A Question about Consciousness (the first of many)

From a reader: In Vedic Science there are seven states of consciousness. Is it appropriate to consider them as just “different” states of consciousness -none of them being “higher” than another?

To the extent I can claim to have grasped the conceptual framework of the seven states or levels of consciousness, it would not seem appropriate to consider the various states as merely different so long as one were looking at them from within the tradition. The system, which has its point of origin in the Upanișads, embodies a hierarchy of values rooted in the identity of Atman (Self with an upper-case “s,” the imperishable world-soul) and Brahman, the Supreme.

Between the the first three of the original four kinds of consciousness—waking, dream, dreamless sleep–and turiya (”the fourth,” pure consciousness so-called), latter-day vedantins interposed the transitional stages of soul-consciousness, cosmic-consciousness, and divine consciousness, which are attained through sādhana, spiritual work. The ultimate goal, turiya or unity consciousness is not a state but the putative background against which phenomena emerge. It is also regarded as the source of experience and the True Self. The notions of spiritual ascent and Self-realization are integral to Vedanta. Similar ideas found their way into post-Așokan Buddhism.

Things are bound to have a very different aspect when we examine the methods of spiritual practice, and the assumptions that undergird them, from a standpoint outside of the tradition. For one thing, we are less likely to ignore evidence that contradicts the words of our teachers. Safely out of range of their blandishments, it makes sense to approach the investigation of consciousness with a minimum of metaphysical prejudice, to put off assigning hierarchical status to particular modes of mental operation as long as possible, and to avoid lazily assigning phenomena to sanctioned categories.

Chaos Chu dozing

Experiments with lucid dreaming are in the early stages, and there are obvious difficulties with getting an experiential handle on dreamless sleep. Scientists who study sleep recognize a transitional stage between sleep and waking, called the hypnogogic. The phenomena that result from the practice of systematic mental exercise might be classified differently, and we could add to the list such items as the physiological and phenomenal effects of rhythmic movement, hypnosis, psychoactive substances, sensory deprivation, physiological abnormality, and illness, any or all of which might have a characteristic “state.”

What if we had to describe the same territory to someone who had no knowledge of Indian philosophy or spiritual practice, with minimal reference to the traditional accounts? In the realm of ordinary discourse we might begin by saying that waking, dream, and dreamless sleep are modes of bodily activity, each having specific signs that are, in turn, indicative of underlying physiological activity. The methods we employ to regulate and inspect our own mental processes might well be susceptible to description in similar terms.

Turiya is a special case, to put it mildly. Tradition calls it Pure Consciousness and Self, and makes it the sole candidate for Absolute Reality, yet it has no attributes whatever and bears not the least resemblance to anything one might be tempted to call either consciousness or a self. Yet despite its lack of features attractive and otherwise, we are admonished to get there with all possible haste, as though it were a four-star resort. The ṛshis of yore can take pride in having foisted upon the West a linguistic usage of truly stunning perversity. Whether it is anything more than that, we shall perhaps know one day.


I will be writing a lot about consciousness. Of the many thorny ideas associated with the practice of the contemplative arts, that of consciousness is the one most fraught with pitfalls. It shares many problems with the kindred ideas of mind, experience, and self. In addition to carrying a heavy load of folk-psychology, it is encrusted with philosophical notions that long ago outlived their expiration dates. Because we talk so often about consciousness, awareness, experience, mind, and so on, we tend to believe that we know a lot more about them than we do. In the next post I will list some of the more glaring defects of our discourse on the topic.

The Mirage of Higher Consciousness

In popular writing about “meditation,” skill in the contemplative arts is equated with what is often called “higher consciousness.” The term is a vestige of German Idealism that has been appropriated by denizens of the cultic milieu to evoke and objectify the sense of spaciousness, self-transcendence, and oneness-with-everything that is taken to be the acme of the spiritual life. Although such mental events are comparatively rare, even those experiences classified as “mystical” are entirely normal and consistent with what we know about the physiology of the human body. However, when they are used to support a variety of worldviews that include multiple dimensions, before- and afterlives, alternative physiologies, and Ultimate Realities, we are well advised to stop and think.


