It seems that we are quite far away from really understanding and reaching an agreement on what consciousness is.
There is also no evidence so far that consciousness is actually generated in the brain, a fascinating question.
By acknowledging that language and our rational mind might actually not be able to grasp the total reality of consciousness, one possible definition though, among many others, pragmatical and empirical here, is to consider consciousness as a natural phenomenon consisting of these two distinct qualities:
- Representation/Appearance, i.e., our capability to perceive how our outer and inner realities manifest in the present moment, e.g., how I am seeing the shape of flowers and their smell when walking around in a park, and what emotions or thoughts they manifest in me.
- Knowledge, i.e., our capability to know what is manifesting before us. In us humans, such knowledge materialises either from a rational perspective, involving the rational mind (i.e., I know from a cognitive perspective that I am seeing objects from my outer reality called ‘flowers’), or from a deeper perspective, called ‘awareness’. When experiencing such a deeper awareness, I don’t need to put any words nor labels, I am simply experiencing whatever is in the present moment, without any rational thinking on top of it.
In the last decades, a lot of research has been conducted in the West for proposing models of consciousness and its transformation. Traditional Eastern philosophies and contemplative practices have been extensively exploring and documenting this topic for ages.
Levels of Consciousness
In this article, I want to present a model that is simple to be comprehended by anybody, but also detailed enough so I can use it as a reference in this blog for further articles. A model that is also useful, so actionable steps can be implemented from it along the integrated man’s journey.
And I really like the one proposed by Robert A. Johnson in his book “Transformation”, and inspired by Carl Jung’s perspective (for the record, many inputs in this post are coming from this book). According to this simple model, the transformation of human consciousness, as of today, and at the scale of a lifetime, occurs through the following three ‘levels’:
- Child consciousness, basically corresponding to children’s consciousness in our modern technological world 1,
- Ego-based consciousness, the usual level of educated modern men,
- Self-based consciousness, the next step of our human evolution, only known by few individuals, and generally attained thanks to conscious and strong commitment to inner work, and/or heavy suffering.
States of Consciousness
We can make a distinction between ‘levels’ of consciousness and ‘states’.
States are temporary states of consciousness from which an individual is fully functioning at a given moment of his daily life. Natural well-known states are sleeping and dreaming states, and the normal waking consciousness from which we spend most of our time. Thanks to contemplation and shamanic practices, or the use of psychoactive substances, meditative or altered-states of consciousness can be reached. For instance, just to name a few, out of body or near-death experiences, spiritual experiences of non-dual reality, i.e., the total feeling of being one with the universe beyond physical world’s polarities (e.g., men/women, day/night, good/bad, etc.).
It seems that our human body-mind is not capable of being simultaneously in multiple states at a given moment. Therefore, we switch back and forth from one state to another, either naturally and instinctively (e.g., from sleep to wakefulness), or with conscious effort (e.g., via meditation or psychoactive substances).
Transformation by integration
The transformation from one level of consciousness to another is done:
- In a continuous and ordered way, so as individual, we evolve and grow by going through them, from child consciousness, to Ego-based, and potentially, to Self-based.
- The qualities associated to one level are kept by the individual even after reaching the next level, i.e., these qualities are being ‘integrated’ from one level into the next (or ‘transcended and included’, as Ken Wilber would say, who has been extensively studying this topic).
- A given quality from a previous level is integrated into the individual’s consciousness ‘consciously’, or ‘unconsciously’.
Here’s an illustration on how these transformations might occur throughout the lifespan of an individual.
Like everything in our physical, dual, world, each level of consciousness has its gold and dark sides.
Transformations are usually not total, nor permanent. To illustrate this point, let’s simply consider past traumas from childhood. As a result of past traumas, a healthy adult might be very likely emotionally reacting from now and then according to his inner child self, i.e., viewing and interpreting his world partly via the lenses of his former (and in this case, threaten) child consciousness.
In the same way, an individual will be perceiving and interpreting the world depending on the degree of achievement he has reached from each level.
Let’s detail them more, and give concrete examples on how the world is perceived through their lenses.
