The term «astral plane» is variously used in New Age, occult, and theosophical thought to designate the reality corresponding to the next most subtle body or vehicle beyond the etheric body, which one experiences in astral travel and so on.
More broadly, it can be interpreted as the «subtle» aspect of the Physical (i.e. the subtle physical) and the physical aspect of Orectic reality. It is divided into a number of sub-gradations, but the descriptions and details differ according to the particular teaching.
The Astral plane is well-known in many esoteric traditions.
References to this reality are:
the Dreaming of the Australian Aborigines
the Spirit-world of Shamanism
the Duat of the ancient Egyptians
the Bardo (Intermediate State) of the Tibetans
the Imaginal world of Islamic Esotericism — e.g. the Barzakh (Interworld) or of Suhrawardi and the the Mithal (Imaginal realm) of Ibn Arabi
the Universe of Asiyah of some Kabbalists, or of Yetzirah according to others
Other descriptions are:
the Nervo degree of the Physical State of Theon
the Astral or 2nd Prakritic plane (corresponding to the Linga Sharira or Subtle or Astral body)
the Kama (Desire-Plane) of Blavatsky
the Astral Plane of the Adyar school of Theosophy and of popular occultism, Rudolph Steiner’s «Soul World»
the Vital and Subtle Physical described by Sri Aurobindo and Mirra
These are just a few of the innumerable descriptions of this plane of existence.
The fractal approach to occultism (e.g. Max Theon) suggests that there is not a single astral reality, but rather the astral plane, and the corresponding astral body, pertains to a number of realities, mostly in the Subtle Physical, but also in the Physical Orectic worlds.
One might even formulate a gradation from,
the Greater Astral or Kosmic Orectic Universe such as the Numinocosm,
to Subtle Physical,
and finally to objective physical reality.
These can be related as fractal resonances, with a lesser or kosmic physical Astral/Orectic distinguished from the greater or numinocosmic kosmic Astral/Orectic, as being a reflection or resonance of the latter.
The kosmic physical Astral/Orectic in turn creates a resonance in the subtle physical (or etheric) astral, as well as in other octaves.
In contrast to the universes of pure ideas (the ideational universe) above it, here the ability of consciousness to even formulate ideas is lost, due to the increasing preponderance of the material pole of existence. This coarseness also brings about, for the first time, a limitation in the multiplicity of things, as it screens out more and more the infinite number of possible subtleties.
There is also, for the first time, the beginning of egotism, the mistaken belief that one’s own little self is the centre of the universe, and the consequent desire to aggrandize that petty self (there is no egotism in the higher worlds; mental egotism only comes about through mind being mixed with the substance of the lower planes).
A spiritualist representative of the Psychic Universe
from «The Return of Authur Conan Doyle»
Like the other planes and ontological universes, the Physical Astral plane seems to consist of a number of resonances or subplanes, such as are illustrated in the above diagram. These sub-planes constitute a «vertical» gradation of zones from dark to light, dense to subtle, material to spiritual.
They have been described and categorized in different esoteric teachings, including the system of chakras and planes in Sant Mat, the occult cosmologies of the Kabbalists, Theon, Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, Spiritualism, Adyar school of Theosophy, and Sri Aurobindo.
Regions of the Astral Plane
The following is a diagram that, although presented from a mythological New Age ufological perspective, which interprets the the Subtle Physical Astral in terms of galactic extraterrestrials and so on. Although this should not be taken too literally, it presents a useful representation of the planes and graduations of this region.
Here, «time-space influence» refers to proximity to the Cosmic Physical planes and subplanes, «time-space independent» to the higher regions of Cosmic Astral (i.e. the Astral and higher subplanes).
Terms like interplanetary and intergalactic may be pseudoscientific interpretations of various degrees of ascent of consciousness, or they may refer to genuine cosmic phenomena.
Some subdivsions of the Astral Universes
Various occult teachers give different descriptions and enumerations (the Theosophists have seven, the Kabbalists ten, and so on).
