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The Concept of the Etheric Body


The Oriental psychologist starts with that which the Occidental regards as hypothetical. He lays the emphasis upon the spiritual nature of man, and believes that the physical nature itself is the result of spiritual activity. He asserts that all that is objectively seen is but the outward manifestation of inner subjective energies. He regards the entire mechanics of the cosmos and of man as effects, and believes the scientist is dealing only with effects. His position may be summed up as follows:

First: There is nothing but energy, and it functions through a substance which interpenetrates and actuates all forms, and which is analogous to the ether of the modern world. Matter is energy or spirit in its densest form, and spirit is matter in its most sublimated aspect.

Second: As all forms are interpenetrated by this ether, every form has an etheric form or etheric body.

Third: As the tiny atom has a positive nucleus, or positive nuclei, as well as negative aspects, so in every etheric body there are positive centres of force in the midst of negative substance. The human being too has an etheric body which is positive to the negative physical body, which galvanises it into activity, and which acts as its coherent force, holding it in being.

Fourth: The etheric body of man has seven main nuclei of energy through which various types of energy flow, producing his psychical activity. These nuclei are related to the cerebro-spinal system, and the base of this psychical activity, or the seat of the soul nature, is situated in the head. The governing principle therefore is in the head and from this centre the entire mechanism should be directed, and energised through the medium of the other six force centres.

Fifth: Only certain centres are now functioning in man and the rest are quiescent. In a perfect human being all the centres will function fully and produce perfect psychical unfoldment and a perfect mechanism.

This Oriental emphasis upon spiritual energy and the Occidental emphasis upon the structure or mechanism, it will be seen, accounts fully for the psychical nature of man, both in its higher and in its lower aspects.

To unite the Eastern or vitalistic conception, and the Western or mechanistic conception, and so bridge the gap between them, it is necessary to establish the fact of the existence of the etheric body.

The Oriental system is abstruse and intricate, and defies summarisation. Still, some brief introduction must be made and the following outline is therefore given. It is incomplete, but if it gives an intelligible survey of the field, however brief, it will serve its purpose.

In giving this outline, we shall make positive statements instead of continually repeating that “the Eastern psychologist believes” or “the Orientalist states” or similar expressions. It is enough to recognise once and fully that to the Western mind it must be presented as an hypothesis, to be submitted to test, to stand proved or fall disproved.

With this introduction we proceed to outline the Eastern theory.

There is a universal substance, the source of all, but so sublimated, so subtle that it is truly beyond the real grasp of human intelligence. In comparison with it, the most delicate fragrance, the dancing radiance of sunbeams, the crimson glory of the sunset, are gross and earthly. It is “a web of light,” forever invisible to human eye.

The key word “substance” with its suggestion of materiality is a misnomer. It is helpful however, to reduce this word to its Latin roots: “sub” under and “sto” to stand. So, substance is that which stands underneath, or underlies. The spelling, or misspelling “sub-stans” is more indicative and suggestive.

Subtle and fugitive as this universal substance is, yet in another sense it is denser even than matter. If we could conceive of an agent outside of universal substance—an hypothesis contrary to all fact and possibility—and if such an external agent attempted to compress universal substance, or in some other way affect it from without, then substance would be found denser than any known material.

Inherent in substance, and a perpetual counterpart of it, is life, incessant life. Life and substance are one and the same, one and forever inseparable, but different aspects however, of the one reality. Life is as positive electricity, substance negative. Life is dynamic, substance static. Life is activity or spirit, and substance form or matter. Life is the father and begets, substance is the mother and conceives.

In addition to these two aspects of life and substance, there is still a third. Life is theoretical or potential activity, and needs a field of operation. Substance furnishes this and in the union of life and substance, there flames forth active energy.

Thus we have a single reality, universal substance—but at the same time a co-existent duality—life and substance; and at the same time, a coexistent trinity, life, substance, and the resultant interaction which we call consciousness or soul.

The entire manifested world arises from energy (and the co-factors substance and consciousness). All that is seen, from the tiniest grain of sand to the widest sweep of starry heaven, from a savage to a Buddha or a Christ, all are outgrowths of energy. Matter is energy in its densest or lowest form; spirit is this same Energy in highest or most subtle form. So matter is spirit descending and debased; spirit, conversely, is matter ascending and glorified.