A child is very instinctive, free, optimistic, happy, and remains in the state of unconscious perfection and bliss, just as before the fall of the Garden of Eden. He lives fully with his emotions, without filter. He lives in the realm of fantasy and imagination, e.g., strongly believing in the reality of his nightmares’ monsters.
In his book, Robert Johnson relies on the tale of Don Quixote to illustrate the ending of this level of consciousness in modern men during the medieval era. Don Quixote, that could appear childish and delusional to nowadays’ readers, actually lives in an outer world that is a projection and an extension of his own inner world, and in which everything works in poetic terms, deeply rooted in instinct and faith, and outside the vicissitudes of physical realities.
We don’t see anymore this level of consciousness operating in adults nowadays, except as pathology. But it characterises well a level we went through in our childhood, and during which we were perfect as we were, and whole.
The child’s transformation of consciousness is implemented by education, via our caregivers, teachers, collective conditioning and culture.
By acquisition of language and knowledge, the child comes to realize the dual quality of our physical reality. He realises that he is actually not one with the world, but separated from it by the boundaries of his physical body, and mind. His world view shifts completely since his own individuality is brought up to his consciousness. His world becomes totally polarised, it becomes now about the good and the bad, him and the rest of the world, men and women. He realizes that he can make his own choices, consciously controlling the way he interacts with the world and to some extent its objects. His Ego and new sense of himself is built up.
In Robert Johnson’s book, this level of consciousness is described through the tragedy of Hamlet, telling the story of the tragic drowning into the emptiness and loneliness of the modern existential life of the divided man. ‘To be, or not to be’ represents the failure of the modern man to find a peaceful balance in the dual world of polarities, who lost the capability to only function by instinct (like Don Quixote did), and hasn’t yet reached deeper wisdom to free himself from pain of human physical existence.
This major transformation of human consciousness in the recent evolution of our species led to the highly specialised and technological world as we know it today in modern countries.
Most of us spend all their adult lives in this level of consciousness. As Robert Johnson explains, modern men might get glimpses in their lifetime about their own understanding of the meaning of life, but they are not integrated enough to implement this vision into practical realities.
The transformation resulting in the transcendence of Ego-based consciousness can be done via ‘individuation’, used here in the context of Jungian psychology. It refers to the process of reaching completeness, and wholeness, of our beings.
For very few individuals, it might happen in a short period of time, e.g., with complete out-of-the-blue and so-called ‘spiritual emergencies’, or through near-death or first-hand deep spiritual experiences.
But for most of us, we must consciously engage in this process, with long-term (and potentially never-ending) efforts of self-inquiry and self-discovery via inner work. And it seems that very few people, at least in Western countries, actually commit to do so.
When I function from Ego-based consciousness
When I function at this level, I tend to take things too personally.
For instance when I’m getting in a bar thinking that many are noticing my entrance, when nobody actually gives a shit.
I catch myself stuck in overthinking patterns, thinking what I could have done better in the past, or getting worried about what’s gonna happen in the future.
I believe that I am my thoughts, and my emotions.
I believe that all things are fully under my control. That everything is only a matter of applying brute-force will power and delivering hard work.
I am seeking, sometimes craving, for external validation.
I compare myself with other people’s external achievements.
I have a lot of automatic and recurrent thoughts about me, I, and myself.
I let myself get stuck in victimhood.
I switch back and worth between feeling of failure and feeling of being the best.
I have a hard time accepting what I don’t know, and I am scared about the mysterious.
I believe that my life will eventually feel fulfilled and sorted out once external achievements from the physical world will finally reach completion. That salvation and peace of mind depend on it.
All these examples above are actually a source of suffering. Like everything in our physical world, the Ego comes with his dark and bright sides, and the latter has to be fully acknowledged as well.
For instance, it is from this Ego-based consciousness that I can indeed put the hard work needed to organise the structure of this article, edit it, and do my best to keep the reader interested. That I can rationally think and solve problems, consume new inputs and knowledge, organise and compartmentalise them.
It is from that space that I explore, and implement constructive changes into the world.
From that space that I can truly acknowledge my own gifts and make the most of them, at service of my inner Self, and at service to others beyond myself.
It is thanks to my Ego that I can keep my psyche in order, and that I can also contribute to bringing more order in the physical world.
