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The Astral Plane

A GENERAL SURVEY



THOUGH for the most part entirely unconscious of it, man passes the whole of his life in the midst of a vast and populous unseen world. During sleep or in trance, when the insistent physical senses are for the time in abeyance, this other world is to some extent open to him, and he will sometimes bring back from those conditions more or less vague memories of what he has seen and heard there. When, at the change which men call death, he lays aside his physical body altogether, it is into this unseen world that he passes, and in it he lives through the long centuries that intervene between his incarnations into this existence that we know. By far the greater part of these long periods is spent in the heaven-world, to which the sixth of these manuals is devoted; but what we have now to consider is the lower part of this unseen world, the state into which man enters immediately after [1] death – the Hades or underworld of the Greeks, the purgatory or intermediate state of Christianity which was called by mediæval alchemists the astral plane.



The object of this manual is to collect and arrange the information with regard to this interesting region which is scattered through Theosophical literature, and also to supplement it slightly in cases where new facts have come to our knowledge. It must be understood that any such additions are only the result of the investigations of a few explorers, and must not, therefore, be taken as in any way authoritative, but are given simply for what they are worth.



On the other hand every precaution in our power has been taken to ensure accuracy, no fact, old or new, being admitted to this manual unless it has been confirmed by the testimony of at least two independent trained investigators among ourselves, and has also been passed as correct by older students whose knowledge on these points is necessarily much greater than ours. It is hoped, therefore, that this account of the astral plane, though it cannot be considered as quite complete, may yet be found reliable as far as it goes. [2]



The first point which it is necessary to make clear in describing this astral plane is its absolute reality. In using that word I am not speaking from that metaphysical standpoint from which all but the One Unmanifested is unreal because impermanent; I am using the word in its plain, every-day sense, and I mean by it that the objects and inhabitants of the astral plane are real in exactly the same way as our own bodies, our furniture, our houses or monuments are real – as real as Charing Cross, to quote an expressive remark from one of the earliest Theosophical works. They will no more endure for ever than will objects on the physical plane, but they are nevertheless realities from our point of view while they last – realities which we [3] cannot afford to ignore merely because the majority of mankind is as yet unconscious, or but vaguely conscious, of their existence.



I know how difficult it is for the average mind to grasp the reality of that which we cannot see with our physical eyes. It is hard for us to realize how partial our sight is – to understand that we are all the time living in a vast world of which we see only a tiny part. Yet science tells us with no uncertain voice that this is so, for it describes to us whole worlds of minute life of whose existence we are entirely ignorant as far as our senses are concerned. Nor are the creatures of these worlds unimportant because minute, for upon a knowledge of the habits and condition of some of those microbes depends our ability to preserve health, and in many cases life itself.



In another direction also our senses are limited. We cannot see the very air that surrounds us; our senses give us no indication of its existence, except that when it is in motion we are aware of it by the sense of touch. Yet in it there is a force that can wreck our mightiest vessels and throw down our strongest buildings. Clearly all about us there are potent forces which yet elude our poor and partial [4] senses; so obviously we must beware of falling into the fatally common error of supposing that what we see is all there is to see.



We are, as it were, shut up in a tower, and our senses are tiny windows opening out in certain directions. In many other directions we are entirely shut in, but clairvoyance or astral sight opens for us one or two additional windows, and so enlarges our prospect, and spreads before us a new and wider world, which is yet part of the old world, though before we did not know it.



No one can get a clear conception of the teachings of the Wisdom-Religion until he has at any rate an intellectual grasp of the fact that in our solar system there exist perfectly definite planes, each with its own matter of different degrees of density. Some of these planes can be visited and observed by persons who have qualified themselves for the work, exactly as a foreign country might be visited and observed; and, by comparing the observations of those who are constantly working on these planes, evidence can be obtained of their existence and nature at least as satisfactory as that which most of us have for the existence of Greenland or Spitzbergen. Furthermore, just as any man [5] who has the means and chooses to take the trouble can go and see Greenland or Spitzbergen for himself, so any man who chooses to take the trouble to qualify himself by living the necessary life, can in time come to see these higher planes on his own account.



