Useful ways to recognize, comprehend, and experience various states of mind.
Spiritual Path as Transformation of Conditioned Reality
Pathways Consciousness and Awareness
Conscious, Subconscious, Unconscious, and Superconscious
The Subtle in Spirituality
Releasing Ego, Killing Ego, Transcending Ego
Awakened Mind Cessation of Thought
Subjectivity, Union, and Being Moment of Infinite Possibilities
Spiritual Path as Transformation of Conditioned Reality
Regardless of one’s tradition, using a framework of wanting, giving (which together comprise doing), and being to assess and monitor one’s spiritual development can serve to guide one toward one’s spiritual goals. These concepts work well with behaviorally observable operations of thinking, feeling, and acting making it relatively easy for one to evaluate one’s individual personality, one’s spirituality lived through soul, and one’s spirit as God living in the world.
The spiritual journey is a transition from the conditioned individual self from which one detaches, to the embodied transpersonal collective self. The path may be considered one of dis-identification from our original individual self that wants for itself, to temporarily embracing a self that gives to others (as it continues actively doing), until it identifies with mental, emotional, and subjective being, from which it then acts. Essential skills are acquired through each stage of this progression, mandating that none of them be disregarded or passed over lest there be negative consequences, e.g. spiritual bypassing or materialism (see “Ten Common Pitfalls of Spiritual Practice”).
The ego, believing itself a separate entity in the world, usually knows what it wants, and having exercised sufficient thought it pursues the objects, experiences, and relationships it desires. Its logic is believed to be of its own design, and it is oblivious to the social and cultural conditioning that has determined its values, wants, and subsequent actions.
The feelings associated with ego’s wants and needs are conditioned as well. And they are more confounding than ego mental information because they are of two easily confused types. The first type is emotions like sadness, joy, anger, and delight. The second type is subjective feelings defined as oneself feeling like oneself; meaning is ascribed to the totality of the self’s embodied experience. Subjectivity includes feelings such as vulnerable, strong, confident, and hurt. It also includes a felt sense of holding oneself within a boundary ego has created between itself and others. Useful in understanding the ego’s characteristics and functioning, distinguishing these two types of feelings becomes a necessity in defining self as it expands through transpersonal experience.
As life events move one away from the aforementioned conditioning, the wanting mind begins to think differently, becoming more personally intimate with itself. And it begins to experience a greater range of feelings, both negative and positive, the former associated with life’s hardships, the latter with an expanded perspective on the world and humanity. Social-cultural conditioning begins to weaken, and one moves closer to one’s true and unique self, based on one’s own distinct character, values, and goals. Existential questions begin to be answered, a personal mythology emerges, and one’s self-actualization begins (see “Ten Aspects of One’s Personal Mythology”). Though wanting continues to prevail, now giving begins to emerge.
With the addition of transpersonal experiences one begins the part of the spiritual journey where one genuinely and selflessly gives to others consistently. This results from experiences of transcendence that move one beyond individual agency. There is an expansion of one’s usual subjective contraction and an extension of personal boundary that now includes other. This unitive awareness includes a sense of deepening, that one’s being has simultaneously descended into the depths of reality as it has simultaneously expanded. At these times one no longer feels one is an individual separate from others. One begins to identify with this expanded definition of self, and because one experiences it only occasionally now actively seeks more transcendence.
Spurred on by more spiritual moments one contemplates the world and expands one’s worldview to include interconnectivity of all and the caring emotions it engenders, e.g. love. This results in more benevolent and charitable actions, a more consistent loving-kindness for and compassion toward others, and more service for humanity. This greater dis-identification from the original self (i.e. ego) moves one solidly into identifying with a spiritual self primarily concerned with giving, the soul. This is lived both informally and formally, e.g. in daily contact with strangers as one goes about one’s daily routine and as service to others in a teaching or healing capacity, respectively.
The expansion of one’s mental, emotional, and subjective experience that has resulted in a new identity (i.e. soul) with its giving actions provides the opportunity to evolve into the stage of spiritual development in which doing, exhibited first as wanting and then as giving, transforms into being. And like the previous identities there will be changes in mental, emotional, subjective, and behavioral aspects of ones personality. As being increases the individual functions more and more as a transpersonal entity operating from the singularity or nonduality of reality, first as the witness and then as an enlightened self.
