The ancients knew of an astral or "starlike" substance which underlies physical matter. The Hindus call it akasa, "brilliant, shining." The Stoics spoke of aether or quintessence, the mysterious spirit-substance which is the protean source of all forms. Theosophists call it the astral light. The most material stratum of the nonphysical energies surrounding our planet, analogous to the soul of the world, it functions as a complete reservoir of memory containing the record of every impression and event that has ever occurred on earth. Filled with potential prototypes of all thoughts, forms, and beings, its operations are outside the space-time reference that applies to the physical plane. The physical world is in fact an extension of the astral, which latter contains a range of potencies and emanations, thoughts and beings, either benign or inimical to life on earth.
In the cosmos there are many physical, psychic, mental, and spiritual fields — self-organizing, whole, living systems. Every such field is holographic in that it contains the characteristics of every other field within itself. Rupert Sheldrake's concepts of morphic fields and morphic resonance, for instance, are in many ways similar to some phenomena attributed to the astral light. All terrestrial entities can be considered fields belonging to our living earth, Gaia, and forming part of her constitution. The higher akasic fields resonate with every part of nature. Various happenings within the earth's astral light are said to result in physical effects which include all natural and human phenomena, ranging from epidemics and earthquakes to wars and weather patterns. Gaia, again, is part of the fields which form the solar being and its constitution, and so on throughout the cosmos.
Like the earth, human beings each have auric fields and an astral body. The fifty trillion cells in our body, as well as the tissues and organs they form, each have their own identity and memory. Our mental and emotional fields influence every cell and atom of our being for better or worse. How we think and act affects not only humanity but Gaia as well through the astral light, the action of which is guided by active creative intelligences. For example, the automatic action of divine beings restores harmony, balancing the inner with the outer throughout nature. We must take responsibility for ourselves, for this reciprocal karmic process is continually at work, and the various circumstances of our lives are the results of its just and impersonal operation in relation to our own activities.
How do the brain and the mind relate to consciousness in these astral or nonphysical fields? Certainly there are different levels of operation of mind and memory reflected in the structure of the brain as well as in our other organs. Pythagoras referred to the brain as the principal organ of consciousness, and in some respects it acts as a switchboard for the physical body in conjunction with the soul. The mind acts on subtle or astral matter in contact with the brain and nervous system. Behind this physical operation, however, is a programmer — intelligence, mind — with will power and desire.
As human beings, we draw upon a huge range of frequencies of consciousness. In the theosophical system, mind is the fifth in the scale of seven principles that form our being. As the active focus of our self-consciousness, mind organizes and awakens matter. The higher aspects of consciousness can be described as threefold: atma, divinity; buddhi, intuition or compassion; and manas, intellect, our self-conscious center. The lower aspects are formed of kama, desire; prana, life energy; and the astral and physical bodies. Each of these seven principles is itself sevenfold. Our everyday awareness is generally centered in desire linked with mind.
In the brain, the intellectual aspects of consciousness we are most familiar with are centered in the large cerebral cortex, which is considered the distinguishing feature of the human brain. There are lower and higher attributes to all the brain's layers, corresponding to the frequencies of consciousness. Strangely, one of the highest chakras or centers of consciousness is said to be the pineal gland, a very tiny organ in the center of the brain which Descartes called the seat of the soul and others call the third eye of spiritual vision.
We are all familiar with the lower or primitive human mind connected with the physical animal self of desires and passions. Parts of the brain are associated with various aspects of the entire range of emotional states and mental activities because the brain acts as a receiver-transmitter of thoughts. The brain is controlled by the mind acting through astral and physical matter via the sympathetic vibrations of the chakras and senses. Spirit, with its mental vitality, also works through all these aspects of our nature and can illumine even the physical brain that is in tune with it.
Each human being is a unique individual, with various mental qualities, abilities, and combinations, whether intuitive, analytical, creative, artistic, or psychic. Our mind has stamped the organs of the entire physical body with its individuality. No two brains are exactly alike, no two fingerprints are, just as no two leaves on a tree, or two patterns of stripes on zebras, are. The mind expresses many qualities of our being, but everything depends on where our desires are based and on the overall orientation of our mind, for the intellect alone and uninspired can be selfish, cold, often cruel, even dangerous.
How did human egoity come about? There is a clue in the recapitulation of the human embryo, which reveals a development representative of the lower kingdoms of nature. It implies that the human monad evolved through these kingdoms, developing its soul and individuality, unfolding qualities of mind and free will not exactly like ours but essentially present. Looking over the kingdoms briefly, we see that the mineral begins with very uniform beings sharing a unified consciousness which may form anything from liquids like magma or the oceans, and gasses like the air, to endless varieties of crystals. Like all beings they have a divine monadic consciousness, and are also overshadowed by higher intellectual agencies. Plants are similar, but their vitality and growth show more intelligent individual expression. They create beautiful forms in leaves and flowers with surprising ingenuity. They, too, as a kingdom are following ancient patterns of memory or instinct. Darwin commented that in some respects the tip of the primary root ``acts like a brain of one of the lower animals,'' while other researchers believe that plants possess the equivalent of a nervous system. That they react to human emotions and thoughts, and respond to other beings and plants, was suggested by Cleve Backster's experiments with the polygraph in the 1960s. There appears to be a telepathic connection that links plants with all other beings; they even seem to remember those who have harmed them or other beings near by.
