We are so dominated by our sense of sight that seeing-eye words have crept into our very language: our opinion is "our point of view"; if we reverse our opinion, we change the way we "look at things"; when we understand we say "I see." We experience many different ways of seeing besides ordinary physical eyesight: prophetic visions; visions of saints and mystics, shamans and healers — some of whom say they can see the illness; visions one has in dream states; visions of life review said to be seen by the dying; "eyeless vision" by which Russian experimenters read with their fingertips; sightings of witches; sightings of angels, nature sprites, fairies, elves, leprechauns, elementals, UFOs, and ghosts; ecstatic trances of those on vision quests; the perceptions of visionary artists, and of those on psychedelics and hallucinogens. Major religions were heralded with visions — and each year there are hundreds of reported sightings of Mother Mary in the West and Kwan Yin in the East. But are all these visions equally significant? Is an accurate tarot reading in the same category as a mystic's vision of God?
Our sense of sight is extremely compelling — seeing is believing. But perhaps we have two eyes to remind us there is always more than one way to look at things — after all, it looks as though the sun moves round the earth. The very fact that our minds can override our physical sight reminds us that we exist on many planes, and that the ability to see or understand is part of our nature on each of those planes.
Spiritual vision, rooted in our spiritual nature, is the most comprehensive; it sheds light in a way that illumines and transforms our whole landscape. Mental vision, rooted in our mind, is more restricted and is expressed as comprehension. Physical vision, rooted in our astral nature, is the most limited.
We tend to act, however, as if truth were perceived with our physical eyes; as if since we see it a certain way, it truly is that way, instead of being only the aspect of truth that we perceive. We shape our world according to the shape of our physical apparatus — for example, if we had the "eyes" of a jellyfish, we would not have enough cells to form an image and all we could detect would be motion. For the jellyfish, anything motionless blends into everything else and literally does not exist till it moves.
It was once thought that our visual system recreated a tiny upside down replica of what is in front of us, and that the brain corrected the size and reversed the image. Now it is known that eyesight is really a network of events with different neurons sensitive to certain stimuli firing in response only to those specific stimuli. We have four parallel systems concerned with different attributes of vision: one for color, one for motion, and two for form. The neurons are so scattered that scientists don't understand how the brain can organize visual patterns to make a coherent picture. "Experimentalists have not found one particular region in the brain where all the information needed for visual awareness appears to come together." That's like saying that the process of seeing resembles the memory in a dot matrix printer thousands of little impulses with no paper to print on.
Understanding that our physical systems for seeing are complex, but limited to a small range of the spectrum and rather deceptive, we certainly cannot assume that 20/20 vision on the outer, material plane translates to 20/20 on the inner planes. The general category of inner vision or second sight is called clairvoyance (French for clear seeing). But what are we looking at and what are we seeing with?
Just as the visible spectrum has intricate and infinite gradations, so the invisible spheres have gradations from the lower astral to the higher. There are many gradations and layers in the astral, just as in a fog bank. Imagine standing on a hillside watching the fog roll in. At its highest, closest to the sun it is bright, warm, clear, ethereal. Where the fog is closest to the earth it is darker, cooler, harder to see through like the lower regions of the astral. Spiritual sight is like getting above the fog — surfacing above all the confusion of the lower realms and getting a breathtaking view of the whole. Astral sight is like snatching glimpses through the fog. The astral is an energy field that surrounds and permeates our earth. As the lowest intermediate plane between the physical and spiritual it is probably the basis for our stories of hell and purgatory.
Theosophic teachings state that the astral light is so plastic and sensitive that we constantly impress it with our thoughts and actions; it in turn impresses us, reflecting back everything — thoughts, actions, feelings. It is described as containing images of all that has ever happened, as well as pictures of future events whose causes are already sufficiently well defined. The transmission of vibrations through it is said to be practically instantaneous — faster than light or electricity.
