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Field Notes One: An Overview

An Excerpt from Subtle Worlds

David Spangler

For some of my readers, the non-physical worlds and the beings who come from them to work with us will be as familiar as your everyday surroundings and friends. But for others, perhaps most, this will be fairly new territory. So what do I mean when I talk about the non-physical realms? Who are the beings who inhabit them?

When most people think about non-physical beings, I have found, the most common assumption is that they are either angels or the ghosts or spirits of dead people; sometimes the two are lumped together under the assumption that we become angels when we die. The other common category is demons or evil spirits roaming the unseen worlds waiting to pounce on and possess unwary human beings. Those familiar with fairy tales and mythology may also acknowledge “nature spirits,” spoken of in folklore as faeries, elves, gnomes, and the “Little People,” as well as spirits of places such as rivers, mountains, valleys, and the like. I hope to show in this book that non-physical beings are as diverse as the physical life forms that fill our earth. Physical life ranges from single-celled microbes (who are, by the way, the most abundant of all creatures on our world, forming by far the bulk of the biomass of the planet) to the great whales, from tiny fungi to towering redwoods. If anything, life seems to me even more varied and wondrous on the inner worlds. To see the non-physical realms as comprised only of human spirits and angels, with perhaps some darker forces and some nature beings thrown in, is like saying the earth only has human beings and trees, with some flies and flowers here and there.

The ecology of the earth is a collection of interrelated ecosystems, from the very small to the very large, each defined by a set of relationships and interactions between a group of organisms and their environment. That is also how one could describe the various realms that make up the non-physical dimensions: they are a collection of interrelated environments comprised of energy, life, and consciousness. It’s why I think of them as earth’s “Second Ecology.”

Calling them the “non-physical worlds” tells us what they’re not—they’re not made up of physical, corporeal matter—but doesn’t really tell us what they are. One reason modern Western culture dismisses the existence of these realms is not that they are invisible—science deals with lots of things we can’t see or hear with unaided senses—but that they are not made of matter. A materialist will say that nothing can exist that is not made of matter in one form or another (and remember, as Einstein proved, energy is another form of matter and vice versa).

Actually, I agree with this. For something to exist, whether it’s a rock, a potato, a ferret, a human being, a nature spirit, or an angel, it must have substance. The issue, of course, is what this substance is made of.

This primal substance is alive, active, sentient, and generative. Whatever we call it, it differentiates and manifests itself in many ways; physical matter is the product of one such differentiation, whereas the various subtle realms represent other differentiations. A metaphor for this is the electromagnetic spectrum, which is made up of electromagnetic radiation at varying wavelengths and frequencies. What we call the visible light spectrum, made up of the familiar colors of the rainbow, is only a very small fraction of the entire spectrum which ranges from below the wavelength of radio at the long end (the longest waves being limited only by the size of the universe itself) to gamma rays and even shorter at the other end (the shortest waves being tiny fractions of the size of an atom). If you tune into this spectrum at one point, you get microwaves, at another point you get visible colors, while at still another point, you get x-rays.

The primal substance extends across an infinite and continuous spectrum like this, manifesting various “wavelengths” or “frequencies” of life and sentiency. The physical universe we see every day is one of these many possible wavelengths of beingness. The non-physical worlds are others. And just as the “physical wavelength” manifests in a nearly infinite diversity of forms and expressions, so this is true of the worlds existing on the “subtle” or “non-physical” wavelengths as well. They are vast, diverse and for the most part beyond human comprehension, at least at our present stage of consciousness development.

It has been my experience that for those who live in the various non-physical worlds, their environments are as solid and real to them as ours is to us; indeed, I have been told more than once (and have seen for myself) that for them our world is the one that is wispy, immaterial and insubstantial! The characteristics of their environments are almost always very different from what we are used to. Yet like the sea and the land, there is a threshold, a “beach,” where subtle matter touches physical matter and the two worlds connect. A quantum physicist friend of mine who has thought deeply about these things once suggested to me that this threshold may well be at the level of quantum interaction. This may well be, but experientially, this threshold exists in a manner accessible to our thoughts and emotions. We carry part of this “beach” within us. This is what makes contact with the unseen worlds possible. It also means that often these contacts may register within us like our own thoughts and feelings, making discernment difficult without practice and leading to the common conclusion that such experiences are all in our heads and that we are “making them up.”

This is a very simplified picture, of course, but this is not a book on esoteric cosmology or philosophy. There is a rich esoteric and mystical literature that explores the nature of non-physical matter; it’s certainly not as if people have not been thinking about this for a long time, and many interesting insights have arisen from their contemplations and investigations.