The names usually given to these planes, taking them in order of materiality, rising from the denser to the finer, are the Physical, the Astral, the Mental or Devachanic, the Buddhic, and the Nirvanic. Higher than this last are two others, but they are so far above our present power of conception that for the moment they may be left out of consideration. It should be understood that the matter of each of these planes differs from that of the one below it in the same way as, though to a much greater degree than, vapour differs from solid matter; in fact, the states of matter which we call solid, liquid, and gaseous are merely the three lowest sub-divisions of the matter belonging to this one physical plane.



The astral region which I am to attempt to describe is the second of these great Planes of Nature – the next above (or within) that physical world with which we are all familiar. It has often been called the realm of illusion – not that it is [6] itself any more illusory than the physical world, but, because of the extreme unreliability of the impressions brought back from it by the untrained seer.



Why should this be so? We account for it mainly by two remarkable characteristics of the astral world – first, that many of its inhabitants have a marvellous power of changing their forms with Protean rapidity, and also of casting practically unlimited glamour over those with whom they choose to sport; and secondly, that sight on that plane is a faculty very different from and much more extended than physical vision. An object is seen, as it were, from all sides at once, the inside of a solid being as plainly open to the view as the outside; it is therefore obvious that an inexperienced visitor to this new world may well find considerable difficulty in understanding what he really does see, and still more in translating his vision into the very inadequate language of ordinary speech.



A good example of the sort of mistake that is likely to occur is the frequent reversal of any number which the seer has to read from the astral light, so that he would be liable to render, say, 139 as 931, and so on. In the case of a student [7] of occultism trained by a capable Master such a mistake would be impossible except through great hurry or carelessness, since such a pupil has to go through a long and varied course of instruction in this art of seeing correctly. The Master, or perhaps some more advanced pupil, brings before him again and again all possible forms of illusion, and asks him "What do you see?" Any errors in his answers are then corrected and their reasons explained, until by degrees the neophyte acquires a certainty and confidence in dealing with the phenomena of the astral plane which far exceeds anything possible in physical life.



He has to learn not only to see correctly but to translate accurately, from one plane to the other the memory of what he has seen. To assist him in this he has eventually to learn to carry his consciousness without break from the physical plane to the astral or mental and back again, for until that can be done there is always a possibility that his recollections may be partially lost or distorted during the blank interval which separates his periods of consciousness on the various planes. When the power of bringing over the consciousness is perfectly acquired the pupil will have the [8] advantage of the use of all the astral faculties, not only while out of his body during sleep or trance, but also while fully awake in ordinary physical life.



It has been the custom of some Theosophists to speak with scorn of the astral plane, and treat it as entirely unworthy of attention; but that seems to me a mistaken view. Assuredly, that at which we have to aim is the life of the spirit, and it would be most disastrous for any student to neglect that higher development and rest satisfied with the attainment of astral consciousness. There have been some whose karma was such as to enable them to develop the higher mental faculties first of all – to overleap the astral plane for the time, as it were; but this is not the ordinary method adopted by the Masters of Wisdom with their pupils.



Where it is possible it no doubt saves trouble, for the higher usually includes the lower; but for most of us such progress by leaps and bounds has been forbidden by our own faults or follies in the past; all that we can hope for is to win our way slowly step by step, and since this astral plane lies next to our world of denser matter, it is usually in connection with it that our earliest super-physical experiences take place. It is therefore of deep [9] interest to those of us who are but beginners in these studies, and a clear comprehension of its mysteries may often be of the greatest importance to us, by enabling us not only to understand many of the phenomena of the séance-room, of haunted houses, etc., which would otherwise be inexplicable, but also to guard ourselves and others from possible dangers.



