5 Layers of Self

Tantra offers many different systems of reality. One needs to understand that “reality” here is a composite whole wherein the observer and the observed are both part of the reality. Therefore, in any environment, reality is that entire environment which includes you and your experiences (emotions, sensations, and the like). Example: My reality while writing this essay includes every object and living creature in my immediate environment and also my thoughts, feelings, and sensations and the thoughts, feelings, etc. of other creatures in that environment. Here are the 5 Layers of Self.

1. Environment/Body

This is the external environment in which one exists. Though the environmental objects are outside the body, we need to realize how superficial the boundary of the body is. Example: I am in a house. If the house is mine, then the whole house becomes a part of my consciousness. If my “I” is posited happily in the house, then I can say, “I’m proud of my house," in the exact same way as I say, “I’m proud of my biceps or my six-pack abs.” Anyone who loves their car will understand this notion better. Our superficial consciousness extends to our car not only in terms of caring for it but also in terms of how much space “I” need when driving it. Another example is our clothes: Do we even think of our clothes being external to us? Except when it’s hot, or the clothes get drenched, our clothes are as good as our skin.


2. Mind-Heart

The Mind and the Symbolic Heart are a continuum of thought and action or thought and emotion. Firstly, the Mind is not always something that arises in the brain and the heart that we mention here is not the organ. The Heart that we’re talking about here is the symbolic representation of emotions and actions. In Tantra, these are not separate, because one influences the other, and we need to understand that both Mind and Heart are simply linguistic manifestations of the same entity. The Mind-Heart Entity manifests itself as thoughts (mind) sometimes and as feelings (heart) at other times.


3. The Life Force

Consider this layer to be everything in our body that we can’t control. The autonomous nervous system from the hormones to the blood to our DNA and RNA that sustain us. Yoga often focuses on our breath (because we have some control over it), but it realizes that there are many other systems that ensure our vitality. Modern science has revealed the different physiological systems that are important to our survival. Tantra didn’t have these details, but it was obvious even then that our life force emanates from these different bodily systems over which we have absolutely no control.


4. The Void

We are now entering a domain where English translations of the descriptive Sanskrit words don’t exist or don’t make much sense. For all practical purposes, the Sanskrit words also will not make much sense since their meanings vary in different tantric texts. The best way to explain this state is to compare it to dreamless sleep. In dreamless sleep, we are not dead; we exist, but there is no “I” and there is no prefrontal-cortex-brain activity. This state of consciousness can be achieved through Tantra Meditation. It is the experience of this state that makes many tantriks renounce worldly pleasures and domestic/social responsibilities and retire into a world of isolation. Undoubtedly, medical science has shown that this state is comparable to a narcotic-drug-induced high. Tantra warns us about this and even mentions the symptoms which are not unlike those of a drug addict: the person will want to spend time alone, will always be meditating, and will turn into a sociopath, will not take care of his body, and so on. I repeat: You have been warned! This is NOT the tantric way of life!

5. Supreme Consciousness

The absolute layer in Tantra is the Supreme Consciousness: a state of “awareness” that ascends indefinitely or descends into the infinitesimal core of Being. This state is the primal source of self awareness and perception and the “energy” that creates itself and all the aforementioned layers of self. It’s not localized, and it can only be described as the “energy” that creates its own description. In that context, notice how the Supreme Consciousness Layer envelopes all the other layers in the diagram above. This is the correct way to depict the layers, because our consciousness does not traverse from the environment to the deep core but the other way around. Therefore, the most superficial layer (Body/Environment) is only the first layer and the other layers build upon it. This diagram teaches us how to view our consciousness as per Tantra.


Consider the following statements as representative of the different layers:

  1. My car makes me handsome.

  2. I’m smart!

  3. I am excited.

  4. I ­was in deep sleep. (While in The Void, there is no ‘I’)

  5. I am everything! (Everything from the car to the ego-less but conscious void!)

There is a methodology that perceives reality through the subjective frame of mind. The Yoga Vasistha states: “The world is as I see it.” In this context, the following statements also make sense:

  • “That apple is not red, it’s grey. What’s red anyways!?” (A color-blind person.)

  • “Are you crazy!? Those are not people, they are ants!” (A child looking at pedestrians from the top floor of a tall building.)

  • “When I die, the universe dies with me.” (Logically subjective frame of reference.)

  • A schizophrenic having a conversation with his/her hallucinatory/imaginary friend.

The objective frame of reference has helped us travel into outer space and even peer at microbes, viruses, and sub-atomic particles, but neurobiologists are now saying that it is the subjective frame of research that is needed to understand how consciousness is created. Tantra may not have articulated this as accurately as modern scientists are doing – not only through neuroscience but also with mathematics – but it observed and documented the existence of different layers of consciousness.