Before we begin, a preliminary note is in order. Yes, I heard about what’s happening with the US election. I write my posts in advance, and this one was finished days before the votes started being counted. We’ll discuss the election over on my Dreamwidth journal once the rubble stops bouncing and the dust settles. With that in mind, let’s proceed with a conversation on another subject, shall we?
Earlier this year I revived the custom of asking my readers what they wanted to hear about on the fifth Wednesday of those months that had one, and taking a straw poll to choose the topic by majority vote. So many good ideas got proposed in those discussions that it seemed a pity to limit myself to only one. Since July, as a result, the first Wednesday of each month has gone to one of the also-rans, and there are still enough in September’s stack that I don’t expect to run out before we gather up a new heap of ideas in March of 2021.
Of September’s crop of suggestions, the one that intrigued me most was the request that I talk about what occultists call the mental plane, and in particular, on the hygiene appropriate to the mental plane. It didn’t get the largest number of votes—that went to Max Weber’s notion that “the disenchantment of the world” is a central fact of modernity, and my suggestion that he was wrong and we labor under a malign enchantment that makes most people think the world is less magical than it is. Once that was out of the way, however, the hygiene of the mental plane was an obvious next step. (Well, the next after I finished up June’s list with last month’s essay on the novels of Hermann Hesse.) So here we are, and here we go.
We’ll start with some basics. Scientific materialists, as I think most of my readers are aware, are burdened with the superstitious belief that only matter and energy actually exist, and all the other things that human beings experience are “epiphenomena” of matter and energy. To occultists—and of course to the vast majority of human beings in the vast majority of societies throughout human history—the universe is far richer and more interesting than that.
In occult philosophy we identify the realm of matter and energy that scientists study as the material plane, the lowest (metaphorically speaking) and densest of seven planes which make up the part of the universe that human beings deal with. The three planes immediately above the material plane are, in order, the etheric, astral, and mental planes. The etheric plane is the plane of life force; the astral plane is the plane of concrete consciousness; and the mental plane is the plane of abstract consciousness. There are three planes beyond the mental plane—the spiritual, causal, and divine planes—but those are above the reach of human consciousness at our present state of evolution and we don’t have to concern ourselves with them right now.
Each of us has a distinct part of ourselves on each of the four planes. We have material bodies—that’s the body of flesh and bone and sticky stuff that anatomists study. We have etheric bodies—that’s the body of life force, which has its own structures, organs, and channels, and also extends into an egg-shaped area extending about three feet from the body, which is called the aura. We have astral bodies—that’s the body of thoughts and feelings, which you perceive every time you notice your own emotional state and which governs what you see in your dreams; it has its own vortices and currents, though it’s not as precisely structured as the physical and etheric bodies.
We don’t yet have mental bodies. We have what’s called a mental sheath, a rudimentary structure made of the substance of the mental plane, and which in the course of further evolution will eventually turn into the first and simplest form of mental body. Once that happens, the real work begins. Think of the long evolutionary journey that was necessary to go from simple single-celled organisms to blue whales and giant sequoias; that’s the scale of the evolutionary journey we have waiting for us once we finish evolving a mental body. (We’ve already passed through similar evolutionary journeys in the course of evolving our material, etheric, and astral bodies, so that’s less overwhelming a challenge than it might seem.)
As a conscious being, you perceive each of the three planes where you’ve evolved a body. You perceive the material plane through your ordinary senses; that’s what those are for. You perceive the etheric plane through another set of senses, which most cultures have no trouble dealing with but which make a lot of people in our culture freak out. Call them the psychic senses if you like, or the etheric senses if you’d rather. In most people they’re about as well developed as your senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell would be if you’d been systematically taught to ignore them while you were growing up. Like any other human ability, they can be developed through exercises; W.E. Butler’s useful book How to See the Aura, Practice Psychometry, Telepathy, and Clairvoyance is a good starting place if you’re interested in that.
You perceive the astral plane through another set of senses. These haven’t been repressed as far as the etheric senses, they’ve just been misunderstood. We’re talking about your imagination—more precisely, part of your imagination is part of what we’re talking about. Pay attention to the contents of your mind and you’ll find that most of them take what we can call parasensory forms: you “see” things “in your mind’s eye,” “hear” things in the privacy of your own skull, or what have you. There’s an old exercise where you’re asked to remember your phone number and notice whether you “see” it, “hear” it, “feel” yourself punching the buttons, or what have you.
All these are parasensory—that is, they’re like what you perceive with your sense organs, but they don’t involve your sense organs. They’re what your specific astral senses perceive. You also have a general astral sense, which is your awareness of emotion. (You also have specific material senses such as sight, and a general material sense, your sense of touch; equally, you have specific etheric senses such as clairvoyance, and a general etheric sense, which was called psychometry by old-fashioned psychical researchers and “feeling the vibe” by many members of my generation back in the day.) What you call thoughts are the perceptions of your specific astral senses, and what you call feelings are the perceptions of the general astral sense.
