EXPANDING CONSCIOUSNESS IN A LIVING SYSTEMS UNIVERSE
Ralph Metzner, Ph.D.
California Institute of Integral Studies
The word consciousness is derived from the Latin con-scire - “with-knowing”. We can ask “knowing-with” - what? A relational, or systems, view is implicit in this etymology: pointing to the relation between subject and object, between the knower and the known. Conscious knowing (con-scire) is knowing with knowing that you know. This can be contrasted to the unconscious knowing involved in my knowing how to grow hair, or skin cells over a wound; and my knowing how to tie my shoelaces, or ride a bicycle, which has become a kind of unconscious or automated knowing.
Historically there have been two main metaphors for consciousness, one spatial or topographical, and one temporal or developmental. The topographical metaphor is expressed in conceptions of consciousness as like a territory, a terrain, or a field, a “state” one can enter into or leave; or like empty space, as in Buddhist psychology. The spatial metaphor, can lead to a certain kind of fixity in one’s perception or worldview, a craving for stability and persistence, and anxiety about change. From this point of view, ordinary waking consciousness is the preferred state, and “altered states” are viewed with some anxiety and suspicion, -- as if an “altered” state is automatically abnormal. In many ways this is the attitude of mainstream Western thought toward alterations of consciousness—even the rich diversity of dreamlife and the changed awareness possible with introspection, psychotherapy or meditation is regarded with suspicion by the dominant extraverted worldview.
The temporal metaphor for consciousness is seen in conceptions such as William James’ “stream of thought”, or the stream of awareness, or the “flow experience”, as well as in developmental theories of consciousness going through various stages. Historically, we see the temporal metaphor emphasized in the thought of the pre-Socratic philosophers Thales and Heraclitus, in Buddhist teachings of impermanence (anicca) , and in the Taoist emphasis on the flows and eddies of water as the basic patterns of all life. From this point of view, wave-like fluctuations of consciousness are regarded as natural and inevitable, and health, well-being and creativity are linked to one’s ability to tune into and utilize the naturally occurring, and the “artificially” induced, modulations of consciousness.
According to Immanuel Kant, “space” and “time” are the a priori categories of all thinking. It seems appropriate that these are the two most common metaphors we have come up with in our reflections on consciousness. Perhaps the most balanced way to think about consciousness would be to keep both the spatial and the temporal metaphors in mind. We can recognize and identify the structural, persistent features of the perceived world we are “in” at any given moment, and we can be aware of the ever-changing, flowing stream of phenomena in which we are immersed. Heraclitus, in addition to the oft-quoted “you cannot step twice into the same river”, expanded on the metaphor by also saying that “when we step in the same river, the flowing water is always different and new.”
The definition of consciousness proposed by the Russian mathematician and physicist Victor Nalimov, in his book Realms of the Human Unconscious, is one that integrates both the topographical and the temporal aspect: he calls it a “semantic continuum”, i.e. a “continuum of meaning”. A continuum is defined as a “continuous extent, succession or whole”, which can be divided mentally into parts, but also considered as a whole. A continuum of meaning, like the sensorium of sense perception, conveys something of the elusive quality of consciousness, -- both stable and mobile, integrative and differentiated.
In contrast to cancient, Eastern and indigenous views, Western science in general and psychology in particular has never been comfortable with the study of the subjective side of life, with qualities of experience, purposes, intuitions, altered states or spiritual aspirations. Under the sway of the Newtonian-Cartesian mind-matter dichotomy, consciousness and experience were seen as belonging to the realm of religion, and science agreed to stay out of it. Later, as the ideological hold of the Church diminished and the materialist paradigm became paramount, consciousness and all subjective experience became even more firmly banished from scientific discourse.
In the 19th century, the German social philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey attempted to establish the “mental sciences” (Geisteswissenschaften), on an equivalent footing to the “natural sciences” (Naturwissenschaften). This idea never really took hold in the English-speaking world. Instead, the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science) adopted and imitated the empirical observational and quantitative analytical methods of the natural sciences. In psychology, the only observations that qualified as “scientific” were observations of behavior—to the extreme of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, in which mental states were said to be in an unknowable “black box”. Although the influence of strict behaviorism in psychology has waned in the latter half of the 20th century, the ideological commitment to a materialist worldview has not. In the leading paradigms of cognitive psychology or cognitive science (which includes brain sciences, computer modeling, information systems and the like) consciousenss is still treated as something to be explained (i.e. explained away) in the supposesdly more “real” terms of “neural nets”, “brain circuits” and the like.
In the latter half of the 19th century a European philosophical movement took a completely different and new approach to the study of consciousness. The German mathematician/philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859 - 1938) originally conceived of his phenomenology as an attempt to rescue philosophy and the quest for absolute knowledge from the “naturalism” and relativism of the newly arising experimental psychology. He criticized the psychophysical method of Wilhelm Wundt and G.T. Fechner as providing only correlations between subjective events and physical events, and ignoring the possibilities of “pre-understanding” of what consciousness was essentially. For Husserl, the abstract truths of mathematics are essences that are grasped by the mind directly, without relative or empirical observation. He proposed phenomenology as the method for directly arriving at essential and universal knowledge about the nature of consciousness and meaning, in part by clarifying the implicit pre-understandings that underlie other psychological approaches.
A core concept of Husserl’s phenomenology of consciousness is intentionality : consciousness is always intentional, always “of” or “about” something, always directed, like an arrow or a mathematical vector, toward some object of meaning. The objects that consciousness intends can be external, or they can be internal aspects of our own experience. Because intentional consciousness is always “constituting” the essential features of the various domains of existence, both external and internal, consciousness has a fundamental “ontological priority”—it is the “supporting ground of reality”. The focus on intention as the fundamental constituting attribute of consciousness is congruent with the emphasis on “set (and setting)” as the prime determinants of altered states, which I shall discuss further below. The ontological primacy of consciousness in Husserl’s phenomenology is consistent with the worldview of the mystics in Eastern and Western traditions as well as the insights coming from profound altered states.
A further innovative contribution to the phenomenology of consciousness was made by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 - 1961). In his work, the focus of interest shifts from the subjective mind to the subjective body, or bodily experience (le corps propre). For Merleau-Ponty, perception is an inherently creative, participatory activity between the living body and its world. All subjectivity or consciousness presupposes our inherence in a corporeal world, a world that we perceive as the having depth, intimacy and horizon. The ecophilosopher David Abram has shown, in his work The Spell of the Sensuous, how in many ways Merleau-Ponty’s later thought anticipates the deep ecologists and others who are looking to develop a new conscious awareness of our embeddedness in the world of Nature.
The American philosopher William James (1842 - 1910) approached the psychology of consciousness in his characteristic multifarious manner. He may have been the first person to use the concept of “field” in talking about consciousness: human beings have “fields of consciousness”, which are always complex, -- containing body sensations, sense impressions, memories, thoughts, feelings, desires and “determinations of the will”, in fact “a teeming multiplicity of objects and relations.” He made it clear that his famous “stream of thought” image actually meant not just thoughts, but images, sensations, feelings, etc. He wrote that “the mind is, at every stage, a theater of simultaneous possibilities”. This idea is reminiscent of C. G. Jung’s conception of personality structure consisting of an aggregate of psychic entities or complexes: the persona, the shadow, the ego, the anima, the animus, with the Self forming the superordinate whole that includes all the parts, both conscious and unconscious.
William James explored the paranormal and mystical dimensions of consciousness, that usually lie outside the boundaries of scientific interest. He pursued a life-long interest in the phenomena of sub-liminal consciousness, what he called “exceptional mental states”, including those found in hypnotism, automatisms, such as sleep walking, hysteria, multiple personality, demoniacal possession, witchcraft, degeneration and genius. James’s interest in unusual states of consciousness led him to experiment with nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas” as it was then known, an experience that reinforced his understanding of transrational states of consciousness. He wrote that the conclusion he drew from these early “psychedelic” experiences was “that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”
James wrote the above statement in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, probably his most influential book. In it he explored with great discernment and eloquence the nature and significance of mystical or “conversion” experiences, by which he meant not only a person’s change from one religion to another, but the process of attaining a sense of unity and the sacred dimension of life. In my book The Unfolding Self I adopted James’ empirical, comparative approach to the study of transformative experience — delineating the basic archetypal patterns of psychospiritual transformation.
It is only recently, in re-reading William James’ writings on his philosophy of radical empiricism that I came to realize that this philosophy actually provides the epistemology of choice for the study of altered states of consciousness. James started with the basic assumption of the empirical (which means “experience-based”) approach: all knowledge is derived from experience. Radical empiricism applies this principle inclusively, not exclusively: James writes:
To be radical an empiricism must neither admit into its construction any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system. (James, 1912/1996, p. 42)
Observations made in objective external reality perceived through our, aided and unaided senses, do not have an ontological priority and do not give “privileged access” to truth or validity. All knowledge must be based on observation, i.e. experience; so far this view coincides with the empiricism of the natural and social sciences. It’s the second statement that is truly radical and that explains why James included religious and paranormal experiences in his investigations. The experiences in modified states of consciousness are currently excluded from materialistic, reductionistic science, as are all kinds of anomalous experiences, such as UFO abductions, near-death experiences, and mystical or paranormal experiences. They need not and should not be excluded in a radical empiricism.