Whatever the substance of the non-physical worlds may be, people have been interacting with them in a variety of ways throughout human history. In this relationship, they have called these realms many things: subtle worlds, inner worlds, the Other Worlds, the spiritual realms, and the unseen worlds are just a few of the names. In my field notes, to provide some variation in writing, I use the subtle worlds, the unseen worlds, and the non-physical worlds interchangeably. I will also refer to them as earth’s “second ecology” and as a “subtle ecology.”

I also call them the “inner worlds,” but I want to explain that phrase. In this case inner has nothing to do with a direction. It does not mean that these realms are inside the physical world or inside us. Instead, it means that the senses or capacities used to perceive the subtle worlds are inside us; they are not “outer” physical organs of perception like our eyes or ears. The real meaning of inner worlds, then, is “worlds seen through inward means.”

The term “spiritual worlds” is often used in reference to these non-physical realms, but I find it problematic. The challenge arises from the two different ways the word spiritual is defined and used.

On the one hand, “spiritual” can mean immaterial, incorporeal, and non-physical. That is certainly a good designation for the subtle realms, for that is precisely what they are, at least in comparison to our own everyday world. But “spiritual” is also used to mean holy, sacred, and pertaining to Spirit, which is a description of a quality or set of qualities. It means the presence of something that enhances, nourishes and enlarges life, consciousness, wholeness, wellbeing, and the expression of sacredness. There are certainly places and inhabitants of the subtle worlds who are spiritual in this way, just as there are physical places and people that could be called spiritual as well. But there are places and beings that are not. To simply call the subtle realms “spiritual” is to imply that all manifestations of those realms are radiant and filled with spirit, enhancing and blessing life and consciousness and providing a link to the Sacred. This is not true, and confusing these two uses and meanings of the word “spiritual” can lead to errors of discernment when dealing with the subtle worlds.

If by “spiritual” we mean a part of the Spirit and sacredness that is the ultimate primal substance of creation, then all beings are spiritual in origin and in their essential nature. If by “spiritual” we mean someone who embodies sacred qualities and acts in loving, compassionate and wise ways for the benefit of all, then we know that all beings do not act in this manner. Although every person has the capacity to be spiritual in this sense, we know that many, if not most, people as they go through their day are not . This does not mean they are evil, “dark,” or negative. It only means they are in the moment self-absorbed, or following a limited agenda, or simply not connecting to a larger wholeness either within themselves or in the world around them. Or they may simply not know how to connect with others in a meaningful and spiritual way. It takes awareness, attention, love, knowledge, and openness to express our spiritual radiance to each other, and sometimes we just aren’t manifesting those qualities or may not know how to in the moment. The same is true for many inhabitants of the subtle realms as well.

And just as there are in our world places where the land, the water, or the air has become polluted and toxic, and just as there are individuals whose dysfunctional nature has rendered them harmful, such places and individuals unfortunately exist in the inner worlds as well. If I think that all the subtle worlds and all non-physical beings are harmless, helpful and benign—in other words, “spiritual”—I can naively open myself to dangers that I would be wise to avoid. I’ll have more to say about this in later field notes.

There are beings and places within the subtle ecology that are truly spiritual in every way we may think of. Connecting with such beings and places is always uplifting, inspiring, and filled with blessing. It is those beings and places specifically that I shall refer to as spiritual beings or spiritual realms in the context of this book.

However, it’s important to recognize that any being on any level, including the physical, can at any time act in spiritual and sacred ways, with kindness, love, and blessing. In this sense, spiritual denotes a potentially universal attribute not limited to certain entities or individuals or certain realms or places. It is a function of a specific relationship with the sacredness at the core of all things and of those actions or expressions that bring sacredness into play in the moment. We all have the capacity to manifest spiritual qualities at any time if we so choose.

In my experience, the subtle realms are vast, much larger than the physical world itself, and, more importantly, the natural laws that govern their structure and composition are very different from those that shape our earthly reality. Think of the often confusing and changing landscape in a dream and you get a faint idea of the mutability of some of these inner worlds. They are not chaotic, but they can appear so to an earthly mind used to landscapes and structures that change slowly over time and maintain consistency of form.

