Deconstructing the consciousness ladder from pure awareness to abject mindlessness and all the rungs in between.
The highest and most elusive state of being is directly experiencing existence, also known as being in the present. Satori and mindfulness and “waking up” are other terms that are used, among others. They all speak to more or less the same thing. There is no higher state than this — it is the top tier. But within this tier, there are a few variations.
When a moment of acute presence is infused with positively-charged emotion, we experience joy. On a neurological level, emotion is produced by a biochemical reaction in the body in response to a situation — e.g., the flood of dopamine when you’re madly in love with someone and she’s lying in your arms and nothing exists outside of this moment. In other words, joy = presence + biochemical happiness. Joy is the most fun of all states of being, even if the biochemical infusion muddles the purity of it.
Some purists even make the claim that presence and emotion are mutually exclusive. The very highest state of being, in this view, are those moments when being in the present (i.e., satori, mindfulness, waking up) is emotionally neutral. These moments may not offer the sheer pleasure associated with joy, but they are arguably the highest-grade of all moments precisely because they’re un-colored by emotions. During these rare states of being, you directly experience this thing called Existence, unmediated by mind or emotions, akin to the way you take in oxygen when you breathe. For lack of a better way of describing something that is ineffable, it is a feeling of total rightness, that nothing in the universe is misplaced.
Children can often access the first tier of being without any effort— it’s simply their default state. Over time this ability tends to erode due to neural gateways that develop in our brains as we mature, and social conditioning tends to reinforce this. To borrow an analogy from Alan Watts, the floodlight consciousness we enjoy as children is eventually subordinated by spotlight consciousness. As it turns out, many of the same mental habitats that increase our fitness as big-brained animals, trying to make our way in the world, seem to work against us internally. Therein lies one of the great contradictions of human existence. But there are ways to work around this contradiction, and what stands on the other side of this effort are the highest-grade moments of consciousness.
One way to induce these moments is through quiet meditation, but that’s not the only way. The first tier of being can also be accessed through physical or rhythmic movement. Whirling dervishes in the Sufi tradition are an example of consciously using one’s body to deactivate the recursive mind and thus achieve this state. Nearly any kind of dancing is also capable of producing this effect, so long as you fully connect with your body and disconnect from mind — which does not come easily. Athletes and extreme sports practitioners occasionally achieve this state, albeit less consciously, during those moments when the mind is subordinated and the doors of instinct and awareness are flung wide open in the middle of a complex physical act.
All of the above examples have one thing in common: they are moments in which the spastic mind is quieted, whereupon that which underlies the mind is free to feel existence without obstruction. Consciously dropping into a moment like this — for example, through meditation — allows the greatest latitude and depth of awareness. Unconsciously doing so still represents a precious little gift to the doer of the act, on behalf of the Universe, but it lacks some of the power and wonder and peace that comes with the conscious act.
There are also moments of emotionally-neutral presence which seemingly arise spontaneously — best described by the Zen term satori. These are especially delicious moments, a gift on behalf of the Universe for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. It’s as if some unseen hand briefly wipes clean the glass windows of perception and the nakedness of experience is suddenly felt, if but for the shred of a single moment of clock time. Whereupon the glass usually fogs up again and the vision is lost — only the aftertaste remains. It is this taste, so mysteriously sweet, that induces people to devote the rest of their lives in search of it.
Lastly — and this is the least-fun gradient of the first tier — it is also possible to be in the present when this moment is surrounded by a negatively-charged emotion, for example that split second before impact in a car accident when you know you’re going to be hit and you are fully awake to it. Often during a moment like this, there will be a fragment of that split second in which the wakefulness is there without the emotion. Technically speaking, once the emotion shows up, you’re not really in the moment, because you’re already thinking about the future. Your mind kicks into gear, whereupon all of your inner power and stillness — which is your greatest asset especially in situations like this — is lost.
Severe pain and loss and the fear of death also have the ability, indirectly, to produce great moments of awareness. This is often regarded as a poor consolation prize, while you’re in the thick of it, but it does have the potential for great transformative power. Nevertheless, these are not the kind of moments you consciously root for. They happen, and you are given the opportunity to either make something constructive out of them or not. But now we’re starting to veer into the territory of the second tier of being.