From the perspective of radical empiricism, it is not where or how observations are made that makes a field of study “scientific”, it is what is done with the observations afterwards. Repeated systematic observations from the same observer, and replicating observations from others, is what distinguishes the scientific method from casual or haphazard observations, or those made with intentions other than gathering knowledge. Whereas the ideology of fundamentalist scientism does not permit the objective investigation of subjective experience, the epistemology of radical empiricism posits that it is possible to be objective about subjective experience, using the accepted canons of the scientific method. The methodology of systematic introspection, and phenomenology, are the beginnings of such a more inclusive approach.
In Eastern systems of yoga and meditation, it has long been understood that reliable and replicable observations can be made in the interior landscapes of our experience. The meditative practice of “mindfulness” is exactly an attitude in which objectivity is added to the primary given (or “data”) of the experience. Religious texts describe the characteristic kinds of observations that a practicioner in a particular tradition may expect to make. This is, in essence, no different than a scientific text that describes the kinds of observations a student of biology can expect to make when looking through a microscope.
One of the most exciting consequences of adopting a worldview and epistemology in which no sources of new perceptions and observations will be ignored because of their provenance, leads to the opening up of vast new fields and possibilities of understanding, and a renewed bringing together of spiritual and scientific understandings into an integrated worldview, or sacred science.
In a systems view of humans and universe, a relational view of multi-level interconnectedness, things, objects and persons are temporary nodes, in ever-changing patterned relations with other nodes. All being is interbeing, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s felicitous phrase. Consciousness then is the experiential side, the knowing, feeling, sensing, imaging of relations, the “knowing-with”. It is the subjective, inner, concaveness of the transparent hollow sphere we call the space-time continuum; of which objective, outer, convexity is matter and energy, in their ceaseless transformations. According to Buddhist teachings, the inside of the sphere is empty, void, sunyata – hence no things, objects or persons actually exist. However, through the magic power of projection or maya, we seemingly perceive an objective universe, “out there”, of infinite differentiation and diversity.
The wise elder Thomas Berry, theologian turned evolutionary cosmologist, says that in the evolutionary transformation civilization is now going through, the transition from the cenozoic to the ecozoic era, our perspective on the world will change from seeing and measuring it as a “collection of objects”, to knowing and experiencing it as a “communion of subjects”. In other words, a living systems worldview, in which the conscious communion of living subjects is acknowledged as equally real and valid as the conscious perception of identifiable objects. We don’t need to stop utilizing the powerful methods science has developed for analyzing the complexities and details of our world; we add to them the inner, sensuous, feeling-based, aethestic appreciation of the essential oneness of the ever-transforming web of life.
Oneness and differentiation exist at every level of reality. The ecologists have made us aware of how the diversity of life, biodiversity and its preservation is the core requirement for sustainability. To this, the anthropologists and historians of culture have added the recognition of the importance of preserving cultural diversity – for the unique knowledge system or tradition that each culture has developed. As a psychologist, I would want to add to the celebration of diversity, an acknowledgement of the rich psychic multiplicity of our psychic inner life: we are all multiple personalities, each of us containing a “theater of simultaneous possibilities”. Learning from indigenous cosmologies as well as the spiritual traditions of ancient times, we may well want to return to a recognition of the animistic polytheism of our forebears, recognizing and celebrating the indwelling spiritual intelligences of all inorganic and organic life-forms, as well as of Earth and other planets, Sun and other stars, Milky Way and other galaxies, and Universe. As Buckminster Fuller said, wanting to include the metaphysical as well as physical in his definition, “Universe is everything that we can experience.”
The Centrality of Intention and Question
We have seen how in the phenomenological approach to the understanding of human consciousness, “intentionality” is the central organizing concept. Consciousness is said to always be “about” something; or, we are always “conscious of” something. The “mental status” examination in cases of shock or psychosis, asks whether the patient is oriented in time and space (do you know where you are? what day it is?). We have also noted how psychedelic and other altered states of consciousness can best be understood if one inquires into the “set” (= intention) that preceded or accompanied the catalyst that triggered the movement in consciousness. Carlos Castaneda, in his writings on the principles of Yaqui, or Toltec, sorcery, emphasizes repeatedly, that “intent” is the master key to sorcery; where sorcery may be defined as the intentional use of altered states, such as conscious dreaming, to acquire and exercise psychic power.
Following Michael Harner, I define shamanism as the intentional practice of altered states, called “shamanic journeys”, for healing, problem solving and guidance. In shamanic indigenous healing practices, as in ordinary medicine and psychotherapy, the intention is given by the problem or illness the patient brings to the practicioner. Indeed, it is perhaps too obvious to state, that in any situation, any state of consciousness, inquiring into the intention the person is holding, is a way of directing awareness to the experiencing subject or self, the starting point, the original orientation. In divination, which may be defined as the intentional use of the enhanced perception of altered states ( and sometimes divinatory tools such as cards or runes) to acquire knowledge and spiritual guidance from the divine of spirit world, conscious intention again provides the master key.
Intention, or “interest”, as William James phrased it, controls the selective function of attention, which in turn determines what it is we perceive or become aware of. We may express these relations as follows:
intention -> attention -> awareness
If our attention –perception is not guided by our conscious intention or interest, then it will be captured, or captivated, by whatever attractive, intense, insistent, prominent stimulus patterns present themselves to our sensorium.
Through my work with divination practices, both in the context of psychotherapy, and in the context of shamanic rituals using expanded states of consciousness, I have come to understand that the basic formula for divination is that of asking questions and receiving answers. Even when a mantic procedure, such as the I Ching, or casting runes, or laying out Tarot cards is used, inherent in the procedure is a question posed and an answer received (which may need to be interpreted). Divination in the context of healing aims at finding the origin or source of the illness – which in traditional societies may be attributed to sorcery in as many as 50% of illnesses. In Western medicine this process is called seeking a diagnosis, the origin and nature of the infection or injury. The primary difference between the indigenous shamanic approach in healing divination and the Western medical approach, is that traditional divination involves an induced altered state of consciousness, and asking questions of the practicioner’s tutelary spirits; whereas the Western approach involves highly focussed and detailed observations, supplemented by specialized instruments, in the ordinary waking state of conciousness.
The biologist Rupert Sheldrake has pointed out that the process of divination to obtain knowledge -- of the world, the environment, anything concealed or not understood, possible future outcomes – is a questioning process exactly analogous to the scientific experiment in Western science. The experiment is a precisely controlled situation, where detailed observations can be made to answer questions we are posing to Nature, the world, the environment, etc.
One can see then that intention and question are like two sides of the same coin, two equivalent ways of guiding our attention and perception, in both ordinary and non-ordinary states of consciousness. For example, if I am wanting to heal the effects of a childhood trauma, whether through shamanic soul retrieval work, or therapeutic regression, I can state my intention and say: “I want to (am interested, or aiming to) heal the effects of this trauma”; or, I can ask: “How can I heal (and integrate) the effects of this trauma?” There is a dynamic (yang) and receptive (yin) polarity here: the intention is focussed, directional, searching, seeking; the question (any question) is a basic gesture of receptivity and opening. If I ask a question of someone, I am placing myself in receptive mode to hear their answer. We can present the differences in these two ways of deploying attention by the following analogies:
psychic polarity dynamic receptive
process analogies hunting, tracking gathering, collecting
instrumental analogies arrow basket
mathematical analogies vector attractor
Levels of Consciousness in Shamanistic Cosmology and Living Systems Universe
Spiritual seekers and yogic meditators have described a universe of many levels of of reality and consciousness, to which we can gain access through various practices of consciousness expansion, though in ordinary life we are rarely, if ever, aware of these other “higher” dimensions. The Sufis say we are like a man who has a seven-story mansion, but who lives only on the ground floor, the most polluted, cluttered and unattractive parts of his mansion; to the point where he has completely forgotten that the other, grander rooms even exist, much less how to get there. The techniques of finding access again to these higher realms, is therefore a kind of memory exercise – often referred to in the literature as “recollection”, or “remembrance”.
We may formulate the relationship between states of consciousness and levels, planes, or worlds of consciousness as follows: in the ordinary waking state of consciousness, our awareness and identity is generally focussed on the level of ordinary, consensus reality. In meditative states, some dreams, expansive psychedelic states, mystical and visionary states, we may find ourselves seemingly in other kinds of reality altogether, other realms, other worlds. These other realms are then known to always exist, and we always to have potential access to them. Spiritual and shamanic practices are designed to intentionally allow us to move into and through these other realms, in which we can find sources of healing or spiritual knowledge, conveyed to us by spiritual teachers, elders, ancestors, angels, spirit animals or spirit guides. We call such practices of intentional access divination, as discussed above.
The level of “ordinary reality” is often called the physical or material plane, which implies the other planes are metaphysical or non-material (e.g. subtle, etheric). This ordinary, ground-floor level is also referred to as the time-space world, implying that in the other levels the laws of time and space as we know them don’t apply, or are different. This notion is readily verifiable when we recall that in dream states we can seemingly visit with, talk with, interact with, a person known to us, say a grandmother, who objectively lives thousands of miles away, or indeed may even be dead, and yet we traverse no space, and take no time, to get there. We also do not question the reality of a contact with a “dead” person. This malleability of the time-space framework is the reason why divination can reveal knowledge of probable futures, called “visions” (which are not “predictions”, as the dictionary definition of divination erroneously has it).
There have been numerous mappings of the different realms and levels of consciousness in the spiritual, meditative, and esoteric traditions of the world, and to compare and coordinate them all is a task far beyond my capability and the space limitations of this essay. I will briefly describe here, for illustrative purposes, (1) the traditional shamanistic cosmology; (2) a version of the seven-level map commonly found in the European and Asian esoteric, perennial and theosophical traditions; and (3) three of the many possible dimensional mappings that can be identified in a living systems worldview .
Those who have embarked on a serious psychospiritual practice of consciousness exploration using shamanic and yogic technologies, who are willing to trust their own experience more than the received views and concepts they have taken on faith, tend to find themselves gradually awakening to a vastly expanded and different worldview. I should point out however that many features of the traditional and newly revived shamanic-animistic worldview appear to be quite compatible with the most recent, growing edge theories of post-modern science. There is not the space here to enter into a discussion of these convergences in any detail. I will merely mention the particular relevance of ecology and living systems theory, as described for example in Fritjof Capra’s book The Web of Life; the Gaia theory of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis; Rupert Sheldrake’s theories of morphogenesis; David Bohm’s “holomovement” interpretation of quantum theory; the integrative and synergetic cosmology of Buckminster Fuller; and the evolutionary cosmology articulated by Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry and others.
There is one fundamental commonality among the shamanic, Asian meditative, esoteric and living living systems worldview, and that is in their conception of the fundamental reality of the universe. The fundamental reality of the universe, according to the most ancient, and the most recent, post-modern formulations, is a continuum, a unitive field or fabric or process, of both energy and consciousness, that is beyond time, space and all forms, and yet somehow mysteriously within them; simultaneously transcendent and immanent. In traditional Asian religions, this unitive field is variously referred to as Tao, or Atman-Brahman, or Tantra (meaning “web” or “fabric”) or the “jewelled net of Indra.” Some Native North Americans refer to it as Wakan-Tanka, the all-pervading Creator Spirit. In the traditional Anglo-Saxon religion of the British Isles it was called the Wyrd, an invisible network of magical forces. In theistic religions like Christianity, this oneness corresponds to what is called the “Godhead”, a spiritual Beingness beyond the personal deity. In esoteric writings it is variously called The One, Absolute Beingness, the All That Is. In the systems language of post-modern science it is seen as an infinitely complex, multi-level system of interrelationships, or “web of life.”
(1) Shamanistic Cosmology. Worldwide, shamanic practicioners speak of a three-fold division of upper, middle and lower worlds. The names reflect the primary movement of the shamanic traveller, when engaged in divinatory practice. A journey to the Lower World, initiated by intention, and energized by psychoactive plants or rhythmic drumming, involves a downward movement in consciousness, into a cave, or opening, or tunnel – from which one emerges after a time to track the objects of one’s quest. Lower World journeys seem to be especially relevant for problems of healing, as if the traveller were actually “going down” into the material microcosm of the earth body. Upper World journeys involve ascent – through flying, soaring, climbing a World Tree or axis – and visiting light, airy worlds, with expansive vistas and luminous structures. These kinds of journeys may be involved when the shaman wishes to look ahead, “see” hidden realities, or envision future probabilities. In Middle World journeys, the movement is straight across, but may involve all kinds of strange, weird, magical, unusual places and beings – such as enchanted forests, magical castles, wastelands and wilderness. The characteristics of upper, middle and lower world journeys, as reflected in myths and fairy tales, as well as shamanic accounts, are described in more detail in the chapter on “Journeys to the Place of Vision and Power”, in my book The Unfolding Self.
Whereas the cosmography of three worlds is most often found, there are also mythic-shamanic traditions of five, or seven, nine or more worlds, often arrayed around a central World Tree or Axis Mundi. In the Nordic-Germanic mythic worldview, there are nine worlds arranged on the World Axis-Tree Yggdrasil. In the center is Midgard, the familiar ordinary world of humans, animals, and Earthly life; pathways go from this world to all the other worlds, which knowledge-seeking shamans can learn to find and travel. There are two worlds on the central axis above the Middle Earth realm: the World of Elves, who are light, airy spirits, and the World of the Aesir Sky Gods. Two worlds are vertically below Midgard: the World of Dwarves, or Dark Elves, the spirits of stones and minerals, and the world of Hel, the death goddess. Then there are four other worlds, in the same horizontal plane as Midgard, in the four directions: the World of Giants in the East and the World of Vanir Earth Deities in the West; in the North and South, two uninhabited worlds, of pure ice and pure fire respectively. I describe both ecological and mythic symbolic meanings associated with these nine worlds in my book on the Earth-Wisdom mythology of the Nordic-Germanic people, The Well of Remembrance. In myth and folklore of the European people, there is sometimes only one name for all the non-ordinary, nonmaterial realms that we humans may come across: they are called “Spirit World”, “Otherworld”, of “Faery World”.
(2) In esoteric and thesosophical traditions we usually hear of seven levels of consciousness, differing in vibratory rate or density, with the physical-material as the “lowest” or densest. We have a series of bodies, which are the bodies we occupy in the corresponding realm or world. Just as the physical body is the body we move around in while in the time-space physical world, the astral body is our body for functioning in the astral world or realm. Leaving aside for the moment the question of the different terms and names used for the different levels or realms, in the experiences of contemporary neo-shamanic practicioners, with or without mind-moving substances, experiences of visiting other worlds are quite common. Also, of course, they are accessible to us in dream states, and in meditative states. Alternatively, the person may feel that the veils, barriers or screens between worlds can become transparent or porous, so one can see and be in both the ordinary and the spirit world at the same time. In William Blake’s famous lines, “if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is – infinite”.
The mappings of different levels of consciousness or worlds, are based on accumulated observations by thousands of explorers and elders in the various spiritual traditions. In other words they are empirically based, just like maps of an unknown geographical area are based on accumulated observations; these maps then become available to be used by subsequent explorers. An individual explorer, using yogic, shamanic or meditative methods of journeying in consciousness, could, in theory, verify the accuracy of the mappings for him or her self. In practice, when we begin our explorations, we are not usually able to identify the particular worlds we are in. The dreamer, for example, may realize he is in a different world, an “otherworld”, but not be able to say whether it was the “astral” or some other realm. So, if we want to maintain a stance of radical empiricism, we can accept the maps given by the different traditions as provisional, to be verified by our others’ observations. The maps, as we know, are not the territory.
In that spirit, I present here a mapping of the seven major levels of consciousness, as I was taught them by my teachers, and as I continue to hold them, as a working hypothesis. The most useful analogy to help understand the differences between the levels, is, to my mind, the concept of frequency or vibratory rate, as in music theory. The different bodies or levels, differ in vibratory rate, like the tones of a scale or chord: that is why they can co-exist, co-incide, in the same place at the same time, without interference.
The seven/eight note structure of the octave, is also consistently found in mappings of the different levels of consciousness, including G. I. Gurdjieff’s formulation of the Law of Seven as one of the fundamental laws of the universe. It is not inconsistent with this principle that any given yogic or meditative practice may work primarily, or in the beginning stages, with two or three or five levels.
So, in ascending order of frequency rate, we have: the physical-material body and realm (in the Indian traditions this is called the “body/sheath of food” – annamayakosha); next, the perceptual or etheric body and realm; the emotional or astral body and realm (some combine the perceptual and emotional, calling it “psychic”); and the mental or noetic body and realm. These four together make up the personality-systems; they are subject to conditioning, and all the dualities and conflicts that we know at the physical body level. Above the mental, in vibratory rate, are the transpersonal, unobstructed dimensions, or “heavens”, in which there are individual differences, like different colors in a painting, or tones in a symphony, but no conflicts, dualities or antagonisms. The first transpersonal level is that of soul, called anandamayakosha, (“body/sheath of joy”), in the Indian tradition. In the writings of the esoteric teacher Rudolf Steiner, the intermediate personality levels are not called “bodies”, but levels of soul: in descending order, soul of understanding, soul of feeling, and soul of perception. If the physical is the DO of an ascending octave, the level of soul would be SOL, which is also the Latin word for “Sun”. Some alchemical texts describe the soul, when “seen” with clairvoyant vision, as a golden, sun-colored sphere.
Continuing with the upper part of the vibratory octave, we have, above the level of soul: the angelic or celestial realm, which corresponds in the Buddhist teachings to the mandala realm of the Dhyani Buddhas; the archetypal or cosmic, or realm of First Differentiation, or primordial Yin-Yang; and, as the upper DO of the octave, Formless Form, Spirit, Self or Atman, which is always in perfect union with the Macrocosmic Oneness (Atman=Brahman). The particular names used here for the inner and higher frequency dimensions, have no particular importance. Obviously, other languages have different names. What is important, is that once we accept the existence of these higher worlds, our participation in them, and our relationships with beings, usually called “spirits”, in these other worlds, a whole new focus on spiritual practices which provide us with access to these worlds, for greater knowledge, understanding, insight, creative inspiration, healing and problem-solving.
