Monads, Planes, and Levels of Understanding


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Levels of Understanding

Understanding that the planes exist helps us better understand Leibniz’ monads. To appreciate this claim, let’s back out and consider a broader perspective.  Frank Visser, founder of the Integral World website, gives us a very useful categorization about the views of human nature.  He breaks these down into how many levels are present in the intellectual scheme.

Materialism (or its modern incarnation as physicalism), in which we are nothing more than our body, has one level: the physical level.  Everything about our existence is to be explained only in terms of physical factors.

Traditional views of mind and body here in the West, including the Christian view and most classical philosophy, have two levels: the physical world, and the spiritual world of God and the soul.

Occult views, Hindu philosophical systems, and yogic views have more levels.  For example, classical Theosophy describes seven levels of the human constitution (see Frank’s table, linked above).

Frank’s framework is very useful because it allows us to appreciate all the different viewpoints at once, from a bird’s eye view, so to speak.  This helps us not get confused by the diversity and variety of views of human nature.

Using Frank’s framework, we can recognize the Leibniz worked in a two-level view, essentially the classical Christian framework.  To Leibniz, there was the physical world, and the Eternal world of God and souls.  I just read Jürgen Lawrenz’ book The Nature of Reality and the Reality of Nature: A Study of Leibniz’s Double-Aspect Ontology and the Labyrinth of the Continuum.  I was interested in the continuum part, but as the title makes clear, Lawrenz takes Leibniz two-level framework as constituting ontological categories (ontology is the study of the basic categories of existence).

Now, the problem is, two-level views are confusing.  Here we are as physical beings, in a constant state of change and flux: we are born, we age, and we die.  In the experience of the flux of our being, we postulate an eternal God who is unchanging, yet somehow made this whole ever-changing Cosmos.  If we only imagine that two levels exist in the Cosmos, then it is not at all clear how they can be related.  How can something unchanging create something that is always changing?

It really helps a lot if we try to fill in the gap between these two levels.

The Eternal is Not Something External

It is intuitively obvious that the world we experience is external to our sense of being a self.  The title heading is taken from Swami Krishnananda’s Study and Practice of Yoga, Vol 1 and is a very handy rule of thumb for any explorer of inner space.  In other words, no matter what state of consciousness you are in, if there is an external world, of any sort whatsoever, then you are not experiencing The Eternal.

The idea of the Planes comes from the experiences that are had in altered states of consciousness.  There are many ways to induce altered states, but the best, the most time-tested, and the most efficacious, are the methods of yoga, that have been refined over thousands and thousands of years.   Imagine a turtle pulling its head into its shell.  This gives a very slight idea of what yoga methods accomplish.  Except, once the head is in the shell, there is a new shell inside the old one, and one can again withdraw the head into the new shell, and so on it goes for some number of levels of consciousness.

When one experiences altered states of consciousness, one withdraws inside.  Inside of what? Inside of our consciousness.  Right now we are in the physical world, which seems external to us.  We seem to be “in” our body.  We have the internal experiences of thinking thoughts and being aware of the external world and of our minds and feelings.

When one goes inside of their own consciousness, one finds that what seemed to be previously internal, i.e. our thoughts and feelings, become external, and what had been previously external simply disappears.

Obviously, after this transition, the form taken in consciousness by what previously seemed to be internal, but is now external, changes.  When we are focused in the physical world, our thoughts and feelings really do not have a distinct form.  We may see images in our mind’s eye, we hear sounds and words in our mind, our emotions have their characteristic qualities.  But none of these things has distinct shapes and forms like the (seemingly) external physical objects do.  Compared to a tree or a rock, the thoughts and emotions in our minds seem like ghosts in comparison.  We can record these on paper, or via paintings, pictures, videos, etc., and they then take on a more distinct form because we have recorded them in a physical medium. To some extent we can use neuroimaging like PET scans and fMRI to see traces left in our brains of our inner experiences. But the real experiences inside our minds never have such a concrete quality as do physical objects, when we are in the physical world.

Dreaming is the Next Layer Inward

However, when we withdraw to the next layer of consciousness inward, then all of these things become equivalent to what physical objects are when we are focused in the physical.  We are all familiar with the next inward layer of consciousness.  We call it dreaming.  The world of dreams is the first level “inside the shell” when we withdraw consciousness away from the physical world.

In dreams, our thoughts and feelings become seemingly external to us and take on definite forms.  This issue is complex and debatable, and I welcome debate from those who wish to do so.  There are three general categories by which people interpret dreams: (1) as biological effects of our brain.  This is the Allan Hobson crowd of dream researchers, (2) as symbols that represent things in our waking minds. This is the Freudian view of psychoanalysis, as well as the super-market tabloid books that tell us what objects in our dreams mean.  (3) There is what is called “content analysis”.  This view seeks to simply identify the variety of experiences that occur in dreams.  This view stems from a method invented by two dream researchers, Hall and Van De Castle, in the 1960s.

Of these three approaches, the symbolic one has the most similarity with the yogic view of the dream world.  However, the yogic view is more literal because it considers dreams as analogous to our physical experience in that there is a dual consciousness of an external world, and an experiencing self.  In the yogic view, the objects of which one is aware in dreams are concrete manifestations of the internal thoughts and feelings that seem nebulous when we are in the physical world.

What of the perceiving self in the world of dreams? This is harder to comment on as there is little study of it in Western views.  There is still a self with internal experiences.  There is a self that perceives the dream events, gives meaning to them, and interprets them (while dreaming that is, not after waking up).  However, in a sense, the dream self is emptier than the waking self because some of the content that previously made up the internal experiences of the physical self are now external to the dream self.  What is left “inside” of the dream self? The ability to give meaning to the experiences, to judge, to reason about the experiences (again, within the context of the dream itself, NOT with respect to how the waking mind would interpret or judge the dream experience).

There are three things that remain internal to the self in the dream state. Yogis call these manas, buddhi and ahamkara.  Manas is the organizing aspect of the mind; it is what pieces disparate elements into a single picture.  Buddhi is that aspect of us that gives meaning, or makes sense of the picture generated by manas.  Ahamkara is the very sense of being a self. These things remain as internal experiences to the dream self.  Specific emotions and thoughts become the external events to the dream self.

Levels Within Levels Within Levels

So, just comparing waking and dream consciousness gives us a sense of the pattern underlying altered states of consciousness.  For the next level inward, some aspects remain as internal and other aspects that were previously internal become externalized experiences.  And, as we said, the Eternal cannot be external.

The deeper shells of consciousness cannot be easily understood because we do not intentionally cultivate them in Western cultures. And even in Eastern traditions that do cultivate these deeper states of consciousness, it is not common knowledge, but is the specialized knowledge of the few people that make the attempt to experience the deeper levels of consciousness.  So, we mostly have to go by analogy to understand the deeper levels of consciousness. The pattern can be described easily enough:

When we pass from the physical to the dream world, emotionally-attached thoughts become external objects, and the physical world drops away.

When we pass from the dream world into the next layer inward, which is called the “mental plane” by Theosophists, then the thought patterns that are internal states of dream consciousness become external realities in mental plane consciousness, and the objects of dream consciousness disappear.  In the mental plane, the internal experience is of buddhi (meaning) and ahamkara (self).

When one withdraws from the mental to the next inner layer, it is called the buddhic plane because now, buddhi becomes externalized, and thought per se disappears. Internally, there is only ahamkara, a bare self that perceives buddhi as external reality: meaning becomes the external reality.

Finally, one withdraws into the next level, called the Atmic plane.  Now buddhi, meaning, drops away, and the self, the ahamkara becomes the external reality.  What is left?