By now many of you will have thought of two questions. The first is how imagination can be a sense organ, since most people can make themselves imagine something. That’s why I said “part of your imagination is part of what we’re talking about” earlier. Lumped together under that very general label “imagination” are your astral organs of action as well as your astral organs of perception. You have organs of action on the material plane—your hands, for example. You can make something with them that you can see with your eyes. In the same way, you can make something on the astral plane with one part of your imagination and perceive it with another part. Unless you’ve had the relevant training or stumbled across the necessary tricks by trial and error, the things you make on the astral plane with your imagination won’t last much longer than the mud pies you made when you were three or so, but the principle is the same.
The second question is, if thoughts and feelings belong to the astral plane, what belongs to the mental plane? That’s where things get interesting. Remember that we don’t yet have mental bodies, and that means that we don’t yet have the specific senses of the mental plane. All we have is the general sense, which is intuition. This is the sense by which we experience meaning.
Think of any word you like. That word is a verbal sound and also a squiggle of ink on paper—that is to say, a form. It also has a meaning. The form is an astral phenomenon. The meaning is a phenomenon of the mental plane. Are the meanings of words slippery, confused, difficult to pin down? You bet—because our ability to sense meanings is just as rudimentary as our mental sheaths. That’s why we have to use astral forms—words and symbols—to represent meanings. Words and symbols are like the training wheels on a seven-year-old’s first bike; they keep him from toppling over as he wobbles his way back and forth in the street in front of his parents’ house. We’re at about that level when it comes to dealing with the realms of meaning.
Our individual relationship with the mental plane varies from person to person. The evolution of species may be Darwinian but the evolution of individual souls is Lamarckian—that is to say, the more you do something, the more surely you evolve the capacity to do it better. By grappling with the world of meaning, which is as much as we can perceive of the mental plane with the limited capacities we have, we develop our mental sheaths and help evolve them into mental bodies. That’s an important part of the work we have to do as human beings.
Since we don’t yet have specific mental plane senses, and our perception of the mental plane is thus more or less on a par with an oyster’s perception of the entire ocean, there’s not much we can do about the mental plane as such. Where the mental plane impinges on the astral plane, by contrast, we can grasp ideas by their astral handles and proceed from the form to the meaning. That’s where the hygiene appropriate to the mental plane comes into play.
Perhaps the most essential aspect of that hygiene is developing the habit of reflective thinking. If you pay attention to what passes through your mind, you’ll likely find that most of it consists of strings of words or images that follow stereotyped patterns. Those patterns are derived from what you’ve read, or picked up from the media, or learned at your mother’s knee, and unless you’ve put a lot of work already into developing your mental sheath, you’ve probably never thought through most of them. It’s not necessary to take all your opinions apart all at once to see what makes them tick, but you’ll gain a lot by learning to ask yourself questions about what you think and why. The bumper sticker that says “don’t believe everything you think” offers good advice here.
Yet there are obstacles to the habit of reflective thought, and one set of these obstacles is very common these days. It consists of gimmicks that link astral forms down to the etheric plane, the plane of biological drives, so that their link to the world of meaning is obscured. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock since before you could eat solid food, you know those obstacles inside and out. Call them advertising, call them marketing, call them propaganda: they’re all gimmicks meant to make you ignore the meanings of certain words and images and relate them instead, in an unthinking manner, to the basic biological drives we all inherit as human beings.
Consider a display ad trying to sell fizzy brown sugar water. Does the ad extol the merits, whatever those might be, of fizzy brown sugar water? Of course not; that kind of advertising went out of fashion with zoot suits. Instead, the ad shows you some scene meant to goose your biological drives: say, a group of men and women—young, attractive, fashionable men and women—who are obviously having a great time together, and who are waving around cans of fizzy brown sugar water. The point of the advertisement is to get you to automatically associate fizzy brown sugar water with the fulfillment of the social instinct and the sexual instinct, and the feelings released by that fulfillment. Now of course if you stop and think for a moment, you’ll realize that drinking fizzy brown sugar water won’t make you look like that and won’t let you hang out with the group of models who are pretending to have a good time, but the point of this sort of thing is to discourage you from thinking at all. That is to say, the point of advertising is to make you stupid.
You see the same gimmick applied in a different mode in political propaganda. We’ve all seen some fine examples of that from all sides in the recent electoral circus here in the United States. The usual tactic is to associate the name and face of your guy with the social instinct, evoking warm feelings of belonging and success, and the name and face of the other guy with the aggressive instinct, evoking hostility, fear, and loathing. The goal is to reach a point where your audience is literally unable to think about the candidates; all they can do is react viscerally with mindless positive or negative reactions — that is to say, a state of induced stupidity.
How do you deal with this sort of thing? Decreasing your exposure to it is a good idea, but not enough by itself. Another useful thing is to establish the habit of thinking in response to them. When you see an ad, ask yourself: what is that trying to make me feel? What human instincts is it trying to manipulate? How is it doing so? Get in the habit of doing this whenever you get exposed to advertising. You’ll find that it loses most of its effect once you’re conscious of the games it’s playing, and you’ll also end up with a first-rate understanding of the seedier end of human psychology and the kneejerk reactions of the culture you grew up with.