Our Ego is the centre of order, without it, chaos would erupt, Robert A. Johnson said in his book.
Our Ego is an amazing asset of our human consciousness brought from the universe through evolution.
As Terence McKenna said, it is also thanks to my Ego that when I am at a restaurant with my date, I put my fork in my mouth, and not in her eye.
Our Ego has to be honoured.
At the same time, his shadows, and limitations, have to be fully acknowledged, and consciously monitored to avoid his inflation. A work that has to be done from a higher consciousness, i.e., from the Self.
Towards the Self
The Self, also a term initially coined by Carl Jung, represents the unification of the conscious and the unconscious parts in an individual, his psyche as an integrated whole.
It is sometimes represented as a circle with a central dot, the dot representing the Ego, and the circle representing the whole, i.e., the Self, encompassing the Ego as well.
What constitutes and shapes the wholeness of the Self is quite an open debate though, and might differ depending on school of thoughts and traditions. Here’s my personal take, which is basically the model initially proposed by Carl Jung, with additional inputs from Stan Grof (a psychiatrist who has been working for decades with many people on altered states of consciousness).
We start by the aspects of the individual’s personal unconscious and biography:
- The ‘Shadow’, basically the unconscious parts of the individual’s psyche, constituted by our rejected instinctual tendencies and hidden, denied, repressed memories. In the shadow reside our dark sides, and also our gold, both of which might have been repressed by education, social structures, and culture.
- Stan Grof also introduced the perinatal memories as an important component of the individual’s unconscious, created by life-threatening emotional and physical stress involved in four distinct stages of childbirth.
And the transpersonal aspects (i.e., beyond the limits of individual):
- The ‘Collective Unconscious’, the manifestation of a collective intelligence which is shared among all human beings and binds us to all humanity, containing the entire history of humanity, and ‘Archetypes’. Archetypes are timeless, primordial cosmic principles underlying and informing the fabric of the physical world, and of our human psyche.
- The unconscious can also be extended to the descendants of our species, e.g., when considering the fascinating physiological changes occurring in the body of free divers reaching extreme depths (a proof that we might indeed be coming from the ocean?).
- Stan Grof also proposes extensions of the transpersonal domain by introducing ideas from Eastern and Shamanic traditions, such as Karmic memories.
- And finally, by extension, the Self might also contain the ‘Absolute Consciousness’ of the universe, or God, as some people might call it?
In some ways, an analogy between the Self and an onion can be made, for which layers after layers can be peeled until eventually reaching the origin the universe.
Robert Johnson in his book presents this level of consciousness with an interpretation of Faust. Faust moves forward his consciousness where Hamlet failed, and by the means of integrating his own shadow (symbolically represented in the story by the Devil’s representative, Mephistopheles).
Triggered by his mid-life crisis (as it is commonly the case), Faust brings back energy and creativity by integrating the repressed and unexpressed aspects of his being into his consciousness, towards wholeness of his being.
A painful transformation process via inner work
For most of us who decide to engage on this transformation path, it requires long-term commitment to inner work. And one realises that a balance has to be found between external and internal growth.
That’s the way towards integration.
Where the Ego believes that life’s fulfilment can only come from external validation and accumulation of external achievements, resources and status, the Self experiences a deeper sense of his existence, and purpose.
This process consists in “relocating the centre of the personality from the Ego to a centre greater than one’s self”, as Carl Jung said.
The Ego has to consent that he’s not the only one in charge, that he’s the subordinate to forces much greater than himself. It is like going through an ‘Ego-death’, which is a painful process since when it is initiated, our sense of identity starts to shatter under our very feet. Indeed, if I am not anymore my Ego to which I had been fully identified for so many years, who am I then?
It is also about facing our fears, daring looking at our own inner darkness, and accepting it.
Inner work takes many aspects, and requires many different tools depending on a person’s journey.
For instance, defusing the coupling between the Ego’s identification with emotional charges of past traumas might be an important aspect to work on in some people.
Inner work also requires to honour and dignify every dimensions of our life, leading to reinventing ourself, thanks to the integration of new insights made conscious from our unconscious.