And what of instincts, those individual and collective patterns of experience of all creatures? There are prototypes of all possible plants and animals, all beings, in the astral light. But look at the marvelous examples, the endless designs that have materialized: not only bodily forms, but also behavioral instincts such as in the bees, adaptations and behaviors like mimicry, or migrations of birds covering thousands of miles. These activities are not simply automatic, they involve spiritual intelligence. All beings share the same divine potentials, but the higher in the evolutionary scale we go, the greater the intelligence, the greater the emotional range and individuality that beings possess, and thus the more powerful their impact on the astral light. There is also marked increase in the size of the cerebral cortex in the higher animals. Animals and humans share emotional and psychic expression. The emotions are a part of the desire principle. But animals do not possess self-reflective mind able to contemplate its own status in evolution: the dog doesn't ask itself why it is a dog.
We might ask, where does mind individually, and consciousness ultimately, originate? In the cosmos there is only one life, one consciousness, which masquerades under all the different forms of sentient beings. This one consciousness pierces up and down through all the states and planes of being and serves to uphold the memory, whether complete or incomplete, of each state's experience. This suggests that our self-conscious mind is really a ray of cosmic mind. There is a mysterious vital life essence and force involved in the interaction of spirit or consciousness with matter. The cosmos has its memory and follows general pathways of formation based on previous existences, much as everything else does. Aided by memory, it somehow selects out of the infinite possibilities a new and improved imbodiment. When the first impulse emerges, we have cosmic ideation vibrating the first matter, manifesting in countless hierarchies of beings in endless gradations. Born of the one cosmic parent, monadic centers emerge as vital seeds of consciousness, as germs of its potential. They are little universes in the one universe.
Theosophy does not separate the world into organic and inorganic, for even the atoms are considered god-sparks. All beings are continuously their own creators and recorders, forming more perishable outer veils while retaining the indestructible thread-self that links all their various principles and monads through vast cycles of experience. We are monads or god-sparks currently evolving throughout the human stage. The deathless monad runs through all our imbodiments, for we have repeated many times the processes of birth and death. In fact, birth and death for most of humanity are more or less automatic, unconscious experiences as far as our everyday awareness is concerned. How do we think? We can start, for example, with desire which provides the impulse that causes the mind through will and imagination to project a stream of thoughts, which are living elemental beings. These thoughts take various forms which may result in different kinds of actions or creative results. This is another arena of responsibility, for in the astral light our thoughts circulate through other minds and affect them, but those that belong to us have our stamp and return to us again and again. So through these streams of thought we create habits of mind, which build our character and eventually our self-made destiny. The human mind is an ideator resonating with its past, selecting thoughts and making choices, anticipating and creating a pattern of unfolding. Perhaps we are reflecting in the small the operations of the divine mind which acts as the cosmic creator and architect. Some thoughts or patterns we create are limiting; others are liberating. The soul grows, and thoughts are reused and transformed by the mind, perhaps giving them a superior expression. Plato was right: with spiritual will and worthiness we can recollect the wisdom of the past and unlock the higher mind. We have the capacity of identifying with all beings, experiencing the oneness we share together in our spiritual consciousness, that continuous stream that is the indestructible thread-self. All that it was, is, or is becoming is our karma. Mind and memory are a permanent part of the reincarnating ego or human soul, and of the universe as well.
Awareness of oneness is the most natural condition of our inner consciousness. Intellect and reason are also necessary, but must be illuminated by compassion, spiritual insight, and intuition. The intellect or brain-mind in its association with physical desires is self-centered and enforces our separateness. Most of the harm done to others comes through trying to assert our personal will over them. Our lower egoity must be evolved and transformed through a perception of our oneness in essence with all, which is the key to harmony and brotherhood in action. When we exercise self-conscious free will, there are no guarantees of achieving spiritual growth. Yet the higher self is not corrupted by the activities of the lower mind or by other actions of its vehicles here on earth, and our evolution is part of Gaia's and the gods' evolution.
Developing our higher faculties and receptivity to the inner light are essential to our progress, but doing so means removing all impediments of a personal nature. Our transformation improves all of nature, including the astral light. Indeed, the bodhisattva ideal of selfless work for the benefit of all beings demands expression of our noblest qualities. The supreme self is the center of all faculties and enables each human being to become a god in future cycles. This is the destiny that awaits us all.
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)
The mind can be raised with high and noble thoughts. Even the worker, while his hands are busy, can trace his ancestry in thought to the gods in space, and feel the inspiration of a divine ancestry flowing through the veins of his soul. — G. de Purucker