first printed in The Theosophist, June p649-659
The Reality of the Astral Plane
The Reality of the Astral Plane (June 1906)
What is Reality?
Some of you may find it helpful if you recollect that things are real or unreal to us according to the place in which our consciousness is focussed. While our consciousness is focussed in the physical brain, physical matter alone is perceptible to us, and so it alone seems real, and although we are living in the midst of the astral world at this moment, to most of us it is unreal because it is imperceptible. A few hours later we shall fall asleep, and our consciousness will change its focus from the physical body to the astral body. Then it will be from astral objects alone that we shall be able to receive vibrations, and so those will seem perceptible and real, and the physical objects, though of course they still surround us as before, will be invisible and will therefore seem unreal. But it is not the condition of things which has changed, it is simply the focus of our consciousness. These physical objects are after all manifestations of the Logos on this plane, and they remain manifestations even when we no longer see them. We are not justified, therefore, in saying that all these things are unreal because it is possible for us to raise our consciousness to a higher level. In that case it is our consciousness that has been modified, not His manifestation.
The Results of Vibration
If we take up a modern book on physics, we shall find that it usually gives us a table of octaves of vibration, and we cannot but be struck by the fact that only a very small proportion of them appeal to our senses at all. Since all the information that we possess with regard to the outer world has reached us by means of the very few vibrations to which we are normally able to respond, it is abundantly obvious that the clairvoyant who learns to be sensitive to the whole of this part of the gamut will gain a vast amount of additional knowledge about the world in which he lives.
We shall notice that the slower rates of vibration (such as sound-waves) affect the comparatively coarse conditions of matter, and set the air in motion; while the more rapid rates (such as light) do not affect the air at all, but act upon finer conditions, such as ether. So that when we have realized the existence of astral matter, which is still subtler than the ether, we shall be prepared to find that the forces playing through it are still higher rates of vibration which do not normally affect any physical matter. Investigation shows us that among these higher vibrations are those caused by the desires and emotions of man, and such of his thoughts as are mingled with personal craving or feeling. It is found that such thoughts or emotions are outpourings of energy just as definite as electricity or steam; but this energy acts at its own level and in its own finer type of matter. That is not a mere supposition, but a definite fact observed over and over again by clairvoyant investigators. All the pictures that are drawn for you in our books, illustrating the effects of affection, of devotion or of avarice, are simply the tabulations of observations made upon astral matter - observations which have been repeated many times with substantially the same results. A whole new world is thus opened before us - a world of finer matter pressing upon us on every side; and to this finer type of matter the name "astral" was given by the mediaeval alchemists.
Since this matter surrounds us all the time, in what way is it acting upon us and in what way are we acting upon it? Once more investigate, and you will find that it is constantly reacting upon us, and that we can no more ignore our astral than our physical surroundings. As the world is at present constituted, physical surroundings are by no means unimportant, and we must learn something of the physical world and its forces if we wish to be able to utilize them to help others, or to resist their undue influence upon ourselves. In exactly the same way, if we wish to be able to protect ourselves from undesirable influences from the astral world, and to have its forces at our command for altruistic work, we must study its conditions and its possibilities; for in this case as in every other, knowledge is power.
The Extension of Knowledge
We find that the laws which govern it are the same with which we are familiar in connection with physical matter - the laws of cause and effect, of action and reaction, and of the conservation of energy; and this fact brings the planes into relation, and shows us that we have to deal not with some strange new world but with another and subtler portion of the old one. The truth is that in studying the astral plane we are simply extending our knowledge of nature a little further in a direction in which it has already been extended more than once. Primitive man, knowing nothing but what was obvious to his senses, can have been aware only of the solid and liquid forms of matter; to him the tempest must have been an inexplicable manifestation of an awful invisible force, and the death which followed the inhalation of noxious fumes must have seemed the mysterious visitation of the deity. Think how great must have been the extension of knowledge and comprehension of nature when from careful observations a theory of gases was deduced, and gradually won its way into universal acceptation! An entirely new realm had opened before those primitive physicists when they thus learnt to study and experiment with this finer condition of matter. A long step further in the same direction was taken when the existence of ether was realized, for by that knowledge many phenomena became explicable which before were deemed miraculous. In earlier days natural laws were but little understood and the world was supposed to be governed by divine caprice; but with each advance of science the domain of law and order was extended, and the unknown outer void in which miracles might happen was decreased. When we suggest the study of the astral plane we are simply recommending another step, but always along the same line of experimenting with ever subtler forms of matter and when this step is taken it will be found that the action of man's thoughts and emotions has been brought within range of law.