(3) Levels of consciousness in a living systems universe. Modern science is only slowly moving towards acceptance of an ecological or systems cosmology. Even in such a worldview, much less in conventional materialist science, the idea of subtle dimensions, differing in vibratory rate, has little credibility, mostly because there is no widely accepted way of measuring or quantifying such subtle levels of energy and matter. (Some mathematical-physical accounts of other dimensions have been written, for example in the work of William Tiller). In one important respect however, the sytems worldview is congruent with traditional esoteric or shamanistic traditions – and that is the notion of levels, or scales. A systems universe consists of a series of whole systems (also called holons) arranged in ordered series, in such a way that the parts of a whole at one level, become wholes at the scalar level “below” ; and are themselves parts of wholes at the scalar level “above”.
This layering of levels of complex ordering, has been called by some a hierarchical principle, since the holons at the higher levels include the holons at the lower level as parts. However, the word “hierarchy” refers to systems of social organization in human collectives, -- ecclesiastical, military and corporate – in which “command, control and communication” (the military’s favorite phraseology) flows from the top down, one way only. Systems of natural order, as found in nature, are quite different, and have for this reason been called “nested hierarchies” or “holarchies”. They are structural ordering principles of containment and interdependence. For example, the body or organism is a holarchy containing a dozen or so organ systems functioning as interdependent parts, each of which is itself a holarchy of cellular components. There is really no similarity, or even analogy, with a conventional hierarchy: the body does not issue commands to the organs, and does not control them; it contains them.
We may look then, to the holarchical levels of a living systems universe for means to map out inner journeys or explorations in consciousness. As stated above, consciousness is the experiential side, the knowing, feeling, sensing, imaging of relations, the “knowing-with”. It is the subjective, inner, concaveness of the space-time continuum; of which objective, outer, convexity is matter and energy, in their ceaseless transformations. Many different systemic ordering scales, in the physical universe, have been identified and named. I will select three for consideration, and use the octave principle here too to delineate the stages, although sometimes more and sometimes fewer levels have been identified by various writers. At each level, there is a characteristic aggregation of energy and matter; and consciousness is what Teilhard de Chardin called the “within” of things. Thus atoms, molecules, cells, stones, plants, animals, rivers, oceans, planets, galaxies… each have their “within”, their subjectivity, their spiritual essence, or even “gods”.
3.1 Humans-in-Universe. As the first example let us take the ascending holarchical octave series that goes from the individual human being to the whole Universe:
body-organism of the human animal;
the kingdom of all animal species;
the biosphere, which includes all five kingdoms of organic life;
the Earth, Gaia, which includes the biospher and all inorganic material systems, as well as oceans and athmosphere;
the solar system, including Sun and all the planets;
the Milky Way galaxy, with its ten billion stars;
the cluster of several thousand galaxies of which the Milky Way is one – a cluster quaintly referred to by astronomers as the “local group”; and
Universe – all galaxies and other cosmic formations.
One can note that within each step of the holarchy series, a further octave series of steps can be identified. For example, to get from the individual body-organism to all animals, evolutionary taxonomy tells us of the following seven stages: the species homo sapiens; the genus homo; the family hominidiae; the order primata; the class mammalia; the phylum chordata; and the kingdom animalia.
People in altered states using shamanic or entheogenic practices, have reported having thoughts, feelings and perceptions, i.e. consciousness contents, at any of those levels. Once the Gaia theory was put forward on purely scientific grounds, spokespersons from traditional societies as well as esotericists immediately pointed out the similarity to ancient notions of “Earth Mother” or Anima Mundi, a conscious, sentient, spiritual being that is the indwelling spirit of the Earth. Likewise, solar deities have been a part of many religious traditions, including early Christianity. “Cosmic Consciousness”, a field of consciousness expanded to the outer limits of the known universe, has often been identified and described in the writings of mystics. In their book The Universe Story, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry have shown in detail how at each stage of the evolving universe, humans can not only know about that stage through external information, but can experience inwardly what it means to be a part of those evolving wholes; for example, what it means to be part of the story of star-formation.
