The Subtle Body

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The Subtle Body

Posted on March 8, 2012 at 7:30 AM

TheSubtle Body

If one can successfully work throughthe subtle body realm, there is often a chance to transform not only psychicstructure but physical structure as well.(Schwartz-Salant: 25)

 The idea of the subtle body goes back to Eastern traditions of invisible energycentres and pathways Reich M.Dengaged with this idea but not with the spirituality of the concept because hedisliked the esoteric. He  perceived any kind of mysticism as dissociationfrom a direct experience of vegetative sensation in the body. (Conger) Recently,there has been a growing interest within the medical community to study thephysiological effects of Kundalini and Subtle body, Many modern experimentalresearch seeks to establish links between practice and the ideas of Wilhelm Reich. the father of Orgonomy, thescience of the functional laws of cosmic Orgone energy which comprises allnatural phenomena from living things to the universe itself. Reich was Freudʼs most important pupil.

 Meanwhile Jung took a greatinterest in Buddhism, Taoism and Sufism and suggested that the Eastern idea ofthe subtle body could be compared to his idea of the somatic unconscious. Hedefines this as the unconscious asperceived in the body. Man as a living being, said Jung, outwardly appearsas a material body, which inwardly manifests itself as ‘a series of images ofthe vital activities taking place within it. These are two sides of the samecoin.’ (Jung: 173) Rather than working directly on the body, as Reich did, Jungchose to work with the symbols, knowing that they had a materiality of theirown, and profoundly shifted the energy of the body.

  Jung’s emphasis on thefruitfulness of work with imagery has influenced a whole spectrum ofpsychotherapies, including many streams of body psychotherapy. Of thesepsychotherapies, only a few work explicitly with the subtle body as anenergetic phenomenon. In some therapies the subtle body – or energy field - isexplored directly through bodywork. In this chapter, however, I want to focus on onespecific aspect of the use of the subtle body in psychotherapy and quantummedicine.

What is the subtle body?

In writing about the subtle body Iam exploring a model of consciousness, which is relevant not only topsychotherapy, but to healing, creativity and life in general. The subtle bodyis a matrix, which actually exists; though it transcends our normal commonsense understanding of reality, including ordinary parameters of space and timeand sense perception. I believe that it is not the experience of the subtlebody itself which is problematic – it is well within everyone’s capacity toexperience it in some way – but that as a concept it defies consensual material‘scientific’ reality.

  The subtle body is an energyfield which has a structure, which influences and gives life to the physicalbody. This body has several interconnected layers, the etheric body, thetemplate of and interface with the physical body, where sensation is perceived;the astral/emotional body, which relates to the individual's emotional state;the mental body, which contains the thinking patterns; and the causal body, thesoul or level of higher intuition.

  According to theparapsychologist Donald Watson, ‘only when the finer (i.e. subtle) bodies areround the physical body and joined to it (in gear) is the physical bodyconscious (centred). When they separate from the body (step out of the body),consciousness also withdraws.’ This gives us a possible model for splitting:major distortions and divisions can literally occur on and between any level(s)- sensation, feeling, thinking, or intuition - creating a variety of kinds ofmind-body split.

  The relationship between thelayers is understood as a 'step-down' process, going from the finest, lightest,highest vibration to the final slow density the physical body. According toSchwartz-Salant, Jung makes a clear statement that `the subtle body refers tothat part of the unconscious that becomes more and more identical with thefunctioning of the human body, growing darker and darker and ending in theutter darkness of matter’. Another way of putting it is that our unconsciousthoughts and feelings exist in the subtle body and the less access we have tothem at the higher levels, the greater likelihood that they will becrystallised as physical structure and physical symptoms. In becoming denser,the patterns are pressing up against the limits of our conscious mind. Thissomatizing process is a step towards embodiment, and away from the morecontinuous dissections of the layers of the subtle body, and thus a movetowards wholeness.

  There are seven major chakraswhich are the focal points (the point of intersection between planes) fordrawing in and transmuting energy from the subtle bodies into a utilisableform. A chakra is a vortex, ‘a significant gathering of organised life-energy’,and a gateway between dimensions. Clare Harvey, a complementary therapistcomments that ‘the chakras may be regarded as transformers, simultaneouslyreceiving, assimilating and transmitting energy. They are capable of gatheringand holding various types of energy, and can also alter their vibrations sothis energy can be used for different purposes’.

