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Levels of Consciousness

Insight Meditation: Practice Makes Perfect
(A Nerdís-Eye View)

This essay was originally titled: What Iíve Learned So Far, but that sounded a bit affected. Itís tempting to write this tongue in cheek, just to keep it from seeming arrogant. After all, if Iíve taken only that first step on the Journey, how much can I say about the scenery? Anyway, for what itís worth, here goes. . .

Everybody knows, even if theyíve not thought about it, that we have different levels of consciousness. Almost everybody knows what physical pain feels likeóthat stabbing, throbbing sensation when youíve stubbed your toe, for example. It gets all of your attention; at least unless you happen to be on a battlefield and bullets are zipping all around you. That focus of your attention is mostly physical. Youíre not thinking, youíre feeling. Another level might be called emotional, such as when you receive word that your mother just died in an automobile accident. Everything else in your mind seems relegated to background. Grief, an emotion, is the focus of your attention. A stubbed toe at that time might seem merely an annoyance, and a remark about the weather by your coworker is likely to be ignored. Still another level of consciousness is sometimes called thinking, such as when youíre in the middle of a crossword puzzle, or trying to interpret a map of the building youíre lost in. All these different levels are likely centered in different parts of the brain, since we share them in differing degrees with other animals.

Itís becoming evident to me that these levels do not constitute the entire range of consciousness. In fact, for centuries people have reported experiencing arenas of awareness that not only seem distinct from the commonly acknowledged ones, but somehow higher. If we can categorize, say, physical awareness as exoteria, then emotional awareness is relatively esoteric. Even more esoteric is thinking. Intuition might be thought of as a still more esoteric, or higher and more rare, level of awareness. Certainly it seems less common than thinking in most of us. And yet it happens to nearly all of us at times.

Notice I say, "it happens to us." Somehow, intuitive awareness seems less under our control than thinking. Actually, Iím not convinced that much of any of our awareness occurs by our willing it. Not easily, anyway. For example, try to feel sad. Go ahead, donít think, donít remember, donít imagine anything. Just feel sad. Hard to do, isnít it?

Some people seem to have the ability to tune into their intuitive level of consciousness more easily than most of us. Artists, for example, are known for their ability to sense relationships without logical analysis. Musicians may hear things in their own heads without thinking. Mozart, for example, was said to compose music whole, in his imagination (or somewhere) before setting a note of it down on paper. For myself, I often have to begin writing something before I even know what I feel. The emotions arise in my consciousness as the words appear before me on the screen. Yeah, thatís weird, I know. It doesnít always work that way, but more than Iíd like.

All that notwithstanding, I do have some experience with intuition. I havenít been able to foretell the future or know when a loved one has had an accident, or anything like that. My most common intuitive experience has been that eureka! thing, for example when Iíve been struggling with some kind of problem, and I let it go of it temporarily and the answer just comes to me out of the blue. It has happened when Iíve been thinking about something else, totally unrelated, usually after some time passes. You might say that itís really my logical mind that comes up with an answer when I quit blocking it. No doubt thatís happened, too, but thatís not what Iím talking about. Sometimes, I am presented with a gift that I never would have come up with logically. Itís as though someone else has given me the answer. What Iím trying to suggest here is: that someone is me, at some perhaps wiser level of consciousness. Because itís a bigger answer than what I was looking for.

Transpersonal psychologists study this sort of thing. Ken Wilber has written a whole shelf of books about it. It was in his writing that I first encountered the term "spectrum of consciousness." He postulates that our logical, thinking mind is not at the upper end of our possible awareness, but more in the middle. Above that are several more levels, culminating in what he calls "pure spirit." A hundred and fifty years ago Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about "transcendental" experiences. Our minds are capable of transcending our perceived limits. The Buddha merely said that if we sit quietly and just observe our own minds for a sufficient amount of time, we will "awaken to what is"óand in the process liberate ourselves from suffering. He didnít map a "spectrum" of consciousness, but what he proposed has led countless people to "enlightenment" over the centuries since then. The "oneness" that the mystics tell us about is a level of awareness beyond the rational, even beyond the personal. At such a level, the egoóthe selfósimply disappears.

How does one reach this advanced state? Most agree that the place to start is by sitting in meditation. Different traditions may label it differently. Contemplation and prayer are also used. Some call for focusing oneís attention on something, which could be a candle flame or a significant design, or a mental image. Some urge us to converse with God or another entity, entreating them to teach us or help us along our path. Others use chanting or ritual as part of the practice. The way of insight meditation is to sit and pay attention to the activities of our minds. If we do it right, and if we do it long enough, weíll reach a higher state.

The key seems to be practice. Just as if I practice playing the piano with sufficient seriousness and tenacity, I will at some point be able to perform a piece more or less the way the composer intended, if I sit in meditation regularly and faithfully, I will eventually "awaken" to a higher state of consciousness.

That doesnít mean I will be an all-new person. I will not glow in the dark, or be able to levitate my body off the ground. I will not necessarily have "supernatural powers." What I imagine will happen (if I live long enough) is that I will understand more about myself and about others, and perhaps have a little more wisdom to apply to my life. That may not seem like much, but I am willing to put out the effort and, as the Buddha said, "just see for myself."

An example of accessing a higher state of consciousness: a pubescent person finds herself or himself feeling things for the first time. Itís pretty disconcerting for most of us when we go through that. We feel helpless to do anything about these feelings. Apart from learning that everybody else goes through those things, which eventually helps us cope with them, most people learn from their own experience that such feelings come and go, and that they donít have to be at the mercy of their hormones, but can make choices about how to respond when the feelings do come. The logical, thinking mind helps a lot in getting relatively free from the physical-emotional bondage that characterizes the early adolescent experiences. Soon thereafter, many of us learn to actually play with the feelings. Thatís what flirting is: playing with oneís own and someone elseís erotic responses, without necessarily falling victim to them. Thereís a higher level of consciousness at work. As people mature, the same thing happens with aggression. One may learn to play sports instead of helplessly reacting to minor physical or emotional threats.

And one may, with sufficient time (and if they are fortunate, with a mentor), discover the basis for their own responses to everything. Calmly observing their emotions and their thoughts and learning to not be caught up in the dramas theyíve become accustomed to, meditators can eventually see themselves in a different light, almost like a higher vantage point. Ken Wilber describes the process as one of integrating oneís experience and then exploring the next level until it can be integrated, at which point one again begins exploring upward. Itís a normal growth process, just as is the process of moving through adolescence. The difference is that while adolescence involves physical changes in the body that have to be integrated, further growth involves mental changes that may not occur without some kind of practice. My present state of awareness may not be transcended if I do not do something to take that next step.

Looking at it as an evolutionary process, thereís a lot of pressure to get through the adolescent stage of growth. Culture insists on it. At the moment, thereís not much cultural pressure to rise from the rational to another level of consciousness. Rationality allows us to compete pretty well. Itís becoming apparent, however, that while rationality can provide us with technological tools, weíre pretty much at the place of The Sorcererís Apprentice, facing an uncertain future without more real understanding. Religions may exhort us to treat each other more kindly, butóletís face itóthey havenít had a lot of impact on "human nature."

What the transpersonal psychologists have been telling us is that we do have the wherewithal to lift ourselves to another level of consciousness. It just takes practice.

 

Donald Skiff, November 20, 2001

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