A related set of difficulties comes from the fact that a lot of the entertainment available these days is designed to set off those same reactions for less blatantly corrupt reasons. In this case, the goal isn’t to get you to buy a product or a politician, it’s to use those instincts to keep you entertained. That’s the thing that defines schlock in literature, cinema, and the rest of it: the forms being deployed by the creator of the product reach down into the world of automatic instinctive reactions rather than up into the realm of meaning.
No, this doesn’t mean that you should only read fine literature and watch art films—though if you enjoy fine literature and art films, taking them in is one way to work on your mental sheath. People differ in how well developed their mental sheaths are, and one of the things that’s determined by that difference is how much subtlety and richness your intuitive sense of meaning can handle. If you’ve barely begun to develop your mental sheath, a book or a movie that would be simplistic to the point of crassness to someone with a more developed mental sheath may be not just enjoyable, but actively good for you.
The moral of this story? Find entertainments that stretch your mind a little—not so much that they leave you bored and puzzled, but enough that they leave you thinking. While you’re at it, if you read or watch (etc.) schlock—we all do—take up the same habit you did with the ads. While away some time thinking about what reactions the schlock worked on and how it did so. It’s entertaining, and it might just teach you what you need to know to become the next Dr. Chuck Tingle.
The principle here is applicable throughout life. Every time you work upwards from your thoughts and feelings toward intuitions of meaning, you develop your mental sheath and you detach your astral experiences from unhelpful connections with etheric passions and drives. You can do this on various levels depending on where you are in the cycle of human incarnations. If the focus of your life is on the material world—and that’s a stage of experience every human soul goes through—seek meaning there: in your work, your family, your duties as a citizen, and the other details of ordinary life, you can find meaning in doing these things well, and accomplish the task of your incarnation.
If the focus of your life is on your inner world—and that’s another stage of experience every human soul goes through—seek meaning there, through learning, through creativity, through human relationships. If the focus of your life has begun to shift from your inner world to something beyond and above it, why, then the disciplines of religious or occult practice are waiting for you. The Sâr Péladan phrased it crisply: “If you are animal, be beautiful. If you are emotional, be good. If you are intellectual, seek the Grail. To become beautiful, charge your instincts with emotion; to become gentle, leaven your emotions with thought; to seek the Absolute, develop in yourself the capacity for abstraction.”
The recognition that people at different stages of evolution have different goals is crucial, because the traps that drag your thinking down into the instinctive level are balanced by another set of traps that try to stop you from thinking altogether. That’s less common than advertising or shlock, to be sure, but there’s a lot of it in what passes for popular spirituality these days.
Popular mind-emptying meditation methods are a good example of this. In their traditional setting in Asian religions, those are balanced by other disciplines that train and develop the thinking mind: the Theravadin Buddhist monk who spends a couple of hours a day in meditation, for example, spends other hours studying the suttas and wrestling with the intricate logic of the Abhidhamma, so the meditation balances and is balanced by the intensive training of the mind. Even then the kinds of meditation that discourage thought, such as mindfulness meditation, are understood by Buddhist teachers as very risky. “Meditation sickness,” a pathological state well known in Asian cultures in which the mind freezes up completely and ordinary life becomes impossible, is far more common with those methods than with others.
The balancing practices and the awareness of risks that make these meditations functional in their traditional context are absent from the mass-marketed versions of mindfulness meditation being sold across the modern world. A similar lack of balance and safety bedevils a great many other products of pop spirituality from Ouija boards—invite spirits to take over the movements of your body, what could possibly go wrong?—to all those teachings and practices that treat the mind as the enemy of the spirit, or that teach you to stop thinking using some other rhetorical gimmick. These are easier to avoid than advertising, to be sure, but there’s no shortage of them being marketed these days, and it can take a keen eye to see past the glossy surface to the hungry void underneath.
A balanced spiritual life, by contrast, uses the thinking mind as one of its tools. Some traditions do this by alternating meditation exercises that still the mind with other practices that develop it—something as simple as studying the scriptures of your faith and thinking about what they mean is quite adequate for many people. Other traditions, including the one I follow and teach, use methods of meditation that train the mind rather than stifling it. The mind is not the enemy of a healthy spirituality, and the attitude toward the mind can be used as a touchstone for which spiritual traditions are healthy and which tend toward the pathological.
The basic rule here is simple enough. Any time you run into someone or something who’s trying to convince you to become more stupid, you’re better off walking away. Equally, whenever you encounter the claim that the way to become a better person is to amputate some part of normal human potential, you’re looking at something genuinelyly harmful; that’s as true of those ideologies that insist you should turn off your mind as it is of those that insist you should turn off your libido, say, or your imagination, or your capacities for spiritual perception. Wholeness, after all, is a better goal than mutilation.