The Soul, The Koshas, and “No Self”

    Liberation is when one realizes the emptiness of all aspects of maya, or all aspects of the soul. It is not merely an intellectual realization, but an awakening of emptiness itself as inseparable from all things. Liberation is a collapse of the duality or apparent distinction between soul and no self. The soul is exactly emptiness (shunyata), and emptiness is exactly the soul. Primordial emptiness awakens as the soul.

   There are many developmental models that describe the self structure  such as Maslow’s hierarchy, spiral dynamics, various chakra-based models, the sefirot of Kabbalah or the great chain of being described in different ways by Plato, Plotinus as well as by mystics such as Sri Aurobindo. Every mature spiritual system that reflects the perennial teaching will have some developmental model. Many of the Western psychological models such as Maslow’s hierarchy are incomplete, and actually end where some of the Eastern models are just beginning, since the knowledge of higher worlds has been long forgotten. Each system is a unique lens to look through offering a different perspective and a different language template to point toward the mass of phenomena that constitutes the self which grows and changes through time. What is important is not believing or accepting one system as true, but to see what they all point to within yourself; to make your unconscious parts conscious.

    Early Buddhism and Hinduism speak of  “three worlds, “three spheres”, “three planes of existence”, or “three realms”. In the Gayatri Mantra from the Rig Veda, one of the oldest Vedic texts, it speaks of awakening within the three realms. The vedas are sort of “hymns” to awaken to one’s true nature. The Gayatri is considered by yogis to be the essence of the Vedas, or the mother of the Vedas, and the quintessence of divine knowledge. It says that one must awaken all three realms, the gross, the subtle and the causal, to attain liberation from illusion. Another way of saying this is that one must realize the emptiness of all three realms, bringing conscious awareness to each realm, yet not identifying any sense of self with them.

“Om Bhur Bhuva Swaha”
Awaken the three realms (gross, subtle causal)

    Each realm is a layer of maya or a layer of the soul/ self structure that is like a veil over our true nature. Likewise the Buddha said that one must realize the emptiness of the 5 skandhas or aggregates of mind-stuff,  the entire self structure, to realize Nirvana. The 5 skandhas are a functional model of the workings of the self structure. The number of divisions is not important as long as the model points to all aspects of the self structure.

    Another conceptual lens can be found in the Upanishads, which differentiates the self structure into 5 sheaths called koshas. The koshas are layers of maya or illusion which cover the soul and are simultaneously expressions of the soul. We will use the kosha system as an example of a conceptual framework for inner investigation.

The first Hermetic principle for self knowledge is “The All is mind; the universe is mental”.

Each kosha or sheath of maya can be described as a level of mind which exists within a continuum or matrix of phenomena ranging from gross to subtle. Branching patterns are one of the signature patterns of mind that is found at all levels and fractal scales of nature. Branching mind patterns have been found within what is considered to be empty space or dark matter which has been mapped by the Max Planck institute in the famous “Millennium Run” simulation. Empty space is like a mind made of up what appear to be neurons and neural structures (see image on right). These same branching patterns exist within the smallest atomic structures, within cell structures, and on the macro scale such as the branching patterns of rivers, lightning and patterns of energy movement. Mind is fractal in nature, showing the properties of self-similarity at different scales of magnification.

We can start to understand energy and mind by observing the creation of Lichtenberg figures which are the branching electrical discharges which create signature tree-like structures as the energy moves through different media. The Lichtenberg figure shows how the branches, or Li patterns in nature, “look” for new connections, new possibilities. Branching is one of the universe’s tools for implementing creativity or novelty. That which branches is alive, growing, spreading, and exploring; in a sense, a type of thinking.

The figure is created by injecting trillions of electrons into a block of acrylic using a five million volt particle accelerator. When we observe the tree-like structure created by the energy, we are seeing the path that the energy took through the medium. Similar branching or lightning type patterns can be seen on individuals who have been struck by lightning.

Yesterday’s resistance which creates branching or conditioning becomes tomorrow’s repeated experience, and all unfolds in an eternal NOW. Carl Jung said “what you resist persists”. When there is resistance to what is, the universe creates pathways, holds onto patterns, and creates a “self” structure independent from the rest of the universe.  This is the creation of karma, which is simply the tendency for energy to follow established pathways. In the matrix of conditioned mind that we call the universe, energy and thought cycle through fractal labyrinths that exist on a continuum from micro to macro levels, branching and exploring endlessly.