There are compelling reasons to exercise caution in making judgements about the nature of the cosmos based on extraordinary experiences. As organisms enmeshed in a network of biological relations, we human beings are constrained in our ability to know the world in which we live and move and have our being. Like flatworms and voles, we cannot see beyond an experiential horizon limited by the sensory apparatus with which the vagaries of evolution has provided us, and by the material interactions dictated by the range of ecological niches we occupy. Our species has developed a set of intellectual tools, a technology, and methods for their use that allow us to greatly extend the normal range of the senses. Even so, experience alone does not give us warrant to speak of an Absolute or Ultimate Reality except, perhaps, in the sense that there are bound to be limits to both sensation and understanding. The sensory realm is Appearance all the way down[1]. We cannot achieve a God’s-eye view, though we might well be able to convince ourselves that we can. Something like that seems to have happened in the case of certain latter-day “enlightenments.”

There are constraints built into the very activity of striving for mental stability, too. Many of the classic methods of “meditation” do not raise consciousness but lower it. Let us take, for instance, a simple attentional exercise, the basic technique of resting the attention on a pre-selected cluster of sensations. Every gain in sensory purity is accompanied in the same moment by a corresponding loss of perceptual leverage. That tradeoff is not a paradox. It is what happens when, in the course of attaining optimum mental stability, the organism makes the most efficient use of diminishing resources. Think of it as a kind of cognitive downshifting. In the course of enacting the contemplative protocol, the information-processing modules in the cerebral cortex that give semantic structure to events are taken offline one after the other. Mental functions that have been fully recruited to the observation and/or construction of a pre-selected range of sensations are unavailable to be deployed elsewhere. As the various parts of a complex mental procedure become overlearned, and the higher cognitive functions are pacified, awareness is gradually diminished, together with the power to report.

cup of tea

Both concentration and decentration, at their most intense, radically simplify experience by adjusting attentive patterns to bypass memory and the mental operations (pattern-recognition, comparison, etc.) that make noticing possible. The power to conceptualize is likewise inhibited and, along with it, the ability to say anything about what is occurring. Where the capacities for language and thought are in abeyance, we cannot speak of knowledge. Jhāna samādhi lands us in such unvarying landscapes as neither-perception-nor-non-perception and the-extinction-of-perception-and-feeling. The cultivation of liberating insight requires us to remember, to compare, to analyze, and to reflect, functions that can sometimes be performed after the fact. If there is anything aptly called Higher Consciousness, we will find it there, in the realm of knowledge.

[1] The Buddha said as much in the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23).

Altered States of What?

Writers on “meditation” sometimes characterize contemplative processes as altered states of consciousness. In many such discussions of comparative experience, “consciousness” denotes the condition of being wide awake, responsive to stimuli, and able to deal with the events of everyday life in the usual ways. Ordinary consciousness so conceived is made to serve as the default setting for experience. All other “states” are considered to be deviations from a mode of mental operation alleged to be normal for the quotidian.

Sunrise Santa Cruz

One problem with that concept is that our knowledge of ordinary, everyday consciousness is so slight. We know very little of how our minds work from moment to moment and day to day. And why should we? Most of the time we are following the dictates of archaic biological dispositions, social necessity, or momentary desire, and therefore we are properly focused on getting the job done. Although the notion of a single, basic mode of mental functioning has great appeal—if only on account of its simplicity—it is very much more likely that in the course of a day our minds cycle through a great many diverse “states,” the precise nature of those modes depending upon the varying circumstances. At least that is the tentative hypothesis to which I am led by my own attempts to monitor the vagaries of moment-to-moment mental functioning.

Everyday life (as it is known) is replete with frequent, if unpredictable, instances of the marvelous and the extraordinary, though of course we must have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. That is, we must be capable of a presence-of-mind that is one of the necessary conditions for the contemplative life. Then again, at the extreme of attentive fixation, dissociation, or imagination, events can occur so far out of the ordinary that they can shed a transfiguring light upon our day-to-day lives, or utterly resist assimilation, and leave us speechless. Yet even when we acknowledge the possibility of stupendous phenomena, it is safe to say that there is no standard-of-consciousness against which to measure them.

It is flattering to suppose that from the moment I awaken until the time I fall asleep I maintain the ability to engage in abstract thinking and problem-solving. It would be more accurate to say that, part of the time, I am in a state of readiness to be fully conscious at a moment’s notice. The rest of the time I am daydreaming, dozing, absorbed in contemplation of a mountain view, performing a familiar task automatically, or otherwise occupied. I am not always in full possession of my faculties and ready to rumble, and there is no point in claiming otherwise. It is more fruitful to think about consciousness as a menu of modi operandi from which the organism and the environment together select the one that is the best fit with the situation, without bothering to consult the higher executive functions. That is why, until I began to explore the opportunities for self-awareness, I did not have to think much about what I was doing.


In short, when we do not need full consciousness we do not use it. We employ higher-level conscious functioning sparingly because it is slow, costly to maintain in terms of physiological resources, fatiguing, and potentially dangerous—while we are inventing the wheel a saber-toothed cat might be able to sneak up on us. And, as it happens, neither are we nearly as conscious as we think we are when, as in “meditation,” we are making as special effort to be more conscious! I shall expand upon that point in the next post.

E2. Exploring Sensations

Sensory stimuli are the raw materials of experience. When we are infants we know sensations as they present themselves, or else as more or less crudely shaped by innate perceptual mechanisms. Because the events of infancy are not associated with words and concepts, it is hard for us to remember them. When they are recalled, they come to us suddenly and involuntarily as vivid sense-memories with little in the way of context. Later in life we know sensation mostly in its “cooked” form, as abstract summaries of episodes, scenes from our lives that have been reduced to a kind of code.

Moreover, since the adoption by human beings of agriculture (approximately 10,000 years ago), a sedentary way of life, and civilization (no less than 6,000 years ago), the importance of technical knowledge and problem-solving ability has increased exponentially. The transition from a culture dominated by the sensuous to one dominated by the intellect has been gradual but pervasive. The net result of these shifts is an overemphasis on cogitation which, together with the increasing pace, complexity, and busyness of our lives, has greatly reduced our opportunities to enjoy sensory phenomena as they are. Sensations have become mere indicators of the objects to be used in pursuit of our goals or else ignored.
paleolithic horse
It comes down to this. We think too much about too many things, and all that thinking gets in the way of our fully knowing and appreciating our bodies as the source and vehicle of sensations in themselves. Thoughts are also sensations, but it is almost impossible for us to see that when we are caught up in thinking. Bodies are not mere vehicles to be directed by minds. Minds are the work of bodies, the signals generated by the organism as it communicates with the world around it and among its various internal systems. The primary activities of mind are to eliminate sensory redundancy and to construct entities out of sensations. The things so fabricated include the world, the self, and the concept of mind.

The exercises given below will help trainees to restore the immediacy of sensory phenomena, free of self-consciousness and instrumental agendas. Learning to recover the knowledge of sensory stimuli as such is one of the primary tasks of a student of the contemplative arts. It will change the quality of your moment-to-moment perception. It will put you back in your body, where you belong.And it will greatly expand your sense of what it means to be a body.

