What is the element common to all experience – in whatever realm you wish to consider? That is the Essence, the unit of identity that exists and has experience. It is the very spark of life.
Ibn al-Arabi maintained that the realms are basically six in number, though they may present themselves as multiplicities. He names them as the state we were in before incarnation; our life here in the material world; the “interval”, or barzakh, after we have left this life and before moving into the metaeternity of God; the Garden and the Fire, and the sand dunes outside the garden.
It is not clear how much of this metaphysics we are capable of understanding, while in the human form, or outside of it. Ibn al-Arabi says that the number of realms is limitless and beyond our understanding whatever our state.
Our Essence is eternal and with us in whatever realm we inhabit, but our perception of those realms is colored by all the noise collected in our personalities and experience. We have and have always had every potential within us, but they remain obscured by coarser accidental responses to our world and states.
The Essence is what remains when the accidental and temporal is removed. In the “journey without distance”, Ibn al-Arabi explains, limitless expansions and elaborations of reality occur, both upward (toward an endless multidimensional spiritual abstraction) and downward (to an endless multidimensional infolding of significance and meaning). The realms are the states of being conducive to these experiences, and according to the Greatest Shaykh, they are where these manifestations “actually appear”.
It is important to realize that since these states arise in awareness, not consciousness, they are part of our own experience of ourselves, not our considerations, beliefs, opinions, fears, hopes, or phantasies. In that sense, the realms are not part of the human form itself, but the matrix from which the human form arises, indeed from which all form and identity and potential arises.
Scientists say that some dinosaurs were only capable of seeing movement – changes in their visual environment. Consciousness is like this. It exists by, for, and about differences and discrimination. Even though perception of the realms is very different from our normal consciousness, that perception does not present as another distinction, but as a change in state.
The process of disentangling the Essence from the overgrown weeds of consciousness requires making these kinds of distinctions in your own experience, and makes such perception possible.You may ask, “How is it that awareness can perceive its own change of state without invoking differential consciousness?” This is a level of mystery I cannot understand; it is deeply buried in the metaphysical significance of unity and separation, and I do not know. My own Shaykh explains it this way: absence of knowing is not a state of being; it is a blankness, not even a potential, but the hidden is there in its own special state, waiting for you to discover it, and questions like the above pertain to the hidden, not the unknown.
Ibn al-Arabi notes that when you view the greater reality from within the treasures laid up within you, they appear as “miracles and wonders” that occur continuously in your perception. This is the state of the mazjubs, the Madmen of God, who are transfixed by the parade of meaning and wonder so thoroughly that they may appear to be unconscious of events around them in “reality”.
The Greatest Shaykh advises us to appreciate this level of experience, but to look away from it and continue the Journey. At each such waystation, the temptation is there to lose yourself in it (as this is what we long for above all else), but it is what you lose yourself in that determines your ultimate destination. He says that beings and states and understanding will all appear before you and present themselves as God, upon which you must say, “God is far beyond you,” and continue on the path without being absorbed in the significance of that moment.
The Essence is the window into God. It is of God and not of God; it reveals and obscures. More importantly, all we can know of God, while wearing the human form, is of and through the Essence. It is the metaphysical – ontological layer of the human form.
Thus, development of the Essence (or more properly, the revealing of the Essence) is “cutting to the chase” in spiritual development. Any exercise or experience that “works” to develop your Being is work on the Essence.
I recommend A. H. Almaas’s book Essence as the best discursive onramp to a study of it. An indirect approach to developing the tools to meet your Essence is the traditional corpus of the Mullah Nasruddin stories.