Theosophy is Advanced Science
In this sense it may accurately be said that the students of Theosophy are the advanced scientists of the day, for they are engaged in examining a field just a little ahead of that which has approved itself to the majority of physicists. Do not forget that our great founder, Madame Blavatsky, displayed a very remarkable knowledge of science, though she does not seem to have learnt it along ordinary lines. She made certain statements in connection with it which were ridiculed at the time, yet the facts which she announced have since been accepted and approved by the most competent authorities. An account of these has been given by Mrs Besant in "Theosophy and Science", the fourth lecture in "Theosophy applied to Human Life", and Theosophists should familiarize themselves with it. Obviously if one who had not taken up the study of ordinary physical science is yet found to know more of it than its foremost professors knew at the time when she wrote it, it is well worth while to examine what she has said with regard to fields as yet untouched by them.
Science has attained its marvelous results by means of highly perfected instruments; such results as have been attained by the pupils of Madame Blavatsky have been gained in an entirely different way - the way recommended by your teachers of old - the development not of the instrument but of the observer. It is by the employment of that method that Theosophical writers have been able to give you some details of the arrangement of the higher planes and the conditions of life upon them.
I have intentionally avoided the repetition in this lecture of the information as to these conditions which any one who wishes may find in the manual called "The Astral Plane"; instead I have tried to take up the subject with you in its more general aspect in relation to this lower plane, so that you may appreciate the astral as just as much a part of the great world in which we live as is the physical, and may realize that if we want to live wisely and to the best advantage we must endeavour to understand the whole of our world, and not only the lowest part of it.
How it affects us
This astral world affects us because its vibrations have the same qualities as all other kinds of vibrations - they radiate in all directions, and they tend to reproduce themselves. If two stringed instruments are tuned accurately together, and placed near to one another, it is found that when a note is struck upon one of them, the other vibrates in unison. The vibration of the note radiates in all directions, but when it falls upon something capable of exact response it at once reproduces itself.
If by emotion or passion you set up a vibration in astral matter, it acts in precisely the same way; and necessarily in its radiation it impinges upon the astral bodies of all those about you. If there be among them one which is in tune with that vibration, it will at once be excited to respond to it; that is to say, your emotion will be reproduced in that other man. If, however, that astral body is already pulsating strongly at some different rate, your vibration will not find it in tune, and so cannot affect it. Suppose a man is under the influence of anger, and you are full of gentleness and affection. His astral body is vibrating vigorously at a certain rate; he is in such a condition of palpitation that he does not even feel your gentle radiations; he goes on along his own line, quite uninfluenced by it, just as the man under the sway of wild passion on the physical plane is blind to all suggestions of reason.
The appearance of the Astral Body
People often ask as to the appearance of these astral bodies, and those who have seen one occasionally are sometimes surprised to find that it does not resemble the pictures given in some of our books, such as "Man, Visible and Invisible." They forget that that book was written specially to draw attention to the colours in the luminous ovoid of astral matter, and the effect upon those colours of different emotions and passions, so that a vivid illustration might be given of the way in which man's evolution is affected by the thoughts and feelings of every-day life. Therefore those bodies were drawn, as it were, out of proportion, one part of them being specially emphasized, and another part studiously kept in the background. You may remember that the physical form is outlined in pencil only, in order to show the relative size of the ovoid. In reality that counterpart of the physical body is far more prominent than it is shown in those drawings. It is an exact duplicate of the physical form, perfectly distinct from the surrounding luminous matter, and therefore perfectly recognizable. Every type of physical matter has its corresponding type in astral matter, and the latter is very strongly attracted by the former. There is a counterpart in astral matter for every physical object, and that counterpart is always of suitable type. So that wherever there is solid physical matter it is interpenetrated by astral matter of the lowest sub-plane; where there is physical liquid matter it is interpenetrated by astral matter of the second sub-plane from the bottom; and whether there is physical gas it is interpenetrated by astral matter of the third sub-plane from the bottom, and so on. Just as there is no difficulty in distinguishing a solid object from the air surrounding it on the physical plane, so is there no difficulty in distinguishing its astral counterpart from what we may call the astral air which surrounds it.
While it is true that a man's astral body takes that ovoid shape which is the visible manifestation, on these lower planes, of the shape of the causal body, it is also true that of the mass of matter contained within that ovoid perhaps ninety-nine per cent is contained within the periphery of the physical form. The reason of this is the very strong attraction exercised by that physical form over the astral matter, and the further fact that when a kind of habit of remaining in a particular form - a sort of momentum of circulation of the astral currents - has been set up, that habit or that momentum will persist for a long time after the cause of it has been withdrawn. Thus although during sleep one leaves his physical body on the bed and moves about in his astral vehicle, the latter continues to retain the exact appearance of the former; and even when the physical body is finally laid aside at death the habit still persists, and the form is still retained through any ordinary length of astral life.