Following Sri Aurobindo’s division of the Vital we posit four distinct Psychic planes, here termed,
the Lower Astral
the Higher Astral
the Mental-Psychic Planes
…four distinct «resonances» or states of existence.
However this is only one classification system, and the others can be considered just as valid.
The first, the Mental-Psychic Plane, Noeric of Psychic, is the higher octave of the physical intellect, and the lower of the Divine intellect. It takes the form of the source of imagination, and creativity. There are also higher resonances, which pertain to the descent of higher angelic or Divine Light, and constitute a sort of «Divinised» Astral. This Divinized Astral is the region of many Gods.
The second, the Psychic-Emotional, is the octave of higher emotion, especially love (the highest and purest of the emotions). This is a higher, more «spiritual» and «heavenly», Psychic Plane, the plane of pure feelings and emotions, especially the higher emotions such as Love. We can call this the Emotional Plane.
The third, the Higher or Greater Astral, is the octave of will, power, and egotism. The sense of an individual self or personality comes from here. This is the plane of pure desires and ambitions and power and will, which we can call the Connative or Will or Higher Astral Plane.
The lowest, Physical Psychic, or Lower Astral, refers to that aspect of the Psychic nature that have taken on or reproduced forms from the world of Physical (what are variously referred to by occult writers as «thought-forms», «elementals», and «artificial elementals», although there are other beings also called «elementals» that are native to these and other planes).
19th century occultists such as Eiphas Levi and Madame Blavatsky refer to this as the «astral light», and it presumably occurs on a number of planes. This is a lower, more «material» and «purgatorial» Psychic Plane, which — borrowing a term from Plato’s three-fold psychology (the division into reason, will, and desire) — we can refer to as the epithymia or Desire or Lower Psychic plane.
The Emotional Plane
The Emotional Plane corresponds to the Lurianic Kabbalistic World of Angels (Yetzirah), and the «higher Astral Plane» of Theosophy and contemporary occultism.
It is on this Higher Psychic or Greater Astral or Thymatic Plane that we find the various paradises and heavens. Here the «soul» or ba (to give the Egyptian term) ascends after physical death. This would also seem to be the plane which the Spiritualists refer to as «Summerland», the paradisiacal after-life state described in a number of spiritualist teachings.
Psychologically, this is the universal counterpart of what Sri Aurobindo describes as the emotional vital,
«the seat of various feelings, such as love, joy, sorrow, hatred, and the rest.»
[Letters on Yoga, Vol 1, p.334].
But the Emotional-Spiritual Plane is not the same as the Emotional body of the Omni-Physical Universe.
The Emotional body in the Etheric is the Psychic incarnate in the etheric, while the Emotional-Spiritual Plane represents the original impulse or source, «metaphysical emotion» so to speak, as distinct from Physical-Etheric Emotion.
The Higher Astral Plane
The Upper Astral corresponds in part to the Lurianic Kabbalistic World of Making (Asiyah), and pretty much to Blavatsky’s Kamic (not «karmic») or Desire Plane. As with the Emotional Plane, this is a vast psychic region.
Theosophical writers such as Leadbeater and Steiner, and a number of Spiritualist sources, refer here to a progression of gradations (usually seven), going from purgatorial to heavenly. Although the purgatorial regions are usually associated in these writings most closely with the Earth plane, this is not strictly correct. What we have here is a «horizontal» series of regions, from Gross to Subtle and Causal Astral, the Gross Astral being most caught up with physical consciousness (and hence still tied to physical things), the Causal (or noetic) Astral being the most spiritual.
In the psychological-yogic system of Sri Aurobindo, this faculty especially is referred to as the Vital. This refers not to etheric or life-force body as such, but the various emotions, desires, lusts, likes, dislikes, and so on. The Vital can be identified with the element of Will, of motivation and energy. Without the help of the vital, nothing can be achieved.
Various powerful occult practices, such as Magic, extend the consciousness into the Higher Astral or Psychic universe. This is done through attuning oneself to, and contacting, various entities or powers of those worlds, through the means of ritual, visualization, sex, and other potent techniques. Even the most basic magical ritual, such as the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, in many ways the foundation-stone of the entire Golden Dawn tradition, can have a strikingly powerful effect on the Lower and Higher Astral planes.