The physical sheath of maya (annamayakosha)

   The physical sheath is a mind construct created from sensory data which forms the perception of an external world. The physical sheath is what creates the illusion of being a physical body. With the advance of modernity and science we have developed a great capacity to explore, penetrate into and manipulate the mentally constructed physical world. In the majority of humans, almost all of awareness resides on the physical layer and most human activity operates unconsciously. We believe that we are this physical being, and our behavior is robotic and conditioned, repeating endless patterns which are all for the benefit of this illusory self. The physical and mental sheaths together are what constitutes the consensus reality that most humans are experiencing on Earth at this time.

Leonardo Da Vinci said: “Man and the animals are merely a passage and channel for food, a tomb for other animals, a haven for the dead….”   

A person who is identified fully with annamayakosha is unaware of the thoughts that they are thinking or the behaviors they are enacting; they have literally become identified with the physical pattern that they are repeating. Such a person lives a robotic life and cannot truly be said to be fully alive. When Jesus said “Let the dead bury the dead”, the people to whom he referred were living lives that were on the most gross level of existence. In this sense they were already dead. The metaphor of “resurrection” or “raising the serpent” points towards the raising of one’s energy out of this layer to the higher levels of existence.

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” John 3:14

The mental sheath (mannomayakosha)

    The lower mind, or what we usually refer to as the thinking mind or the sensory mind is mannomayakosha, or the mental sheath. It includes all mental images, mental dialogs, perceptions and emotions, fantasies, daydreams, concepts, and definitions. It is essentially everything that creates meaning out of the world, as well as what is meaningless.


Thinking is always either visual, auditory (inner dialog or sound), or some combination of both. For the next 5 minutes try observing your thoughts in silence and you will find that every thought is made of either images, an auditory component (inner dialog), or both.

   When the mind moves of its own volition (unconsciously), it is due to “dukkha”, or unsatisfactoriness, which is the movement of manas or lower mind operating for itself. The lower mind is never satisfied with what IS, and it is fundamentally made of patterns of craving and aversion. It exists to protect the organism and self structure, and to allow it to operate in a way that will let it have a human experience. For those identified with their personas, it has become the master rather the servant it is meant to be. Whenever we have resistance to what is, the mind engages in patterns of craving and aversion, and we have an incomplete experience of what is happening in the moment. Identification with the self structure creates a “filtered” experience of reality, and generates pathological thinking which is mediation of life through the filter of the mind. The incomplete experience of reality is an outward orientation toward the mind-made projection of the external world, focusing on “things” or phenomena which is constantly changing. If our sense of who or what we are is tied to identification with this phenomena (ie. we prefer or cling to one thing over another), then we will suffer when it inevitably changes. Most of humanity operates on the annamaya and manomaya koshas.

The energy or pranic sheath (pranamayakosha)

    Prana, inner energy or inner aliveness has been called by many names: chi in Taoism, kundalini shakti (or prana shakti) in the Vedic tradition, holy spirit in Christian mysticism, Shekhinah in Judaism and Sekhmet in the Egyptian tradition. In its manifested form it is the primordial pulsation of the universe that is beating your heart, moving your life forces, and that is dancing your atoms into existence every moment. In its latent form within every human being, it is the evolutionary potential for the flowering of human consciousness/energy/mind into god consciousness/energy/mind. God in this sense is a word pointing to the never-ending process of things coming into being and out of being, and this occurs through the primordial spiral or energy spiral as it becomes form at various levels of mind, from gross to subtle. Another way of saying this is that God or the true Self is “all-that-is”.

   Prana is perceived as subtle vibration or the “field of change” at the threshold of the senses, and at this very subtle level sensation is perceived as wavelike or free-flowing as opposed to particular. The perception of prana is not local to one particular sense, but rather is experienced as a vibratory field that flows through all of the senses. As one begins to withdraw awareness from the objects of the physical senses, energy becomes freed from running in the conditioned mind/body structure and our mental projection of an externalized world starts to fall away.