The first conscious introduction to this remarkable region comes to people in various ways. Some only once in their whole lives under some unusual influence become sensitive enough to recognize the presence of one of its inhabitants, and perhaps, because the experience does not repeat itself, they may come in time to believe that on that occasion they must have been the victims of hallucination. Others find themselves with increasing frequency seeing and hearing something to which those around them are blind and deaf; others again – and perhaps this is the commonest experience of all – begin to recollect with greater and greater clearness that which they have seen or heard on that other plane during sleep.



It must be understood that the power of objective perception upon all the planes undoubtedly lies [10] latent in every man, but for most of us it will be a matter of long and slow evolution before our consciousness can fully function in those higher vehicles. With regard to the astral body the matter is, however, somewhat different, for in the case of all the cultured people belonging to the more advanced races of the world, the consciousness is already perfectly capable not only of responding to all vibrations communicated to it through astral matter, but also of using its astral body definitely as a vehicle and instrument.



Most of us, then, are awake on the astral plane during the sleep of the physical body, and yet we are generally very little awake to the plane, and are consequently conscious of our surroundings there only vaguely, if at all. We are still wrapped up in our waking thoughts and our physical-plane affairs, and we pay scarcely any attention to the world of intensely active life that surrounds us. Our first step, then, is to shake off this habit of thought, and learn to see that new and beautiful world, so that we may be able intelligently to work in it. Even when that is achieved, it does not necessarily follow that we shall be able to bring over into our waking consciousness any recollection of those astral [11] experiences. But that question of physical-plane remembrance is an entirely different matter, and does not in any way affect our power to do excellent astral work.



Among those who make a study of these subjects, some try to develop the astral sight by crystal-gazing or other methods, while those who have the inestimable advantage of the direct guidance of a qualified teacher will probably be aroused to full consciousness upon that plane for the first time under his special protection, which will be continued until, by the application of various tests, he has satisfied himself that each pupil is proof against any danger or terror that he is likely to encounter. But however it may occur, the first actual realization that we are all the while in the midst of a great world full of active life, of which most of us are nevertheless entirely unconscious, cannot but be a memorable epoch in a man's existence.



So abundant and so manifold is this life of the astral plane that at first it is absolutely bewildering to the neophyte; and even for the more practised investigator it is no easy task to attempt to classify and to catalogue it. If the explorer of some unknown tropical forest were asked not only to give a [12] full account of the country through which he has passed, with accurate details of its vegetable and mineral productions, but also to state the genus and species of every one of the myriad insects, birds, beasts, and reptiles which he had seen, he might well shrink appalled at the magnitude of the undertaking. Yet even this affords no parallel to the embarrassments of the psychic investigator, for in his case matters are further complicated, first by the difficulty of correctly translating from that plane to this the recollection of what he has seen, and secondly by the utter inadequacy of ordinary language to express much of what he has to report.



However, just as the explorer on the physical plane would probably commence his account of a country by some sort of general description of its scenery and characteristics, so it will be well to begin this slight sketch of the astral plane by endeavouring to give some idea of the scenery which forms the background of its marvelous and ever-changing activities. Yet here at the outset an almost insuperable difficulty confronts us in the extreme complexity of the matter. All who see fully on that plane agree that to attempt to call up a vivid picture of this astral scenery before those [13] whose eyes are as yet unopened is like speaking to a blind man of the exquisite variety of tints in a sunset sky – however detailed and elaborate the description may be, there is no certainty that the idea presented before the hearer's mind will be an adequate representation of the truth. [14]



SCENERY



FIRST of all, then, it must be understood that the astral plane has seven subdivisions, each of which has its corresponding degree of materiality and its corresponding condition of matter. Although the poverty of physical language forces us to speak of these sub-planes as higher and lower, we must not fall into the mistake of thinking of them (or indeed of the greater planes of which they are only subdivisions) as separate localities in space – as lying above one another like the shelves of a book-case or outside one another like the coats of an onion. It must be understood that the matter of each plane or sub-plane interpenetrates that of the plane or sub-plane below it, so that here at the surface of the earth all exist together in the same space, although it is true that the higher varieties of matter extend further away from the physical earth than the lower. [15]



So when we speak of a man as rising from one plane or sub-plane to another, we do not think of him as necessarily moving in space at all, but rather as transferring his consciousness from one level to another – gradually becoming unresponsive to the vibrations of one order of matter, and beginning instead to answer to those of a higher and more refined order; so that one world with its scenery and inhabitants would seem to fade slowly away from his view, while another world of a more elevated character dawns upon him in its stead.