In taking on density, energy takes on, or descends into, seven degrees or planes. Man exemplifies three. He has his physical body, his emotional mechanism and his mind-body, and consequently functions on three planes, or is awake on three, the physical, the emotional and the mental. He is on the threshold of the recognition of a fourth and higher factor, the Soul, the Self, and will next awaken to that realisation. The three higher planes require no comment in this elementary discussion.

In addition to seven planes, each plane has seven subplanes. We shall discuss only the seven subplanes of the lowest or physical plane.

Three subplanes of the physical are known to every school-boy—the solid, liquid and gaseous, for example, ice, water and steam. In addition there are four subtler planes, or rather four different types of ether. These four are co-existent with each of the three well known subplanes, and interpenetrate them.

The physical body of man is no exception. It, too, has its etheric counterpart, its etheric body. This is positive, while the dense physical body is negative. The etheric body is the cohesive factor, and maintains the physical body in life and being.

The etheric counterpart, whether of man or of any physical thing, is of the universal substance, of universal life, and of universal energy. It partakes of all of these. But it is not self-sufficient or independently existing. It draws upon the reservoir of universal energy, and in it the etheric counterpart lives and moves and has its being. Energy is thus functioning through the etheric.

This is true of man also. The universal energy functions through his etheric body. And as man exists on seven planes, so the etheric body has seven points of contact with energy—but as only three planes are active, and four dormant, so only three force centres are fully developed and four as yet undeveloped. Of this, more later.

In harmonising the two schools, the question naturally arises, does Western Science corroborate the Eastern theory?

No less a scientist than Sir Isaac Newton accepts the universal medium of ether without question. In the last paragraph of his Principia, he says:

“And now we might add something concerning a certain most subtle spirit which pervades and lies hid in all gross bodies; by the force and action of which spirit the particles of bodies mutually attract one another at near distances, and cohere if contiguous; and electric bodies operate to greater distances, as well repelling as attracting the neighbouring corpuscles; and light is emitted, reflected, refracted, inflected, and heats bodies; and all sensation is excited, and the members of animal bodies move at the command of the will, namely by the vibrations of this spirit, mutually propagated along the solid firmaments of the nerves, from the outward organs of sense to the brain, and from the brain into the muscles. But these are things that cannot be explained in few words, nor are we furnished with that sufficiency of experiments which is required to an accurate determination and demonstration of the laws by which this electric and elastic spirit operates.”

Thus it can be argued from the above that Newton recognised the facts of the etheric body, underlying all forms, including the human.

As Newton is not of this century or the last, let us turn to a recent edition (1926) of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The following discussion is given under the heading of “ether.”

“Whether space is a mere geometrical abstraction, or whether it has definite physical properties which can be investigated, is a question which in one form or another has often been debated. As to the parts which are occupied by matter, that is by a substance which appeals to the senses, there has never been any doubt; and the whole of science may be said to be an investigation of the properties of matter. But from time to time attention has been directed to the intervening portions of space from which sensible matter is absent; and this also has physical properties, of which the complete investigation has hardly begun.

“These physical properties do not appeal directly to the senses, and are therefore comparatively obscure; but there is now no doubt of their existence; even among those who still prefer to use the term space. But a space endowed with physical properties is more than a geometrical abstraction, and is most conveniently thought of as a substantial reality, to which therefore some other name is appropriate. The term used is unimportant, but long ago the term ETHER was invented; it was adopted by Isaac Newton, and is good enough for us. The term ether therefore connotes a genuine entity filling all space, without any break or cavity anywhere, the one omnipresent physical reality, of which there is a growing tendency to perceive that everything in the material universe consists; matter itself being in all probability one of its modifications….

“Thus an ether is necessary for the purpose of transmitting what is called gravitational force between one piece of matter and another, and for the still more important and universal purpose of transmitting waves of radiation between one piece of matter and another however small and distant they be….