The amazing thing is that something IS left.  In Vedanta it is called the Atman.  It is a little infinitesimal drop of the infinite Divine.  It is a little, infinitesimal atom, or quantum, of Divine Consciousness. It is the very core of our being.

It is what Leibniz called a Monad.

Monads Are Forces of Nature

At this point, I recommend the Reader go read Prof. Bennett’s translation of Leibniz’ Monadology.  I’ll wait…

[Elevator music plays]…

Ok, welcome back! Let’s get back to the discussion…

In my previous post, I suggested that Leibniz intuitively identified consciousness/souls/monads with phase spaces of differential equations.  Partially in support of this is paragraph 18 from Monadology (from Prof. Bennett’s translation):

 “18. All simple substances or created monads may be called entelechies, because they have in themselves a certain perfection. There is in them a sufficiency which makes them the source of their internal activities, and renders them, so to speak, incorporeal Automatons.’

This is a rather oblique way to say that the monad is a pre-programmed force. Leibniz was very concerned with the idea of “force”.  What is the basis of any action, of any change? It is force.  What determines force? Again, within Leibniz framework, it is a trajectory, the path that results from solving the calculus problem behind the observed changes.  His use of the term “entelechy” is the give-away.  Aristotle invented the word “entelechy” to explain the motive force behind the objects we observe in physical experience.  The idea was that, for any object we see, it has in it an “essence”, a soul, if you like, that is the force that moves the object. This is particularly to be applied to self-moving things, like planets, animals and humans. Leibniz adapted this term, but modified it based on his modern understanding (“modern” with respect to Aristotle!), and renamed the entelechy as “monad”.

As we see above, it is impossible to consider only a physical object and then see the necessity to postulate a motive force, a “monad” for it.  However, from the experience of yoga, from recognizing that there are several levels between the physical object and the monad, we get a more logical and causal understanding of the link between the physical object and its corresponding monad.  The Atman, the monad, is the essential motive force for each existing thing.  The monad is the core, the kernel of consciousness. And that core is force, it is the force of will. I can’t really say “my monad” because I belong to it; it generated me, not the other way around.  Clearly, we need more than two levels to describe monads.

One important caveat:  The yogic methods allow us to discover this force INSIDE OUR SELF. It is not something we can deduce about other things. It is only something we can discover inside our self.  This is why Leibniz’ ideas are forever doomed to be confusing, and ultimately incoherent.  First, he is trying to describe a multilevel system with only two levels, which simply cannot be done.  But more importantly, he is trying to rationalize and describe as an intellectual pattern what can only be experienced.  One’s experience of the monad, of the essence of one’s being, is not logical, not rational, not something that can be expressed in symbols at all.  But it exists nonetheless.  Therefore, Leibniz’ idea of the monad will never become science, in the sense we think of science now.  It will always be more akin to poetry, where the mind is trying to describe something far beyond its confines. Monad transcends mind, not the other way around.

This does not in the least detract from Leibniz stunning achievement in identifying monads.  But what it does do is deflate the expectation that we can find some algorithm that will correspond to what he is describing.

This whole blog post was stimulated by a passage I just read in Swami Krishnananda’s Study and Practice of Yoga, and I want to end with this passage, because it summarizes what I am trying to say here better than I will be able to do in this life:

 “When we enter the field of this knowledge of the ultimate science of the mystery of life, we do not enter it as a man or a woman; we do not enter it as a human being at all. We enter it as a principle. We know that there is a great difference between a person and a principle. We are always fond of persons and not principles because we cannot see principles; we see only persons and things. But persons and things do not exist, to tell the truth. It is principles that exist. It is a law that exists. It is an order of things which ultimately is the constituting factor of even things. We are told even today that things do not exist, but only forces exist. What we call things and persons are only forces. There is no such thing as things and persons. But yet, we are wedded to this notion of persons and things to such an extent that we will die hard, indeed, in clinging to this notion of persons, things, and located objects. There are neither located objects nor persons and things – there are only powers, significances, meanings, which are impersonal ultimately… ”