Yet there is a point of view from which there is a certain justification for the use of the terms "higher" and "lower", and for the comparison of the planes and sub-planes to concentric shells. Matter of all the sub-planes is to be found here on the surface of the earth, but the astral plane is much larger than the physical, and extends some thousands of miles above its surface. The law of gravitation operates on astral matter, and if it were possible for it to be left entirely undisturbed it would probably settle into concentric shells. But the earth is in perpetual motion, both of rotation and revolution, and all kinds of influences and forces are continually rushing about, so this ideal [16] condition of rest is never attained, and there is much intermingling. Nevertheless it remains true that the higher we rise the less of the denser matter do we find.



We have a fair analogy on the physical plane. Earth, water and air – the solid, the liquid and the gaseous – all exist here on the surface, but broadly speaking it is true to say the solid matter lies lowest, the liquid next to it, and the gaseous matter higher still. Water and air interpenetrate the earth to a small extent; water also rises in the air in the shape of clouds, but only to a limited height; solid matter may be thrown up into the air by violent convulsions, as in the great eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, when the volcanic dust reached the height of seventeen miles, and took three years to settle down again; but it does settle down eventually, just as the water drawn up into the air by evaporation returns to us as rain. The higher we rise the more rarefied does the air become; and the same is true with regard to astral matter.



The dimensions of our astral world are considerable, and we are able to determine them with some approach to accuracy from the fact that our astral world touches that of the moon at perigee, [17] but does not reach it at apogee; but naturally the contact is confined to the highest type of astral matter.



Returning to the consideration of these sub-planes, and numbering them from the highest and least material downwards, we find that they naturally fall into three classes, divisions 1, 2 and 3 forming one such class, and 4, 5 and 6 another, while the seventh and lowest of all stands alone. The difference between the matter of one of these classes and the next would be commensurable with that between a solid and a liquid, while the difference between the matter of the subdivisions of a class would rather resemble that between two kinds of solid, such as, say, steel and sand. Putting aside for the moment the seventh, we may say that divisions 4, 5 and 6 of the astral plane have for their background the physical world in which we live, and all its familiar accessories. Life on the sixth division is not unlike our ordinary life on this earth, minus the physical body and its necessities; while as it ascends through the fifth and fourth divisions it becomes less and less material, and is more and more withdrawn from our lower world and its interests. [18]



The scenery of these lower divisions, then, is that of the earth as we know it; but in reality it is also much more: for when we look at it from this different standpoint, with the assistance of the astral senses, even purely physical objects present quite a different appearance. As has already been mentioned, one whose eyes are fully opened sees them, not as usual from one point of view, but from all sides at once – an idea in itself sufficiently confusing.



When we add to this that every particle in the interior of a solid body is as fully and clearly visible as those on the outside, it will be comprehended that under such conditions even the most familiar objects may at first be totally unrecognizable.



Yet a moment's consideration will show that such vision approximates much more closely to true perception than does physical sight. Looked at on the astral plane, for example, the sides of a glass cube would all appear equal, as they really are, while on the physical plane we see the further side in perspective – that is, it appears smaller than the nearer side, which is a mere illusion. It is this characteristic of astral vision which has led some writers to describe it as sight in the fourth dimension – a suggestive and expressive phrase. [19]



In addition to these possible sources of error, matters are further complicated by the fact that this higher sight cognizes forms of matter which, while still purely physical, are nevertheless invisible under ordinary conditions. Such, for example, are the particles composing the atmosphere, all the various emanations which are always being given out by everything that has life, and also four grades of a ...

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