Studying the Subtle Body



Since our earliest days, Esalen’s staff, seminarians, and program leaders have brought us countless questions about chakras, meridians, kundalini experiences and other phenomena that suggest we possess an extra-physical, or “subtle,” body that exists alongside our physical frame. Many people have suggested that we explore such reports to determine their truth through a multi-disciplinary, long-term study, but though we’ve conducted such studies in other fields, we have never done so. However, at long last, we are planning such a study now! The essay that follows provides a context and reasons for it. Its author, Simon Cox, is a scholar and Kung Fu teacher fluent in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit and Greek. He practiced transformative exercises for five years in Chinese monasteries and earned a Ph.D. in religious studies at Rice University under the guidance of Jeff Kripal. He is also the author of The Subtle Body: A Genealogy (Oxford 2022), which describes the idea’s ramifications in Western history.

For more on Simon you can visit his website.

—Michael Murphy

Esalen and the Subtle Body

By Simon Cox

Esalen Institute has been haunted by the subtle body since its 1962 inception. As a place where spiritual practice meets open-ended inquiry, and as a major hub in the Western reception of Eastern religions and systems of practice, the subtle body and its surrounding energies and potentialities have floated around the grounds of Esalen as a kind of obvious presupposition. Something that is plainly real to the bodyworkers, spiritual seekers, and casual weekend seminar attendees who pass through the space, even as it takes on different forms and surfaces in diverse, often mystifying ways.

Less than a year into Esalen’s existence the Stanford Indologist Frederic Spiegelberg (1897-1994) came down to give a talk on the Hindu sūkṣma śarīra, often translated (and to Spiegelberg mistranslated) as “subtle body.” This first foray into the topic was attended by a number of major figures in early Esalen and was met with a general call for a more comprehensive, long-term investigation into the topic.

Over the past six decades Esalen has hosted numerous inquiries into subjects peripheral to the subtle body: initiatives on meditation, visualization, somatics, hypnosis, a wide range of psychotherapies, and the survival of bodily death have brought together practitioners and scholars from disparate academic kingdoms and produced literatures that have seriously impacted their respective fields. But a concerted subtle body initiative has never been undertaken. Why?

While there are many reasons the subtle body has evaded sustained inquiry, the most obvious one pertains simply to the overwhelming size of the topic. “If you’re going to dance with a bear, you’ve gotta dance all night,” Michael Murphy recently related to me, “but here you’re not dancing with a bear, you’re dancing with a T-Rex. It’ll eat you in one bite,” he mimed tossing something into his mouth, “like an olive.” As Murphy framed this issue in his 1992 Future of the Body,

"The Egyptian ka, the Greek ochema, and the Sanskrit kosha, deha, and sarira, which represent the vehicles of consciousness that can live after death. Different doctrines accompany the idea that we possess a subtle body (or bodies), too many to summarize here...the Rig Veda, Upanishads, Old Testament, pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, certain Epicureans and Stoics, Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Origen, Saint Paul, many Gnostics, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Paracelsus, Swedenborg, and works of several modern philosophers, novelists, and scientists."

It seems to show up just about everywhere, necessitating a cumbersome historical scope and unreasonable array of linguistic and anthropological proficiencies. I recently wrote a genealogy of the modern Western concept of the subtle body in an attempt to mitigate these difficulties, but my short book is just a first step in this direction. I wrote it in the hopes it might serve as a prologue to a larger project, ideally involving other people.

In addition to the historical and linguistic difficulties entailed in the apparent universality of the idea, the subtle body is philosophically problematic, violating many of the most dearly held dogmas of our age, from materialist reductionism to postmodern relativism. The presence of the subtle body in contexts that span vast historical chasms makes it an inherently comparative category, equally uncomfortable to traditional religious and post-religious and secular humanist frameworks. When you really dig into the topic and its surrounding literatures it is hard not to lose any sense of direction and wind up all metaphysically topsy-turvy.

Beyond the historical and philosophical problematics lies the perhaps more present concern that the concept of the subtle body, while having its origins at Cambridge in the crucible of the scientific revolution, was mostly forgotten in the European philosophical tradition and has lived on through in the Western world through popular syncretistic movements. Until quite recently the menacing aura of “woo” made this material career kryptonite for scholars, rendering the subtle body all but unstudyable.

Luckily there are places that make a point of studying the unstudyable, and Esalen has positioned itself centrally in this world. From its presence as guardian of the psychedelic flame through America’s ill-fated flirtation with prohibition, to its engagement with the renegade dataon the survival of bodily death, Esalen has spent sixty years now making a point of asking unfashionable questions and considering data that are unacceptable to the normative metaphysical commitments of mainstream academia and industry.

