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Until we achieve an extremely high level of evolution, we each appear to exist as an independent being separate from other independent beings and the world surrounding ourselves. In other words, there’s a “self” and a “not-self”. The nature of perception (and even the very nature of consciousness itself) is energies that influence the self. These influences can be external impacts from the not-self upon the self, or they can be internal processings within the self. Below are four different levels upon which things can be externally perceived and internally processed:
Physical: senses (external) and urges (internal): The physical level means our bodies. On the physical level, a sense is a bodily perception of something external which impacts upon it. The classic five senses are touch, hearing, sight, taste, and smell. Some physical perceptions come from within the body, and include urges such as hunger, thirst, sleepiness, and so on. Physical pain often starts from an external impact, but continued pain afterward is internal discomfort.
Astral: emotions (internal) and feelings (external): The astral level means attractions and repulsions. An emotion is an internal reaction to a situation, which may manifest as a desire, aspiration, or result in an outburst of some form. The term “feeling” is rather general, and can be applied to everything from physical touch to spiritual intuition. In this context “feeling” is defined as a psychic reception. It’s easy to confuse emotions with true feelings. People sometimes call their emotions feelings, such as “I feel angry”. However, truly feeling anger is psychically picking up on anger outside yourself, which is actually quite rare. For example, one can use physical senses to pick up on somebody’s non-verbal expression, process that sense mentally and think that means they’re expressing anger, and then have an internal emotional reaction that perceives them as an opponent, but that’s different from directly sensing something astrally.
Mental: thoughts (internal) and receptions (external): The mental level means the level of intellect and the mind. Thoughts are intellectual processings and judgments within the head, analyzing ideas or memories within. As with the astral level, an external mental perception is rare, which we'll define using the word “reception”. A reception is telepathically picking up on an idea. Mental reception is rare because usually we use our physical senses to pick up on printed words (such as what you’re doing by reading this now :) and then mentally think thoughts and make judgments based upon them. Internal thoughts often turn into internal emotions when mental processings result in judgments, which create a positive or negative reaction. Mystics who prefer the richness of feelings to the dryness of thoughts have a important point, because a feeling is an external perception which brings in something new, while thoughts are just one’s internal processings which are frequently the same old tapes on autorepeat.
Intuitive (internal and external): Intuition is true spiritual perception, which takes place on a level beyond matter, emotion, and mind. Being spiritual, true intuition takes place on unified levels, so doesn’t really have external and internal forms. When intuition is contacted, we often label it as external channeling or internal knowing, but ultimately those are just labels for the same essential concept. Intuition can only be directly experienced, and therefore must be later reflected in mental thoughts, emotional feelings, or physical expression in order for us to record it or share it with others. We often label things as intuition that aren’t. For example, mental conclusions, psychic impressions, and even physical “gut feelings” are mental/emotional/physical perceptions on denser levels that sometimes get mistaken for true intuition.
Many situations take place on multiple levels. For example, sexual arousal is a physical internal state, but it often starts from being stimulated by external senses. It also involves non-physical perception, such as horniness being an internal emotional state of desiring sexual contact. Also, many perceptions result in others. For example, an emotional desire causes one to internally think about how they may satisfy it, which results in physical action. The reverse can happen too: Internal thinking may cause one to make a judgmental conclusion and have a positive or negative emotional response to it. Thoughts and emotions go back and forth so often and are so intertwined that eastern religions have a term for it: kama-manas or “desire-mind”. Being able to develop, identify, and refine our perceptions is an important part of character growth and eventually the spiritual Path.