In my experience, the subtle worlds form a continuum of life and consciousness. Think of a guitar string. It is a single string yet from it many different notes can be produced. Each subtle realm is one of these notes, possessing a distinct energy signature, its own “sound,” so to speak. The differences between these notes constitute the boundaries between the various subtle realms, and of course, between the subtle worlds and the physical, which itself may be considered a “note” on this string. It’s also true, and very importantly so, that no note is further away or closer to the string itself than any other; all notes are manifestations of the one string. In an analogous way, no world, whether physical or non-physical, is closer to the Sacred or to the Ground of Being, the Generative Mystery, than any other.

The wonderful nature of consciousness is that it can move up and down the string, just as the fingers of a guitarist move up and down the guitar string or the voice of a singer can move up and down the scales. There is a common and familiar range of notes that we accept as normal, everyday consciousness. This is usually a three-note harmonic blending the physical, the mental and the emotional sides of our nature. But our consciousness can attune to other notes, other frequencies and vibrations of energy, and when we do, we become aware of the subtle worlds.

There are boundaries and thresholds that create distinct zones (the “notes”) along this continuum of life and sentiency. Some of these boundaries are flexible and permeable, rather like the boundaries that exist between individual States in the United States. These political boundaries are generally not visible in the landscape itself (though some are, like the Columbia River that divides Oregon from Washington), but they perform a function and have an effect in how human beings conduct their economic, social and political lives. Other boundaries are like mountains and oceans that demark a definite change, a threshold of transformation and metamorphosis, moving from one distinct state of being to another.

The boundary between the realms with which we are most familiar is death, the transformative threshold between the physical and non-physical worlds.

In my experience, these metamorphic boundaries divide the subtle worlds into many varied zones, each with its own relationship to the physical realm and to each other. But for simplicity’s sake, I think of there being three primary zones: the incarnational realms, the transitional realm, and the higher-order realms. The difference between them is this. The incarnational realms, which are made up of physical, emotional, mental, and vital or etheric manifestations of primal substance, are basically organized around three dimensions of being (four if we include time, as in Einstein’s formulation of spacetime). The higher order realms are those that are organized around more than three (or four) dimensions of being; they are hyperdimensional and inhabit (or manifest) space and time very differently than we do. Again, think of the difference between the linearity of time and space that we experience in waking everyday life and the fluidity and non-linearity of time and space that we experience in dreams.

There are other differences as well which can make direct contact between the incarnate realms (our world) and the higher-order worlds difficult and challenging, and at times not even possible. Here’s a metaphor. When I first went to Britain many years ago, I fried my American-made electric shaver when I plugged it in because I didn’t realize there was a difference in current. American electrical devices are designed to run on 110 volts while in Britain the electrical mains deliver 240 volts. That 130 volt differential is what killed my shaver. Next time I had a transformer that “stepped down” the current coming from the British plugs to a level my American shaver could tolerate and use.

Contact with the inner worlds always involves an energy exchange across a differential. Sometimes the energy difference is slight but sometimes it is significant. There is a need for something to bridge that difference so both sides can connect and neither be harmed.

Or to use another metaphor, imagine a businessman from America attempting to do business in a very different culture, such as that of China or Japan. There are linguistic and cultural differences that can bring about misunderstanding and ruin the deal. For that matter, one need not look to such extreme differences. Again when I was first visiting Britain, I tried to get cookies to go with my tea. In restaurant after restaurant I would ask for cookies only to be told they didn’t have any. But then I spied a waiter serving tea and cookies to another patron. Pointing at them, I said to my waiter, “I want some of those.” “Oh,” he said, “you mean biscuits!”

One can think of the higher-order worlds as linguistically and culturally very different from the incarnate realms we live in. Like the American businessman in Japan, we would benefit from the intercession of someone familiar and adept in both cultures, someone who can translate and help bridge the differences.

For this reason, there is an intermediate realm that can mediate between the physical, incarnate worlds and the higher-order worlds, enabling them to connect in beneficial ways. I call this the transitional realm. It’s quite possible for an individual to learn how to perform this transitional function for himself or herself, but until one gains that skill, most contacts will likely be made through the mediation of subtle beings within the transitional realm.

I want to reiterate that this division into incarnate, transitional and higher-order realms is one way I have found convenient to model the subtle realms and their relationship to the physical world. It’s based on personal encounters and experience. It helps me to orient myself and more or less predict what to expect from a particular encounter and how to prepare for it. But at the same time, it’s very simplistic. It’s like saying that everyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line in the United States speaks one way and everyone north of it speaks another way. It’s easy to find examples where this is true, but it’s also easy to find examples where it isn’t. Furthermore, drawing a division between people with a southern accent and those without is not the only way to “map” the United States. Other maps and models are certainly possible. In the final analysis, the map that is most useful is the one you draw yourself based on your experience.