Ritual Magic as a whole, with its emphasis on the acquiring of powers and abilities, pertains very much to the Upper Astral world of Yetzirah; to exploring and mastering the phenomena of this plane, just as science and technology explore and master the phenomena of the physical plane (but with each, how important, and how often neglected, is the guidance of proper wisdom and true Spiritual Light!).
Exploration of the Higher Astral plane is often to be had through a form of clairvoyance included under the heading of Magical imagination or scrying, a sort of modified astral travelling. In this, one doesn’t actually «see» colors and beings «objectively», as the true clairvoyant does, but rather imaginatively, with the «mind’s eye». Still, this can be a powerful technique, especially when combined (as in the Golden Dawn system) with Ritual Magic.
Sometimes this state can also be achieved through taking drugs in an appropriate frame of mind, but by far the majority of all drug experiences are Asiyatic.
The emotional and higher astral regions would seem to constitute the origin of that phenomenon known as Channeling. Channeling is the process whereby a higher nonphysical intelligence or entity, in conjunction with the channeler’s own subconscious, dictates a teaching, usually of a spiritual or pseudo-spiritual nature. Generally, material of this genre tends to be turgid, verbose, obscure, and poorly presented.
Despite, or maybe because of, this, such communications have become enormously popular and influential in the so-called «New Age» movement. But this is by no means a unique modern Western phenomenon. Close analogies can be made with the Hebraic prophets and also the Voodoo ceremonies of possession by a god (loa), to give just two examples.
It is in the Psychic Planes then that one can encounter the Gods of religions, as reflections of the original Gods and Godheads of the Divine Ontocosm. Each Astral God creates its own empire, and human entities of lesser understanding (which includes the great mass of humanity at present) can easily get stuck there.
This is the basis of the Monotheist’s claim that there is only one God, the God of their Religion, and all the other religions have only an inferior understanding of their God, is false. His consciousness is stuck in the empire of that one god, and overpowered by its strength and radiance. He is thus unable to recognize or acknowledge other realities, gods, etc.
In addition there are innumerable other orders of beings here, most of which have no connection or relation to human or earthly existence.
The Lower Psychic or Epithymic Plane
The Lower Astral Plane, or plane of psychic desire is the region of lower astral spirits, elementals, formations and thought-forms, and various other phenomena. These constitute a sort of psychic zone pervading and surrounding the Earth. If we see a certain place a particular «atmosphere» for example, we are attuning to the astral energy of that place.
Spiritualist mediums tend to attune to this plane, and the so-called «spirits» they contact are actually the psychic «shells» of deceased people, what Blavatsky called kama-rupa («desire-forms»).
The Lower Astral is the most accessible of the Yetziratic worlds, because it is closest (i.e. most similar in «density») to the Physical Universe
The most dramatic way to experience this plane is to actually bodily transfer one’s field-of-consciousness from Physical to Psychic; to leave one’s physical body behind and travel «out of body» in the Psychic Universe itself. In popular terminology this is referred to as «astral projection» or «astral travelling.» Some individuals have a greater aptitude for it than others. In any case, most of these experiences pertain to the Lower Astral; only skilled astral travelers ascend to higher planes.
Another method of experiencing the Lower Astral is, while remaining in the physical vehicle, to extend one’s sensorium into the Psychic worlds. One form of this is called «Clairvoyance» («seeing auras», etc). Most clairvoyants only function on the Etheric and the Lower Astral planes. This is because the higher up you go on the scale of being, the more subtle the realities (the «vibrations» to use the originally Gurdjieffian New Age term) and hence the greater difficulty in perceiving them.
The Lower Psychic or Epithymic Plane corresponds in Neoplatonism and Kabbalah to the so-called «animal soul», the lower or instinctual self; the «lower self».