The outcomes of inner work are not linear. Sometimes we step back, get stuck. Sometimes a lot of new insights are brought all of a sudden to our consciousness, leading to complete new understandings and perspective, like big chunks of a huge puzzle finally put together, step by step, and contributing to the big picture.
And so we grow. Slowly. Steadily.
Like looking at a child growing up, one morning it hits you, the child’s changed. You didn’t see it coming.
Functioning in Self-based consciousness is never total or permanent. It is always a moving target.
In particular, the balance between the Ego and the Self has to be continuously checked-in and readjusted over time, in order to avoid ‘Ego-inflation’, a fascinating topic that we will address in more details in other articles.
To mention only one interesting example of such an Ego-inflation though. In some spiritual teachings in the West, it is sometimes advocated that the Ego has to be suppressed to reach some level of enlightenment. Which is actually just another illusion of the Ego’s all-mighty control.
Indeed, the path towards integration cannot be about suppression, because suppression means repressing parts of who we are, and implies pushing them back in our shadows. This creates even more unbalances in our psyche.
Not to mention that in this very case, practising suppression actually contributes to Ego-inflation by reinforcing the Ego’s illusion of being fully in charge, which is actually a manifestation of the immature masculine.
The path actually involves reshaping our Ego.
Decoupling his identification with past pain, or old deeply-rooted dysfunctional believes might be needed.
The path also involves deeply realising that reaching completeness of ourselves cannot be achieved alone in the physical world, but that inner growth is also needed.
Our Ego then becomes at service of our Self, and in balance with our core sense of Being.
And the path requires to be carried out by the feminine.
Tapping into the feminine
Even if concrete actions have to be taken on the journey to expand our Self via inner work, wholeness is not attained by means of masculine principles.
It is a process anchored to our inner feminine.
It requires nurturing and love. Love of our darkness, love of our gold, caring for our growth process, nurturing every dimensions of our life, love of our whole Self, which is finally experienced as deep self-love.
The Collective Consciousness in the West is heavily Ego-based
Most modern individuals nowadays live exclusively in Ego-based consciousness. It’s been the price we paid for our highly specialized and technological world. Some aspects of the wholeness of our beings had to be repressed in order to over invest in mind-related activities that contributed to the industrial and information age.
It provided amazing improvements of our physical realities and daily lives, this is absolutly undeniable.
But it is now time to realize that we need to consciously take also responsibility for fostering inner work and deeper integration of all parts of our beings.
When I function from Self-based consciousness
As I am writing this article, I have been initiating my own transformation for a few years already. It is only recently that I actually came to realise that I had been on this path though. Indeed, it all started for me with a chronic disease. Increasing symptoms in my daily life over the years didn’t give me the choice but to look for answers far beyond my comfort zone.
It is an on-going journey, and I still have a lot to learn, explore, and integrate.
I believe it might actually never end.
Here are some personal examples of behaviour and perception of the world from my Self perspective.
Even if some of them can apply to you as well, they are still subjective.
Indeed, I am a middle age man, and for most of my adult life until a few years back, I was heavily functioning from my rational mind. My capabilities to get access to deeper knowledge from my intuition had been repressed, for some reasons.
So, it is not a surprise to come to realise that my transformation encompassed a shit from the analytical to the more intuitive parts of myself. Which I believe is a very common pattern in Western men by the way. But the process could be in the other way around for some people as well, we are all on our own journeys.
So, for instance, many first drafts of articles on this blog come to me through the Self. Sometimes I wake up feeling very inspired and emotional about a specific topic I’d like to share. I sit down in front of my laptop and suddenly sentences start literally pouring out-of-the-blue, like if I would be downloading intelligence from a higher consciousness with high bandwidth.
The same happens with many new ideas or creative solutions for solving problems. It looks like inputs and insights are coming from my body to my mind without effort, and outside of any cognitive process. In particular, it happens a lot when my body is moving, e.g., when I walk around on my own, or workout at the gym.
I also get insights by still contemplation, by just being fully present with my body feelings, just watching how they change in ‘body time‘, which is much slower than ‘mind time‘.
I realised recently that aspects of myself that I had thought were a curse, were actually also a blessing. Yes, I don’t want to be judging people, but it sometimes turns out to be a great tool to see their inner bullshit, something I am quite sensitive to.