 The chakra is a vorticalenergy form created by two streams of energy weaving together:

One ofthese, flowing in the spinal cord, is thrown out from the centre and flowstowards the periphery in a widening spiral; this represents the motor stream. The second stream,impinging on the surface of the etheric body, spirals inward, narrowing as itgoes; this is the receptive or sensorystream. These two spirals flow parallel to one another, but in oppositedirections, and may be compared to interlocking screw threads, in that one maybe said to run in the grooves of the other. They give an impression ofspinning, like the fluid in the vortex of a whirlpool. (Payne and Bendit,quoted in Boadella, 1987, 210)

According to Payne and Bendit, it isimportant that these two streams are co-ordinated with one another. If themotor or outgoing field is weak, the person is vulnerable to psychic invasion,or shock. An individual with a depleted or unstable energy field is easilyoverwhelmed by another person’s psychic energy. 

  This model of the chakras canhelp us understand how we take in information about our clients (and viceversa), and process it as sensations, feelings, fantasies, images andultimately as intervention and interpretation. The energy which is processedthrough a chakra is then distributed through the body or discharged from it.Perhaps information that we block out - because it threatens to overwhelm us insome way - can hang around in our subtle bodies, potentially accumulating tothe point where we become exhausted or ill.

Jung actually developed the idea that the subtlebody is the medium through which projections are transmitted, but - probablybecause it was considered a bit esoteric - this has not been taken up byJungians or others until recently.

Jung considered Kundalini energy or MISTERYSINDROME (according with Le Fanu  Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine) aninteraction of the subtle body along chakra energy centers and nadis channels. Westernawareness of the idea of kundalini was strengthened by the Theosophical Societyand the interest of Carl G.Jung ("Jung's seminar on kundalini yoga,presented to the Psychological Club in Zurich in 1932, has been widely regardedas a milestone in the psychological understanding of Eastern thought. Jung presentedKundalini yoga with a model for the development of higher consciousness, and heinterpreted its symbols in terms of the process of individuation".


 In ThePlural Psyche, Andrew Samuels has explored the concept ofcountertransference in relation to the idea of a 'mundus imaginalis', animaginal world, a third order of reality between subjective and objective.(1989: 143-74) This reflects the journey being made in some fields ofpsychotherapy  - in what Samuels calls ‘the countertransferencerevolution’ - from a largely objectifying attitude towards the client, to anapproach which values ever more highly the subjective body, or somaticcountertransference. (1993: 24) In this case the 'object' becomes thetherapist's body sensations, feelings, images and fantasies, which, throughappropriate processing can become information. This equation is: subjective +objective = awareness. Awareness suggests interest, reflection, and some degreeof openness. If I have a sensation or feeling in my body which I am observing,I can neither be totally detached (because it's in me), nor totally merged(because I am looking at it).

  This understanding has aparallel in the conclusions of quantum physicists that an individual cannotobserve an event/object without altering it. The observer is aparticipant.  The therapist is always embroiled in the client's dynamicand needs to be in order to get an 'in-sight'. Somatic countertransference canbe viewed as a conscious use of a capacity for, or a tendency to, resonate. Bytaking the position of therapist you are implicitly agreeing to subjectyourself to the distorting effect of the client's particular energy field inorder to understand it (this does not preclude the client's attempts to do thesame for the therapist, nor the fact that therapists have plenty of'distortions' of their own).

  In a chapter which surveysvarious definitions of and attitudes to countertransference, Andrew Samuel'smakes an interesting division into 'reflective' and 'embodied'countertransference. What he calls 'reflective'countertransference, is evokedwhen the therapist, observing his/her own feelings, is aware that they somehowreflect the client's unconscious feelings. 'Embodied' countertransference, onthe other hand, is when the therapist seems to be experiencing the client'sunconscious objects - the therapist embodies ‘an entity, theme, or person oflong-standing intrapsychic inner-world nature’ (1989: 151). The first seems tohave more to do with identification - the therapist becomes 'one' with theclient on some level - and the second is a form of opposition - the therapistbecomes 'two' with the client, taking on a role that goes beyond the immediaterelationship between client and therapist.

  Samuel's discussion ofcountertransference draws on the ideas of the French philosopher, Henry Corbin.Corbin's 'mundus imaginalis' ‘refers to a precise order or level of reality,located somewhere between primary sense impressions and more developedcognition. [It has] a central mediating function’. (Samuels 1989: 162-3) Corbinrefers to ‘the organ of visionary knowledge’. (164). In terms of psychotherapy,writes Samuels, ‘that organ is [the therapist’s] countertransference’. Thisfits well with the emphasis on somatic resonance in body psychotherapy. Bodypsychotherapists learn to deliberately cultivate access to primary senseimpressions, which form the basis of energetic perception. The physical sensesconnect us to a primary process, they give us a touchstone for ‘making sense’,and they provide a channel through which we can be irnpressed upon/ affected byour clients. At the same time we want to hold onto and utilise effectively our'more developed cognition'.

