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What are the 5 bodies?

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

In medical school, I learned anatomy with the aid of the Atlas of Human Anatomy, rendered by the renowned physician-artist Frank H. Netter. I still have my copy.

In the preface, Dr. Netter writes:

"Anatomy of course does not change, but our understanding of anatomy and its clinical significance does change, as do anatomical terminology and nomenclature. This therefore required much updating of many of the older pictures and even revision of a number of them in order to make them more pertinent to today's ever-expanding scope of medical and surgical practice. In addition, I found that there were gaps in the portrayal of medical knowledge as pictorialized in the illustrations I had previously done, and this necessitated my making a number of new pictures that are included in this volume."

If our understanding of anatomy changes over just a few decades within a single culture, imagine how much it might differ and change across cultures. Professor Shigehisa Kuriyama, a historian of medicine and author of The Expressiveness of the Body, brings out this point. He writes that "...the tracts and points of acupuncture entirely escaped the West’s anatomical vision of reality." In other words, the anatomy we are taught is a vision in progress. It is how we see ourselves through the lens of culture and the need of the moment.

A few thousand years ago in ancient India, another model of human anatomy was presented–that of the pancha koshas or five sheaths, which serves as the inspiration for the 5 bodies model I present here. There are some differences: I have re-ordered, re-categorized, omitted, and added a layer for the same reason Dr. Netter mentioned: " make them more pertinent to today's ever-expanding scope of medical and surgical practice."

Integrating knowledge from ancient and modern cultures in a new model of anatomy demands finding a place for new concepts such as information and different kinds of energy. The model also has to function as a meeting place where all viewpoints converge to learn about each other and translate their understanding into the others' terms, whether they were labeled scientific, philosophical, or spiritual. The goal was comprehensiveness, cross-disciplinary understanding, and simplicity without over-simplification.

I soon realized that a comprehensive model could not be one that kept itself at a distance from the experience of being human as modern anatomy does. Dissection of the physical body can tell us about about the four chambers of the heart, but it cannot tell us about the anatomy of purpose, ecstasy, energy, or consciousness. Therefore, the 5 bodies model combines experiential and analytic approaches.

The 5 bodies are five layers of human anatomy derived from experiential and analytic approaches, starting from the outermost physical layer to the innermost layer of consciousness. Each layer is given the label of "body" because each is at least as important as the physical body and deserves the same attention. Not paying attention to one of these layers leads to incomplete understanding and limitations in diagnosis, treatment, and healing.

5 bodies of human anatomy
The 5 bodies model of human anatomy (C=consciousness)

5 Physical body

The physical body layer is our densest and outermost form. It is like the final long coat worn over multiple layers of clothing. It includes the entire range of physical findings, including organ systems, organs, tissues, cells, organelles, molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles, and elementary particles. This is the body immortalized in Netter's Atlas of Human Anatomy and the one detailed by master anatomists like Aristotle, Galen, and Henry Gray.

The physical body layer also includes histology, or microscopic anatomy, and embryology.

4 Mental body

The mental body layer is that of our personal thoughts and feelings. It also includes desire, intuition, meaning, purpose, memory, and imagination. We identify with the mental body more than the physical body because it carries how we feel and what we believe in any given moment. Despite this, the physical body traditionally gets more attention in medicine and in the media.

3 Energetic body

The energetic body layer includes kinds of energy recognized in other cultures such as prana, chi, other vital energies, and their associated processes, including chakras, nadis, sen, and meridians. These processes have been recognized and documented for thousands of years and can be appreciated, but they are often not recognized because most educational systems direct attention to primarily the physical and mental bodies. Since the energetic body is deeper than these two bodies, some kind of practice is required to sensitize our power of observation to perceive them.

I also include kinds of measurable energy in the energetic body, such as electrical energy, electromagnetic energy produced by cells and organs, chemical energy produced from adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and the kinetic energy of vibrating atoms and molecules. All categories of energy and related concepts such as voltage are brought together in the energetic body so we can appreciate and study the phenomenon of energy–the ability to do work–in one place, and give it due importance in the process of being human.

2 Informational body

The informational body layer bridges the energetic body and consciousness.

Claude Shannon, considered the father of information theory, said "Information is something that can be used to remove uncertainty," a statement often paraphrased as "Information is the resolution of uncertainty." When we apply this to the 5 bodies model, we can see that consciousness itself is the state of pure potential, which can also be interpreted as pure uncertainty, since it is only that which is not established in a particular way or in a certain way that can remain as potential.

  • uncertainty -> certainty

  • potential -> tangible

  • not in formation -> in-formation

  • consciousness -> energy

Information, then, is the self-reflection of consciousness into more distinct possibilities such as energy. Therefore, the the informational body is the domain that bridges consciousness-as-potential and energy.

If we say information is the foundation of our world, as some scientists and philosophers do, we would be declaring that the world is fundamentally abstract–the result of peering ever more deeply into the body and finding out that all solidness and physicality disappears with inquiry. But information is not the foundation. Information declares by its very name that it is something that is in formation.

What is that something that takes on formations? I suggest it is consciousness itself–not just because the same has been declared by many great traditions of the world, but because a subtle consciousness has to be present to recognize the absence or presence of any formation. Consciousness is more fundamental than information, but to know how this can be true we must inquire into the nature of consciousness beyond the limited frame in which our modern culture usually presents it.

From a practical perspective, the informational body is the energetic body as its subtlest, least-localized processes, or from a different perspective, the informational body is consciousness-as-potential self-reflecting as possibilities.

1 Consciousness

The first body is consciousness, which is not a body at all, as it is beyond form, time, and space. Consciousness is popularly experienced and understood as individual mental awareness (the mental body, layer 4). By inquiring into this frame of consciousness, one sees that the boundaries of the frame can be removed. Consciousness is then discovered to be transpersonal–the self beyond materiality and also appearing as materiality. This transpersonal consciousness becomes increasingly dense through the informational, energetic, mental, and physical bodies.

From the perspective of the physical body, consciousness appears to be a small entity within–like the light at the end of a long tunnel–but from the perspective of consciousness itself, all processes, forms, and functions, including that of locality in time and space, are its own reflection.

General principles of the 5 bodies of human anatomy

  • Experiential and analytic approaches are required to understand complete human anatomy

  • The movement from layer 5 (outermost) to layer 1 (innermost) is the process of expanding our awareness of ourselves.

  • The outermost body is the densest and the innermost body is the subtlest.

  • Different healing systems around the world focus on different bodies.

  • Integrative approaches to healing recognize and address multiple bodies.

  • The 5 bodies are the basis of multi-directional healing.

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