Mistaking Planes of Consciousness
There is this place in the woods outside of Eugene that I would often go to clear my head. It was a short drive and hike to reach my favorite spot, a small clearing with an unassuming tree that I claimed as my own. On this particular day, I sat down in my little forest oasis with an extra-heavy weight. I was pretty lost in life- jobless, aimless and floundering, and this confusion draped over me as an all-consuming depression. I pulled out my pipe and loaded it with some weed. There were no other drugs involved. I sat there after taking the first hit when I heard a rustling in the distance. I looked around but did not see anything. I was about to take my second hit when I heard a giggle. It was a boyish-sounding laugh coming from behind a tree in front of me, maybe about 20 feet away.
I saw a head peak out from behind the tree. The face was green and triangular, and it smiled at me. What… the… fuck…? Stepping out from behind the tree, I shit you not, was a little green elf. It giggled as it took off in a wild sprint towards me, leaping forth from the tree as each step bounced from the mossy forest floor. My jaw unhinged, body in shock, mind racing and not even ready yet to believe my own eyes, the elf jumped into the air and flew towards my face until, get this, it disappeared right into the back of my head. It still lives there, inside of my mind. It talks to me from time to time, and it has never led me astray. It gives me good advice. Life advice. It helps me. It helped me to enroll back in school, start going to the gym, helped me enter a new relationship and get my current job as a boss of a fire crew. I don’t feel lost any more.
This is one of the more far-out stories I have ever been told, however, it is still one of many. I have had sincere people tell me their experiences involving UFOs, Ascended Masters, Ghosts, Angels, Quija Boards, Sasquatch… you name it. And these were the stories that I believed. I did not have the sense that any of these people were lying, nor that they were confused or delusional. In my own spiritual community, I can’t even count how many people have told me they saw and interacted with saint Neem Karoli Baba, a being that left his body in 1973. They were not talking about dreams or visions, but actually seeing and interacting with him in this physical world. I have, of course, had my own set of far-out experiences, some of which I have written about on this blog. It’s up to you if you want to believe any of this or not. There are some people who have permanently closed off this door of reality, but for those of us who remain open, what are we to make of this?
I have found it important to have a clear map of the different planes of consciousness. Our maps are how we see the world, and without a proper one, we are going to unconsciously view our experiences from whatever existing maps we already have in place. A person has an encounter with a UFO, and because of their belief in materialism and a predisposition to distrust the government, soon they form an entire paranoid worldview involving physical aliens from other star systems and government suppression of free energy machines. Another person encounters the Holy Spirit in a fundamentalist church. This experience starts a powerful relationship with Christ that turns their life around. They get clean, find a good job and form positive relationships in their community. But, because of the setting of the experience, they are compelled to take on an extremely narrow and rigid view of the world, live in fear of hell, and routinely vote against LBGTQ rights. A now infamous example is when John Lilly, psychonaut and pioneer of the float tank, called the White House after a ketamine trip because of his concerns about an AI takeover.
Situations like these can lead to completely different outcomes if the individuals have a different lens to view them from. Many of the paranoid worldviews I have encountered are formed from a combination of having a non-ordinary experience, an inadequate map, and unfamiliarity with the various planes of consciousness.
Planes of Consciousness
The Vedic worldview utilizes 3 basic planes- the physical, subtle and causal, although these can be subdivided further. Buddhism, Sufism, and the western esoteric traditions have also written about this in striking similarity.
The physical plane, what we normality think of as reality, is where our physical bodies interact with the world of sensory experience. This is where we exist in our day-to-day waking lives, however, this is really just the outer layer of our experience.
Underneath this lies the subtle plane, which is sometimes called the astral plane. This the realm of mental impressions and the imagination. It is always present, but we enter it fully when we dream or after the body dies. When we dream, we normally just surf the outer layer, but beneath this there are gradually subtler levels, each one shedding its density like water evaporating to mist until all that’s left is the subtlest dance of pure energy. The world’s great myths activate these deeper levels and the beings that live there. Just as there are beings in this physical world, the subtle plane is home to various gods, angels, demons and spirit guides.
At an even deeper level is the causal plane. The causal plane is the subtlest of the world of form. It is where the first raw ideas of creation come from, the potential for form and the subtlest of the subtle. On a micro level, it is analogous to our unconscious mind, and we enter it in deep sleep. It is the storehouse of our samskaras, or the deep impressions that shape who we are. On a macro level, this is the seed for all of creation. It is sometimes called Brahma Loka, or the world of Brahma, and when we think of God as creator, this is the place.
There is an even deeper Reality beyond this that words can’t adequately describe. It is because of this that the Mandukya Upanishad simply refers to it as “Turiya,” or the fourth; the Beyond Beyond. This is God, not as Creator, but as Brahman- pure, undifferentiated, Eternal Consciousness itself. Sat Chit Ananda. The Ground of Being. This is our innermost Truth, the Atman, the God within. The other planes are associated with sheaths that wrap around the Atman like layers of an onion. In this sense, they are not really separate, but different layers of the same Eternal Consciousness.