With regard to this matter of appearance there is another point to be borne in mind, and that is that astral matter is far more plastic than physical, and is readily moulded by the action of thought. If a man thinks of himself as having a particular form the matter of his astral body will for the moment be moulded into that form, and will retain it as long as his thought is firmly fixed upon it; but the moment that he forgets, or his attention is distracted, the astral matter will come under the sway of its habit, and will at once flow back into its natural shape. So that a man can take on any appearance that he pleases, but cannot retain it permanently without devoting the whole of his time to that one thought. Nevertheless a thought which is almost constantly present in his mind does slowly effect a permanent change. That is true to some extent upon the physical plane; the man who for years leads a debased life presently begins to show signs of it in face and form, while the man who has turned from an evil life to one of purity and holiness presently shows a very decided improvement in physical appearance. Although such a change usually takes places gradually, instances are not wanting in which it has been startlingly rapid. Some cases of what is called "Mind-cure" illustrate this, as does also the appearance of the stigmata upon the bodies of various ecstatics. Madame Blavatsky gives some very remarkable cases of this in "Isis Unveiled". Since astral matter is so much more readily affected than physical, it is comprehensible that a similar change should occur more rapidly in the case of this astral vehicle.
Suffering After Death
All religions tell us that the conditions of existence after death depend very largely upon the kind of life which the man has led upon the physical plane; that if his life has been good and pure he will find himself happy, but if his earthly course has been gross and evil, trouble and suffering may ensue from it. Unfortunately in some forms of Christian teaching these joys have been regarded as reward and this suffering as punishment; and much grievous misunderstanding has resulted from this clumsy mistake. If in physical life a man seizes hold of a red-hot iron bar his hand will be burnt; but it will hardly occur to him to say that God has punished him for taking hold of that bar. He will say rather that what has happened is the natural result of his own action, and anybody who understands anything of science can explain to him exactly the mechanism of the occurrence, and show him how the intensely rapid vibrations of the hot iron bar have torn apart the tissues of his hand, and so produced what we call a burn. We shall never understand the conditions of life after death until we realize that happiness follows upon good thought or action and suffering upon evil thought or action, in exactly the same way as the burn follows the contact with the hot iron. The cause and its effect are related as the two sides of a coin are related; and just as we cannot draw towards us the obverse side of the coin without also drawing towards us its reverse, so we cannot commit any action or give birth to any thought without at the same time bringing ourselves its result as a definite part of the original action.
The more ignorant among the Christians often speak of the providence of God, and in using that term they mean to imply that the Supreme Being is constantly personally interfering with the working of His own laws, and they usually also imply that He can be induced at their request to exercise such power of interference. This theory also involves the idea that He has originally planned His universe so badly that the machinery needs this constant tinkering in order to make it work satisfactorily - surely not an exalted conception of the Deity. Nothing could be further from the glorious truth, for one of the most striking characteristics of even that small part of the Divine world which we are able to see is its marvellous adaptability and the wonderful elasticity of its action. Men often find it difficult to recognize the accurate working of the law of justice in their own case, even though they cannot but admit that in all the realms of nature there can never be an effect without its appropriate cause.
Common though this position is, we may see its absurdity by taking a very simple analogy. The ,man who is using an engine expects to get out of it an amount of work proportionate to the amount of energy put into it, say in the form of fuel. He allows for a certain waste from friction, and for a certain amount given off in the form of heat, but still there is a definite proportion of work which he expects to get out of his engine, because he knows that there is a natural law of the conservation of energy. Suppose he should find that he is not getting a proper proportion of work from that engine, we should esteem him a very foolish man if he therefore declared that the law of the conservation of energy was all a delusion and a mistake. If we could suppose him to be so ignorant as to say that his experiment with his machine tended to show that there was no such thing, we should reply that there had been other experiments besides his, and that the law was already established as a definite certainty. It would never occur to the intelligent engineer to doubt for a moment the universal application of that law; he would at once turn to his machine and examine that in order to find the defect which caused the loss of energy. Yet the very same man who is so certain of the inviolability of Nature's law in one direction will begin to grumble about injustice if any suffering or sorrow comes to him; whereas the analogy of his own line of thought with regard to the machine would show that the only sensible conclusion would be that since the law of justice is perfect in its working there must undoubtedly have been something wrong in his own action in the past to account for this sorrow which has fallen upon him.