On the possibility of an initiative

I characterize my recent book on the subtle body as a bit of housekeeping, trying to tie up loose ends, to habilitate, or possibly rehabilitate this concept to a state of philosophical readiness. What would a serious inquiry into the nature of the subtle body even look like? There are so many relevant traditions and relevant frameworks. As Murphy puts it, at this early stage it is important to “relax into the scope of the topic.” Key here is to recognize how truly widespread this idea seems to be and to concede that no single person will have a grasp on even a sizeable minority of its ethnohistorical spread. What is called for is an inquiry that matches the scale of the topic and an open and generally inquisitive spirit.

Something that makes this a difficult subject to get into is the certitude with which adherents of the subtle body of every stripe tend to approach the problem. There are many who seem to know the answer, exclusively, leaving little room for conversation. Perhaps the most radical thing about Esalen is its posture of all-gurus-welcome, where you can come and absorb the certitude of a guru, and the very next day another guru will be there in his or her place expounding capital-T-Truths of a different variety. This dynamic, where no one captures the proverbial flag, is central to maintaining Esalen’s status as a not-for-prophet institution. The low pH of the larger comparative context dissolves certitudes but threatens to leave us stranded in paralyzing relativism. How to ride the line between certainty and doubt?

Previous initiatives at Esalen’s Center for Theory & Research have balanced the deconstructive propensities of the humanities against the rigid orientations of the sciences to tackle complex subjects like psychedelics and the possibility of life after death. A similar distribution of specialities, from scholars that span the sciences and humanities, and from experiencers from an array of traditions, from shamanism to sport, would be required here.

As Murphy summed up, “What is the case? What is going on? Do we have a subtle body? Do we have several? Let’s realize where we are in the greater scheme of this inquiry.” A certain humility, concession to ambiguity, and willingness to start at the beginning are vital to the possibility of an inquiry of this type.

Has this ever been done before?

Christopher Beckwith, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies at University of Indiana and MacArthur Fellow, recently wrote a book expanding our understanding of the history of the university. In his 2012 Warriors of the Cloisters he shows how the western university system was modeled on an older Islamic Madrasa system that the founder of University of Paris observed during his time in Syria. Beckwith takes us back to the origin of the Madrasa, modeled on the even more archaic Buddhist Vihāras which Madrasas replaced after Islam swept through central Asia in the eighth century.

From the second to the thirteenth centuries CE the premier Buddhist Vihāra University was Nalanda, in Bihar, Eastern India. The Tibetologist Robert Thurman has likened Nalanda to an ancient version of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, but contextualized within a Buddhist rather than Christian civilization. Painting with broad brush, in Thurman’s historical scheme these ancient Buddhist universities, extremely well-funded and furnished with endowments (they were in fact where the idea of an endowed educational institution comes from), were concerned primarily with the exploration of consciousness and inner space, an historical counterpoint to the modern university with its focus on the exploration of the world and outer space.

The exploration of the subtle body was a major field within the Vihāra system of medieval India and Central Asia, where the classical Buddhist Tantras and their surrounding literatures were taxonomized, systematized, and incorporated into the larger Buddhist path. In Islam’s quest across Eurasia, many of these Buddhist Vihāras were transformed into Madrasas. Beginning in central Asia and rippling West, this university blueprint transformed in its journey to Egypt, and then Spain, but the general institutional framework as well as curricular structures (and even as far as the very architecture of the academic quad) lived on in palimpsest.

I suppose the point of these thoughts is that when we ask, “has there ever been a serious scholarly study of the subtle body before?” We have to say yes, and that in our own researches into the nature of the subtle body and its attendant phenomena we stand on the shoulders of giants, and that the university, at its very origins, was very much taken up with the idea. Our own past millennium of European intellectual history, with its pendulum swing between Aristotelian mechanistic sciences and Platonic idealisms, is just the second chapter in a much larger story in which the subtle body plays a central role. Esalen is very much in the interoceptive spirit of the earlier Vihāra system as Robert Thurmann presents it, with its concern for embodied consciousness and inner space. But the sheer amount of information available today makes our job that much more difficult. Whereas medieval Buddhists at Nalanda had a variety of Tantras to make sense of, comparing their different models of embodiment, cognition, and practice, we in 21st century are heirs to everything from Daoist alchemy to the spiritual peregrinations of ayahuasqueros, rainbow bodies of Tibetan yogis, and luminous spirit chariots of neoplatonists.

In the history of the subtle body there is a tendency to view all its multifarious modern forms as stemming ultimately from a single source, from some time out of mind, a source we might reconstruct if we could simply encapsulate enough of the fragmentary wisdom that has trickled down to us through the ages. I think the situation is a bit more complicated than this, and that the subtle bodies that have arisen in different cultural contexts do not necessarily gesture toward the same thing. That they may in fact gesture toward different realities entirely. And so this subtle body Tower of Babel we find ourselves confronted with is not something that can be disentangled purely through scholarship. It will take a deep conversation between study and practice, between historical investigation and empirical disclosure. A conversation that has remained up to the present something of a flirtation. But whose flowering might lead toward substantial, even revolutionary, realizations about the extent, depth, and magnitude of human potential.