Yes, my overthinking patterns are sometimes useless energy-consuming, self-centred, random noise, but it is also a great asset when I need to structure and navigate through all my thoughts and knowledge. I can let my rational mind spin around a specific topic, sweeping all the corners, analysing wider and deeper options, checking in back and forth with my intuition, so I can get closer to my inner subjective truth.
It is about discovering my new gifts and my dark sides I didn’t want to see, and knowing that it’s with deeper consciousness that I can decide to act on them, or not to act.
It is from that space that I experienced for the first time recently feelings of deep self-love. Feelings of total self-acceptance of who I am, with my gifts and my flaws, and that I wanted to fully honour myself whatever people might think about it. It is also about acknowledging all the inner and outer growth I went through in these last years, so it is not about comparing myself to others anymore, but comparing my present self to my former self.
It is not only love of my Ego, nor love coming from my Ego. It is deeper. It is wider. It is soft, gentle, and caring. It is feminine. Not manic, nor narcissistic.
I widen my acceptance and compassion for people’s flaws and struggles, because the deeper I dive inwards, the more I see their flaws and struggles in myself as well, so I can relate to them.
Relating, instead of projecting.
I don’t project my shit nor my gold onto others. I take full responsibility for it.
From my Self perspective, it is easier to come back to love, even in challenging times.
I accept lasting discomfort of unresolved challenges in my system. Because sometimes, there is no quick fix, and things have simply to be processed at body-time.
Because sometimes, I consciously postpone solving a challenge, and trust that more time is needed to let inner wisdom operate, and eventually, potentially, to come up with a deeper, more creative, more meaningful answer.
My body and my mind slow down. No need to run around and keep myself busy in useless tasks, no need to overthink like a monkey.
I think less. Do less. I am more.
It become also about consciously taking inactions.
I feel the need to express myself more creatively. I recently started producing electronic music. It is meaningful to me.
I accept that sometimes what I want, and even what I need, is not being delivered despite all my efforts.
And it’s okey.
Sometimes, the universe just delivers.
And it has to be honoured.
There are so much things out of my control, out of my will.
I am less identified with my thoughts and my emotions. It makes me less attached to things, and outcomes.
It is about living more in the present moment. Accepting whatever is.
From an inner perspective, it is about fully accepting that I sometimes feel empowered, sometimes vulnerable, and I can stay with these feelings without resisting them.
It is about accepting that everything will eventually pass, whether I might label them as good or bad. The impermanence of life. The constantly changing flow of life. I embrace it.
I take things less literally, by realising that some of my needs to feel complete might not only come from physical reality, but also from my inner world.
I am learning that what manifests in my body-mind at some level, might be manifestations of deeper longings, if I dare looking at them.
I realise that balance is everything. Balance between the physical world’s polarities, between my inner and outer lives, between my archetypes.
It is about consciously and constantly adjusting my balance.
The deeper I go within, the deeper I feel the purpose and meaningfulness of my life’s mission. I take actions when and where it feels right.
I take less actions, and actually bigger, deeper, their impact.
It is not always about me. Things are much bigger. I am also, much bigger.
Existence is meaningful.
From another perspective, existence also feels sometimes meaningless. I am accepting and starting to integrate such a paradox.
All truths is a paradox.
And I know.
Not in a rational way.
It is much deeper.
I know from my body. From my cells. From my being. From my experiences.
And I don’t know.
I realise the immensity of things that I have absolutly no clue about.
I embrace it.
I embrace the mystery.
I am trusting more the universe.
Even if I don’t know where my life is heading, I trust and believe that I am on the right path, without beating myself up when I am stepping back from now and then.
With trust in the path, and in the process, I also accept that it takes time, and I befriend patience.
My world is expanding. The world is much bigger and richer than I thought. There is a lot waiting to be discovered.
It is so exciting.
Going deeper on this topic with these books:
- Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness, by Robert A. Johnson.
- The Way of the Psychonaut Volume One: Encyclopedia for Inner Journeys, by Stanislav Grof.
To read also from this blog:
- Shadow-Work: Why This Gym Guy Is Pissing Me Off?
- A Part Of Me Wants All The Pussies, And It Makes Me Suffer