For some, unfolding knowledge of the world follows the path of the mechanics of perception. For others like myself, it follows the path of the dynamics of consciousness. The 2 approaches unfold different understanding of the world. There are also variations within each.
On the first path, we discover a version of what Samkhya describes. From the mind arises the 5 senses out of the observer side of consciousness. From the observed arises the corresponding 5 tanmatra or essences. The first comes out of sattva guna, the second from tamas.
As the tamas (inertia) increases, those essences become the 5 Mahabhutas or elements, each progressively more dense and each including the prior ones. (space, air, fire, water, earth) Traditions from around the world mention some variation of this. Some people describe them arising in a series of spirals, with each loop of density expressing the next element.
We can relate this increasing density with the koshas or sheaths, our “energy bodies.”
While the subtle essence of space arises in self-aware consciousness, it first becomes manifest as a nested “space” on the Anandamaya kosha. The Sanskrit name for space is akasha which means shining. This is the self-luminous field of becoming. It is also the arena of vibration and the sound of creation becoming. Beings that exist in this range are simply luminous intelligence.
The next layer of becoming is air, the range of subtle or sacred or “all-space filling” geometry that gives structure to the fine vibrations in space. Beings on this level work primarily in harmony and a relationship of distinctions. They seek to keep the rising creation in balance so it will continue to express.
The next is the mental body, driven by the transformation of fire and sight. Fire is the great purifier, but also destroyer. So this also must arise in balance. It is a force of transformation, shifting air and space into water and earth and vice versa. Beings on this level are like idea fields, clouds with personality. However, we often personalize the experience, giving them more defined forms like angels with wings.
Next, the energy or emotional body has a fluid nature. Water and emotions need to flow smoothly. If we resist or repress, we get in the way of smooth circulation. Earth can build up where it doesn’t belong or be depleted. This is the nature of the astral and beings who live there. They can have full imaginal forms, made of the stuff of dreams.
Keep in mind that while all beings here will be mostly water element, they will have different blends of the other elements and will be more tamasic (darker), rajasic (active), or sattvic (lighter).
And finally, we have the “food” body where earth predominates in all physical life forms. Earth gives us stability and solidity. But also the greatest inertia and resistance to transformation.
To be clear, we’re not talking state when we say “air” or “water”. Our physical atmosphere is made of gaseous elements that have a lot of air but are physical so they’re mostly earth. This is similar with fluid objects like water or mercury. The physical elements of the Periodic Table are grouped by elemental mix. All are earth-based with stronger mixes of water or air or fire, as with radioactive substances.
Our senses are sattvic but objects we perceive are tamasic, earth. If we identify with the objects of senses (my car, my kitchen, etc), we take on some of the tamas in experiencing them. By the end of the day, we get fatigued and need sleep so the tamas can be “digested” and cleared.
Some experiences make strong impressions and thus require a deeper digestion or healing to clear. Without that, the smooth flow of energy meets resistance and is impeded.
Part of the process of spiritual growth is the purification of these bodies so we can effectively embody higher values. Smooth flow also allows easy balance so emotions can flow but not overwhelm, fire can purify but not destroy, and so forth.
The ease of transformation is progressively slower with each step down. Earth is the slowest so spiritual changes will manifest in the physical body last.
In Tantra, when we gain mastery over the elements, we can fly through air and turn other metals into gold. Yoga describes similar. But it’s hazardous to gain such skills prematurely as they can become profound distractions from spiritual progress.
More important is that deeper connection to source. But as the purification unfolds, we may begin to experience these layers. Then it becomes handy to have a little understanding. Not to take it too seriously and identify with any of this as “truth” but rather to be able to allow whatever arises to be comfortable and recognized as a small aspect of our growth.