The witness mind combines the formlessness and nothingness of the mysterious creative source with the world’s material, mental, emotional, and subjective aspects. The result is another dis-identification, this time from the soul, and identification with the Source or God. Less often using discursive or integral thought processes, one thinks as God, mentally directly knowing. Emotions are experienced as belonging to the singular collective of the immediate moment, not to oneself or another. And one subjectively feels oneself as being, with being experienced as a complete fearlessness, boundary-less merging with all other, while resting in a vast spaciousness of which one and all else is a part. This being is eternally timeless while repeatedly rising from moment to moment. One is a profound unconditional love and peace while not feeling oneself to be other than what is. All the while there is Spirit, presenting as a witnessing awareness, monitoring being. Especially noteworthy is the fact that one’s awareness does not remain in this state of being, individuality and volitional mind return. With right practice the characteristics of witness’ being simultaneously lead to, and are incorporated into the enlightened mind.
Though similar to the witness, the enlightened state of being is a more thorough and enduring presence of Self characterized by awareness without object. One’s subjectivity is being experienced as Oneself as Consciousness that is the origin of, as well as, all that presently exists. This being perceives all as perfection, lives in beauty, and is the aliveness in and radiance of all. Spiritual principles of truth are more deeply and wisely held, extrasensory perception is activated, and one’s actions are regularly and seamlessly guided without thinking. Direct knowing prevails and action may be described as “action without action”, with behavior presenting itself moment to moment as being, without volition or goal. “Emotions are without emotion”, their unique character nullified because they belong to the infinite and all encompassing field. And also because one’s being is comprised of feelings of delight, peace, and bliss. Additionally, because subjectivity is nondual, not-two agency of world and Self, with mind and matter as one, there is the capacity to manipulate physical reality, e.g. siddhis. One lives as timelessness and eternity with an absence of suffering. Being, having now included and transcended the doing of wanting and giving, has emerged as the leading edge conditioned Self of enlightenment.
In your own words describe the difference between doing and being. Use examples to illustrate your distinction.
Consider some values or principles you have changed during your lifetime. Try to identify the source of the original ideas, and the life experiences and lessons that caused you to alter your beliefs.
Identify some of the effects your transpersonal experiences have had on your personality traits and habits.
Regardless of your tradition, what is your opinion on the manner in which the term “soul” is used in this article?
What aspects of the witness or enlightened conditions do you experience? And what will you do to expand this experience for yourself?
Language makes what is holonomic hierarchal, separates what cannot be separated, and in doing so results in some arbitrariness in the concepts created and used to describe experience. The following three lists describe thoughts, feelings, and actions and are organized according to a common well-known typology: ego, soul, witness. The reader is encouraged to rely on their personal understanding of the concepts; and to employ a “fuzzy logic” in doing so. I suggest this approach is valid because the items on these lists are holonomic and therefore interactive, overlapping, and cumulative; and also because the lists are meant to inform and guide regarding spiritual practice. They are not meant to be an exact conceptual representation of ego, soul, and witness, but instead present reality in operationally defined terms of human experience, expressed in common developmental, and therefore hierarchal form. As such they are to be assessed, and valued or devalued according to their usefulness to the reader. Do they encourage you to reflect, offer an insight regarding your truth, and guide you in some way? In short, are they of practical value?
