We are all ignorant but we are not ignorant of the same things.
Different wisdom traditions posit different levels of consciousness. Hinduism generally describes four levels of consciousness: waking consciousness, sleeping consciousness, dreamless sleep, and Turiya, a fourth dimension which corresponds roughly to the pure consciousness (universal consciousness) I am presenting here. Gurdjieff envisioned seven levels of consciousness, which he called the Seven Levels of Man. Patanjali Yoga has seven levels of consciousness, in accord with the seven chakras. The Kabbalah also generally breaks consciousness down into seven levels: bodily consciousness, psychological consciousness, self-reflection, the true self, ethical consciousness, transpersonal consciousness and universal consciousness. (1) And there are many other systems that describe different levels of consciousness.
We need to be cautious in comparing these systems, primarily because they were developed to meet a particular need and purpose at a particular time. And they each have different presuppositions that are usually rooted in an earlier system. For my purposes, consciousness can be divided into three levels – ordinary consciousness, aware consciousness and pure consciousness. (Appendix 8)
Ordinary consciousness, the first level, corresponds to the consciousness of one-dimensional man. It is also called one-dimensional or ego consciousness. Ordinary consciousness is primarily aware of content. There is an absence of self-awareness implied in the term. There is generally no vertical dimension and very little access to higher levels of awareness. What is implied is full identification with the content of consciousness – in other words, identification with thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses and so on. Psychologically, ordinary consciousness is aligned with our protections and ego defenses. With ordinary consciousness we are fully immersed in ego activity and mental activity in general. We are busy with content and with trying to alter the content of our lives in some way. At this level of consciousness we are identified primarily with being a separate self – with our thoughts and emotions, with our personal history, our fixations, ego ideals, self-images and so on.
Ordinary consciousness is the reality of beliefs and filters, trances that we take to be our everyday reality, but which have little to do with the true nature of the field we live in. There is strong involvement in fixation and false personality, and with ego activity in general. We have a limited awareness of our personal reality and the world we live in.
The world of one-dimensional consciousness is called Flatland and corresponds roughly to the world of Newtonian physics. It is an alienated, utilitarian world that is primarily focused on survival. It is a field of maya or delusion. In Flatland we are preoccupied with the content of our lives. As Winston Churchill once remarked about politics, “It’s just one damn thing after another.” That is ordinary consciousness – an outward focus, an externally referenced reality that is primarily involved with our relationship to Flatland. Life in Flatland tends to be mechanical and repetitious, because it takes place in a deep unconsciousness and an absence of self-awareness.
Aware consciousness, the second level, is aligned with the soul and the exploration of our inner reality. It connotes self-awareness, an awareness of the flow of consciousness as well as a greater awareness of the nature of the content of consciousness. We start to become aware of who is experiencing the content of our lives, of how we are experiencing that content. Psychologically it is aligned with our vulnerability, impressionability and sensitivity, and with the birthing of an aware ego. This is the level at which change and transformation can happen, the level at which self-awareness starts to take hold. We start to become more aware of our personal psychology. Ordinary consciousness means identification with ego and with mental activity. Aware consciousness implies greater awareness of ego structure and identification with the soul as the seat of consciousness, the vehicle of consciousness.
At this second level, consciousness starts to become aware of itself. In other words we become aware of the flow of consciousness, aware that content is a function of the flow of consciousness. This level of consciousness has been given many different names. Eckhart Tolle calls it presence, J. Krishnamurti called it awareness, Gurdjieff called it self-remembering. Osho usually called it witnessing. Aware consciousness is intimately linked to our spiritual potential, to Essence and our capacity to explore our inner reality. It is at this level that real personal transformation happens. We begin to identify with consciousness rather than identifying solely with the objects of consciousness. We start to develop the capacities of multidimensional man by integrating the different qualities of Essence. We develop an aware ego and the capacity to explore our personal psychology and the subjectivity of the soul. The field we inhabit is the field of Essence. This field corresponds roughly to the field of Quantum physics.
The third level of consciousness is universal consciousness or pure consciousness. This level is allied to the Absolute, to Being and to the All-and-Everything, the enlightened field of existence. It is often called by different names – such as transcendent consciousness, undifferentiated consciousness, transpersonal consciousness and so on. Bodhidharma’s expression “no mind” and Buddha’s expression “one suchness” both point toward this reality, as does J. Krishnamurti’s concept of “choiceless awareness.” There is no choice involved because universal consciousness is one seamless, indivisible reality. One suchness. One beingness.