“The properties of the ether are not likely to be expressible in terms of matter; but, as we have no better clue, we must proceed by analogy, and we may apologetically speak of the elasticity and density of the ether as representing things which, if it were matter, would be called by those names. What these terms really express we have not yet fathomed; but if, as is now regarded as very probable, atomic matter is a structure in ether, there is every reason for saying that the ether must in some sense be far denser than any known material substance….

“Matter therefore is comparatively a gossamer structure, subsisting in a very substantial medium….”

These views are amplified by other scientists of note.

Writing in the 17th century, Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist as quoted by Dr. Burtt said:

“Whence, I ask if it be unworthy of a philosopher to inquire of a philosopher if there be not in nature an incorporeal substance, which, while it can impress on any body all the qualities of body, or at least most of them, such as motion, figure, position of parts, etc., … would be further able, since it is almost certain that this substance removes and stops bodies, to add whatever is involved in such motion, that is, it can unite, divide, scatter, bind, form the small parts, order the forms, set in circular motion those which are disposed for it, or move them in any way whatever, arrest their circular motion, and do such similar further things with them as are necessary to produce according to your principles light, colours, and the other objects of the senses…. Finally, incorporeal substance having the marvellous power of cohering and dissipating matter, of combining it, dividing it, thrusting it forth and at the same time retaining control of it, by mere application of itself without bonds, without hooks, without projections or other instruments; does it not appear probable that it can enter once more in itself, since there is no impenetrability to frustrate it, and expand itself again, and the like.”

In discussing Henry More, Dr. Burtt goes on to say:

“In this passage More extends his reasoning from the conclusion of an incorporeal substance in human beings to the assumption of a similar and greater incorporeal substance in nature as a whole, for he was convinced that the facts of science showed nature to be no more a simple machine than is a human being.”

Also writing in the 17th century, Robert Boyle brought forward the same hypothesis and ascribed two functions to ether, to propagate motion by successive impacts and to be a medium through which curious phenomena manifested, such as magnetism, Boyle said:

“That there may be such a substance in the universe, the asserters of it will probably bring for proofs several of the phenomena I am about to relate; but whether there be or be not in the world any matter that exactly answers to the descriptions they make of their first and second elements I shall not here discuss, though divers experiments seem to argue that there is an ethereal substance, very subtle and not a little diffused.”

Coming again to modern times Sir William Barrett said:

“The universe presents us with an assemblage of phenomena—physical, vital, and intellectual—the connecting link between the worlds of intellect and matter being that of organized vitality, occupying the whole domain of animal and vegetable life, throughout which, in some way inscrutable to us, movements among the molecules of matter are originated of such a character as apparently to bring them under the control of an agency other than physical, superseding the ordinary laws which regulate the movements of inanimate matter, or in other words, giving rise to movements which would not result from the action of those laws uninterfered with; and therefore implying, on the very same principle, the origination of force.”

The Eastern teaching regards the vital body as the intermediary between the physical and the intellectual: it acts as the agency of the mind in a human being and of the Universal Mind in a solar system, and it is interesting to note in this connection Sir William Barrett’s threefold enumeration of “physical, vital and intellectual.”

Sir Oliver Lodge, though often criticised for his views as to communication between the living and the dead, is, in matters of pure science, in the front rank of this age. He says:

“What about the Ether which holds the atoms together, the welding ether which is essential to the characteristic configuration of a body—which is as essential as the matter itself?

“We do not usually attend to the ether aspect of a body; we have no sense organ for its appreciation, we only directly apprehend matter. Matter we apprehend clearly when young children, but as we grow up we infer the Ether, too, or some of us do. We know that a body of characteristic shape, or indeed of any definite shape, cannot exist without the forces of cohesion—cannot exist therefore without the Ether—meaning by the Ether now, not the whole, but the unmaterialized part of it, the part which is the region of strain, the receptacle of potential energy, the substance in which the atoms of matter are embedded. Not only is there a matter body, there is also an ether body: the two are coexistent.”

He takes up the same subject again in an article which appeared in The Hibbert Journal and presents some most interesting and suggestive conclusions, as follows:

“Light is an affection of the ether. Light is to ether as sound is to matter…. Subject to all the laws of time and space, fully amenable to the laws of energy, largely the source of terrestrial energy, governing all the manifestations of physical forces, at the root of elasticity and tenacity and every other static property of matter, the ether is just beginning to take its rightful place in the scheme of physics….

“Electric charges, composed of modified ether, are likely to prove to be the cosmic building material…. There is the great bulk of undifferentiated ether, the entity which fills all space and in which everything material occurs. A duality runs through the scheme of physics—matter and ether.

“All kinetic energy belongs to what we call matter, whether in the atomic or the corpuscular form; movement or locomotion is its characteristic. All static energy belongs to the ether, the unmodified and universal ether; its characteristics are strain and stress. Energy is always passing to and fro from one to the other—from ether to matter or vice versa—and in this passage is all work done.

“Now, the probability is that every sensible object has both a material and an etherial counterpart. One side only are we sensibly aware of, the other we have to infer. But the difficulty of perceiving this other side—the necessity for indirect inference—depends essentially and entirely on the nature of our sense organs, which tell us of matter and do not tell us of ether. Yet one is as real and substantial as the other, and their fundamental joint quality is coexistence and interaction. Not interaction everywhere and always, for there are plenty of regions without matter—though there is no region without ether; but the potentiality of interaction, and often the conspicuous reality of it, everywhere prevails and constitutes the whole of our purely mundane experience.”

In a supplementary note to the article, he says:

“Ether belongs to the physical frame of things, no one supposes it be a psychic entity; but it probably subserves psychical purposes, just as matter does. Professors Tait and Balfour Stewart surmised a psychic significance for the ether of space so long ago as 1875, and treated it from a religious point of view in that much criticized book The Unseen Universe. And that great mathematical physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, concluded his article “Ether” in the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica with an expression of faith, not indeed in this speculation, about which he evinced great caution, but in the real existence of a supersensuous universal connecting medium, and in the probability of its having many unsuspected functions.”

Dr. Sajous, Professor of Endocrinology in Pennsylvania University asserts his belief in this universal medium in the following terms:

“It seems plain that the need of a primary intelligent and co-ordinative creative medium such as the ether asserts itself on all sides….

“The ether, as interpreted by scientists, meets all these conditions and is the only medium known to science that is capable of doing so. It is invisible, permeates all matter and pervades all space by wave motion, without limit in the universe. It offers practically no resistance to radiant energy, even to light from the sun and the most distant stars discovered. It is the medium which transmits ‘radio’ waves, wireless telegraphy waves, Becquerel rays, X- or Roentgen rays, etc.

“The ether is endowed with creative power in space and on earth…. The ether of space, therefore, builds solar systems as it does matter, with co-ordination and intelligence, and endows all chemical elements it forms with the properties they are known to possess….”

Dr. Joad of Oxford University pictures for us the activity of this vital force, of the `livingness’ animating matter and shows the relationship between life and form. He comes close indeed, to the Eastern theory of the etheric counterpart and the energy functioning through it.

“The Life Force. Let us suppose that in the first instance the universe was purely material. It was chaos, deadness and blankness, without energy or purpose, and devoid of life. Into this inorganic universe there is introduced at some stage or other, and from some source unexplained, a principle of life, and by life I mean a something which is not expressible in terms of matter. At first blind and stumbling, a purely instinctive thrust or pulse, it seeks to express itself by struggling to achieve an ever higher degree of consciousness. We may conceive the ultimate purpose of the life force to be the achievement of complete and universal consciousness, a result which can only be secured by the permeation of the whole universe with life and energy, so that beginning as a world of `matter’ it may end as a world of `mind,’ or `spirit.’ With this object it works in and through matter, infusing and permeating matter with its own principle of energy and life. To matter so infused we give the name of a living organism. Living organisms are to be regarded in the light of the tools or weapons which the life force creates to assist it in the accomplishment of its purpose. Like the universe itself, each living organism is formed of a substratum of matter which has been animated by life, much as a length of wire may be charged with an electric current. It is a current of life which has been insulated in a piece of matter.

“The life force is far from being all-powerful. It is limited by the matter which it seeks to overcome, and its methods are experimental, varying according to the stage of evolution which, in the persons of the organisms created by it, it has succeeded in reaching. Different types of beings best serve its purpose at different stages.”