   It is possible to make the pranic layer conscious through meditative absorption into the material jhanas, which is called Savikalpa Samadhi, or “Samadhi with a seed” in the yogic traditions. It is called Samadhi with a seed because there is still some phenomena, or a seed of form, even though that form is wavelike (as opposed to particular). These initial stages of meditative absorption are also connected to kundalini awakening, which can have many variations depending on the energy pathways that the prana travels through the body. As with all of the sheaths, this too is maya or illusion if we identify our sense of self with it. Experiencing Savikalpa Samadhi is not the same as liberating insight. One can have the profoundly blissful experience of being connected to all of creation through the energetic field. One’s sense of “I” can be expanded to encompass all that is, yet one can still be identified with this sense of “I” or identified with the experience, which can result in a deep sense of loss when the experience passes.

   By observing sensation at the subtlest level of awareness possible (the root level or threshold level of the senses), we bring consciousness into the pranic field, which is made up of two polarities of energy. When filtered through the self structure the energy flows into either positive craving and clinging, or negative pushing away and aversion. Like an electromagnet, the dualistic limited self is always attracting or repelling. The releasing of energy from the conditioned patterns of the dualistic world is a dissolving or a “dying” of the self. There is ultimately no thing that exists that we can call the ego; there is only egoic activity, and when that activity ceases the illusion of the self is revealed, as it is nowhere to be found. So it is not that anything really dies, but rather the illusion of the illusory self is revealed. The Buddhist equivalent of energy is “piti” which is described as rapture, bliss or ecstasy that comes as one enter deeper states of meditative absorption.

   As one progresses in meditation one may realize “annica”, or the changing sensory phenomena at the root level of awareness. When you have a complete experience of anything, it is experienced as energy and no discrimination or conditioned patterns of craving or aversion are activated; there is no energy feeding the old self structure or clinging to experience. When phenomena arises and passes away there is no reaction, and therefore no new wiring created, no mind or karma created, no sankaras or separation from the experience. Everything is made continually anew, experienced as if for the first time (with beginner’s mind), unmediated by the egoic self, and there is no clinging or attachment to any form that arises or passes away.

The higher mind or wisdom sheaths (Vijnanamayakosha)

    As one’s energy becomes freed from conditioned patterns, one is able to connect to higher mind layers. One’s inner tree of life becomes more like an antenna receiving from a mysterious source, rather than an antenna that broadcasts an ego. All true creativity, art, music, poetry, literature, and novelty comes from this source beyond the limited conditioned mind. It is Buddhi or intellect in the Vedic traditions, the insight realm in Buddhism, or what Plato and Plotinus called the world of forms. In the works of writers such a Henry Corbin and those who followed, it is distinguished as imaginal as opposed to merely imaginary.

   It is most important to note, that this realm is uncovered by pure investigation, by observing reality as it is. It is observed by surrendering all egoic activity, entering into pure emptiness, pure awareness and witnessing.  It is NOT realized by visualization, rituals, techniques or practices as these things are part of the conditioned mind that has to be transcended. The difference between lower mind and higher mind is that lower mind produces iterated, autonomous repetitive thought phenomena, while in higher mind one simply witnesses reality as it is. Cause and effect, determinism and free will, require subject/ object duality, but as we move into the imaginal realm this duality falls away. Part of the path is to learn to distinguish imagination of the lower mind, from the “imaginal” revelations of higher mind. To distinguish lower concepts from the higher constructs.

   There is a point on the journey where the world is turned inside out, where the lower aspects of self are harnessed, and the monsters, the egoic little bosses, the fallen ones become angels. This could be called “the flip”. The higher mind is where symbols and higher mind constructs are alchemically transmuted into energy, thoughts and material form. Symbols are around us, alive and influencing us, but we do not yet have eyes to see them. Jung described an archetypal realm, a collective unconscious, which shapes our lives. Joseph Campbell explained how there is an inherent mythic structure to all religions and that particular myths are expressions of an underlying archetypal form. He said:

“On our hero’s journey: where we had thought to find an abomination we shall find a God. And where we had thought to slay another we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outwards we shall come to the center of our own existence.”

