Three Levels of Consciousness

In the 1920’s quantum science brought the mystic spiritualist and the classic scientist within touching distance of one another, in terms of their respective interpretations of consciousness. However, the latter could never accept the former while operating within the narrow confines of the Newtonian-Cartesian framework. Many scientists and psychologists have since closed the gap even further by developing unifying theories of consciousness such as Don Beck and Christopher Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics, Ken Wilber’s Spectrum Psychology and Stanislav Grof’s Transpersonal Psychology.  Most are built around three core levels based upon the mental, physical and spiritual aspects of our existence.

Level 1 is our psychological level, which develops largely as the result of the daily interplay between our inner and outer worlds. At this, our lowest level of consciousness, we are heavily influenced by the unconscious mind; much of our behaviour is automatic and impulsive. This is the ‘ego-level’ at which our behaviours are driven primarily by inner desires as we search for ways to deliver their fulfilment in the outer world. At this level, overwhelmed by visceral impulses and with relatively little self-control, we are often selfish and have little concern for the needs of others or the consequences of our actions. While we are highly ‘me-centric’ our ego still has a strong need for the approval of others, so we do look to societal norms for guidance on how we should behave, thus increasing the influence our culture has over us. In time we may learn to consider others in order to function in society, but our ‘me-centrism’ never leaves us and satisfying the needs of the ego always comes first. At all times we see ourselves as individuals. Not only do we have a fragmented view of society, we have a fragmented sense of self. We don’t identify with our whole being but only with a self-imagined representation of ourselves, in which we consider ‘me’ to be separate from ‘my body’. We see our happiness as being derived from externalities; meaningless relationships, material goods or hedonism. We blame feelings of unhappiness on circumstances beyond our control without ever appreciating the need to cultivate inner coherence. At the psychological level this can only be achieved by balancing the brain hemispheres, but the cognition we require is often inaccessible at this level of consciousness. Level 1 should feel familiar to anyone brought up in post-modern times, under the tutelage of Cartesian dualism and the influence of scientific materialism. Many of us are so completely soaked in our dominant culture, we may even find it difficult to believe that higher levels of consciousness exist, let alone that they are readily accessible to us.

Level 2 is our neurophysiological level, where our inner coherence is enhanced by perceiving our mind and body to be one integrated whole. At this level hemispheric balance is regularly achieved and any mind/body dualism is consistently overcome, so we appreciate that the whole of our mental and physical being is deeply connected from top to toe. We maintain a healthy balance by feeding ourselves good food and positive thoughts, all the while keeping both mind and body suitably exercised. We consequently feel centred and in harmony with ourselves, and our elevated sense of a unified self automatically drives the retreat of the more debilitating aspects of self-consciousness. We no longer feel alienated from our own body but instead are deeply comfortable in our own skin and content to just be as we truly are. At this level we have likely experienced love beyond that of parents and family and have developed the ability to put the needs of others before our own egotistical desires, for no reason other than feelings of care or compassion. We have also come to appreciate the value of higher feelings such as love, empathy and altruism, and the role they play in delivering lasting happiness beyond the reaches of sensory gratification or hedonistic pleasure. Morality is more likely to permeate our decision-making as we seek to balance our own personal needs with the needs of others. While level 1 is ‘me-centric’, level 2 is much more ‘us-centric’ in attitude and outlook. We understand that the more energy we invest in building relationships the more this will be reciprocated by others, yet we are also instinctively aware that we can slip back down a level if we allow negative emotions to permeate our mind. Levels aren’t fixed but fluid and we can easily move between them. Sustaining ourselves at level 2 isn’t easy, requiring a lifestyle dedicated to the on-going maintenance of physical and mental wellbeing as well as the regular pursuit of ‘flow’ or ‘peak experiences’.

At level 3 our whole neurophysiological self - our integrated mind and body - further synthesises with that part of us which is greater than the cognitive or biological aspects of our being. We connect with a higher sense of self, which for centuries we have called our ‘soul’, to experience feelings of inner coherence across each level of our existence - mental, physical and spiritual. We may even experience feelings of universal ‘oneness’ through the sudden realization that we are deeply connected to everything else, bringing a strong sense of outer coherence. Such feelings may fill us with unconditional love for all other creatures and for the planet which nurtures and sustains us. While level 1 is ‘me-centric’ and level 2 is ‘us-centric’, level 3 is very much ‘world-centric’. At level 3 the superficial façades created by our ego are stripped away, we acknowledge that we are ultimately spiritual and accept that our physical body is no more our identity than a turtle is its shell. By accessing our immaterial essence we come to understand our true self, providing deep insight into our purpose and the meaning of our existence. Only with such knowledge can we actualize our full potential and become what we are inherently meant to become. Such awareness brings a sense of coherence many of us have never experienced, along with feelings of joy, peace and happiness, as we embrace our authentic self and the very highest expression of our whole being. With such inner peace we automatically want to cultivate the same level of coherence in the outer world, so become driven by a strong desire to convert virtuous intent into meaningful actions which are beneficial to others and our environment. From this we derive no benefit other than inner nourishment. At this level, not only are our psychological, physiological and spiritual selves united but we are also connected, beyond the narrow confines of the senses or intellect, to the consciousness of the collective mind; of all people, all living organisms and even of Gaia herself. Many of us may not readily recognise such ‘spiritual’ experiences, yet both Abraham Maslow and William James believed that organised ‘religion’ arose from individuals sharing their extraordinary personal experiences at the highest level of consciousness; experiences which were then collectively adopted and culturally conditioned throughout society. Short of becoming priests, monks or swamis, few of us can sustain ourselves at level 3, but what we experience there from time to time can have a lasting impact on our outlook even at lower levels.

In such an elevated state of consciousness we can tap directly into the stream of knowledge which exceeds sensory perception, logical reasoning or scientific analysis and, as such, often defies conventional and linguistic description. Our ancestors used the language of mythology to describe such experiences but in the modern world we have become conditioned to equate myth with fantasy and falsehood, rather than a richer lexicon with which to describe non-ordinary aspects of reality. In recent times we have found it particularly difficult to accommodate psychic phenomena within our preferred framework of rational thinking and empirical evidence. While the holism of the organic worldview incorporates all science and all faith as natural outputs of the human mind, the Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm continues to prohibit the acceptance of spirituality by classic science. Meanwhile the three major monotheisms refuse to countenance any expressions of spirituality which aren’t their own, especially those of each other. Finally, classic science and the monotheisms are all singing from the same Cartesian hymn sheet, so can’t accept each other without undermining the foundational principle of dualism - that for one of them to be right, the others must be wrong. To achieve synthesis we must convince those on the periphery of both mechanistic and creationist worldviews to adopt a new perspective, and create the cultural conditions needed to evolve our human system to a higher level of coherence. However, to do so we must first overcome the degree to which scientific materialism has suppressed our consciousness to its lowest, psychological level.