3.2 The Microcosmic Descent. Here also, the physical and life sciences have identified and described in great detail the organization of matter and energy at each level. The primary difference of a systems view from the conventional physical science approach, is that in a systems view, there is no reductionism to the physics level as the privileged, “ultimate” science. So starting again with the body the descending octave series goes:
organism-body of the human animal;
organ systems of the body – a level to which it is relatively easy for anyone to expand awareness, as we do for example, in relaxation and healing meditation practices;
cells in their tissue clusters – cellular consciousness, perhaps because cells float in a fluid matrix, tends to be experienced as oceanic;
organelles, the sub-components of cells, which are probably the evolutionary descendants of monera (bacteria) that have been incorporated into cells by endosymbiosis, according to the microbiologist Lynn Margolis;
molecular level – an infinite web of interconnectedness, containing the DNA genetic code for all life forms, but extending into inorganic and elemental matter as well;
the atomic level;
the level of sub-atomic particles such as electrons, protons, quarks and the rest; and
the level of pure, photonic, mass-less energy or vibration.
Assuming that subjective, potentially conscious perception and knowledge is possible at each level, allows us to understand seemingly miraculous healings that have been reported as occuring without any physiological or pharmcological intervention: through healers laying on hands, transmitting energy through crystals and vibrational chants, through homeopathic dilutions in which no single molecule of the original substance is left, or through seeing, in expanded states of perception, into the interior energetic structure of the patient’s body. An example of how scientific understanding may be advanced and enhanced by conscious attunement to the cellular and molecular levels is given in the work of Jeremy Narby, author of The Cosmic Serpent, a book on serpent imagery in South American ayahuasca shamans. Narby brought geneticists and molecular biologists to take ayahuasca with traditional shamans; they would ask specific questions related to their field of research, and obtain useful answers (Narby, 2002). The ayahuasca apparently allowed these scientists to focus their perception and attention at the cellular and molecular levels, without resorting to electron microscope, or other instrumentation used in Western science.
3.3 Humans-in-Habitats. This is a holarchy series dealt with in the sciences of human ecology, anthropology and sociology. Starting here too, with the DO of the ascending octave :
the human body, in its immediate habitat of clothing; then,
the family, in its house/home habitat; then
the extended family or clan, in a cluster of houses; then
the community, perhaps of several hundred families, living in a village;
the tribe or population in a bioregion or urban environment;
the society, all speaking the same language, inhabiting a country or nation;
the multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic confederation or conglomeration inhabiting a whole continent ;
the whole of humanity on Earth, the “global village”, as the upper DO.
The notion that there exist collective forms of consciousness, beyond the individual self, is of course not new in psychology. In family systems therapy, for example, the focus of therapeutic attention is the relationship network of all the family members; the notion that certain beliefs, attitudes, characteristics may be shared by a whole clan or community, is also not new. C.G. Jung coined the concept of “collective unconscious”, meaning images, symbols and archetypes shared by all of humanity; later theoretical development by his students, identified a layer of “cultural unconscious” between the personal and the collective. This makes it clear that the “collective unconscious” is really the system of consciousness that includes all human beings – what Robert Lifton has called the “species self”. It also makes it clear that beyond the layer of collective human species consciousness (a term I prefer to “unconscious”, since many of these contents are not unconscious at all), are forms of consciousness shared by all primates, all mammals, all animals, all life on Earth, even the cosmos. Different series of holarchical systems branch off from every node point in the web of life.
Since we are part of the unified system of interdependence, just like every other being, we can never actually be outside of it, as a detached “objective” observer. But since the unified field is energy, we are energetically connected to every other form and being in the universe. And since the field is also consciousness, this enables us, as human beings, to attune with, identify with, and communicate with any and every other life-form, object or being in the universe, from the macrocosmic to the microscopic.
If, as shamanistic and spiritual teachings agree, we humans are multidimensional beings, living in a multidimensional universe, then there are profound implications for revolutionary changes in our perspectives on the world. The shamanistic animistic worldview, is although older historically, larger and more inclusive than mechanistic-materialistic worldview dominant in the modern world. In the modern worldview, only the material time-space world of measurable quantities is accorded reality status; intuitive, imagistic, spiritual impulses and needs are marginalized to lesser ontological status.
In the worldview of indigenous people everywhere, the worlds we know from dreams and visions, worlds inhabited by gods and spirits, including our own deceased ancestors, are accorded recognition of equal reality. Our disconnection from the recognition and honoring of the vastness of spiritual realms enclosing and permeating this physical world, amounts to a staggering gesture of self-crippling on the part of Western techno-industrial civilization. This opens up almost inconceivable possibilities of solving our problems and bringing about a truly sustainable civilization, infused with spiritual values.
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A shorter version of this essay is to appear in a collection of essays on the “Primacy of Consciousness”, edited by Trish Pheiffer and John Mack.