychic Bodies Spiritual Bodies ...
physical body external physical Organic (wholistic) Physical  Emotional Physical  Mental Physical  Psychic Physical Spiritual Physical ...
physical mechanical Physical subconscious Emotional subconscious
(= Jungian shadow)
Mental subconscious
(= Jungian shadow)
Psychic subconscious
(= Collective Unconscious)
Spiritual subconscious
(= the Jungian "Self")
physical mechanical inconscient inconscient inconscient inconscient inconscient ...
pure matter <------------- ------------- ------------- ------------- ------------->
pure spirit
gross (outer)
subtle (inner)
very subtle

 Unfortunately, many esoteric teachings tend to confuse the "vertical" series of planes, the "horizontal" frequency series, the "inner-outer" sequence from Higher Self to ego, and the Absolute Self, collapsing everything into a single set of planes of consciousness. That is why it so hard to match up the different systems; they use similiar language and concepts to describe totally different things.


[1]. The term "Man" as used here is, it hardly needs to be pointed out, gender neutral. Because of patriarchial overtones, feminists have suggested that the term be replaced by a gender-neutral one like "Person". However, the word "Person" comes from the Greek persona, meaning a mask used in theatre, whilst "Man" is derived from the Indo-European root mn, from which we also derive "mind"; hence Man literally means "a thinking being". Since the only way the human species can be distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom is in our superior intellectual devlopment, I feel that this is a more appropriate term to use here.

[2]. "Materialism" here refers not to a particular lifestyle based around material goods, but a sceptical way of looking at things, that denies all realities beyond those that are currently known to physical science. This is a reductionist perspective that actually constitutes a specific meme

[3]. "Esoteric" means the inner or hidden meaning of things, the occult, the metaphysical; as opposed to "exoteric", the outer meaning, conventional knowledge or reality

[4] The division "gross, subtle, and causal" is derived from Indian Vedantic philosophy, specifically the Mandukya Upanishad), which speaks of four states of consciousness, the waking, dream, dreamless sleep, and transcendent state. These were later identified with the five koshas [see note 5 below]. Tibetan Buddhism refers to a similiar three-fold distinction as "gross", "subtle", and "very subtle" [Table 3].

[5] By "Western Esotericism" is meant the occult and spiritual teachings that have developed in the West in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; such as Theosophy, Hermetic Qabalah, Rosicrucianism, and Thelema. The division of being into "body, soul, and spirit" is central to the teachings of the Christian theosophist and clairvoyant Rudolph Steiner.

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content by M.Alan Kazlev,
page uploaded 14 July 1998, last modified 30 May 2004