   The higher intellect or insight plane is the preeminent mirror, the epiphanic place of the Forms of the archetypal world. It is not something conceived of in the lower mind, but an entirely new way of thinking and being. Sri Aurobindo said “There is above the mind, as the old Vedic sages discovered, a Truth-plane, a plane of self-luminous, self-effective Idea, which can be turned in light and force upon our mind, reason, sentiments, impulses, sensations and use and control them in the sense of the real Truth of things just as we turn our mental reason and will upon our sense-experience and animal nature to use and control them in the sense of our rational and moral perceptions.” In ancient Egypt the “duat” was a word that pointed to the realms of the Neters and was comprised of twelve levels or regions. Once again, the particular divisions are not important. The impulse to create a definitive map is the folly and hubris of the lower mind. What is important is to surrender the robotic thinking of the lower mind to become directly connected to levels of “big mind”.

   An analogy can be made with fractals. The fractal image that you see is the result of iteration, which is the repetition of a pattern. But somewhere in the computer there is the code that makes it work. The code level is a different level of knowledge than the appearance of the fractal, which is simply the iterated output of the hidden template on a screen or device. The output of the fractal appears on a computer screen, just as thoughts appear in the mind. You could say the higher mind is the template layer or the code level for our world. The levels can be conceived in terms of the archetypal, symbolic, mythic, mathematical, geometric, angelic and countless other mind forms. They are all aspects of higher mind, and are as real as (or sometimes seemingly more real than) any other aspect of maya. In Tibetan and Vajrayana buddhism, there is known to be a higher realm where you can encounter “yiddams” which are aspects of higher self, of Buddha mind. Embodying a yiddam or Neter is called the lightning path- it is a fast way to recollect a particular soul consciousness and to realize aspects on the soul level that have moved through countless lives. The creative possibilities on the imaginal level are literally infinite.

The causal body (Anandamayakosha)

   The causal body or non-dual bliss sheath is impossible to convey in words and any description will sound paradoxical to the mind, because it involves the transcending of all opposites which are inherent to language. The causal body awakens when pure awareness, turiya becomes present as the body itself; as all that is. One inhabits a reality where form and emptiness, self and other,  are realized as non-dual reality.

   In the yogic traditions the word “satchitananda” is used to describe the causal realm “experience”. Sat means “truth”, chit is “mind or consciousness”. The word “ananda” is usually translated as bliss, but we don’t have a satisfactory word in our language for what this points to. When we usually talk of bliss we are talking of feeling good, feelings of energy, or well being. An experience should not be confused with satchitananada, which is something entirely different. It is not an experience at all, but more of a waking up to the truth or reality as it is, and to the illusory nature of the experiencer. One realizes all of existence as infinite space, consciousness, nothingness and it is neither something of perception nor, nor is it non-perception. It is the emptiness dancing of Zen- it is beyond duality, beyond pain and pleasure, beyond good and bad. It is our innate nature, the bliss of the subtlest heart; undifferentiated awareness that is everywhere and nowhere.

   Even the awakening on the causal (anandamayakosha) is still a level of maya. Don’t forget, all of the koshas have the word “maya” in them. Prajna paramita, awakening to the ultimate wisdom, is realizing the emptiness of all levels of self. In the Heart Sutra the Buddha said that practicing prajna paramita the Bodhisattva realized the emptiness of all five skandhas, which are the five aggregates or “heaps” of mind stuff described in the Buddhist tradition. The truth is revealed when one realizes all aspects of the self structure to be empty or devoid of self. This means even letting go of the causal awareness, a letting go to the unfathomable that cannot be mentioned whatsoever.

   When we awaken on any higher vibratory level than the one we are habituated to, all of the conditioned stuff below that level that we have not made conscious starts to come up. Any sankaras that were not purified will start to come to the surface. The five koshas reflect the five levels of conditioning that keep us trapped in maya. There is the biological conditioning which is our animal nature, psychological conditioning which we inherit from society, pranic conditioning which is our evolutionary template, higher mind or soul level conditioning which includes archetypal wisdom, insight, higher mind, and universal aspects of the game of Leila, and finally there is the causal which is awareness as the ground of all being. At first we learn to “be still and know”. Being still in this sense is not simply a stopping of activity, but the awakening of stillness within activity, an awakening of emptiness within form. As it is written in the Buddhist Shraddhotpada Shastra:

“All things in the world are unreal and deceptive; they are no more than projections of the mind. Just like the reflections which appear in a mirror, in reality, all things too have no true substantiality; they are untrue, illusionary and “Only-Mind”.