The individual self or ego is to be respected as an ally in the spiritual development of a person, but also seen as a reluctant, and at times oppositional partner. For while ego benefits from spiritual practice as noted in the first list, this improvement is also movement toward its demise as the former primary self. And this poses one of the biggest challenges to the seeker. One’s material and psychological happiness improves, strengthening the impulse to remain this happier, and perhaps even more fulfilled self. But the ego must take a backseat to a new and more complete emerging self. Initially this is the self-actualized existential self, functioning from being, not deficiency needs (Maslow, 1968). And while nevertheless an individual self, it has a stronger emphasis on spirituality, and an intention to further develop the Spirit within. In the approach being employed here (i.e. Transmodern Spirituality Paradigm) this emerging self would be called the soul, and its experience is described in the second list. The individual is now more fully influenced by Spirit, at times in communion and at times in union with It. And because of this the individual is more than the existential self. The individual’s heart, now considered in a more holistic, spiritual, and mysterious light is more alive and empowered. And life’s purpose, or at least interpersonal intentions have been significantly altered to benefit humankind. One’s life is now more righteously tinted, and even more so if one’s path becomes one of service to others, e.g. theologian, teacher, healer, therapist. Many will remain with this as the primary focus of their life. Their personal commitments, understanding of reality, and spiritual goals will result in them living the life of one with profound heart and soul.
The third list details what many consider a significant break from individual self and soul, a condition in which these selves are transcended but are nevertheless included in the new emerging self. The new condition is one in which one lives, on a more regular basis, an experience that is so significantly influenced by Spirit that one is Spirit. The ego and soul are now objectified, no longer the self, and the individual lives a life awakened to Spirit with a new way of being in the world. More than simply a more comprehensive soul experience, it is the Witness experience in which Spirit, the ultimate pure and primordial Source of all that is, actively lives in the world. What is described in this last list is not enlightenment, nor is it the more fully developed Witness, but rather a description of the aftereffect of satori, or the first significant experience of the individual recognizing itself as the Source and It’s worldly creations.
Hopefully these lists offer the reader some insight into one’s own spirituality: first as a description of experience from which one can assess one’s spiritual efforts; and second as a means to reach a more fully developed level of Spirit in, and as the world. Regardless of spiritual tradition or practice, the reader is encouraged to use these concepts to assess changes in one’s own life and character according to happiness, service to others, and general overall compassion and beneficence toward others. And from this assessment refine one’s spiritual goals and set in motion a plan of action to accomplish them. For one should not be seduced by the benefits to ego granted by spiritual practice, even if one’s heart and soul are strengthened. For this still means one is primarily remaining an individual self with a primary focus on one’s own desires and needs, albeit with more intention to be a better person, caring more about others, and/or being more altruistic. Spirituality encourages something more than that; a permanent lasting change in our behavior so others truly benefit. And this can only result from an actual radical change in one’s identity in which one realizes the Spirit within, while no longer identifying with ego or soul. We are to be the Ultimate Reality that is really Ourself.
Positive Changes in Self Resulting from Spiritual Practice
You now understand you are not your body, while respecting that the body-mind-Spirit nonduality is your true identity. And because you know changes in one of these three can bring about changes in the others, you employ this knowledge to create and maintain your wellbeing.
You have come to know how easy it is to relax your body and bring about calmness in the mind, and that sustained meditation or prayer practice leads to feeling peaceful. And now you also use your willpower to bring about calm and/or peaceful feelings as you wish or need.
Because spiritual ritual, especially prayer, chanting, and meditation improve your ability to concentrate, you are now able to focus on a topic for sustained periods of time without your mind moving onto another topic. Along with feeling peaceful, this improved concentration enables you to think through topics more thoroughly, and to notice things of which you were previously unaware.
As mindfulness has become stronger through practice, you are now better able to observe and monitor your thoughts, feelings, and actions as they occur in the moment. Additionally you have an improved ability to observe the effects of your actions, as well as those of others. This internal and external awareness results in you being more engaged with yourself, others, and the world.
Your relationship with the world has changed and you realize how little you really know. Previous assumptions and long held beliefs no longer serve you as well, and you have begun the search for truth in earnest. You find yourself being more open- minded in general, and receptive to others, their ideas and ways of doing things.
With an acute awareness you realize the degree to which there are negative thoughts and emotions in the mind, and have begun the arduous task of controlling them. With the ultimate goal of eliminating these harmful aspects of mind, you now aspire to a higher standard of behavior.
You recognize your present and past psychologically painful experiences. And in doing so you’ve learned to manage, express, and resolve negative thoughts and feelings. You are mastering the art of grieving and have an improved ability to recover from psychological pain and return to wellbeing.
