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Doctrine of Subtle Worlds
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Doctrine of Subtle Worlds

Quote:The writing of this essay on the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds began on November 4, 1996. At that time, I had been living out of my car, wandering around the U.S. for almost a year. I was two months into a solitary retreat at Dorje Khyung Dzong, a Buddhist retreat center in southern Colorado. I was 47 years old, and I was desperately trying to figure out what to do with my life. In one moment of peculiarly intense longing and aspiration, I received what seemed to me to be a clear and unambiguous instruction. “Work,” I was told, “where the occult and the scientific intersect.” This essay is the result of following that instruction for the past five and a half years.

When I began my research for this essay, I was already deeply immersed in the thought of Sri Aurobindo. I have found in his work an approach to theology and to spiritual practice which is entirely satisfying to the deepest parts of my being. But Aurobindo is not only a theologian, a yogi, and a spiritual teacher, he is also a great cosmologist. In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo presents an extraordinary cosmological vision which places the evolutionary physical world revealed by modern science in the context of a vast system of subtle worlds, and places that larger cosmos, comprising both the physical and the subtle worlds, in a meaningful relation to a Divine Absolute.


When I began to look at the intersection of the occult understanding (which is primarily concerned with the subtle worlds), and the scientific understanding, I tried to start with Aurobindo. “How,” I asked, “does Aurobindo actually account for the physical world?” What can Aurobindo say that might be interesting to scientists and technicians?” “What can Aurobindo tell us about the relationship between the physical world and the subtle worlds?”


I found, rather to my surprise, that Aurobindo was not very helpful in this regard. While he does make a prominent place for the physical world in his cosmology, he accounts for it in very general terms. Aurobindo’s cosmology makes ample room for a physical world, but his attention is not on the details of that world, and he has (so far as I can tell) very little to say that adds to, or illuminates, the specifics of a scientific understanding. Further, while Aurobindo describes the subtle worlds more consistently and eloquently than any other writer in the English language, I could not find in his work a satisfying account of the specific spatio-temporal and causal relations that bind the physical worlds to the subtle worlds within which, in the occult understanding which he represents, they are situated. This left me at an intellectual impasse.


The impasse was broken when, in the Spring semester of 2000, I was privileged to audit Brian Swimme’s seminar on Alfred North Whitehead. I found in Whitehead’s work a remarkable system of abstractions which enabled me to make sense of science and of the physical world as that world is understood by science, and also of the subtle worlds as those worlds are described by Aurobindo and other philosophers and cosmologists of the occult. I began to realize that Whitehead’s metaphysical ideas provided the perfect context within which to explore the intersection of science and the occult. This essay can, in its main parts, be understood as at attempt to use Whitehead’s philosophy of science to articulate Aurobindo’s understanding of the subtle worlds. In the process of doing this, of course, I am stretching the thought of both of these great thinkers. I like to think that both of them would enjoy the result.

Chapter One of this essay presents the idea of the subtle worlds, and tries to make that idea intelligible to someone who has received a modern, scientifically oriented, education. 

Chapter Two summarizes, very briefly, Aurobindo’s understanding of the subtle worlds. 

Chapter Three sets the stage for the main part of the work by pointing to the field of experience – which, following Whitehead, we term “Fact.” 

Chapter Four demonstrates how the physical world, as that world is understood by science, finds its place within the domain of Fact, and 

Chapter Five shows how the subtle worlds also find their place in that same domain.

Chapter Six adumbrates some possible implications of these ideas in the context of the current evolutionary crisis on planet Earth.


It should be understood that this essay is not a “proof” of the existence of the subtle worlds. A proof can only be offered where there is clear agreement about what exactly it is that constitutes such a proof. In other words, a proof is a gesture that operates within the context of a well established paradigm. There are, as yet, no established paradigms in the context of which we can explore the subtle worlds. Thus this essay is not a proof, but rather an invitation. It invites the reader to let go of old assumptions about the nature of the real world, to explore deeply his or her own experience, and to contemplate the possibility that the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds may illuminate that experience in interesting and significant ways
"Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us."

  -Thomas Browne
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