Will Durant, doubtless the most widely read and popular author on philosophical subjects, says:

“The more we study matter the less we see it as fundamental, the more we perceive it as merely the externality of energy, as our flesh is the outward sign of life and mind…. In the heart of matter, giving it form and power, is something not material, possessed of its own spontaneity and life; and this subtle, hidden and yet always revealed vitality is the final essence of everything that we know…. Life is first, and within; matter, coeval with it in time and inextricable from it in space, is second to it in essence, in logic, and in significance; matter is the form and visibility of life….

“The life is not a function of the form, the form is a product of the life; the weight and solidity of matter are the result and expression of intra-atomic energy, and every muscle or nerve in the body is the moulded instrument of desire.”

These books and scientists show that the Eastern doctrine of an etheric body, the medium of a vital force, of energy or life, is not the vague dream of a mystically inclined people, but is regarded as a fact in nature by many practical minded Occidental investigators.

In summarising our ideas we might formulate them as follows:

Behind the objective body lies a subjective form constituted of etheric matter and acting as a conductor of the life principle of energy, or prana. This life principle is the force aspect of the soul, and through the medium of the etheric body the soul animates the form, gives it its peculiar qualities and attributes, impresses upon it its desires and, eventually directs it through the activity of the mind. Through the medium of the brain the soul galvanises the body into conscious activity and through the medium of the heart all parts of the body are pervaded by life.

This theory has a close correspondence to the animistic theory of the West and will be defined later. The term animism has sufficed up to the present, but is likely to be superseded by that of “dynamism,” owing to the developments taking place within the human consciousness itself. Man, being now a fully self-conscious entity and the personality being now integrated and functioning, the time has come when he can, for the first time, demonstrate conscious purpose and directive will.

The three states of man’s nature, referred to earlier in this chapter—physical, sentient and mental—form a co-ordinated unity for the first time in the history of the race. The directing self, therefore, can now take control, and, through the mind, acting on the vital or etheric body and having its point of contact in the brain, drive its instrument into fully controlled expression, and subsequent creative activity. Thus will emerge what Keyserling calls the “deeper Being.” He says:

“The next question is whether and how it is possible to develop deeper Being. When we speak of the Being of a man in contradistinction to his ability, we mean his vital soul; and when we say that this Being decides, we mean that all his utterances are penetrated with individual life, that every single expression radiates personality, and that this personality is ultimately responsible. Now such a penetration can actually be achieved where it does not already exist. It is possible, thanks for the fact that man as a being possessing a mind and a soul represents a Sense connection within which his consciousness moves freely. He is free to lay the emphasis wherever he pleases; according to the `place’ thus stressed the psychic organism actually shifts its centre, and thus actually obtains a new centre of Being. Therefore, if theoretical inquiry shows that it depends upon the centring of consciousness, whether the centre of a man lies in his Being or at the surface, then it must be practically possible to induce the necessary process of shifting. Hence in principle everybody can succeed in raising his Being; to this end he need only persistently lay the emphasis on his essential Being, persistently demand of himself that he should never utter anything but what is really consistent with his inner Being. Surely the task is a hard one. Its solution is not only a very slow process; it necessitates a specific technique of training.”

The possibility of man functioning as a soul, as a synthesis of mechanism, life and purpose, will, I believe, be greatly hastened when the Eastern and Western psychologies are merged and the relationship of the Glands to the vital body, with its centres of force, studied and understood. Hocking, in this connection, comes to this conclusion:

“There seems reason to hope for a better physical future of the race by the aid of a sound mental hygiene. After the era of the charlatans has gone by, and to some extent by their aid, there appears a possibility of steadily enlarging self-mastery, as the spiritual sense of such discipline as the Yoga joins with the sober elements of Western psychology and a sane system of ethics. No one of these is worth much without the others.”

Two points merit discussion, before we pass on to a detailed account of the Eastern teaching as to the force centres. One is a consideration as to the nature of the soul, and the other is an attempt to consider the testimony of the centuries as to the probable location of the soul consciousness.

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