If the first tier of being is synonymous with what some people call the mystical experience, the second highest tier of being is that which exists on the fringe of it. It is the so-called aftertaste of direct experience, or the process that leads up to it and thereafter digests it. In this state of being, the mind — which is not entirely quiet — is instead wielded like a tool by that thing inside you that underlies the mind. The mind is directed toward the contemplation or exploration or understanding of things that are, by rule, out of reach of the mind. For example, the exploration of — and insights into — questions such as the origin of creation, the purpose (if any) of existence, what happens after death, is there such a thing as an individuated soul, who or what is orchestrating this whole thing or is it all just the dispassionate machinations of physical laws, etc. In other words, it is a mystical experience of the second order.
The second tier of being draws energy from the first tier and helps makes sense of it. It also helps lay the groundwork for forays into the first tier. If you don’t have the good fortune of spending a moment in the first tier, the second tier is still a nice place to be. It should be noted, however, that this state of being can very easily degrade into lower states of being if you’re not careful. What usually happens is that you start out in the second tier, and then your mind — which does not like to be tamed — quietly goes astray, often under the guise of deepening your contemplation. Before long, the mind is back to its recursive ways. At this point you still have a chance to bring yourself back into the second tier, by means of observation. As soon as you move into the role of the observer (of yourself) and objectively watch the movements of your own wayward mind, you are back in the second tier.
The pleasure of the second tier is similar to what Alice must have felt when falling down the rabbit hole. Being in close contact with one’s own operating system and the deepest questions of existence can be scary at times, but mostly it’s thrilling and strange and it injects a certain mystical music to the whole game. In trying to paint an analogy for this state of being, for some reason the song of a lute comes to mind. It’s like sitting in a sand-strewn seaside city in an open-air tea house underneath tall palms where everyone around you is speaking a different language, and someone is playing the lute. In other words, it’s kind of like being in Tangier. That’s what the second tier is like. You know that you may get knifed or something, or sucked into some metaphysical sink hole, but you’re having a really good time.
Next comes the third tier, which rounds out the list of the three noble tiers. The third tier is the act of creating. In trying to understand the nature of this tier, it is important to remember that we are all, ourselves, the product of Creation. Something actually created us — we’re not sure what. In any event, it can thus be said, literally, that the creative impulse is ingrained in our DNA. This doesn’t only apply to people who self-identify as artists. In one way or another, everyone has the creative impulse deeply implanted inside his or her being. Letting this impulse course through you, like fun purposeful blood flowing through your arteries, is one of the grander ways to spend time in this life. It’s like the Universe itself picks you up and uses you as a paintbrush, it sings through you.
Are you in the present during the creative process? This is a fair question. Kind of, but it’s different. Something strange happens to Time when you’re in the third tier. The hands of the clock spin around but you have no awareness of it. You’re not cognizant of clock time in the first tier nor the second tier either, but usually your forays into the first two tiers are brief — sometimes extremely brief. The third tier of being, on the other hand, can often last for many hours without interruption.
It’s not bad when clock time loses meaning. It’s totally fine, because clock time doesn’t have objective meaning anyway. It’s just weird. For a period of several hours, it’s like the head of your awareness is shoved through this permeable wall, on the other side of which is another universe with different fundamental laws, while the rest of your body is still anchored in the so-called physical world. After the creative bender is over, you pull your head back into the physical world and look around and see a clock and realize that four hours have gone by, whereas your head only aged about twenty minutes — owing to gravitational time dilation in the creative state. You feel great, though.
There are several different manifestations of the Creative State. What we refer to as Art is only one of them. Laying a brick pathway or cooking a meal or decorating a room are different kinds of creative acts but they all still tap into that third tier of being. Even creatively raising a child enters into this tier. It’s creative in the sense that you are giving form to the life and heart and mind and experience of another human being.
Below those three tiers — which we can call the higher states of being — there are two tiers of lower states of being, both of which are unconscious to varying degrees. The fourth tier of being is best described by mindlessness. Often you’re actually doing something — like commuting to work or paying bills or watching TV or performing mundane duties at your job — but you’re not really paying attention to whatever you’re doing nor do you have any awareness of the thing (you) who is doing it. In other words, the lights are on but nobody is home.
This is not to say that it’s impossible to be in a higher tier while performing a mundane task. It is possible to reach the first tier of being while washing dishes or mowing the lawn, though this kind of feat will most likely require a conscious effort and probably quite a bit of work on oneself to prepare for this level of awareness in this type of situation — except in rare cases of satori. For most of the people most of the time, however, the operator of mundane tasks is operating in the fourth tier of being — if not lower. But remember: if you happen to catch yourself in this low state of consciousness, and effectively observe yourself operating like this, you suddenly catapult into the second tier, possibly higher.