body space image

Exercise 2
A. Bodily sensation
In a comfortable seated posture, practice each of the following exercises for a period of not less than nine minutes and not more than 40 minutes, in sessions separated by at least twelve hours. Until you have become both familiar and comfortable with a given exercise, do not move on to the next. The order of the exercises is progressive. Once mastered, they can be performed in any order. The best place to begin is with attention to posture.
i. Monitor the postural indicators listed in the RUBS-BETH acronym. [See On Posture (3)]. Go through the whole sequence from at least three to as many as twelve times; then see if you can get a sense of the body’s posture as a whole. Repeat the process for several days running. It is fundamental.
ii. Directing attention according to your inner somatic map, scan or sweep whole body, starting with the crown of the head and moving slowly down the front. Be alert for signs of tension and any other conspicuous sensations. Where you find them, pause for a moment, giving the spot your full attention, and see what happens. Then move on. Perform the same procedure for the back side of the body. When you become skilled in this technique, you may notice that you speed up as your inner gaze moves through the body. Try to keep a moderate pace. Lots of interesting things are happening, and you don’t want to miss them on account of impatience.
iii. Attend to any and all sensations associated with posture. Allow attention to float freely among them, but do not get lost in space. Stay with the posture for the full period. If attention wanders, or you find that you have become caught up in thinking, bring your attention back to any aspect of bodily posture, and proceed from there as before.
iv. In this exercise we will focus on a single sensory cluster associated with posture, preferably one that is both relatively strong and constant, and therefore available most of the time. Examples are the thumb-tips, where they meet, and the left palm resting upon the right. You will find others. Pick one and stick with it.
v. Focus on the lowest point in the body where there is a strong sensory constellation, such as the buttocks just below the sit bones, where they meet the cushion, or the soles of the feet if you are sitting in a chair. This is an effective technique for overcoming agitation, and for getting out of your head during storms of compulsive thought.
vi. Letting the attention roam freely, but always with alertness and comprehensive awareness, focus on whatever cluster of sensation happens to be the most prominent at the moment. Stay with it until it breaks up or another event comes to dominate the sensory field. Shift attention to the new tactile alpha. Repeat for the duration of the session.
vii. While remaining alert, relax the focus of attention and enlarge the field of awareness to include the totality of bodily sensations, as much as possible all at once. This can be challenging at first. There is a strong tendency for the undirected attention to flit from one sensory event to another. When the mind grasps something, just remember to relax and let go, again and again, until the mental faculties that select objects have learned their lesson and calmed down. (This practice has been included just to give you a taste of freedom and to provide a hint that it is not always either desirable or necessary to concentrate. If you find that it is extremely frustrating, feel free to drop it and come back to it later when you have become adept at some of the simpler associative methods.)

Bodily sensations that arise in connection to the cycle of breathing in and out are a major component of somatic awareness. They are also the focus of a great many methods of cultivating self-knowledge and mental stability across the whole range of contemplative traditions. Because the topic is so big, we will ignore it for now and return to it in future posts.

B. The Dominant Senses: Sight, Sound, & Touch
In the formal practices of sitting and walking there is little opportunity to observe the senses of taste and smell. Therefore we will limit ourselves to the senses of sight, sound, and touch. The idea here is simple, namely, to learn to clearly distinguish between the (subjective) sensory realms associated with the three selsected sensory faculties, as such. As we shall see a bit further on, the ability to discern the several types of sensation quickly and easily will be a valuable asset when we turn to the development of insight. It will be enough for now just to become skilled at “tuning in,” one at a time, to each of the three dominant senses of Sight, Sound, and Touch. It does not matter where you start.

You may find it helpful to conceive of three distinct sensory realms before you begin. The visual realm is the size and shape of your visual field and includes everything that occurs within it. The auditory realm is located in the vicinity of the ears and (for some people at least) between them. The tactile realm is roughly bounded by the outer layer of skin, & likewise includes all sensations—and there are many different kinds—that occur upon and within the body.

Your task in this exercise is simply to learn how to shift from one of these realms to another. So, having chosen one of the sense-fields, bring it to the foreground of awareness. Fully occupy it with attention, spending as much time as you like in becoming familiar with it. Pay particular attention to its special characteristics. Get a feel for it. Stay with it for, say, a session of nine to fifteen minutes. If your object in the first session was Sight, move on to Sound in your next, and Touch in the one after that. When you have devoted a number of periods to each sense separately, then practice shifting from one to another during a single session. You might begin by devoting a minute each to Sight, Sound, and Touch, over the course of a nine-minute period, thus performing three cycles in all. An athletic interval timer is perfect for measuring exercises of this kind. I believe you will quickly find this work to be fascinating. May you be well and happy!