 'Imaginalis' refers to bothimage and ability to create forms in the mind. These words originate from theLatin, imitari, to imitate. We could then say that countertransference is aform of involuntary imitation, which,in order to be understood, has to be translated from one system to another;from an energetic vibration into a more concrete form such as a visual orsensory image, or some recognisable pattern or relationship.

  Information can betransported between persons via any of the subtle body layers and at differentlevels of force and velocity, and these differences account for the varietiesof experience and definition of countertranference. The model of consciousnessI am using is of two fields of vibrating energy which operate in ways bestdescribed in the language of physics or music. The fields have layers ofdifferent frequencies  - they may harmonise or be dissonant in differentplaces across the spectrum. Where two wave forms of similar frequency ‘lockinto phase’ with each other, there is what might be described variously assympathetic vibration, resonance, or rhythm entrainment. This has the effect ofamplifying the pattern. In other words, when therapist and client are 'tunedin' and conscious/centred they are like to become more aware of a pattern.Schwartz-Salant comments that the subtle body ‘may be projected and imaginallyperceived as operating between people. Furthermore the intermediate subtle bodyrealm can be a conjoined body, made up of the individual subtle bodies of twopeople ’ (25) This gives a new dimension to the term ‘merging’ which has beenused in psychoanalytic literature to describe the client’s regression to astate characteristic of infancy.

 In projective identification,there is a more dramatic and violent energetic interaction: the client's subtlebody may literally eject an idea/object/ feeling into the therapist's subtlebody with considerable force. In this case, the amount of energy created by thebringing together of two parts is so great as to threaten to fragment theclient's ego/body. It is like a bomb about to go off which has to be hurled intoa potentially stronger container. The therapist might with various degrees ofsuccess be able to contain the explosion, or they might be swept up in aself-preservative counter action which involves throwing back the bombshell.

 Schwartz-Salant emphasisesthat the active, imaginal experience of the subtle bodies coming together cancreate a powerful feeling of being pulled together in fusion, and then pulledapart towards separation. He argues that this is why work with the subtle bodyis healing for clients who have suffered critical failures around separation,allowing them to work through these splits.

Having explored the relevance of thesubtle body for an understanding of countertransference, I want to look in moredetail at the chakras. In all subtle body traditions, the chakras are seen asrelating to specific psychological themes (grounding, sexuality, power etc),and physiological functions, for example each chakra is linked with a specificsense, gland, and nerve plexus. (Myss) In addition each chakra is associatedwith a particular type of psychic perceptual functioning. The root chakra, forexample, gives us information on sensation. We may become aware of a holding ina client's legs through feeling how our own legs are tensing, while it isthrough the solar plexus that strong emotion strikes us. The heart isassociated with compassion and emotional balance. The sixth chakra or third eyeis clairvoyant, giving us what may be experienced as a direct insight.

 It is the fifth chakra, thethroat, that I want to explore in more depth here because it is of primeimportance with regard to communication in the therapeutic setting. It ispredominantly through this chakra that we process the information that iscoming to us via any of the chakras or directly through the throat chakra intorecognisable and communicable patterns.

The fifth chakra is the realm ofconsciousness that controls, creates, transmits and receives communications.These communications - or patterns of energy - are symbolised for storage anduse in the brain, whether in the form of words or images. The throat chakra'sinner state relates to the synthesis of ideas into symbols, thus drawing limitsand decreasing the level of abstraction.  (It is one thing to 'pick up'energy, it is quite another to be able to describe coherently what you havepicked up) It includes the capacity to create meaning from information. This isimportant - for it is in ascribing meaning that we move from merely 'vibratingwith' to giving the information a context, and a more explicit relationship tothe here and now interaction. Jung comments that the throat chakra is the placewhere we learn to own our projections.  This underscores its relevance forpsychotherapy, where other traditions – such as healing, meditation, or yoga –might emphasise the importance of the heart chakra, or the third eye.