The point, here, is that it’s not about the activities themselves — rather, it’s about the state of awareness while you’re doing those activities. The nature and quality of the activity can, however, exert an influence on the quality of your consciousness. For example, most books and movies and comparable forms of low-grade entertainment are experienced passively, which is fourth tier, but the intake of high forms of art is different. The greatest books and films and other expressions of high art are capable of elevating the receiver into the second tier and sometimes even the first tier of being, to the extent that they inspire wonder and encourage contemplation and trigger understandings.
Sex is another example of the role that quality can play. Empty sex belongs to the realm of the fourth tier, whereas truly connected sex (poetically known as love-making) is capable of producing that elusive first tier of being — colored by biochemistry perhaps, but wonderfully alive nonetheless. Interpersonal conversation is also usually consistent with the fourth tier, especially when it’s banal, but again it depends on the grade. High-grade conversations, like art, have the capacity to move people into the first and second tiers of being. By the same token, low-grade conversations — gossiping, complaining, condemning, arguing, posturing or defending the ego — can drop people down from the fourth tier into the fifth tier of being. And this brings us to the final and lowest rung on the ladder.
The fourth tier can be described as an emotionally-neutral form of mindlessness. The fifth tier of being, on the other hand, is the state of being subsumed by negative emotions — anger, jealousy, anxiety, fear, stress, boastfulness, self-pity, etc. This is the “pain body” that Eckhart Tolle refers to, which is an excellent way to illustrate it. In this state, you’re basically just a piece of flotsam floating down a river and you don’t even have a paddle with which to steer yourself to one bank or the other. Absolutely nothing good comes from this state of being while you’re inside it.
It’s nearly impossible to entirely avoid the fifth tier at all times, but trying to do so is worth the effort. In fact, making the effort to avoid the fifth tier is arguably the most important thing a person can actively attempt to do. The fifth tier of being is the worst place you can be, from a consciousness perspective. Not only does it provide you zero benefit, but it actually erodes your power and undermines your life, in both the short-term and long-term. The best that can be said of the fifth tier is that it offers an opportunity. Once again, the act of observing yourself in the fifth tier has the effect of instantly elevating you to the higher tiers, albeit tenuously — effectively a backdoor entry into consciousness. A maneuver like this is something you can train yourself to do, although it requires practice.
Our goal, generally speaking, is to avoid the fourth and especially the fifth tier as much as possible, but it doesn’t help to punish ourselves if and when we fall into those lower states. The best we can do is try hard to avoid it, and try to catch ourselves when we’re in it, and if we fail, try to recognize it afterwards and learn from it with a light spirit. The other thing we can do is put ourselves in situations that facilitate movement into the higher tiers, and likewise avoid situations that are likely to lead into the lower tiers. When devising one’s management plan for daily life, these are good goals and strategies to include.
This is all easier said than done. The fact remains that the fourth and fifth tiers of being are the states that most of us spend the majority of our lives in, and I include myself here. Whole swaths of our days are spent in a state of waking unconsciousness — hours upon hours on end — whereas the amount of time we spend in the first and second tiers of being is sometimes limited to a handful of moments.
In my personal case, the best that can be said is that, with each passing year, I gradually reduce the amount of time I spend in the lower states of being and gradually increase the amount of time spent in the higher states. I would like the net improvement to be more dramatic, but alas it has only been incremental.
Fortunately, there is a positive feedback loop at play. Time spent in the higher tiers is palpably more pleasurable, more fecund. It just feels better, for which it’s natural to be increasingly drawn to them. The more aware we are of how the lower tiers work, the more pointless and wasteful they seem, and the imperative to avoid those states of being becomes stronger.
Consciousness is kind of like a muscle that strengthens through exercise, but unlike a muscle it does not atrophy with age. There is no ultimate limit to its growth except, perhaps, upon death. Unless death is the graduation. There’s a chance that our entire lives in this frame of reality are merely a glorified version of kindergarten class in the education of our souls or else in the evolution of that which underlies this whole thing — i.e., the self-learning operating system of the universe. In either case, it makes sense for us to approach our lives the way a kindergartener approaches the task of building a miniature house with wooden blocks. It’s okay for us to get a bit absorbed in the whole thing, because it’s all meant as game in which lessons are imparted. And then when the house of blocks inevitably falls down, the aim is to not spend too much time crying about it. Just start over again, or grab some crayons and draw.