The Soul, The Koshas (the Sheaths of Maya) and “No Self”

Featured Posts, The 3 Realms (Gross Subtle and Causal), The Koshas, The Universe is Mind

Liberation is when one realizes the emptiness of all aspects of the self structure, 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, 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, the chakra model, the sefirot of Kabbalah, the skandhas of Buddhism, or the great chain of being described by 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. 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 or becoming free of 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, the or 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. 

One of the most comprehensive conceptual lenses of 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 (for more reading the The Taittiriya Upanishad speaks of koshas).


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

Each kosha or sheath of maya is a level of mind on a continuum from gross to subtle. Branching patterns are the signature pattern of mind that is found at all levels and fractal scales of nature. 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. These figures are branching electrical discharges which create signature tree-like patterns as the energy moves through different media. The figures are sometimes created by injecting trillions of electrons into a block of acrylic using a five million volt particle accelerator. 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, exhibiting 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 created branching or conditioning becomes tomorrow’s experience. This is what Carl Jung meant by “what you resist persists”. When there is resistance to what is, the universe creates pathways, holds onto patterns, and creates a self structure as independent from the rest of the universe. This resistance is the beginning of karma, which is simply the tendency for energy to follow established pathways. In the matrix of 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)

During the last many centuries humanity has put its roots deeper and deeper into the material realm narrowly focused into the physical and the mental layers of our being. Like all of the koshas, the physical sheath is a mind construct. It is created from sensory data which forms the perception of an external world. The physical sheath is 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; and 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.

The mental sheath (mannomayakosha)

The lower mind, or sensory mind is mannomayakosha, or the mental sheath. It is possible to turn awareness to the direct perception of thought patterns themselves. This 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, or both. Try observing your thoughts in mediation and you will find that every thought is made of either images, an auditory component (inner dialog), or both. 

When we become aware of the thinking layer, we are becoming aware of thoughts as their own discrete layer of phenomena, and we are bringing sankaras (conditioned patterns) into consciousness. When we do not react to a conditioned pattern, it energetically arises and passes away, and its charge within the unconscious is dissipated so that it will have less power and less control.

Some sankaras are like lines etched in sand; the pattern is not worn deep, and energy is easily freed. While some conditioned patterns are extremely deep, well worn grooves like lines etched in rock, and it will take great vigilance to make them conscious and to keep energy from flowing in them (to stay present and aware of awareness). They may tie into patterns of self worth, survival, loveableness, our sense of value based on accomplishment or success.

When the mind moves of its own volition, it is due to “dukkha”, or unsatisfactoriness, the movement of manas or lower mind. The lower mind is never satisfied with what Is, and it is fundamentally made of patterns of craving and aversion. 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 meditation 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 what we are is tied to identification with this phenomena (ie. we prefer one thing over another), then we will suffer when it inevitably changes.

The energy or pranic sheath (pranamayakosha)

Prana, inner energy or aliveness has been called by many names: chi in Taoism, kundalini shakti (or prana shakti) in the Vedic tradition, holy spirit in Christian mysticism, 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 into the light body and finally into god consciousness. God is 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, from gross to subtle.

Prana is perceived as subtle vibration or the “field of change” at the root level of the senses, prior to or beyond the physical 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. It is possible to awaken on the pranic layer through a type of Samadhi called Savikalpa Samadhi, or Samadhi with a seed. 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). This is also called 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 profound experience of being connected to all of creation through the energetic field. My 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 profound sense of loss when the experience passes.

By observing sensation at the subtlest level of awareness possible, we bring consciousness into the pranic field, which is made up of the two polarities of energy when filtered through the self structure (positive and negative, craving and aversion). 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 ego, only egoic activity, and when that activity ceases the illusion of the self is revealed, as it is nowhere to be found. The Buddhist equivalent of energy is the insight of annica, or 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. Everything is made new, experienced as if for the first time, 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 just broadcasts an ego. All true creativity, art, music, poetry, literature, comes from this source. It is Buddhi or intellect in the Vedic traditions, insight in Buddhism, or what Plato and Plotinus called the world of forms.

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 bosses, the fallen ones become angels. This could be called “the flip”.

The higher mind is where the alchemical process of symbols are turned 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. 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”.

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.”

An analogy can be made with fractals. The fractal that you see is the result of iteration, 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. 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 of code are archetypal, symbolic, mythic, mathematical, and geometric, and inconceivably more. It includes the realms of what the Egyptians called neters, or what the ancient greeks called gods and demigods. They are all aspects of higher mind, and are as real as any other aspect of maya. In Tibetan and Vajrayana buddhism, it is the place 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 the soul and to realize the higher parts of you that have moved through countless lives.

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 dropped. The difference between lower mind and higher mind is that lower mind produces iterated repetitive thought phenomena, while in higher mind one simply witnesses what is.

Part of the path is to learn to distinguish imagination of the lower mind, from the “imaginal” revelations of higher mind- the formless archetypal realms and realms of subtle energy. To distinguish lower concepts from the higher constructs.

The causal body (Anandamayakosha)

The causal body awakens when pure awareness, turiya becomes present as the body itself; as all that is. The causal body or sheath is impossible to convey in words and any description will sound paradoxical to the mind, because it involves the transcending of opposites. 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 of blissful energy or happiness 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. 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.

In the Buddhist tradition gross, subtle and causal are given the names nirmanikaya, sambogakaya, and dharmakaya. Nirmanikaya is the physical/biological, sambogakaya is the soul level, and dharkmakaya is the causal. Dharmakaya cannot be made an object- it is awareness itself. Like an eye that tries to look at itself, it is the one thing that can’t be seen by itself.

Even the awakening on the causal (anandamayakosha) is still a level of maya. 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 realizes the emptiness of the all 5 skandhas, which are the 5 aggregates of mind. The truth is revealed when one realizes all aspects of the self structure. This means even letting go of the causal awareness to the unfathomable that cannot be mentioned whatsoever.

When we awaken on a higher vibratory level, all of the stuff we have not dealt with on the lower levels starts to come up. Any sankaras that were not purified will start to come to the surface.

The 5 koshas reflect the 5 levels of conditioning that keep us trapped in maya. 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, gaia, and universal aspects of the game of Leila, and finally the causal which is awareness as the ground of all being. And at any time on the path, perhaps in moments of stillness, or for no reason at all,  it is possible to realize the great reality; the immanent Self or primordial “I AM” wakes up and recognizes itself beyond all levels and sheaths of the soul. At first we learn to “be still and know”. Being still is not simply a stopping of activity, but the awakening of stillness within activity, an awakening of emptiness within form. The path is to “be still know”, and to “be in motion and know”, recognizing the stillness and motion as exactly one.

This Area is Widget-Ready

You can place here any widget you want!

You can also display any layout saved in Divi Library.

Let’s try with contact form: