Printed in the Fall 2013 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "Otherwhere: An Interview with Kurt Leland" Quest 101. 4 (Fall 2013): pg. 130-135.
By Richard Smoley
Kurt Leland is one of today's most intrepid explorers of the inner planes. A musician and author as well as a visionary, he has written books including Otherwhere: A Field Guide to Nonphysical Reality for the Out-of-Body Traveler and The Multidimensional Human. A member of the TS, he has given lectures and presentations in Theosophical venues. In addition, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the writings of the Theosophical leader Annie Besant. His latest work, an anthology of her writings entitled Invisible Worlds: Annie Besant on Psychic and Spiritual Development (Quest Books).
I met Kurt during his visit to Olcott in the fall of 2011, and was immediately impressed with the depth of his knowledge of and experience in, the astral and mental realms, which are for most people little more than vaguely understood concepts. He seemed to be the perfect person to feature in an issue on the astral plane. The following conversation was conducted by e-mail in the spring of 2013.
Richard Smoley: What exactly is the astral plane? How does it differ from the other unseen levels that esotericism talks about?
Kurt Leland: Many ancient and modem religions posit the sky or the stars as a paradisal destination for the souls of the dead. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Gnosticism, and the Christianity behind Dante's Divine Comedy divide this heaven in the sky into multiple layers (often seven) in which immateriality and blessedness increase as the soul ascends. In some religions, the soul may be detained in one or another of these layers to be purified before continuing to rise or returning to earth in a new physical body—hence the notion of purgatory in Catholic teachings. In the fifth century CE, the Neoplatonist Proclus seems to have originated the term astral (Greek: "starry") body as one of the soul's "vehicles." Since then, the word astral has been assigned by various esoteric traditions to a number of bodies, states of consciousness, and nonphysical locations. Even in H.P. Blavatsky's writings, the terms astral body and astral plane may refer sometimes to a particular state of existence beyond that of the physical realm and sometimes to any such state.
In later Theosophical literature, especially that produced by Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, the astral plane is defined as the first nonphysical reality we encounter after death—less material than the physical plane, yet denser in substance than the higher planes and serving a purgatorial function.
Smoley: Could you talk a little about how the astral level fits in with other planes of reality that Theosophy discusses?
Leland: HPB defined a plane as "the range or extent of some state of consciousness, or of the perceptive powers of a particular set of senses, or the action of a particular force, or the state of matter corresponding to any of .the above" (Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary, 255)
Thus the astral plane is a state of consciousness in which, by means of appropriate inner senses we perceive a particular state of matter (less dense than that of the physical plane, more subtle than that of higher planes). This matter corresponds to our states of desire and emotion. Thus the astral plane is sometimes called the plane of kama (Sanskrit: "desire") or the emotional plane. Higher levels of existence correspond to the mind (mental plane), the intuition (buddhic plane), and the spiritualized will (nirvanic plane).
Smoley: What does the astral plane have to do with the astral light as described by HPB, Etliphas Levi, and other occultists?
Leland: In Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge, HPB calls the astral light "the dregs of akasha," a Sanskrit word meaning "radiance" (Blavatsky, Collected Writings 10:251). For her, akasha, one of the five elements of Hinduism (along with earth, water, air, and fire), seems to be the "substance" of nonphysical reality. It has seven levels, of which the astral light is the lowest.
Sometimes HPB speaks of "Astral Light" (uppercase) when referring to the higher levels. She also calls the "astral light" (lowercase) the astral body of our planet and claims that we have filled it with destructive images (thought-forms) based on selfishness—negative thoughts and feelings that separate us from the whole. No wonder she refers to dregs!
Besant and Leadbeater speak of the astral plane in similar terms, so it seems reasonable to equate the astral light and the astral plane. However, Besant and Leadbeater often describe the planes in travelogue form, leaving the impression that they are quasi-physical locations. HPB's notion of levels of akasha reminds us that when our inner senses are attuned to these levels, we perceive illusory images superimposed on a nonphysical reality more correctly perceived as degrees of radiance emanating from the Source of our planar system. Such images are often symbolic, drawn from our personal experience. They help us understand what we perceive in subtle realms, but they have no actual existence there.
Smoley: Could you say a little bit about how ordinary people experience the astral plane?