9 thoughts on “Monads, Planes, and Levels of Understanding

    • I agree. Principle is pretty abstract in this context. But I think it is deeper too. Energy and vibrations are based on principles of their own. For example, a principle behind energy is that it is conserved; i.e. neither created nor destroyed. Vibrations are also based on principles, such as the repeating of something, resonance, etc. By referring to us humans as “principles” he is saying that humans, like gravity, are laws of nature unto themselves. Now, this does not mean our personalities in this life are laws of nature. I think he is saying that what is behind being human are principles that define being human. Just as the generic principles of wave motion apply to specific types of waves, such as light waves, or vibrating strings, by analogy, there are universal, or generic principles behind our apparent (or perhaps illusory) individuality as humans. One of Krishnananda’s themes in his writing is to see the impersonal in the personal; to see the generic behind the specific. He has an interesting take on this way of thinking: he equates it as part of the means to achieve vritti nirodah, or controlling the mind, which is the key thing that yoga teaches. I’ll probably end up doing a blog on this sometime in the near future. Thanks for commenting!

  1. Thank you for the explanation, I think I am closer to getting “the feel” of it: human essense and the link to our monad/core..(not saying that I am understanding it, but your post does gives a glimpse of something that makes sense. Keep blogging, please, it is very interesting and educational and intuitive 🙂
    Oh, and can you expand a little more on the principle nature of humans, please, what are the principles that define being a human..or a tree for that purpose

    • Tricky question there! There are at least two levels I can think of to answer your question. One is completely generic, the other is rather abstract because it is the generic-ness of one’s individuality, which sounds contradictory on the surface, but really isn’t.

      The completely generic one has to do with how humans fit into the entirety of nature. “Being human” is one of the archetypes of nature, a general class of being. The generic principle seems to be something like humans are the state right in between being an animal and being a God. Or being material and being spiritual. Or matter and mind. The different pairs convey slightly different slants on the same general meaning. It is this weird property I am trying to capture with the Möbius strip idea: pointing in two directions, subjective and objective, at the same time, and – this is the catch – being aware of it. The general human condition.

      And then the activity of all us humans paints a level or picture, as one of the levels in manifested existence. The sum total of all human activities is some type of thing or structure in the overall framework of reality. In that structure, each of us plays a role, whether (seemingly) a major role or a (seemingly) bit part. But every single contribution is necessary for the whole to be what it is, so there really is no major roles or bit parts. Instead, each is as important (or unimportant, depending on one’s perspective) as all the others. Our “individual generic-ness” is how each of us fits, as an aspect, in this whole panorama of the human level of reality.

      And I think this level consists of many levels. The most generic is the level of the Atman, or Purusha, or Soul, or whatever you want to call it. That is the deep essence of each human. Our individuality as an incarnated human is some aspect of this the whole Atman. I still think the metaphor of our individual lives as analogous to leaves on a tree fits here. Each physical incarnation is like a single leaf on a tree that has seemingly uncountable leaves. In that way, each of us as the people we are right now contribute to the overall individuality of the Atman. The individuality of an Atman is like one note in the “melody” that is the human level. And the human level is some musical motif that has its place in the overall symphony of manifested existence.

      Something like that. And what I am saying here I didn’t invent at all, but is just my own words of the pretty traditional occult and yogic views of being a human. But anyway, when you step out of the human game, the human game can be seen to be just another pattern in manifested reality. That is why it is generic and is a principle: it is some level or pattern within the whole.

      • Thank you! I understand it now better…it’s big. I am still very much attached to seeing persons and things, but it’s nice to have another perspective on hand and switch between the two.

        I like how you said it:
        “when you step out of the human game, the human game can be seen to be just another pattern in manifested reality”, it puts in perspective Castaneda’s term of “controlled folly” – when you step out of the human game and see that we are just a pattern in manifested reality, well then you can participate in the human game now free of the madness (so to say), this is great 🙂

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