You now live more in the present. Whether good or bad, the past is not denied or forgotten, but is objectified. Your history no longer carries an emotional load, feels like it happened a long time ago, and may even feel like it happened to someone else. There is a new person living the life you call your own, and you are attending to what is right in front of you, experiencing the now and new.
You are now more attuned to what is meaningful for you in this life. You have begun to refuse what only satisfies, instead seeking what is fulfilling. New actions, activities, and friendships replace the old less desired ones as you are guided by your values and authentic personal goals. You feel you are on the path to actualizing your true self.
You no longer believe that the physical world is all there is, motivating you in an earnest pursuit of wisdom regarding reality, human experience, and the Mystery. You have identified and are pursuing your spiritual goals that are linked to your personal worldview based on your chosen tradition(s), experiences, and values. And this pursuit contributes to you having a meaningful life.
You now experience more transcendent states of awareness, e.g. unitive consciousness and supernatural occurrences. Knowingly without undue anxiety or confusion, these are integrated into your spiritual life and transpersonal identity. And so now, more than ever you are aware of the Spirit within.
Ten Signs of Living Heart and Soul
You feel you must participate in spiritual practice everyday and your life is more organized around your spiritual practice. The previous want to be spiritual has been replaced by the need to be spiritual.
You now feel a stronger faith, and apply it more often in your dealings with the world. More nonattached to the outcome of an effort, you trust that whatever happens is right and will lead to a positive outcome in the immediate or distant future.
Your positive worldview enables you to both feel deeply, and to allow negative thoughts and unpleasant feelings to pass away easily. You are more resilient, more easily adapting to circumstances or changes in your life that are beyond your control.
Stronger and more accurate intuition is frequently available, and you tend to use it more to make decisions, problem-solve, etc. You are no longer primarily reliant on reason and logic but now make greater use of your feelings and spiritual inspiration.
You adhere to a more righteous code of conduct. Even one envious feeling, diminishing thought, or irritable action is of concern because you are cognizant of its meaning, and of its negative impact on your soul and that of others.
Loving self-examination is understood to be a necessary part of your spiritual development. You are more responsible for your shadow side and have the means to recognize and work with those qualities and habits so your actions do no harm.
Associating it with your soul, you recognize a noticeable open-heartedness toward others that you did not feel before. You are more consistently warmer to others, and more easily extend understanding and kindness to them.
Sacrifice for the benefit of others is now more than an idealized virtue, and you more often act on your genuine wish for others to be happy. Less often advocating for yourself in competitive ways, you more often think and act in a win-win fashion in your dealings with people.
Your spiritual practice extends beyond the times of formal ritual, e.g. prayer, yoga, worship service. You more regularly think of and communicate with Spirit while engaged in your everyday activities to both honor and remain close to Spirit.
The need for connection with Spirit is strong, and you only feel like your genuine self when you are with Spirit. It is now unnecessary to consult Spirit in time of need because there is ongoing communion in which Spirit consistently guides you.
Loving self-examination is understood to be a necessary part of your spiritual development. You are more responsible for your shadow side and have the means to recognize and work with those qualities and habits so your actions do no harm.
Beginner’s Awakened Mind
Having fallen in love with Consciousness you fell in love with the true Self, the Oneself, and your ego self ceased to exist. Though not enlightened you now know you will intermittently experience the world through Emptiness as the Witness.
You now have experiences in which the boundaries between you and the world are diminished, and while not looking at anything in particular you observe all objects simultaneously as separate and as one while feeling it all (including yourself) as the Vast Spaciousness that is everything.
At these times of Witnessing, you experience (and your being is) a Depth, Release, and infinite Freedom resulting in profound Peace and complete absence of fear. This results in you being more patient with circumstances and with others, and is experienced as watching life unfold before you.
Awareness is now beyond mindfulness, and you frequently project a presence that radiates benevolence and love. Others respond to this by feeling more at ease, loved, and freer to be themselves. At these times you bring others a taste of the Divine.
In conversations, without reflection you spontaneously speak wisdom that is not reasonably attributable to you. As it is channeled through you its validity is felt as certain, and you notice the information it contains resonates with others and is always pragmatically effective.