Leland: I'm not sure that ordinary people do experience it! Though dreams ordinarily take place on the astral plane, they rarely give clues about the structure of that plane and its regions and inhabitants. An extraordinary amount of lucidity is required to experience such things directly. But perhaps you mean, how would an ordinary person suddenly catapulted onto the astral plane experience it? This was my situation when my projection experiences began at age fourteen. I had no training, no desire for such experiences. I wasn't seeking them. I didn't know what they were—and I found them terrifying.
Most people fear that separation of the locus of consciousness—what we call ourselves—from the physical body means death, or at least the possibility of not being able to get back into it. I experienced that fear. I knew I was someplace else. I could see nothing, hear nothing, and I couldn't move of my own accord—my astral senses weren't sufficiently developed for such purposes. A presence of some sort was drawing me along. I fought to get away from it and return to my physical body. It may have been a benign presence, even perhaps a teacher. But I had no way of knowing what it was.
Just as we don't know how to sort out our sense impressions when we're born into the physical body, so it is when we first experience the astral body. We have to go from what Besant calls a sheath—an unorganized astral body that has only the possibility of responding to the matter of the astral plane—to a body, in which we feel and understand the full range of human emotion and have mastered it to some degree, to a vehicle of consciousness, which allows us to be fully aware of, and to move freely on, the astral plane because we've mastered our emotional nature.
Several years after my first projections, I learned what they were. I began to develop the senses of this astral vehicle so I would know where I was, what I was seeing, whom I was interacting with, and how to get from one astral location to another. The process took about twelve years.
Smoley: What does this level of reality have to do with dreams?
Leland: Though much Theosophical literature focuses on the astral plane as a stage in our journey between death and rebirth, this plane also represents the state of consciousness in which many of our dreams take place. Astral dreams serve much the same purpose as the purgatorial stage of the afterlife. They allow us to confront and release the emotional reactions built up within daily life. We confront them as dream images, and the corresponding changes in the physical body allow us to release them.
Though people often think of astral projection as a specialized technique that may be difficult or dangerous to develop, we project onto the astral plane every night when we're asleep. In our dreams, we tend to be self-absorbed, not recognizing the astral environment for what it is—just as we may not notice our physical surroundings when we're brooding in ordinary waking consciousness. Exploring the astral plane may require little more than turning our attention away from personal dream imagery toward the more public aspects of the astral plane—its scenes, dwellers, and phenomena.
Smoley: There is some implicit conflict about astral travel and similar techniques among Theosophists. There is the idea that these powers can be developed, but there is also a tremendous reluctance to develop them on the grounds that this can be dangerous. Where do you stand on this issue?
Leland: HPB's writings are full of warnings about the dangers of developing abilities such as channeling (mediumship) and astral travel. Back in the 1970s, a book of selections from her writings called Dynamics of the Psychic World was published. The editor's choices were sufficiently alarming that anyone who read it would naturally be wary of such explorations. Yet the following passage was not included: "Subjective, purely spiritual 'Mediumship' is the only harmless kind, and is often an elevating gift that might be cultivated by every one" (Blavatsky, Collected Writings 6:329).
HPB taught the students of her Esoteric School to seek the guidance of high spiritual Masters by "rising to the spiritual plane where the Masters are" (B1avatsky, Collected Writings 12:492). This is what she means by "subjective, purely spiritual 'Mediumship.— Some students may rise to that plane through meditation, with no awareness of bodies and planes. According to Annie Besant, these are the "mystics." Others may experience this journey more dramatically, as a rising from one subtle body and plane to another, with complete awareness of the scenes, dwellers, and phenomena encountered in each. Besant calls these the "occultists." She makes this distinction in her 1914 essay "Occultism," one of the texts I selected for Invisible Worlds.
I have learned that in nonphysical reality everything can be experienced as energy, information, and consciousness. Our inner senses are attuned to one or more of these aspects, resulting in what could be called our spiritual temperament. In meditative states or astral projection, the realities we experience correspond to our temperament.
If we're mystics, we respond to the energy aspect of nonphysical reality. Our experience will be filled with radiance, bliss, and a sense of ultimate truth—and may be otherwise indescribable. If we're clairvoyants, we respond to the information aspect. Our experience will be filled with vivid imagery and colors, seemingly real places and beings—which we tend to take literally, based purely upon appearances (for example, seeing the streets of heaven as paved with gold). If we're channelers, we respond to the consciousness aspect. Our experience will be filled with clairaudient encounters with seemingly friendly nonphysical beings— which we may not be able to identify as benevolent or malevolent or verify as truthful.