Where is the Sacred in all of this? Is it a higher-order realm in itself? I see it as the “string” on which all worlds are vibrating, that which makes the notes possible. I do not think of the Sacred as a subtle world as such. The Sacred is present in all things, all beings, all worlds, radiantly evident in some and densely hidden in others. In my own training, attuning to the Sacred is the foundation for all effective work with the non-physical worlds. Of course, what this means and how one may go about it depends on the individual and his or her particular spiritual tradition and practice.

There are traditions that recommend bypassing the subtle worlds altogether and focusing only on the Sacred or on Ultimate Beingness. I happened to comment to a friend of mine who is the Roshi of a Zen center that I had seen an angel overlighting the building that was being used as a meditation temple. He commented that in his tradition, such things were ignored as being distractions on the path to enlightenment. But he was interested in what I had seen and what I felt about such beings. I told him that for me such entities were simply a natural part of the universe, like trees and bears and people. I said that my contemplative, spiritual practice through which I seek attunement and oneness with sacredness is not the same as my work with the inner worlds. I do not look to an angel to grant me enlightenment, but I do think of an angel as a potential partner in work for the world. This he could understand and accept.

There’s a final thought I need to address in this overview. Hollywood, popular novels of horror and the supernatural, and some religious traditions would have you think that the subtle realms are inherently treacherous and that engaging with them is a dangerous thing to do. Frankly there are dangerous places and dangerous beings in the non-physical realms, particularly in what I call the transitional realms, as there can be in any large environment. It would be irresponsible to pretend otherwise. However, the danger can be—and usually is—greatly overblown.

I used to go hiking in the desert when I lived in Arizona. The desert certainly can be a dangerous place. One can die from heatstroke or dehydration, or from bites from poisonous reptiles, not to mention stumbling and falling in uneven terrain and being injured. I always went prepared. I dressed appropriately, took plenty of water, wore suitable hiking boots, and kept an eye out for rattlesnakes while avoiding the places they were most likely to be. I was perfectly safe as long as I paid attention and exercised a reasonable degree of common sense, caution and desert savvy.

In sixty years of engaging with the subtle worlds, I have occasionally run into toxic places where the subtle energies were potentially harmful or at best unpleasant, but I have only twice run into anything close to a dangerous entity. I don’t go into places where they might be found, and I don’t do things to attract them. The subtle realms are not filled with predators just waiting to pounce upon and possess unwary people.

In this regard they are really no different from the physical world. If I were a policeman or a soldier on the battlefield, I would expect to enter into dangerous situations and meet dangerous individuals, but I’m not, so I don’t. The subtle worlds have their dark alleys and places of conflict where dangerous conditions and beings may be found, but unless you seek them out or have some connection that draws you to them (usually anger, hatred and violence in your own heart), there is no reason for you to encounter them and plenty of reasons not to. And if you do feel yourself to be psychologically unstable or having mental and emotional difficulties, or if you are caught up in strong negative feelings such as hatred and anger, it’s far better not to engage with the subtle worlds anyway until you have attained greater stability and clarity. The best course in such a state is to seek out the Sacred where you may find healing, forgiveness and transformation, in addition to any outer support you may find from people skilled in helping you find resolution and balance.

Engaging with subtle realms is not intrinsically dangerous. We are already part of these worlds anyway for our souls are higher-order beings. They are as much our home as the physical realm, and most of us engage with them on a daily basis while asleep as well as in other ways we may not be consciously aware of. But to engage with them consciously is a skill we can each develop, and the benefits to ourselves and to others can far outweigh the challenges. I hope my field notes will help you in this direction.

David Spangler is an internationally known spiritual teacher and writer, and was instrumental in helping establish the Findhorn Foundation community in northern Scotland in the late 1960’s early 1970’s. Since then David has traveled widely within the United States and Canada giving classes, workshops and lectures. His themes have included the emergence of a holistic culture, the nature of personal sacredness, our participation in a coevolving, co-creative universe, partnering, and working with spiritual realms, our responsibility to the earth and to each other, the spiritual nature and power of our individuality, and our calling to be of service at this crucial time of world history. Many of these themes come together in his primary work, which is the development of a spiritual perspective and practice called Incarnational Spirituality.

Read more about David Spangler

Comments (1)
  • Fascinating!

    — John on November 2, 2010

27 April 2010

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