In difficult or conflictive interpersonal situations, in ways you could not have logically conceived or claimed personal ownership, your actions are spontaneously compassionate and beneficial for everyone involved.
At times a voice rises up in you declaring loving feelings you have for the person with whom you are interacting. This does not happen only with those with whom you are close but with strangers, people you only know casually, colleagues, etc. Divinely loving and unconditional, this love reminds you there is no separation between you and others.
Now, more than ever before there are times of beauty when the world radiates its light and you are absorbed in (and feel you are) its splendor, knowingly absorbed in the numinous true Self. Your experience is of silence and stillness as you settle into an infinite field of openness and eternal nowness.
Occasionally you experience your being as a trance-like state of remaining awake while in deep sleep. In this Emptiness awareness you Witness your Original Self by being It. And you expect there will be other extraordinary consciousness/awareness experiences you have yet to experience as you continue on your path.
You know and trust that as you live in time and space, with all experience coming and going, in which all objects arise and pass, the pure Witness remains even when/if you regress to a lesser state of awareness. Your spiritual practice is now centered on sustaining and/or returning to this state of awareness until it remains your primary stage of awareness, and eventually gives way to enlightenment.
Do you use the terms ego, soul, and Witness? If so, reflect on your definitions, comparing them to the terms used here, and if indicated refine your concepts. If you do not use ego, soul, and Witness, consider the terms your worldview employs that are similar, and then if indicated refine your concepts.
When you read the individual lists and consider each one in total, which of the three do you most identify with as your common state of awareness, ego, soul, or Witness?
When examining each of the thirty-one items that comprise the three lists, determine which ones apply to you. What do you conclude about the development of your awareness?
What one or two items stand out to you, and what is it about them that make them significant to you?
What ideas or insights do these lists provide that you can employ to improve your spiritual practice?
Consciousness and Awareness
Transpersonal Psychology tells us one way to better understand one’s spiritual experience is to consider that consciousness is not awareness and that consciousness produces awareness.
Consciousness is the various types of information that comprise the mind. And a particular combination of this information results in awareness. Awareness is your state of mind in the moment, the way you, the subject, experience everything else around you, the object(s).
Types of information to consider are sensation, emotion, agency, reason, imagination, union, universality, emptiness, and no self. Individual ego-self awareness is the result of the mind using primarily the first five. Transpersonal spiritual-self awareness is the mind using primarily the last four. Nondual enlightened-self awareness is the result of the mind using all nine.
Regarding spiritual practice, the more one experiences the last four, the more one’s character changes in the direction of the attributes of the transpersonal and nondual selves, e.g. peace, love, virtue, compassion, altruism. Information associated with spirituality becomes more prevalent in and alters one’s mind, and therefore improves one’s spiritual awareness.
Just as consciousness associated with individual ego-self awareness never goes away, consciousness associated with transpersonal-self awareness is never the only information in the mind. However the latter does become more dominant resulting in awareness characterized by not-two perception and sense of self and a nondual cosmology. Nondual-self awareness is the result of both information of ego and information of the transpersonal self, an integration of both form and formlessness, conceptual and non-conceptual, and self and no self.
Using this conceptualization of mind and reality one can determine the degree to which one’s spiritual practices strengthen ego (when needed), foster emergence of spiritual-self, and assess the quality of one’s nondual awareness.
How often do you use, or notice others using the terms consciousness and awareness interchangeably?
Agency, the subjective feeling of being one’s individual self, is present in social roles we enact. What are the common roles you enact, and how would you describe your awareness at those times?
Imagination, sometimes defined as abstract reasoning and intuition, shapes our spiritual experience. What influence has your imagination had on your spiritual journey?
Regarding universality, describe the ways in which your religious-spiritual experiences are similar to others’ beliefs and experiences.
How well do you note the variations in your state of awareness?
Conscious, Subconscious, Unconscious, and Superconscious
When we engage in self-examination or counsel with another the unspoken question we are asking is what is in my mind of which I am unaware. And no matter the topic it is always paramount to discern and keep track of the different types of information in the mind. Being able to do so insures that all relevant and useful information is available to comprehend and act on the subject. Because of the inherent extraordinary complexity of experience nowhere is this more important than when one is on a spiritual path. How then can we improve the quality of our awareness?