The Advantage of the Study
Unquestionably the study of astral and mental forces and of the astral and mental worlds generally helps us to understand how this mighty law of justice produces its results. That is one reason why I think the study of these higher portions of nature so useful to us. It supplements our knowledge of the physical world, and enables us to form a far more complete conception of the whole great scheme, and it is obvious that this wider knowledge must make us of greater use. We see constantly in every-day life that good intentions without knowledge are not sufficient to produce a satisfactory result, for we frequently find that the well-meaning man blunders terribly, and often does more harm than good. Indeed a cynical philosopher has remarked that more harm is done in the world by the ignorant but well-meaning man than by the really wicked. If we do not wish to swell the ranks of the ignorant but well-meaning, we must set ourselves definitely to the acquisition of knowledge - knowledge which shall include the higher planes as well as the lower.
None can doubt that great forces of nature are playing in these realms of finer matter; and if any of them can be used by the unselfish man for the helping of his brother, then I say let us learn all that we can about these forces, whether they be mental, astral or physical. We know that knowledge enables us to give help to our fellows upon the physical plane, and we can see by analogy that if we are to be of use on the astral plane during sleep and after death, we certainly require knowledge there also. Let us then strive to gain such knowledge, and to gain it as soon and as fully as possible, so that no time may be wasted.
I do not for a moment seek to deny or to minimize the possible dangers of the astral plane. A man may misuse power upon any plane, and a man may be deceived upon any plane, and therefore on all planes alike he must be on his guard. In "The Voice of the Silence" we read, "Look not for thy Guru in these mâyâvic regions", and the caution is as urgently needed in these days as it could possibly have been in the days of Aryasangha. In Western countries at least there are hundreds of people who have accepted dead men as their teachers, each regarding the particular entity that communicates as a kind of private archangel specially sent by God to teach him or her. The Indian student ought not to need to be warned against such a mistake as this.
In the same book we are told that we must find our teacher on the mental plane - that his instruction must appeal to us through our intellect and not merely through our emotions. You may remember that one of your great Indian teachers, Siddartha Gautama, whom men call the Buddha, especially cautioned his followers not to accept teaching which came to them by presumed spiritual inspiration, as from a deva - that is to say, not to accept it merely because it came in that way, but to judge it as all kinds of teaching must be judged - by the standard of one's own reason and one's own common sense. It is quite obvious that the dead man is not omniscient just because he happens to be dead; it is true that he has certain additional opportunities, but it by no means follows that he knows how to make use of them, and we must receive any statements that he makes with precisely the same reservations as we should have received statements made by him before he died.
If we adopt that method of testing everything by reason and by common sense we shall be quite safe in our efforts to understand the astral world. Remember that in that same book, "The Voice of the Silence", this astral world is spoken of as the 'Hall of Learning', showing that there is much valuable information to be acquired there by the student who approaches it wisely. (1) If we thus keep the mind steady and the understanding clear, and if we test everything carefully as it comes to us, we shall never be drawn aside from the pursuit of the goal that lies before us by any temptation which the astral plane can offer. For those of us who are beginning to realize the existence and nature of the great divine scheme of evolution, the privilege of trying in our small way to help it forward is the one purpose of our existence. Of course it is true that that great scheme will be fulfilled whether we add to it our tiny mite of effort or not, yet it is unquestionably part of that scheme that those who have learned to understand it should co-operate intelligently in it, and that such effort is expected from us, and that its fulfilment will be hastened if we learn to throw our energies into it. We know that there will be those who will help; why should we not be among them? To us as to all is offered the opportunity of working as instruments in the hand of God; why should we not accept this opportunity? Since that glorious karma must come to some among men, let it be to us; why should we not be among those who share it? And yet, if we have really seen the glory of that scheme, it will be without any thought of karma that may accrue to us that we shall throw our whole hearts into the work; it will be simply because, having seen the grandeur and the beauty of the plan, there can be for us no other possibility than to devote the whole of our energies to trying to forward it. Let us then study any portion of that scheme which comes in our way, whether it be spiritual or mental, astral or physical, for all alike are parts of this great divine plan. Let us never for a moment lose sight of the goal which lies before us and of the spiritual development which is necessary for the attainment of that goal. But as long as we live in these lower planes, let us live well; and we can live well only if we live intelligently, and we can live intelligently only if we study the great laws of this universe of which we are a part.
1) To be precise H.P. Blavatsky says in The Voice of the Silence (fragment 1): "And having learnt thine own Agnyana (21), flee from the Hall of Learning. This Hall is dangerous in its perfidious beauty, is needed but for thy probation. Beware, Lanoo, lest dazzled by illusive radiance thy Soul should linger and be caught in its deceptive light. " Agnyana means ignorance here. Or in other words the Hall of Learning is needed for us to learn our own ignorance, and for our testing (probation). H.P. Blavatsky certainly does NOT imply, as Leadbeater suggests, that this hall of learning is meant to be lingered in, and studied. - Katinka Hesselink
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