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Tools for Personal Transformation: Higher States of Consciousness
Since consciousness is the basis of all reality, any shift in consciousness changes every aspect of our reality. Reality is created by consciousness differentiating into cognition, moods, emotions, perceptions, behavior, speech, social interactions, environment and interaction with the forces of nature and biology. As consciousness evolves, these different aspects of consciousness also change.
Although every spiritual tradition speaks of higher states of consciousness, it is especially in Vedanta that we find such a structured map of these stages of development. The average person only experiences three states of consciousness in an entire lifetime. These are deep sleep, dreams and a waking state of consciousness. The brain functions measurably differently in each of these states. Brain biology and brain waves show precise and different characteristics between sleep, dream and waking states of consciousness.
Spiritual practice or sadhana begins the process by which an individual transforms his or her consciousness from these three common states of consciousness into “ higher states” of consciousness. Through any of the four primary yoga practices (the yogas of being, feeling, thinking, doing) the mind is led past its conditioned states to its pure unconditioned state. Beyond the first three states of consciousness are the following four states: Soul consciousness, Cosmic consciousness, Divine consciousness and Unity consciousness. As each state of consciousness unfolds within us, it opens us into a newer, more expanded reality. Let’s discuss each of these in turn:
This is the state we experience when our internal reference point shifts from body, mind and ego to the observer of body, mind and ego. We experience and cultivate Soul consciousness when we meditate. This observer is referred to as the witnessing awareness. During meditation, a person begins to identify with this aspect of the Self, which is beyond thinking and feeling (the silent witness), and then he or she begins to feel more calm, centered and intuitive in daily life. As the authentic core of oneself solidifies, there is less emotional drama in one’s life. Relationships are more loving and compassionate, and one finds a deeper, more caring relationship with the environment and nature. With the experience of the silent witness, the biology will also reflect greater balance and the activation of homeostatic mechanisms. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress markers, slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, enhance immune function, and form orderly and precise self-repair mechanisms. Those who practice meditation are less prone to sickness.
This is the state when Soul consciousness stabilizes and the witnessing awareness is present all the time in waking, dreaming and sleeping states. This state of consciousness is sometimes described in traditions as being both local and nonlocal simultaneously. The silent witness Self is unbounded, but the body and the conditioned mind are localized. In the Christian tradition, the phrase “to be in the world and not of it” describes this flavor of Cosmic consciousness. In this state, even during deep sleep, the witnessing awareness is fully awake and there is the realization that one is not the mind/body, which is in the field of change, but rather an eternal spirit that transcends space and time. The most remarkable aspect of this state of consciousness is the knowledge of one’s nature as timeless and, therefore one has no fear of death. Although Cosmic consciousness is not the pinnacle of enlightenment, it nevertheless marks the critical transition from an identity bound to a conditioned life to a life of freedom in self-knowledge.
This is the expansion of Cosmic consciousness, where the ever-present witnessing awareness is experienced not only in the silence of the Self, but also in the most abstract qualities of nature and the mind. Dormant potentials such as the awakening of the nonlocal senses (referred to in Sanskrit as tanmatras) begin to be experienced. As the individual mind starts to access these unused realms of the psyche, they will activate extraordinary spiritual abilities previously thought to be unattainable. These include experiences such as knowledge of past and future; clairvoyance; refined sense of taste, smell, sight, touch and hearing; and control over bodily functions, heart rate and autonomic functions. In other words, objects are experienced simultaneously on a gross sensory level and a subtle, more abstract level. Appreciation of life from this more refined perspective represents the real engagement of the heart. Love as the engine of spiritual growth at this stage.
By experiencing the patterns and deeper connections that underlie external diversity, we find our soul is stirred by a profound sense of beauty, awe, compassion, gratitude and love. The integrating power of these qualities brings together the polarized world of Cosmic consciousness, which is divided between the Self and Non-Self. In Divine consciousness, this harmonizing and synthesizing power is felt as the presence of Divinity in our heart. Wherever one goes, one feels the presence of the Divine. The Vedic seers would say, in Divine consciousness, God is not difficult to find, but impossible to avoid. At this stage, there is an even greater conviction of the immortality of existence, not only as nonlocal consciousness, but also in the knowledge that you are that enduring presence of divine love. Divine consciousness also brings a deeper experience of liberation, as the external sensory world is no longer seen as a kind of spiritual exile which the soul must endure, but rather the world is a manifestation of the beauty and love of one’s consciousness, and therefore integral to one’s spirituality.
This is also referred to as Brahman consciousness. It is a state of consciousness where the ever-present witness is not just recognized as the core Self of one’s existence, it is now perceived as the primary reality of every experience. You, as the observer, are that pure consciousness. The process of observation is also that consciousness. And, the object of observation is that same pure consciousness. The culmination of enlightenment is the knowledge that consciousness alone exists: that is all there is, was or ever will be. That oneness, or unity, dominates awareness even as one engages in the same mundane details of life as before. One ceases to identify with an individual body-mind apparatus and sees the whole universe as one’s physical body. Of course, there is a personal body and a material universe, experienced through the senses, but they are now cognized to be incorporated in that one single reality of consciousness.
Dormant potentials previously mentioned are now fully operative. There is the ability to heal and transform others, and everything is experienced as miraculous. A flower is seen as a flower but is also experienced as rainbows and sunshine and earth and water and wind and air and the infinite void and the whole history of the universe swirling and transiently manifesting as the flower. In other worlds, every object is seen as the total universe transiently manifesting as a particular object. And, behind the scenes, one can feel the presence of the same ever-present witnessing awareness that is now in both subject and object. Unity consciousness is the ultimate level of freedom from fear. It is characterized by an abiding sense of joy and peace. There is no “other” outside of oneself to be afraid of, and the constant dance of unity masquerading as diversity is seen as the blissful nature of life itself. All of creation is seen as the play of consciousness or leela.
This state of enlightenment is sometimes compared to the drop of water that is experiencing itself as the ocean, knowing that it was the ocean the whole time. You and God are now one because there is no “you” left anymore. Sometimes, when people try to conceptualize this by projecting their current sense of self into Unity consciousness, they are afraid that, in losing their old identity, they will lose their existence, memories and individual perspective. But the enlightened person doesn’t see it that way. They understand that personal identity was an illusion to begin with. They realize that nothing real or valuable is ever lost on the path to enlightenment. They are experiencing their original identity but only now recognizing it in its completeness and its full glory. This state is of course described in the Vedantic tradition but is beautifully captured in the following verses from T.S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
This brief outline of higher states of consciousness is intended only to give a general sense of the unfolding of human potential. It is important to emphasize that spiritual development is not fundamentally an intellectual or a faith-driven enterprise. Enlightenment is not attained by reading and studying, nor by fervent belief in something outside yourself. The development of higher states of consciousness primarily comes down to regularly and systematically experiencing deeper values of the Self and then integrating that into one’s daily life. The specific experiences an individual has on this journey will necessarily vary based on the spiritual tradition and practice one follows, but also based upon your own personal history and tendencies.