One of the easiest models to use in exploring the mind is the one that distinguishes four levels of consciousness, labeling them as conscious, subconscious, unconscious, and superconscious awareness. Conscious awareness is the most obvious of them all because it is the most prevalent. It is the awareness used when reading this sentence, when thinking through a problem, when talking to yourself or to others. It is the reasoning from which we conclude the truth about something or someone, especially ourselves. Phenomenologically it is experienced as the voice in our head, usually noted as being in the front, directly behind our eyes. It is easily and clearly discerned, one might say, “heard”, and moves in a discursive progression at a sustained, only slightly variable pace unless there is pause for consideration of some sort.
While conscious awareness can dominate our experience it is the other three that contain the most valid truth. And while it is readily available to anyone who takes the time to notice it, subconscious awareness is frequently overlooked. It is that second stream of consciousness or information that is present simultaneously with conscious information. Logical like conscious awareness, it often adds to or embellishes it with greater details, memories, or associations. These can be present as faint words, incomplete thoughts, barely noticed sentences that all seem to be in the “back of the mind”. At times subconscious awareness presents as complete discursive thought that is quiet, slow, and seems to reside in the back of one’s head. When this information contains an insightful conclusion we could not have predicted we often call it intuition. If not brought to the fore and clearly stated in complete words, the subconscious information is often lost by the conscious mind even though its message may affect one’s actions. How often have you exclaimed to yourself you don’t know why you said or did something even as you realize something in your mind had to precede and cause what you did? Generally, forgetting subconscious information is not preferred, however is valued if praying or meditating because it can lead to other desired forms of awareness. When we remain in this subconscious awareness it is the beginning of “not thinking”, moments in which our mind does not attach to its content, a prerequisite to superconscious awareness.
Unconscious awareness is often thought of as the information in our mind that is not known to us. All of us act without cognizance of our behavior or its cause. This ranges from the frown on our face to the crossing of our legs; reveals itself when suddenly we feel the pain of muscle tension from holding our bodies in an uncomfortable position for too long; and is frequently experienced as a slip of the tongue that shows our true feelings about someone. Indirect access is the means to understanding what is not known to conscious awareness, and this is most commonly accomplished through analyzing body language, free associations to a topic, and the contents of our dreams. Becoming consciously aware of information that was at first unconscious is the sine qua non of self-understanding and personal change. And as valuable as it is in this regard it must not be confused, as it often is, with the information of superconscious awareness.
Superconscious awareness is information that transcends while including the other three types of awareness. In its less evolved form it is the information of union when two come together as one, whether it is two people in orgasm, the observer and the sunset, the initiate and the guru. What is traditionally experienced as separate is now known as one with the other. In the more evolved form there is no union but rather a cognizance that nonduality prevails in reality, that there is no other, there is only the One of which we are all a part. Phenomenologically this is experienced as an expansiveness of self into spaciousness and vastness, while simultaneously feeling as if one is going inward and deeper. All the while there is an identification with everything, not as the individual objects they appear to be, but as the manifestation of the only One of which one’s individual self is experienced as part of also. Universal unconditional love, peace, and joy are part of this experience, varying in intensity, seemingly as a function of one’s attention during the spiritual moment. Mentally the mind, while still having access to reason and intuition based on discursive thinking, now has available to it a knowing of reality that is sudden and direct, not reliant on common thinking and its mental constructs. Extraordinary human experience, such as dreams foretelling the future, visions of religious figures providing guidance, and phenomena of mind over matter have been known to occur.
Whether for psychological growth or on a spiritual journey, awareness of the content of our mind is necessary to make informed choices to maintain harmony in our lives and also to meet our life’s goals. While considering our emotions, thoughts, and actions in the context of the mundane, existential, and spiritual aspects of our lives, attending to these four types of awareness helps to insure a comprehensive understanding of ourselves and of reality, increasing the likelihood of our happiness however uniquely and personally defined.
If regularly attentive to the content of your subconscious awareness or mind, how do you use its information to inform you about yourself and others?
