The study of consciousness has been something humans have concerned themselves with throughout recorded history:
The Ancient Mayans, Hindus, Chinese were the among the first civilizations to define a set series of levels of consciousness – and continue to evolve in modern times.
In the “west”, John Locke, Sigmund Freud and other philosophers and psychologists have also studied consciousness and awareness and come to various conclusions.
The overriding question in the mind of all of these thinkers, from ancient times to the present day, has been one that sounds deceptively simple:
What is consciousness exactly?
What is consciousness?
Consciousness is that which enables us to be and experience life as we know it, and also maintain awareness of the fact that we are alive and having this experience.
However, no strict definition exists. Everyone, from ancient priests and healers to modern-day psychologists and philosophers, has applied themselves to the problem.
There are numerous theories – some lean towards the spiritual, others towards neuroscience and pinpointing which areas of the brain are responsible for consciousness.
But many of these theories have a surprising amount in common. One of these is the idea that there are different levels of consciousness…
Levels of consciousness in psychology
Sigmund Freud, one of the famous psychologists of all time – perhaps the grandfather of modern psychology – was responsible for a theory of consciousness which is still prevalent today.
Freud suggested that there were several layers of awareness in the mind which interacted with each other to form an individual’s personality and behavior.
Freud identified three levels of consciousness for the mind – three “planes of awareness” which humans have – the conscious, unconscious and preconscious:
The conscious mind
The conscious mind is the easiest to understand. These are your current thoughts, feelings, desires and memories – the constant stream of activity in your mind during the course of every day.
The preconscious mind
This is Freud’s term for references, information, ideas and inferences that you have in your mind but are not using at this precise moment in time.
Thoughts in your pre-conscious mind are ready to be used immediately when you need them, but are not at the conscious level of mind.
The unconscious mind
The unconscious mind is Freud’s term for parts of the mind that we are unaware of. It can perhaps be imagined as a deeper layer beneath the surface of a lake which contains memories, thoughts, feelings and desires which do not reach a conscious level of awareness.
Freud argued that the unconscious mind contained many things which might be unpleasant or uncomfortable – repressed emotions or memories, for example – and suggested that this level of consciousness was responsible for hidden desires which might influence our behavior without us being consciously aware of it.
Different theories of awareness
The study of consciousness and awareness has interested humans for thousands of years.
Many different systems have been developed. Some of them lean more toward spirituality than neuroscience.
Yet there are certain concepts and themes which run through many systems – even if those involved in defining them never had the opportunity to meet…
7 levels of consciousness in spirituality
One of the most common systems says that there are 7 levels of consciousness.
The 3 levels of consciousness in psychology (Freud’s model) are very roughly equivalent to the first 3 levels of this system. This means that without even trying, almost everyone will have experienced the three so-called “average states” of consciousness.
However, the four “enlightened states” of consciousness generally need to be learned. A person usually arrives at them through spiritual practices which help explore the subconscious mind. This might include mindfulness, meditation and prayer.
They can sometimes happen through a sudden realization or an event like an epiphany.
The seven levels of consciousness in spirituality are usually said to be:
1) Waking Consciousness
Most of your life is lived in a state of Waking Consciousness. You experience feelings, sensory information, thoughts and memories and control your actions based on them.
2) Deep Sleep
Deep Sleep is just what it sounds like. You are unconscious, completely still and resting. You don’t have any awareness or access to your memories or experiences, nor are you generating new ones.
3) Dreaming State
The Dreaming State is also just what it sounds like. It is the level of consciousness you experience when asleep and dreaming.
Existing in the Dreaming State can feel quite real at the time. But upon waking, the actual experiences can be difficult to recall.
4) Transcendental Consciousness
The first of the enlightened states, Transcendental Consciousness is a level of awareness in which you can silence all of your senses while you are completely conscious.
This allows you to connect with your spirit without the noise of information provided by your senses, thoughts and experiences.
5) Cosmic Consciousness
The second of the enlightened states, Cosmic Consciousness involves an awareness of the world beyond what you are, what you think or what you do. Your previous cares and worries start to matter far less.
Some people report that they move beyond it to get a sense of the interconnectedness of all things in the manner of Oneness or God Consciousness.
6) God Consciousness
God Consciousness is the third of the enlightened states.
In it, you feel a deep layer of connection with yourself and everything around you, experienced through a prism of love and happiness and understanding.
7) Unity Consciousness
Beyond God Consciousness, is Unity Consciousness – the final enlightened state.
In this, you experience no separation between yourself and everything around you. There is only one consciousness, which is simultaneously you, us and them.
3 levels of consciousness in spirituality
While the seven layers of consciousness described above are commonly referred to, they are by no means the only system of consciousness in spirituality.
There are also more modern schools of thought which are based on ancient ideas.
For example, the famous yogi and guru Paramhansa Yogananda (of Autobiography of a Yogi fame) has had his teaching posthumously expanded by the Ananda Sangha movement to create a simple yet easy to understand system which consists of 3 levels of consciousness:
- Subconscious awareness – your collection of memories and experiences and the thoughts you’ve derived from them, of which you have relatively little awareness.
- Conscious awareness – your standard daily awareness and experiences, sensory information and so on where you are free to act.
- Superconscious awareness – a heightened mental state, where clarity and intuition are far greater than normal and solutions as easy to see as problems.
An Experience of Different Levels of Consciousness
The fact that so many people – across the world and even across time – have had so many philosophies and experiences with similar themes and which make similar connections, is enough to make one want to explore deeper…
The ayahuasca retreats at the Spirit Vine center are designed for participants to have direct experiences of consciousness. Each person can enter into one or more of the states of consciousness that have been described above, and have a personal understanding of it through this experience. There is no amount of theory, philosophy or explanation that compares with having a direct personal experience… and this is what people most appreciate along with the support structure to integrate these experiences in the context of their everyday lives.