Every thought we have takes the shape we give it and lives on in the astral — which is why clairvoyants can see what has happened to us. All our thoughts come through the astral, attracted to us sympathetically; strong feelings are like huge thought magnets. Impressions are made on various planes depending on intensity and duration. Some actions influence many different levels and planes so much that untrained seers would not be likely to see the whole picture: they would penetrate only into whatever planes had a vibration similar to their own. Adding to the confusion, everything in the astral light is said to be reversed. How could anyone know, when peering into it (perhaps to try to look into the future), if one were reading hopes and wishes, or actual causes that had been set in motion?
Still, the experience of seeing into any of the invisible planes can be so intense that it feels as if a fundamental truth has suddenly been revealed. Some are convinced that God has spoken or sent a message, or even the Devil — it feels so extraordinary that it seems it must be completely spiritual (or conversely totally demonic). But the astral light is also a plane of existence for entities that have faculties and forms of their own which are not at all like ours. Elementals which have to do with the forces of nature exist there. They have no recognizable form — the seer gives them shape and structure which perhaps is why we sometimes see entities (the devil with horns and a tail) which look exactly as we expected them to. Additionally all beings that die pass through the astral. When our physical body dies and drops away, we are not left without a vehicle. Our desire, vital, mental, and spiritual components remain for a time on the astral plane, still attracted to the body they once enlivened, and are sometimes even spotted in graveyards as ghosts or spooks.
At this stage of our evolution, the astral body of a human being interpenetrates the physical body — the teachings say that every sense originates in the astral or has an astral counterpart which is the actual center of sense perception. We see with astral centers which rely on the eyes for sense impressions. From this perspective our physical apparatus acts as a veil to limit our senses, protecting us from too much input that could be confusing or even harmful. The nightly news reminds us regularly of how we keep failing to live successfully with the capacities we already have. Imagine if your local gang members possessed the ability to accurately read your mind or foretell your future? It takes a strong moral and ethical nature to handle such responsibility which tends to destabilize those who are not mentally and morally ready to handle it.
Seeing in the astral light is not done through the spirit or mind, but through the senses. In the same way that we must not believe everything we "see" physically, we would do well to reserve judgment on the seeming truth of what we see in the astral. Spiritual clairvoyance, on the other hand, describes a much larger illumination. It is sometimes depicted as sudden enlightenment or a flash of cosmic consciousness which brings a whole new perspective and deep inner understanding. In the same way that we take in more with a glance than we ever fully notice, true inner sight (insight) can comprehend more in a glance than is possible for all the five senses put together. Like a grand Ah ha! experience it brings together all the issues and questions in a new way. Like Archimedes jumping into the bathtub — Eureka! — we suddenly understand! This Ah ha! experience is an immediate, direct perception which is transformative — everything is seen differently in the light of greater illumination. The essence of theosophy is this direct perception, this experience of understanding, wholeness, and divine wisdom we encounter with our hearts' vision. This kind of inner vision, insight, or second sight takes place beyond the reach of senses or of the logical, reasoning mind which wants to define and separate. We can't think our way to inner vision, it takes place outside of space and time, like a fifth dimension.
But mind does have an important role. If it is agitated or too narrowly focused it will block the vision. In general, limited thinking leads to limited vision, and the most limited thinking is that which revolves around ourselves. Like the fog bank, our self-centered thoughts hang around the lower planes. Our thoughts that can escape the bonds of self, naturally ascend to purer realms. Spiritual vision is too subtle for our physical senses and does not register on them, while the lower reaches of the astral light do.
How can we tell the difference? One guideline may be that the more universal and impersonal the content, the more spiritual the source. The more personal, specific, and exclusive, the more likely it is we are seeing into the lower aspects of the astral light. We live in an age where channeling, automatic writing, and psychic readings are all the rage. No doubt some are outright frauds, but many are sincere searchers fascinated by the glamor of their new-found powers. But who or what are these seekers seeking, and who or what are they in touch with — their higher self, the minds of others, the astral light, phantoms of the dead, or . . . ? Learning to discriminate takes understanding of some basic principles, patience and practice. We benefit from discovering new ways of seeing things — real education may be learning to see the same landscape with new eyes. With an open heart and a discerning mind we need not be afraid to always walk with our eyes wide open.
(From Sunrise magazine, Jun/July 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Theosphical University Press)