If you meditate or practice centering or contemplative prayer how do you respond to, or make use of that which arises in your subconscious during your practice?
Do you engage in any personal psychological or spiritual practices that help you maintain cognizance of the content of your unconscious awareness or mind?
In your own words, describe an experience of superconscious awareness, and evaluate its relationship with the other three states of awareness at the time of your experience.
Describe the experiential difference between dreams that originate from unconscious awareness or mind and visions that originate from superconscious awareness or mind.
The Subtle in Spirituality
The subtle is commonly mentioned in spiritual circles as subtle energy when referring to a life force, subtle consciousness when referring to transpersonal mental states, and subtle realms when referencing the various planes of existence. Considered hierarchically it is understood to be the ethereal form that exists between the gross or material existence we all live and the causal or formless ground of all being; when conceptualized as holons all three exist in an integrated fashion, each revealed more or less according to ones personal circumstances, psycho-spiritual development, and worldview.
As energy the subtle is understood to be unlike the energies with which we are familiar. Though frequently compared to them, it is not electrical or magnetic energy, but like them it can be experienced and manipulated. People are most familiar with subtle energy through the experience of acupuncture or other forms of energy healing, e.g. Reiki. The concept of chakras, or energy centers in the body, and their extension into the human aura are also subtle energy. The gross or physical human body is said to be supported by these energy fields which are frequently referred to as the subtle or astral bodies. Certain bodily practices like qi gong and kundalini yoga target this energy to promote well-being and/or spiritual enlightenment.
An Eastern approach to subtle consciousness compares it to gross and causal consciousness. Gross consciousness is likened to our waking state, subtle consciousness to our dreaming state, and causal consciousness to deep dreamless sleep. To elaborate upon the range of subtle consciousness it is necessary to distinguish between its occurrence in this world and its occurrence in other realms. In this world subtle consciousness is experienced as the mild, low intensity transcendent consciousness beyond gross mental consciousness that people report as peak experiences or unitive consciousness. This consciousness expands to include the information of direct knowing of another person, an object, or of spiritual wisdom. This includes but is not limited to experiences of illumination, channeling, clairvoyance, telepathy, and shape shifting. In meditation and prayer, spiritual dreams, trance states, and spiritual ritual subtle consciousness presents as visions and apparitions, archetypal forms of the god/dess, and luminosities of bliss, rapture, ecstasy, divine love, and universal sound.
Lastly, subtle consciousness is the cognition operating in astral projection, shamanic journeying, out of body experiences, and near death experiences. At these times subtle consciousness is associated with a subtle or astral body that is active in a particular non-ordinary reality. The subtle realms are those worlds, dimensions, and planes of existence that are neither this world nor the formless ground of all being. These include but are not limited to the dream world, astral planes, the various heavens and hells postulated by religious traditions, and the post-biological death realms associated with the near death experience and the Buddhist bardos.
Consistent with Ferrar’s Participatory Spirituality and Wilber’s Integral Spirituality, this conceptualization of the subtle provides one with a limitless view of spirituality. The subtle reveals that all traditions are arbitrary punctuations of ultimate truth or reality brought about by individual and collective imagination. In this regard, although all traditions are not equally true, all provide some truth about the divine mystery. In learning a tradition one can learn the language that pertains to the subtle concepts of energy, consciousness, and realms, recognizing that the subtle manifests as energy and luminosities as well as recognizable forms in other realms or realities, e.g. deities, spirit guides, angels. One then has an integrated understanding of the way in which reality manifests in consensus reality as well as in other worlds, dimensions, etc.
When recognizing the different manifestations of the subtle one is able to work with it in ways to coordinate different spiritual practices that would otherwise seem unrelated. For example, one can facilitate spiritual development using yoga as an energy practice along with psychotherapy and service to others to improve ones compassion; the improved self-awareness coupled with sacrifice for others can result in a heightened universal love because of the increased subtle energy. Also, by strengthening subtle energy through meditation, i.e. fostering transpersonal consciousness, one can increase the occurrence of psychic phenomena. A desirable result if one wishes to develop certain spiritual healing or dowsing skills. If one believes in a post-biological death transmigration (e.g. to a rebirth on earth or to a celestial realm) one might consider coordinating practices of lucid dreaming and astral projection as a means of cultivating conscious control of events in the post-death experience.
