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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/Manifest Absolute Unmanifest Absolute Shunya, Sachchidananada, etc
Transcendent Higher Self Noetic Absolute Eternal Consciousness
Immanent Higher Self Innermost 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.

Self - Higher Self Levels

Most esoteric systems postulate only a single spectrum of being. I would suggest instead at least two (and probably many more) spectra or emanation gradations. One is the vertical series of planes, another a concentric series (corresponding to Prakriti (or Prakriti-Maya-Shakti) and the Self - Higher Self Sequence

The Self - Higher Self Sequence assumes the following series of hypostases In the following I have for the most part followed Sri Aurobindo in distinguishing between a prakritic being, an inner being, and a transcendent higher self. Also, in Assagioli, as in many other quasi-theosophical doctrines and NDEs, there are also three upper stores beyond psyche (emotional, mental etc). This has been inorporated into the following:

  1. Unmanifest Absolute (Tao/Wu Chi, Hahut, Gottheit (Meister Eckhart), En Sof (Kabbalah), Shunyata, Tathata etc (of Mahayana) Nirguna Brahman and Parmatman (of Advaita Vedanta), Unmanifest Reality (Assagioli)..)
  2. Noetic Absolute / "Logos" Manifest Absolute Examples might include God of Judeo-Christian mysticism, Lahut, Saguna Brahman, Keter or Atzilut in Zoharic etc Kabbalah (Adam Kadmon in Lurianic tradition), Universal Self (Assagioli)
  3. Higher Self (transcendent). This is equivalent in the "Man of Light", Heavenly Twin, the Angelic Spirit, the Guide of Light, etc in Hermetic, Sufi, Gnostic, and other such traditions, Ar-Ruh al-Qudsi/Supreme Spirit, Christ in Christian mysticism and esoteric Christianity, the Transcendent "Central being" (Jivatam) guiding incarnations (Aurobindo), Higher or Spiritual Self (Assagioli)), or Matrix of Higher Selves. (also Kashmir Shaivism - Vijnanakala?)
  4. Divine Soul or Purusha as immanent Divine Soul (Sri Aurobindo's Chaitya Purusha or "Psychic Being", perhaps also Kashmir Shaivism Purusha), also other purushas or "True Beings" of each grade (perhaps Samkhya which seems to refer here to the mental purusha). This is equivalent in part to the "Divine Soul"
  5. Inner Being, supporting the prakritic nature (Aurobindo) = Assagiolian Middle Unconscious in part. This can be divided into a physical, emotional, mental, etc. Many mystical experiences derive from this level. It would seem to be equivalent to what Ken Wilber calls the "Psychic" and "Subtle"
  6. Outer or Surface Consciousness = ordinary "Ego", This can also be divided into physical, emotional, and mental strata

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 equivelent Sufi equivelent Chakras Blavatsky
Theosophical equivelent
Theosophical equivelent 
(Adyar School & others influenced by)
Aurobindo equivalent 
(Integral psychology)
The following represent the sequence from completely universal to individuated:
Paramatman ? Wu Ch'i The One Hahut Paramashiva Parabrahman
higher Kosmic Planes
as aspect in Supermind
Higher Self
Ptah Tai Ch'i
(Grand Ultimate)
Nous `ayn thabita Mantra-maheshwara
Atma Monad Jivatma
Divine Soul "Memphite Theology" (Old Kingdom) - Ka;
New Kingdom - Khu (in part)
Shen - immortal spirit  Noetic Soul Ruh
Immortal Ego Soul;
Higher Triad
(Atma-Buddhi- Manas)
Psychic Being
(Chaitya Purusha)

Inner Being
The following all pertain to the "vertical" spectrum of levels of self:
Mental / "Spirit" Khu (in part) Hun (Spirit) Rational Soul aql (intellect) Manas Buddhi Manas Higher Mental (Causal) Mental (in part)
Emotional / "Soul" Ba (soul)
Ab (heart)
Irrational Soul qalb
Kama Manas Higher Emotional/ Astral Vital (in part)
Instinctual Sahu;
Ka (Double) 
P'o (yin nature) nafs
(lower soul)
Tanmatras, Organs of Sense and Action Kama rupa Lower Emotional/ Astral
Etheric Ka (in part) Ch'i Vegetative soul Sthula Etheric body Subtle Physical
Physical Body Khat body Physical tabiat
Gross elements Sukshma Physical body Gross Physical

Taking the five "lower" principles in Table 1 - the Physical Body, Etheric Body, Instinctual being, Emotional "Soul" and Intellectual "Spirit" - one might suggest these each correspond to a particular "vertical" Plane or stratum of existence, from pure "matter" to pure "spirit", in the vertical prakritic sequence. Note the higher three principles do not lie on this Spirit-Matter axis at all.   In addition to the prakritic "vertical" axis, there is a "horizontal" or "concentric" one, which represent the various gradations and interpenetrations of the different planes. These are represented for example by the seven etheric bodies described by Barbara Brennan. They are all etheric, hence on the same "plane", yet they represent a gradation all the same. Max Theon formulates a similar system, referring to "degrees" and "subdegrees"

In Indian Vedantic and Tibetan Buddhist metaphysics, these levels are grouped into Gross, Subtle, and Causal [4]; whilst Western Esotericism [5] refers to Physical, Psychic and Spiritual.

One might even suggest these prakritic subdivisions 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.

 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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text content by M.Alan Kazlev (with some input from Arvan Harvat
material uploaded 14 July 1998, this page 19 July 2004