At various times we all feel we are on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and thoughts. It is as if our thought life is a multistory building, and we are riding uncontrolled up and down the skyscraper — one moment in the basement of our wants and desires, and next in the penthouse of our spiritual aspirations. How can such a variety of impressions and thoughts be contained in a single person? Why is it so difficult to control the elevator of our thought life? Where do all these competing desires and aspirations come from? Why can't we as individuals and as a world community live in the pure atmosphere of our highest ideals for peace and understanding?
The key to such perplexing problems lies in the study of our true nature and our relation to the universe. It arises from the fact that we are composite entities — and we should meditate upon what this means in its fullness. Picture the universe as a babbling mountain stream, swirling with millions of tiny eddies and whirlpools as it cascades on its way down the side of a mountain. Then picture men and women as the tiny whirlpools in the stream: individuals, yet integral parts of the stream, made up of its every level, from the muddy stream bed, through the murky waters, to the clear sunlight on the surface. Truly each of us is like a whirlpool of energies drawn from every one of the seven fundamental types of substance-consciousness of the manifest universe. Each is a combination of these seven planes or principles into which the universe may be divided, from the clear sunlight of our spiritual being to the murky stream bed of our physical and astral levels, and every shade of consciousness in between. It is no surprise, then, that we can transit rapidly between these different levels of ourselves according to where we choose to concentrate our energies at any particular moment.
The concept of man as a composite entity is not peculiar to theosophy. Writers and artists throughout the ages have drawn inspiration from the internal struggles we all have with various phases of our being, and particularly from the triumph of the good and harmonious levels over the dark and divisive aspects of our nature. From the Sphinx in ancient Egypt showing the combination of the animal (lion) and divine (human face), through Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Portrait of Dorian Grey, and The Three Faces of Eve, to Hollywood films churned out by the truckload, the contention between good and evil within us is a perennial theme. In Hamlet William Shakespeare brilliantly captured the human condition when he said:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? — Act 2, scene 2
— a question worthy of the asking indeed. If we turn to the world's great religious and philosophical traditions, we see that the idea of man as a composite being is quite common. The following chart gives an overview of the theosophical scheme of sevenfold human nature and comparable ideas from Christianity, Judaism, ancient Greek philosophy, traditional African religion, and Freudian psychoanalysis. With varying degrees of complexity, each defines our complex inner nature. Perhaps we are most familiar with the threefold division of Christianity: spirit, soul, and body. The early Church Fathers, some of whom were said to be initiates of the ancient Mysteries, were duty bound under their vows not to give the full explanation of our inner constitution, and so gave this simplified threefold explanation.
ATMAN: Divine essence.
BUDDHI: Compassionate spiritual nature.
MANAS: Mind principle.
KAMA: Desire principle.
LINGA-SARIRA: Astral double.
STHULA-SARIRA: Physical body.
NESHAMAH: The highest and most spiritual principle.
RUAHH: Spiritual soul.
NEPHESH: The astral or vital soul.
GUPH: Physical vehicle — the house in which all these others dwell.
SPIRIT: The Divine essence within each human being.
SOUL: Embraces the fields of desire, emotion, and mind.
BODY: Equivalent to the lowest three principles in the theosophical configuration.
PNEUMA: Spirit — literally "breath."
NOUS: Intuition, higher mind, or "the Knower within."
SOMA: Physical body.
OKAN: Heart soul.
IYE: Mind principle.
OJIJI: Shadow (astral double).
ARA: Physical body.
Freud's theories of personality development encompassed several levels of consciousness opening simultaneously with the Unconscious.
SUPER-EGO: The censor, or judge. Incorporates the value judgments of parents.
EGO: Seeks to control the environment and mediate between the Id and Super-ego.
ID: Primary energy seeking gratification of basic drives and avoidance of anxiety.
This concept of human consciousness, and Freud's theories of developmental stages, have been developed by his successors, e.g., Erickson, Anna Freud, Reichman, and Karl Menninger.
The essence of all these formulations is that spirit uses vehicles to express itself on the different planes of the universe, and these vehicles are the different principles — separate but still one. Rather than three, seven, or even ten or twelve, as in some configurations, we may think of the human principles as being like a pillar of light. Up and down this pillar of light or consciousness are foci or "egoic centers" — some higher and some lower on the scale of evolutionary unfoldment — manifesting different aspects of the principles at different times. We are not talking about a layer cake of principles, but a fluid whirlpool of forces combining different energies from high to low throughout one's being.
The theosophical explanation of composite human nature focuses on seven principles. Note that the diagram below divides the human constitution into the three main groups of Christian tradition, spirit, soul, and body, with the theosophical principles given in Sanskrit. The monad is a spiritual unit expressing itself through the higher triad, the intermediate duad or personality, and the lower quaternary.
Let's look very briefly at each principle in turn, starting with the spiritual aspects of our being, the higher triad of atman, buddhi, and the higher aspect of manas:
Atman: means "self" in Sanskrit. Every being, no matter how small, is a self derived from the universal self as a flame is derived from a fire or a droplet from the ocean. It is our sense of existence, the "I am" at the heart of us, which is universal. Unlike the ego or mind from which we derive the sense of "I am I," different in every person, the atmic sense of pure selfhood, of being alive and active, is the same in all beings, human or otherwise. Understanding this basic universal selfhood leads to the realization of true spiritual brotherhood and develops all our highest (because spiritual) powers.