Says Sri Aurobindo:
«The lower vital as distinguished from the higher is concerned only with the small greeds, small desires, small passions, etc, which make up the daily stuff of life for the ordinary sensational man; while the vital-physical proper is the nervous being giving vital reflexes to contacts of things with the physical consciousness.»
[Letters on Yoga, vol. 1, p.327]
The Lower Psychic or Lesser Astral is much less diverse than the higher (for now the further down we go, the less multiplicity). Yet this is still an exceedingly diverse reality, relative to the Physical. It includes the «spirit world» of shamanism, and the «astral plane» of popular occultism; and is directly experienced by individuals who «go out of their body» and travel around the spirit-world.
This plane corresponds to the Manipura or navel and solar plexus chakras (there are two distinct chakras here — call them «Manipura A» and «Manipura B» — although the Indian Tantric tradition only recognizes one). All phenomena imagined by the mind of man have their existence here, as thought-forms [Besant and Leadbeater, Thought forms].
The Lower Astral or Epithymatic Plane is also the region of lower desires and «earth-bound» spirits; human entities who have died but are still unable to break free of their former material attachments.
In Theosophy and Occultism this is usually called the «Lower Astral plane».
The Astral Light
Blavatsky describes the Astral Light as a region of illusion [quoted in Farthing, p.92].
«Our Astral Light is …the Linga Sharira [subtle body] of our earth; only instead of being its primordial prototype…it is the reverse. Human and animal bodies grow and develop on the model of their antetypal Doubles, whereas the Astral Light is born from the terrene emanations, grows and develops after its prototypal parent, and in its treacherous waves everything from the upper planes and from the lower solid plane, the earth,… is reflected reversed.
Hence the confusion of its colors and its sounds in the clairvoyance and clairaudience of the sensitive who trusts to its records, be (he)… a Hatha yogi or a medium…»
[S.D. vol. III, p.500; quoted in Geoffrey Farthing, Exploring the Great Beyond, p.90]
«The Astral Light is that which mirrors the three higher planes of consciousness, and is above the lower, or terrestrial plane; therefore it does not extend beyond the fourth plane [Kama-Manas] where, one may say, the Akasha begins….»
[quoted Ibid, p.91]
The study of this one plane would require a whole book in itself, so perhaps we better leave it off now, with the above quotations as a basic description. But certainly it is in references such as these that we see the origin of widespread modern occult-theosophical idea of the «Astral Plane» as «the plane of illusion».
It is interesting though to find a brief reference to what seems to be the same phenomena in the Tibetan Bardo Thodol («Tibetan Book of the Dead») where the following instruction is given to the soul or consciousness of the deceased newly departed from its body:
«O son of noble family, after being unconscious for four and a half days you will move on, and awakening from your faint you will wonder what has happened to you, so recognize it as the bardo[intermediate] state. At this time samsara is reversed, and everything you see appears as lights and images.»
[The Tibetan Book of the Dead — the Great Liberation through hearing in the Bardo, transl. by Francesca Fremantle and Chogyam Trungpa, p.41 (1975, Shambhala)]
The illusory, self-created nature of these visions is stressed elsewhere in text by the words:
«…the essential point to recognize with certainty is that whatever appears, however terrifying, is your own projection»
This emphasis on the subjectively-generated nature of the phenomena of the astral (or «bardo») world is constantly reiterated by other clairvoyants, like the Theosophist Leadbeater.
The Gross Astral/Orectic Reality
By Gross Astral Reality is meant here that aspect of the Astral/Orectic that is closest to Gross Physical (the Material or Mundane Physical) reality.
Sri Aurobindo (in Letters on Yoga) uses the term «physical vital» in an integral psychological context, while The Mother speaks of the «Material Vital»; this seems to be a rather more dense and inconscient level, an interface between the Lower Astral and the Physical, and responsible for things like illness, delirium, etc (Mother’s Agenda vol.4, 6th July 1963).
Blavatsky also refers to the lower astral subplanes in this context (ref), although she also refers to «Opening of the Material Vital to the Light» and «Joyous enthusiasm in the most material vital».