It’s longstanding wisdom in Western occultism that there are multiple planes of existence above the material. Thanks in large part to the influence of Mme Blavatsky and the Theosophical society, the number of planes that gets discussed most often is seven: One physical plane, and then “upper” and “lower” planes corresponding to the astral, mental, and spiritual. There are plenty of other ways the higher planes could be (and are) mapped, but this model is no worse than any other, and it’s fairly widespread. These seven planes, in turn, correspond to the seven chakras, seven parts of the soul, the seven vertical strata of the Tree of Life, and so on. The number seven is a big deal in Theosophy.
The work of an occultist is, in part, to ascend to these higher planes and work with the energies thereof. Or, depending on your perspective, to bring those energies down into the physical plane in order to manifest the occultist’s will. This sort of work includes, but is not limited to, the conjuration of spirits, astral projection and astral travel, building an “astral” or “inner” temple, and acts of thaumaturgy. Fundamentally, what occultists do is unite manifest reality with the unmanifest planes.
But a question has been knocking around in my head for quite some time now—the question that’s the subject of this blog post. How far up the higher planes does anyone ever really ascend?
There’s a second longstanding piece of received wisdom in Western occultism (and, well, in all occultism, but I’m really only touching on the Western stuff because that’s what I know). No matter how good we are at what we do, no matter how far we succeed in expanding our consciousness, there will always be something we cannot know. The ultimate, fundamental nature of reality, the man behind the curtain, is simply inaccessible to us. In his Isis and Osiris, Plutarch describes the inscription on a statue of Isis at Sais, which read, “I am all that hath been, and is, and shall be; and no mortal has ever lifted my veil.”* Whatever the true nature of reality is, it’s hidden behind a veil that we can never lift. We may get glimpses of something more, but we can never have the whole picture.
More and more of late, I’m awed by the realization of just how much is unknowable. Not just in an “I don’t know it yet” sort of way, but in an axiomatic “This can never be known” way. I look at descriptions of the higher planes—in any occult system—and I’m struck by the feeling that we, as temporal beings, can simply never have first-hand knowledge of most of those planes. We can speculate, and hypothesize, and come up with schemas and models of various sorts. But when it comes to actually knowing those planes, and accessing them for ourselves? I’m increasingly skeptical of our ability to do so.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we absolutely have the ability to raise consciousness beyond the physical, and engage with something higher (or, at the very least, Other). If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be an occultist. But more and more, I’m aware of just how much work that entails, and consequently of the limits on how far we can go in that endeavor.
All of the occult works I listed above (evocation, astral projection, building an inner temple) are works of what’s commonly called the astral plane. And just accomplishing that much is an incredible achievement that takes years’ worth of study and work. But generally speaking, various occult models of the higher planes tell us that the astral isn’t the stopping point. In Blavatsky’s model, there are still four more planes of existence above the upper astral plane. In the Qabalah, there are eight Sephiroth above Yesod (which I’m sort of conflating with the astral here, for complicated reasons having to do with my own personal understanding of the Tree of Life and its relation to Theosophical thought). And so on, and so forth. The thing I’ve been wrestling with is whether, practically speaking, we really have access to those, or whether the astral plane is as far as we can expect to get.
Sure, we can intellectualize them. I can have a passably competent conversation about Blavatsky’s notion of the Individuality (the reincarnating human soul corresponding to the three highest planes of existence). I can discuss the respective energies of Netzach and Gevurah, and can do magic that draws upon these energies to accomplish a particular goal.** But as we try to go higher into unmanifest reality—farther away from the material world—the work required becomes immeasurably harder. On the Tree of Life, there is a veil*** between the lower part of the Tree and Tiphereth; and again, there is an abyss separating out the Supernal Triad of Sephiroth that crown the top of the Tree. To get from Malkuth to Yesod is, for many people, the work of a lifetime; to cross the veil is supposed to be exponentially more work than that, and to cross the abyss is exponentially more work yet again.
There may be some people who are able to devote their entire lives just to the study of occultism, and who can work their way up past the astral plane into something yet higher. These would be the sage-living-an-ascetic-life-on-a-distant-mountaintop variety of occultist, the people who are utterly disengaged from the rest of the world. As for the rest of us? I really don’t think many make it past the astral.
But here’s the thing: That’s okay. The astral plane still opens us up to beautiful, wonderful things. The revelation associated with Yesod in Crowley’s Liber 777 is “The Vision of the Machinery of the Universe”; that’s not exactly something to sneeze at. Yes, there are higher revelations, higher truths, that are never available to us, but that’s kind of the point. In undertaking the work of an occultist, in opening ourselves up to the quest for higher knowledge and an understanding of the higher planes, we also open ourselves up to a realization of how much we don’t, and can’t, know. That’s part of the beauty of the deal. The more we know, the more we understand what we don’t know, and that helps to keep us humble. (Well, in theory. In practice, most occultists are arrogant buttheads.)
I’m not sure how much sense this post will have made. This is one of those posts where I have a half-formed idea and use the blog as an excuse to try and make sense of it, more for my own sake than for my audience’s. These posts happen more often than I like to admit, because I have grandiose fantasies about having a shiny, polished blog full of pieces of indisputable wisdom that people will come from far and wide to read, but alas. I’ve often said that I treat this blog as my Tarot/occult journal, and the thing about journaling is that it’s often not polished. If the post did make sense to you, and you have thoughts you’d like to share (either agreeing or disagreeing), I’d genuinely love to hear them. My thoughts on this matter are still not fully formed, and I’d appreciate seeing what other people have to say.
Until next time, a Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, happy end of the decade, and may you have a wonderful New Year.
*And hey! This quote is what inspired the title of Blavatsky’s book Isis Unveiled. The Theosophical Society is inescapable when we’re talking occultism. Damn them.
**This raises further questions for me. I’m confident that I, at least, have not effectively ascended the Tree of Life past Yesod, so how am I able to use the energies of Sephiroth I haven’t reached for my magic? This is a puzzle for another day.
***Hey, remember that Plutarch quote from earlier? The one about a veil that no mortal has ever succeeded in drawing aside? Huh. How about that.