This third level of consciousness tends to be beyond any cultural elements, religions, symbols, spiritual practices and so on. Nevertheless, without meditation or some kind of awareness practice, our identification with content tends to increase and our experiences of pure consciousness tends to diminish.
Pure consciousness is connected to the Boundless Dimensions of Essence. We can understand this level of consciousness as an expanding subjectivity that includes the whole of existence – or as a diminishing subjectivity that goes in the direction of no self. In the deeper experiences of pure consciousness the flow of content tends to slow down and to disappear. In this state we can witness thoughts and images slowly arising, without being identified with them. At the deepest levels of pure consciousness there is no content and no subject. Time and space tend to disappear. We don’t seem to be present in any particular time or place. These states are usually given names like Samadhi, Nirvana or Absorption. There is no sense of separation. Elements of ordinary consciousness, when they appear, seem to be arising at a great distance from the reality of pure consciousness. Pure consciousness or universal consciousness makes possible our perception of the Divine Matrix, the field of the All-and-Everything. This third level of consciousness corresponds to the physics of the Unknowable.
It is possible to correlate these three levels of consciousness to the Raja Yoga system, but that is only a general correlation that is not completely symmetrical. (2) Ordinary consciousness corresponds to the Antakarana (ego). Aware consciousness corresponds to Atman (soul, True Self). And pure consciousness corresponds to Brahman (Absolute, universal consciousness). These three categories of consciousness are actually inseparable from each other and each one serves as a door to the other. One is not higher or better than the other. They are linked by the dynamic flow of consciousness itself and by changes in the nature of that flow. The stream of consciousness becomes more refined, more delicate and clear when we experience pure consciousness, and more dense and viscous when we enter the ego activity of ordinary consciousness.
The three levels of consciousness overlap in ways that open the door to the other levels of consciousness. In ordinary consciousness there may be peak experiences that give us a brief glimpse of aware consciousness. In the same way, our experiences of aware consciousness may also begin to open up into the vastness of the Boundless Dimensions and the third level of pure consciousness.
The level of universal consciousness or pure consciousness may also be colored or textured by one or more of the Boundless Dimensions, the absolute dimensions of the different qualities of Essence. That is why our experiences of pure consciousness often have different descriptions. The “oceanic” experience that the psychologist William James talked about is one aspect of the experience of pure consciousness. Some of these experiences are more allied to particular energy centers in the body. In my own experience, pure consciousness is usually connected to a specific quality of breath and/or to a particular the heart. Some of these experiences are ecstatic, oceanic or overwhelming – others are so subtle as to be much closer to non-existence, to the absence of reality. The breath becomes so subtle and refined we do not know we are still breathing.
The times in my life when I have been strongly in this third level of consciousness were times when I was either in sitting meditation many hours a day or regularly in the presence of an enlightened master. But that certainly does not mean we are deprived of these experiences in ordinary life. Just by bringing our full awareness to a tree dancing in the breeze or a cloud drifting through a blue sky, we can enter this dimension of pure consciousness. But it is easier to have these experiences in the presence of a spiritual master. The first time I visited Papaji (H. W. L Poonja, the Advaita master) I spent my mornings sitting with the master and then, in the afternoons, I would just lie on my bed and breathe. I felt totally immobilized. All I could do was follow my breath, which was definitely oceanic and overwhelming. Whenever thoughts started to form, usually from what seemed like a tremendous distance away, they soon dissolved in the overwhelming power of the breath.
Our experiences of pure consciousness will also open the door to understandings of aware consciousness. Different understandings of the Diamond Essence, for example, may come out of our experiences of pure consciousness. Sometimes this may feel like we are channeling the Absolute to arrive at understandings of a particular quality of Essence or a particular aspect of aware consciousness. Or we may discover the true nature of the relationship between different qualities of Essence this way. In a similar way, our experiences of aware consciousness will give rise to our understandings of ordinary consciousness. And in general, our experiences of Essence and aware consciousness will lead to deeper understandings of both ordinary consciousness and pure consciousness.
Aware consciousness is also the capacity of the soul to recognize the different levels of consciousness and our movement between them. The traditional spiritual metaphor of the wave and the ocean is only generally congruent with this understanding of the three levels. The wave represents ordinary consciousness identified with the separate self, with the ego struggling in Flatland, unaware that it is made of the same stuff as the ocean, namely water. The ocean represents universal consciousness or pure consciousness and the field of the All-and-Everything. And aware consciousness – representing Essence (water) – links these two dimensions. Aware consciousness is the link between ordinary consciousness and pure consciousness, just as Essence is the link between the psychological issues of a particular quality of Essence and the Boundless Dimension of that quality.