These planes influence each other. Most people have at least some understanding of this. For instance, we know that if we have a difficult day it can cause stressful dreams or even nightmares. Likewise, what we spend our time thinking and dreaming about impacts our physical bodies. But this relationship goes even further. There are times when the veils can thin between this world and the next. Through ritual and prayer, we can call upon beings from these other planes, and they can alter our physical reality. This is what we often call a synchronicity or miracle.
Map of Materialism
If we use the map of western materialism, these experiences either won’t mean much or we misinterpret them. This is because we see this physical plane as the most important. To the extent that we acknowledge the existence of other realms, we see them as of denigrating validity the further they seem from this physical world. We acknowledge that dreams exist, but we see them as irrelevant. We acknowledge that consciousness exists, but we see it as an ephemeral byproduct of the brain. For many of us, it takes some sort of transpersonal experience to shatter this modern myth of materialism.
Through spiritual practice, spontaneous awakening, psychedelics, intuitive insight, or our natural abilities, many of us have encountered beings from other planes. Sometimes we meet them in dreams or visions, and sometimes through more tangible ways such as synchronicities or miracles. There are even times when they can appear in a physical form. With a proper map, we can relate to them in a way that is helpful and in line with reality. However, without one, we are left to either dismiss them as mere hallucinations of the mind, or, if we are unable to due to the intensity of the encounter, we form some pretty awkward worldviews and all-consuming conspiracies to hold our experience.
I am inclined to say that the UFO phenomena are real. At this point, I have read too many case studies and had too many friends share their experiences with me to discount it. But I can believe these experiences and allow them to shake my view of reality without necessarily believing in visitations by physical aliens from other star systems. I don’t need to believe in a world-government cover up. I don’t need to believe in anything, however there are maps that exist that have withstood the test of time. These are much simpler and more coherent than our newer materialistic models. They are able to hold experiences that would otherwise leave us dumbfounded (like when “Italian-looking” space aliens came to Wisconsin in 1961 and brought Joe Simonton a stack of pancakes. He ate one and said it tasted like cardboard. The rest were taken by the FBI for more research.) A good map is not something to blindly cling to, but it can be an indispensable guide when traversing new territory.
If we understand set and setting, we can see why we are not likely to have a vision of Krishna inside of a Christian church. This does not invalidate the existence of Christ or Krishna, but it shows how the doorway colors the light. Jaques Vallee once pondered why medieval Christians were more likely to see angels or demons, Celtic people fairies or elves, and, in our postmodern world, we often see aliens. Carl Jung discussed the timing of the UFO phenomena as coinciding with the rise of the Cold War. This is set and setting on a large, global scale. The setting is today’s world of technology and the set is our belief in materialism and the isolation, fear and alienation rampant in our modern world.
But saying that these beings don’t have an objective reality in this material plane is not the same as saying they are not real. It would be a mistake to write these off as mere hallucinations of the mind. Like my friend who had an elf jump into the back of his head, there are countless examples of people’s lives being changed by beings from other planes. We can’t forget the time when the pink light came out of Philip K. Dick‘s radio and informed him that his son was going to die. If he was a strict materialist and thought he was hallucinating, he would not have been able to convince the doctors to run tests on his seemingly-healthy son, thus saving his life from a rare and deadly disease. My own encounters with non-physical entities have only deepened my faith, offered me healing, and left me more self-secure with a heightened trust in life.
It’s common knowledge amongst all faith, mystical, spiritual, folk and Indigenous traditions that there are beings who exist without physical bodies. Some of these beings can help us on our spiritual journeys, alter our physical world and provide us with inspiration, insight and even physical healing. When we have a clear map of consciousness, we can interact with them in a way that furthers our own spiritual evolution.
The subtle realms run on a different set of rules than our physical world. Intuition becomes more important than fact. Fact lives on this objective plane. Here we can run tests, seek agreement, and come to an understanding of the physical laws of the universe. But the subtle planes run on a kind of dream logic. Just as dreams are much more fluid than this physical world, dream logic morphs and flows. The metaphorical meaning of symbols displaces hard logic; insight supersedes cause and effect.
To complicate matters more, this insight has to be filtered through our own personal subjectivity, prey to all of the biases and false perceptions of the human condition. Sometimes we will get insight that resonates, and we feel that we should follow it. Sometimes we will only discover later that what we thought was pure inspiration was really tainted with ego desire. But a proper map, along with the help of wise guides, can help.
Clear direction and guidance is the philosopher’s stone that turns errors of judgment into deepened intuition. Every mistake becomes an opportunity to see where we are still caught, where our desires and self-identifications influence and impede our innate discernment. It becomes an opportunity to look within, to probe our mind, understand our personal ticks, attachments and personality structure, and then to reach beyond all of that towards a Greater Inner Truth. And this is the whole point of the journey. If non-physical beings are going to offer us anything, it is an awakening of the Self. Otherwise, it’s just another distraction.