Ideally, we learn to counterbalance the strengths and weaknesses of our temperaments by developing our inner senses to respond to the other two aspects of nonphysical reality. Thus mystics who add information and consciousness to energy are able to sense the ultimate truthfulness of any nonphysical location or communication. I believe HPB was such a mystic. This is why she was so adept at finding the truths behind the world's religions and poking holes in the teachings of contemporary spiritualists, many of whom were insufficiently developed clairvoyants and channels. Of course, HPB was also a clairvoyant and a channel. The best teachers are highly developed along all three lines, but their primary temperament still colors their teachings.
Clairvoyants who add energy and consciousness to information know that the imagery they perceive as locations and beings represents a larger, otherwise inexpressible reality, and they recognize the need to interpret what they see as symbolic of that larger reality. I believe Leadbeater was such a clairvoyant.
This is why his descriptions of the astral plane are so vividly real to us as readers. But we must read them with our inner senses to discover the truth behind the often symbolic imagery
Channels who add energy and information to consciousness will have nonphysical contacts and will also know what they are, what their relationship to truth is, and the value of the information received from them. The twentieth-century Theosophist Geoffrey Hodson may have been such a channel. He's mostly known today for his vivid imagery of devas (angels) that he perceived clairvoyantly. But several of his early books, beginning with The Brotherhood of Angels and Men, were channeled by an angelic being called Bethelda.
Sadly, too many contemporary channels have access only to consciousness and information. They make extraordinary claims for the celestial origins of the beings who speak through them and they're fluent in delivering information, but to the discerning reader the results are little more than platitudes from the Pleiades.
So, to answer your question—I suspect that many Theosophists have the mystical temperament and are drawn to HPB's teachings because she also had this temperament. Such Theosophists will naturally distrust clairvoyant and channeled information as possibly less truthful than a direct experience of God consciousness achieved through meditation. The clairvoyants and channels may be more drawn to Leadbeater's teachings.
Some schisms in the Theosophical movement, as well as the resulting support or denigration of clairvoyance, channeling, and astral travel, may have been caused by unrecognized differences in spiritual temperament. Perhaps in moving forward, we can expand the notion of universal brotherhood to include these temperaments and recognize that whether we have the temperament of a mystic, a clairvoyant, or a channeler, the challenge for each of us is to add the missing sensitivities to our awareness, whether they be energy, information, or consciousness.
Smoley: There is some suggestion that images of future events lie embedded in the astral plane, and that having access to these is how prophecy works. Could you comment on this idea?
Leland: My understanding is that events take on energetic shape on higher planes and descend gradually into greater degrees of specificity, dropping from plane to plane until they manifest in the physical world. On the astral plane, such "event shapes" may have a high degree of specificity as to locations and persons, but not as to timing. As they get closer to occurring in our world, they begin exerting pressure to manifest on the physical plane, so that everything that is required to embody them lines up. People who are psychically sensitive may become aware of this pressure either as a hunch or sense of impending disaster or as an outright premonition with verifiable details. The closer these event shapes come to physical manifestation, the more likely such sensitives are to pick up on a specific time frame for their occurrence.
Theoretically, anyone who has access to planes higher than the astral can become aware of the shape of events as manifested on those planes — say, as archetypal imagery with a relatively low degree of specificity as to time and location. The prophecies of Nostradamus may be of this type: visions of archetypal event shapes that could replicate themselves on the physical plane in a variety of ways and that could generate any number of historically important events over the centuries since they were first uttered. This may account for their perpetual fascination as well as for the skeptics accusation that they're too vague to be applicable to a particular past, present, or coming event.
Smoley: Some esoteric traditions talk about things like egregores and (in the Tibetan tradition) tulpas —psychic entities that are created through thought power and will alone. Do you think there is any truth to this idea? Do you have any experience of these entities?