Essence can be seen as a single ray of creation linking the different levels of consciousness. One of the most beautiful and impressive monuments to this idea of the ray of creation is embodied in the Golden Temple at Aurobindo Ashram in Tamil Nadu. The building is a golden sphere many stories high that is suspended above an empty plain. There are no windows in the globe, which is constructed with concave disks of glass covered by gold leaf. In sunlight the structure radiates a brilliant gold light. On the inside, the only light comes from a small aperture at the apex of the globe, where a ray of sunlight comes down through the aperture and meets a gigantic crystal in the middle of the main meditation hall, which is otherwise completely dark. The ray of light then journeys downward through the sphere of crystal where it finally meets, at ground level, a small crystal in the middle of a lotus pool situated beneath the whole structure.
Awareness and aware consciousness is at the core of our capacity to know the different levels of consciousness and to develop spiritually. It is the soul that has the capacity to recognize and experience all three levels of consciousness. So aware consciousness is the primary key to our spiritual development. In a similar way Atman is the reflection of Absolute, the All-and-Everything, in our individual consciousness and it provides the entry into universal consciousness (pure consciousness).
There is a traditional Indian story of a seeker who is meditating outside a village. In a vision, Lord Shiva comes to him and asks him to go fetch some water at a nearby house. The seeker goes to the house and knocks on the door. The woman of the house and her daughter appear at the door. The seeker is invited into their home and while waiting for the water he notices how beautiful the daughter is. He is invited to stay for lunch, and one thing leads to another… He marries the daughter, they have three children and are living in the village until one day a flood comes. One by one the members of the family drown in the flood, except for the seeker, who is washed up on higher ground. Dazed and battered, the seeker wakes to find the face of Shiva staring down at him. “What about the water?” Shiva asks.
The implication is that the seeker got lost in Flatland, at the level of ordinary consciousness. His life became a self-forgetting rather than a self-remembering.
Of course, we are not obliged to believe that content is the ultimate reality of our lives, but a lot of us do, and our cultural and social conditioning tends to reinforce this belief. Content can just as well be seen as the movies of the mind, as theater, as personal cinema. It is just the film that is currently showing. When we take these movies to be our sole reality, we enter Flatland and ordinary consciousness. We lose contact with our own subjectivity, we become less present in the here and now. In the ordinary consciousness of Flatland, there are few gaps in our identification with content, little distance from the content, from àthe traffic of the mind.
In the state of aware consciousness we are more present, more aware of our contact with existential reality, more in contact with what is spontaneous, authentic and alive in us. We are more alive to what we are actually seeing, hearing, touching, feeling in the moment. Ordinary consciousness tends to be more stuck in mental activity and psychological conflict, to the point that people actually begin to believe that they are the content of their minds.
There is a Tibetan story that illustrates this distinction between ordinary consciousness and aware consciousness. Two monks are arguing about the movement of a prayer flag on a windy day up in the high mountains of Tibet. One monk is of the opinion that the movement is essentially in the flag, the other argues that the movement is essentially in the wind. And the argument is heating up. A third monk joins them, and they soon seek his opinion. He laughs and says, “The movement is in your minds.”
Not to discount or devalue the many valid uses of the mind, but a lot of what goes on there is sheer nonsense. And recent research tells us that the heart and the belly supply us with much more information than the brain.
Our level of awareness determines our reality and the field(s) we live in. In ordinary one-dimensional consciousness our personal psychology and our fixation dominate us because we are unaware of them. In aware consciousness our personality type becomes a source of information and understanding because we are more aware of it. And in pure consciousness we experience states that are well beyond fixation and personality. In a similar way, ordinary consciousness is generating the field of Flatland. It is generating a field that does not really have a vertical dimension, that doesn’t have an authentic spiritual dimension. It is a field where possibilities are limited. This is more a material, horizontal, mechanical dimension. It is ordinary consciousness that thrives on masks, on different versions of the false self, on emotional immaturity and the absence of self-awareness.
On the other hand, aware consciousness is generating a field that is characterized by essential qualities, by what is authentic or true in us – by the possibilities for growth and transformation. This is consciousness that is fueled by self-awareness, that thrives on being in the here and now. Aware consciousness generates essential reality. And pure consciousness creates the field of the Divine Matrix, the All-and-Everything. In this way, the different levels of consciousness “co-create of our reality” and the world we live in.