  Sound (vibration) is theelement of the fifth chakra, both expressive sound and articulate speech. Whenexpressed in language,  the information is released from the therapist'sbody and may find its home in a new way in the client.Thoughts voiced withfeeling – by client or therapist – create vegetative movements which cleanseand re-balance, the throat chakra is strongly associated with and activatedthrough the hands.   This connection supports my own experience thatwork with the hands  - for example, massage – can heighten the ability tosynthesise information from many different levels,  creating powerfulimages that succinctly encapsulate the client’s energetic state. The hands alsoact as intelligent reflectors, giving back the client his/her vibrationcombined with the vibration of the therapist’s perception and intention.

  I have focussed on the fifthchakra because it plays a significant role in mediating between the consciousand unconscious, between self and other. Of course all chakras are equallyimportant and work in concert. An open root chakra keeps us grounded and intouch with the matter-of-fact reality of individual bodies, two separate people.The seventh chakra consciousness, on the other hand, is about non-separation,everything as connected. The heart chakra is the balance point , but it isthrough the throat chakra that understanding can be defined and focussed. ‘Whatis’ can be symbolised and therefore known.

The therapist’s ability to utilisetheir fifth chakra helps maintain a necessary level of separateness whileremaining connected. It also challenges the notion that energetic perception isonly conceivable in terms of the archaic, primitive, regressive or symbiotic.Even with ideas as esoteric as the subtle body, it is possible to be rigorousas a psychotherapist, both in terms of challenging as well as supporting theclient, and in terms of appropriate reflection on one’s therapeutic work. Thetherapist’s perceptions are always pushed through the mesh of their ownconsciousness, so that whatever blind spots, unresolved issues and points oftension are in their subtle bodies will affect the process. Clients have anuncanny ability to use their  own subtle body perceptions to hook onto,penetrate or overwhelm parts or all of the therapist’s subtle body.

  Most therapies that work withthe subtle body focus on the healing process in an individual, with thefacilitation of another.  Psychotherapeutic work with the subtle body,however, explores the subtle body as it emerges in the relationship betweenclient and therapist, as an aspect of transference and countertransference.When the two subtle bodies are interacting, it is felt as ‘a change in thequality of space between them’, a more energised, heightened state.(Schwartz-Salant, 21) [v] Such is the quality of the change in atmosphere,that a sense of peeling away layers of history can be evoked. The Jungian RogerWoolger, for example, explicitly uses subtle body work to work with pastlives and trauma.

  My own experience is mostoften of the face of my client changing as though masks are being pulled offone by one to reveal older, deeper identities. The faces seem to present verypowerful aspects of the individual that may have been repressed and distortedthrough fear. They may embody fantasy figures such as a witch or a pirate. Thetherapist needs the capacity to tolerate these heightened states, preciselybecause they hold the unconscious feelings from which the client has split off.The client’s intense anxiety is part of a process of embodiment, and thetherapist’s task is to remain embodied as the heat is turned up.Schwartz-Salant argues that ‘such subtle body encounters strengthen psychicstructure and build a firmer mind-body unity, one which is less afflicted bysplitting and projective identification’. At key moments in this process it isas if the subtle bodies are linked in a dance: a dance between two subtlebodies which may be imaged as nurturing, grotesque, comical, erotic, barbaric,playful, sombre, scintillating…


Boadella, D.  (1987) Lifestreams: An Introduction to Biosynthesis ( London : Routledge)

Boadella, D (1990) ‘Somatic Psychotherapy: Its Roots and Traditions’ Energy and Character, vol 21, no 1 (Abbotsbury Publications)

Conger, J.P. (1988) Jung and Reich: The Body as Shadow ( Berkley : North Atlantic Books)

Goodison, L.  (1990) Moving Heaven and Earth: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Change ( London : Women’s Press)

Harvey, C and Amanda Cochrane (1995) The Encyclopedia of Flower Remedies ( London : Thorsons)

Judith, A (1988) Wheels of Life: A User’s Guide to the Chakra System ( St Paul : Lewellyn Publications)

Jung, C.G (1980) The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious trans. R.F.C Hull, ed.Read, Fordham and Adler, Bollinger Series XX vol 9 (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

 Myss, C. (1997) Anatomy  of the Spirit ( London : Bantam)

Samuels, A. (1989) The Plural Psyche ( London : Routledge)

Samuels, A. (1993) The Political Psyche ( London :Routledge)

Schwartz-Salant, N. (1986) ‘On the Subtle Body Concept in Clinical Practice’ in The Body in Analysis, ed.

Schwartz-Salant and Murray Stein ( Wilmette :Chiron Publications)





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