At essence, the afterlife states have three primary qualities: luminosity, dynamism, and continuity or a continuous nature. These three qualities, though triune in awareness and the consciousness stream itself, each become a dominant quality of an afterlife state. They are sequential and then repeat, but do so with increased refinement. I only know of the first 5 levels or layers and have participated in them in a variety of functions: helping people pass, getting the attention of those who are in the rotary somnambulism of a heavenly or purgatory-type state, being part of the lighted subjective counsel for the considerations of re-incarnation, and supporting presences as they re-enter the incarnated state.
The first level or layer is luminous. This is classical and happens for all people. For the kindly, luminosity is experienced as lightness of being, light as a feather, lightness of heart, and grace. The light is inviting, warm, and soothing, peaceful yet scintillating. “In this light shall we see light,” and for the kindly, the light reveals and encourages, there is no fear. Thoughtforms of those who represent lighted presences seem to appear within the light and greet them. For the malevolent and immoral, the light is shockingly bright, sharp and unforgiving, like being in a desert at mid-day. Thoughtform-presences that appear will be fewer and generally those who represent wisdom and choices made. For the kindly, the journey through the lighted bardo can seem peacefully timeless, though they are aware that they are not staying here. For the malevolent and immoral, the first bardo is brief, unpleasant, and they want to escape its clarity. Of course, there is no escape, but only the moving into the next intermediate state. My experience is that no human being remains in the first bardo for a duration as the sojourn between lives.
The second level is one of dynamism. Here is the classical review of one’s life. But it is quality that is being recycled through the consciousness. The reader might think that the review is what is dynamic, and it is, but that is not itself a state. Instead, the state is more of the condition of the consciousness or stabilized awareness state. The nature and quality of one’s life is conditioned by and an expression of one’s scope of awareness. The kindly (imagine the range of this word along the Path) experience the patterns of quality and qualified response that expressed through his or her character of life. The malevolent and immoral experience the same process. This is the first level that can be sustained for a short duration, but that is rare because wisdom is difficult to gain in this process because there is little opportunity for reflection and objectivity.
The third has the quality of continuity – or a continuous uninterrupted flow – of a combination of the previous two states. For the common person up to (it seems in my experience) second degree, the continuous state is a classical purgatory. This state provides time for observing, contemplating, and purifying or refining habitual self-oriented or self-centered response patterns. For the malevolent and gravely immoral, this is a classical hell in the bardos. For those of heart and kindness, this is a classical heaven state. This is the primary bardo of duration for most people/souls.
One might ask what is the Soul doing or learning in these three bardos? The truth is that It is not really, because these intermediate states are all still within the lower vibrational realms of awareness-mind. These realms have to do with the molding processes of the instrument of the Soul, the jiva as incarnating consciousness.
Human Souls senior to the ones in this bardo of continuity check in and observe the quality of the consciousness for change-maturation or potential softening of patterned consciousness. To get their attention in this bardo (in order to posit the re-incarnation process) is a bit like getting the attention of an autistic young child (no harm intended in the example). If it is a heavenly state of mind, they are engaged fully in that. If it is a purgatory state of mind, they are fully engaged by it. Same with a hellish state. But once their attention is gained by the senior Soul, then counsel on reincarnation can begin.
The fourth level is light again. But from levels four and onward, now the Soul on its own plane is involved in the bardo. We want to keep in mind that the Soul is migrates through the three higher manasic subplanes into the buddhic and atmic; so “its own plane” can be any of these and their subplanes. The luminosity is the clear, sharp, pristine clarity of awareness itself. For the being that is still proceeding through the intermediate states as the process of death and immediately thereafter, this is now the Soul experiencing freedom from its reflection (the jiva form), and the lightness and presence of wisdom-compassion-integrity-function. The soul could stop here and remain in this bardo for a duration. It will be the first of level of service in the bardo states, as well as those that are subsequent as well. This is a joyous (light) bardo, heavenly to be sure. My experience is that only Souls beyond and sufficiently through the second degree sojourn here because it is a realm of service. The service is simply light in the form of guidance, supporting intuitive and inventive processes for others (telepathy), and helping in classically angelic ways to people in incarnation. The service also can be to those in the lower bardos to help them along.
The fifth is dynamic again. This is a fiery bardo (not literally): it is powerful. The Souls that arise into this bardo upon leaving an incarnation are initiate and capable of wielding the Sword of Fiery Light and Compassion. The energies and qualities worked with are those that the Soul-Triad are familiar with. Master Morya and esoteric Tibetan Buddhism give indications of the service or work wrought within the planetary collective consciousness and the alchemical processes that sunyata brings to all layers of manifestation. It is hard to convey the functionality and functioning of the initiated Soul-Triads who remain in this bardo between lives. These Souls have much choice regarding when to return and why.
The sixth is continuity again. But as with the third bardo, it absorbs or includes the luminous and dynamic qualities of the bardos that the Soul and then the Soul-Triad can experience. I have not experienced this bardo, thus can offer no comment on it.
My experience in the roles that I have been involved in with the intermediate states leaving incarnation and re-engaging incarnation is that most people cycle round fairly predictably, but that is because most of humanity is less than second degree.