Mysticism is a discipline involved with knowledge and techniques which are of value in assisting the individual toward spiritual growth. It is a very pragmatic discipline, concerned with direct experience, or awareness of spiritual truth, of ultimate reality, etc., which can be attained through immediate intuition, insight, or illumination. Mystical methodology is not based on external experimentation, but internal observation. According to Lama Anagarika Govinda, “The mystic anatomy and physiology … is not founded on the ‘object-isolating’ investigations of science, but on subjective — though not less unprejudiced — observations of inner processes, i.e., not on the dissection of dead bodies or on the external observation of the functions of human and animal organisms, but on the self-observation and on the direct experience of processes and sensations within one’s body.”(5) Mysticism regards intellectual knowledge as an aid to the direct experience of ultimate “truths”, but not as an end in itself. This can be contrasted with modern science which is primarily an intellectual process, quite suspicious and skeptical of direct knowledge through experience.
As an age old tradition which continues to develop, mysticism is expansive, covering numerous concepts and doctrines. Exemplary among mystical teachings are those of India and Tibet, and of particular interest to this paper are those beliefs related to the subtle bodies of man (which form the physical basis of mysticism). According to this knowledge man is composed of several interpenetrating sheaths or subtle bodies called kosas, which are made up of matter from different planes, each of different relative density. The densest of these sheaths is what we normally regard as our physical body, the body that is visible to our normal vision, and which western science has explored in great detail. The other sheaths are not visible to our every day vision. The second sheath is a subtle, fine-material sheath named the prana-maya-kosa, known also as the prana or etheric body. This kosa gives the visible body life and consciousness through the prana. In western mysticism, the astral body is noted in addition to the etheric body, and is apparently combined with the pranic subtle body. The next even finer sheath is our ‘thought body’ or ‘personality’, the mano-maya-kosa (mental body). This body is necessary for rational and intellectual thinking. The fourth sheath is the body of our potential consciousness, named the vijnana-maya-kosa, which extends far beyond our active thoughts. It comprises the totality of our spiritual capacities and is apparently equivalent to the soul in western mysticism. “The last and finest sheath, which penetrates all previous ones, is the body of the highest, universal consciousness … (ananda-maya-kosa). It is only experienced in a state of enlightenment, or in the highest states of meditation (dhyana), and corresponds in the terminology of the Mahayana to the ‘Body of Inspiration’ or ‘Body of Bliss’.”(6) These sheaths are not separate layers forming around a center, but are mutually penetrating forms of matter, from the finest matter down to the densest form of matter, which appears before us as our visible body. “The corresponding finer or subtler sheaths penetrate, and thus contain the grosser ones. Just as the material body is built up through nourishment, while being penetrated and kept alive by the vital forces of the prana, in the same way the body of active thought-consciousness penetrates the functions of prana and determines the form of bodily appearance.”(7) Mind body, prana body, and visible body, however, are viewed as being penetrated and motivated by the still deeper and finer matter, in which the material that our thought and imagination draws its substance, is stored up. “It is therefore only the spiritual body … which penetrates all the five layers and thus integrates all organs and faculties of the individual into one complete whole.”(8) In mysticism, the finest matters appear to be associated with the deepest truths, or spiritual understandings.
Along with these sheaths or mystical bodies are the energy centers or chakras, which are also not visible to our normal vision. The chakras “collect, transform and distribute the forces flowing through them. … From them radiate secondary streams of psychic force, comparable to the spokes of a wheel, the ribs of an umbrella, or the petals of a lotus. In other words, these chakras are at points in which ‘psychic forces’ and bodily functions merge into each other or penetrate each other.”(9) There are seven centers of psycho-cosmic force, the lowest of these is the Muladhara chakra (Root-support), and is located (relative to the visible body), at the base of the spine (the sacral plexus). The next-higher one is called the Svadhisthana chakra. In Tibetan Buddhism, this center is usually not mentioned or regarded as an independent center, but is combined with the Muladhara chakra, under the name ‘sang-na’, the ‘Secret Place’. It corresponds to the sacral plexus, and stands for the whole realm of reproductive forces. The next center is at the solar plexus and is called Manipura chakra (naval-lotus), and stands for the forces of transformation, in the physical as well as in the psychic sense. The center that corresponds to the heart area is called the Anahata chakra, which regulates and controls the organs of respiration, just as the heart does. The three highest centers are the Throat center, Visuddha (pure) chakra, corresponding to the plexus cervicus in the visible body; the Ajna (command) chakra, corresponding to the position between the eyebrows (the medulla oblongata); and the Crown chakra called Sahasrara-Padma, the ‘Thousand-petalled Lotus’, which is associated with the pituitary gland in the visible body. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Ajna chakra is not separately mentioned, but is regarded as part of the Sahasrara-Padma or Crown chakra.(10)
Connecting the sheaths (kosas) and chakras are subtle vessels called nadis, which serve as conductors of the energies that flow through the subtle bodies. To a certain extent, they parallel the nerve-system in the body, and they are very numerous. However, there are three major nadis – the central channel or susumna, which runs like a hollow channel through the center of the spinal column (relative to the visible body) and the ida and pingala, which are two channels wrapped around the susumna-nadi in a spiral fashion, starting from the left and the right nostrils respectively, and meeting susumna in the perineum at the base of the spine. They establish a direct connection among the seven chakras. In Tibetan descriptions, pingala and ida are often simply called the ‘right and left nadi’, and there is no mention of a spiral movement of these nadis around the susumna.(11)
With our ordinary vision we cannot see the mystical subtle bodies, or the chakras, or the nadis, but all these bodies and chakras interact with each other to form the whole human being. To function as a human being, we are constantly using these subtle bodies even though we are not conscious of them. To the true practitioner of mysticism, these truths are as real to them as scientific truths are to the scientist. By turning inward mysticism has concentrated its exploration of the universe on those concepts which are of value to spiritual growth.