Buddhi: from the Sanskrit root buddh, "to awaken"; hence the word buddha, "the awakened one." It is the first vehicle by which pure spirit "steps down" its energies to the physical plane. It acts to awaken us to our true nature and our responsibilities to a suffering world, manifesting as understanding, judgment, and discrimination. From our human standpoint it is a universal principle, the organ of impersonal love for all creatures, which is divine. This love is expressed by the "awakened ones" who have attained buddhic consciousness and come back to help mankind reach its full potential: Buddha, Christ, Zoroaster, Quetzalcoatl, and the highest teachers of other world religions.
Manas: means "mind." A supremely important fact for us now is that manas is dual, with its higher aspect linked with buddhi and thus forming the higher immortal triad, and the lower attracted to the principle of desire or kama, forming the personality or everyday self. It is our duty and destiny to raise the lower mind to union with the higher. All our highest thoughts and actions — compassion, self-forgetfulness, and aspiration — are those which more rapidly aid us in achieving this spiritual goal. The riddle of the Sphinx is answered in the conquest of animal nature (the lion) by the truly human nature (the human head staring stoically across the desert, calling us on to our spiritual destiny).
Much of the foregoing grouping may seem remote from our daily lives and from modern psychology, but the lower quaternary of kama, prana, linga-sarira, and sthula-sarira is more familiar territory:
Kama: means "desire," the driving force in the human constitution, neither good nor bad. It is the seat of living electric impulses, desires, and aspirations considered in their energetic aspect. We are all painfully familiar with the lower aspects of kama that adorn our newspapers and entertainment. Most of humanity centers its consciousness in the lower manas and uses the powers of kama for selfish motives. By turning kama in this direction, we inevitably create disharmonies based on separateness and incur the suffering we see everywhere. Compare what we know of desire with the desires of Christ and Buddha in their compassionate self-dedication to a better world.
Prana: meaning "life principle" or vitality, is the ocean of universal energy in which we exist, keeping our astral and physical bodies alive during life on earth. We all have a certain grant or portion of this life force given us at the beginning of each lifetime to sustain us and, strangely enough, death is caused principally by the prolonged wearing down of the physical organism by the streams of pranic energy flowing through it.
Linga-sarira: the "model-body" upon which the physical body is formed. This astral body, which we hear so much about, is a mold of near-physical matter into which the atoms of the physical body are built and energized throughout life by prana. Though most people have not developed the capacity to see the astral body, some clairvoyants can perceive its luminous, ever-shifting coils. Like all the cosmic planes, the astral light is sevenfold in nature. Therefore, because someone can see auras or hear astral music doesn't necessarily mean they are highly evolved spiritually. In fact, it is a blessing for most of us that the physical body generally shields us from consciousness of the astral world. This condition will continue until we have developed, through lifetimes of testing, our ethical strength and clear inner sight to the point that an awareness of the astral world and its wonders can be properly and safely appreciated. Imagine, for example, what it would be like to read in their auras others' secret thoughts or state of mental and physical health if we did not have sufficient self-control to make compassionate use — or no use — of this knowledge.
Sthula-sarira: means "gross body," the word sarira also meaning "foamlike" or "easily dissolved." This is the much maligned physical body, which is like a spacesuit for the higher consciousness, enabling it to act in the lower material worlds. Through it we can function as a complete entity across the entire seven planes of the manifest universe. We have the opportunity during earth-life to learn and progress in a way that is not possible when living solely in our spiritual nature. For this reason highly spiritual beings like Buddha and Christ find enlightenment while in their physical bodies before teaching and guiding others. The physical body is composed of myriads of lesser lives — cells and atoms — whose evolution is greatly accelerated by being associated with us, for we are like gods to them. Finally, because the physical body is the offspring of the universe, it gives us the key to the workings of the cosmos. "As above, so below," the old Hermetic sages said. The use of this law of analogy — in the action of the nervous system, the circulation of the blood, the structure of the cells, and many other facets — provides a wonderful tool for understanding deeper teachings regarding the structure and operation of invisible causal worlds. To many the body is a gross drag upon spiritual experience, but in fact, when controlled and intelligently used, the body has its own part to play in the drama of evolution.
Considering our composite nature, we can appreciate what the ancient Greeks meant when they carved on their temples "know thyself." As a child of the universe, made up of all its planes of being, we each are a key to the universe itself. We begin to understand that universal brotherhood is not a platitude, but a fact in nature. We can realize the importance of centering our consciousness in the higher aspects of our composite nature in helping ourselves and others develop spiritually, for "as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." We can see the problems that focusing our awareness in the lowest aspects of kama-manas has brought to the world. The wrongful centering of thoughts may also cause disjunctions between the various aspects of our composite nature, leading to some types of mental illnesses. We can begin to appreciate the true mission of religion — from the Latin word religio, meaning to bring back together that which once was one — as a real mission in life and not just empty ritual. We can do our bit, each in our own separate ways, to attack the causes of suffering by shifting the center of our consciousness to the far-seeing and compassionate side of human nature, which is the only way to bring enduring peace and harmony to a troubled world.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)
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Let the beauty we love be what we do. — Rumi