Leland: In Magic and Mystery in Tibet, Alexandra David-Neel tells the story of creating such a tulpa as an experiment in the application of techniques learned from Tibetan teachers. She vividly imagined a fat jolly Buddhist monk as a companion—who then seemed to be constantly near her. She could see it and feel its touch. It traveled with her, and she could watch it perform actions she hadn't willed it to do. It was also sometimes visible to others. However, after a while, it began to change form, becoming increasingly malevolent. Six months of constant practice were required to dissolve it.
Certainly this is a cautionary tale about the power of the will and the dangers of ignorant experimentation. HPB would probably say that because David-Neel had stopped refreshing the tulpa with her will, it was taken over by an elemental (a nonphysical being, not necessarily good or evil, but indifferent to humanity and often unintentionally inimical) or an elementary (the astral shell of a deceased person of evil disposition).
I've had no experience of egregores, which I understand to be similar to tulpas, but are created by the combined will of a group. However, I may have experienced a tulpa. In college, I developed a reservoir of ill will toward some fellow students who lived down the hall from me and who frequently interfered with my sleep by playing loud music into the wee hours. One evening, I made the experiment of trying to influence them to stop this behavior by the exertion of my will in meditation. The result was surprising—a lit firecracker was thrown through the open transom above my door and exploded. The shock to my system, when so relaxed, put me into a strange state of consciousness in which my ill will became objectified as a sinister beckoning presence in my dorm room. I ended up wrestling with it all night in a half-awake state until I'd bled off the feelings that created it and awoke.
Smoley: What dangers are there in trying to navigate the astral plane?
Leland: In an early article, HPB wrote of "the philosophical necessity of there being in the world of Spirit, as well as the world of Matter, a law of the survival of the fittest" (Blavatsky, Collected Writings 1:289). If we're going to explore higher planes, we need to keep this in mind—and make sure we're "the fittest." The same would be true of any expedition in the wilderness of physical reality. We try not to be part of the food chain.
Being the fittest would mean studying the rich literature on planes, bodies, and beings produced by the world's religions and mystics, including HPB, Besant, and Leadbeater. Trying to understand the similarity of function that underlies the often dissimilar imagery helps us to develop our inner senses (for example, recognizing that Hindu devas are similar in function to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim angels). It would also mean knowing how to protect ourselves against undesirable astral influences, or negative entities.
Perhaps the best way to think about the astral plane is that is presents a set of initiatory challenges we must confront to achieve the higher plane where he Masters await us. Every moral and emotional weakness will be tested on the astral plane. If we're possessed by such weaknesses in physical life, we may draw negative entities to ourselves on the astral plane, They may try to consume or possess us. If we learn how to deal effectively with such beings there, then we learn to master ourselves here— and vice versa. Thus the best protection against the dangers of the astral plane, as many Theosophical teachers have said, is purity of thought, feeling, and action.
According to Besant, as mystics, we may achieve the higher planes by meditation and selfless service. The practice of brotherhood with all beings gently draws to us higher contacts and opens us up to them. However, as occultists, we may seek to understand and master each plane of being. This is where the initiatory challenges of the astral plane come in. Those who fear such challenges may not feel ready for them—and for good reason, since fear itself will draw to them fearful experiences on the astral plane. For them, the path of the mystic is not only a safer way to the high teachers, but also a safer set of methods for a spiritual organization to promote. Thus it has become a primary focus in some Theosophical organizations.
In my opinion, the most radical thing HPB taught was that every level of our consciousness is provided to us by a category of higher beings who mastered that level in previous evolutionary schemes. When she says that our mind was given to us by such higher beings, she means that our mind is the result of participating in that higher consciousness. If we're separated from it through selfishness, we have a limited use of the mind. If we dissolve that separation through the practice of brotherhood with all beings, we become one with those who create and sustain our consciousness at the mental level. We thereby become one with the universal mind as expressed by those beings. They aren't our servants, as in black magic; and we're not their slaves, as in possession. Yet all they know is now our knowledge, and we become active agents on the physical plane in their task of sustaining and furthering the evolution of all beings. This is what it means to become an adept, at least at the mental level.
The astral plane represents the same challenge at a lower level. The so-called negative entities we encounter there are aspects of our own desires and emotions that stand in the way of oneness with the beings who create and sustain the emotional level of existence. They bar us from the great teachers until we have mastered our emotions.
Blavatsky, H.P. Collected Writings. Edited by Boris de Zirkoff. 15 vols.
Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1977-91.
—Theosophical Glossary. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1892.