Take a moment to remember each of the three forms of the subtle you may have experienced, taking the time to note circumstance and cause.
What value do you place on subtle consciousness experiences and why?
Do you consider the subtle realms as valid as the gross worldly realm?
What is your visceral reaction to the principle that “…all traditions are arbitrary punctuations of ultimate truth or reality brought about by individual and collective imagination”?
Can you employ this understanding of the subtle to refine your spiritual practice?
(A version of this article first appeared in the Vermont Psychological Association Newsletter in 2012)
Releasing Ego, Killing Ego, Transcending Ego
When conceptualized according to conscious awareness, or state of mind, ego is never released, killed, or transcended. Rather, our awareness changes from identifying with and being within the body, separate from its surroundings to feeling as if it has expanded beyond this boundary to be connected with that that is beyond the body. One experiences this subjectively as a physical expansion of our individual self and as union with other objects. All the while one is simultaneously ego, an individual self, and is also this larger self, the world. One’s being is felt as larger, included in, and inclusive of everything else. And this “larger” includes the paradoxical feeling of going in “deeper” to something more than one has known before, something prior to the material, to the body and mind even as the expansion is experienced. Transpersonal Psychology talks of this as “transcending and including”; that which is transcended remains and functions but is secondary to the emergent awareness. With this subjective change there are also mental and behavioral changes, what one might consider as further additions to awareness.
Our ego mental awareness can best be characterized as rational discursive thought, reasonableness in understanding oneself and the world. Abstract reasoning and lower gut-feeling intuition are an extension of this, but remain rooted in a subject-object paradigm with all things separated and functioning autonomously. Comparatively, “more than ego” awareness involves an integrative consciousness that synthesizes all truth presented to it, enabling non-discursive rationality, which can be understood as a higher intuition. Beyond this capacity, is the ability to experience direct knowing in which information spontaneously presents itself without foreshadowing. And most importantly this information is experienced by the mind as absolutely true while simultaneously known as Truth. Though ego still functions in these moments it is in a secondary, one might say supportive, manner.
In the meantime one continues to act in the world but behavior is now determined by the enhanced subjective sense of self that has altered one’s relationship to the world and by a previously unavailable understanding of reality based on a nondual cosmology. Action is then wisdom informed “action without action”, performed spontaneously and effortlessly, the will of the individual ego operating but secondary. The higher self now determines one’s actions.
This understanding of emerging spiritual awareness enables the practitioner to foster the higher awareness described and to monitor it so it can be maintained and not confused with lesser states of awareness. And in doing so one is better able to notice the extraordinary wisdom, love, peace, and compassion that arises with these changes in awareness, and to determine for oneself the spiritual practices that support one’s spiritual development.
Do you believe one must have an ego to transcend one?
What indicates that your awareness has shifted from individual ego self to transpersonal self?
What is the benefit you value most about transcending ego?
How do you react when your transpersonal self awareness returns to ego awareness?
Do you believe that transcending ego will resolve your psychological issues and relieve your distress?
The awakened mind knows to have no intention and no expectation. One’s will is both relaxed and nonexistent while simultaneously being an overarching consciousness of intuitive transcendent wisdom that guides one’s actions. Even though expectations exist initially as preferred goals they are relinquished to immediate circumstances with actions determined by the direct knowing of pure consciousness. Often referred to as witness awareness its content is the nondual inseparable matter and spirit, consensus reality and emptiness, subjectively experienced as universal unconditional love and peace, enacted as action without action. Enabled with this discernment and power of God, and surrendering to the situation, sacrificing the individual self without harm, the awakened mind serves the Good.
What words does your tradition use to describe this state of awareness?
What aspects of your practice facilitate this awareness in you?
If you have experienced this awareness, describe what it felt like to surrender your individual will to something greater than yourself.
Again, assuming you have had this experience, what is your opinion of what resulted from it?
Do you think it is possible for this awareness to do harm to others or the general good?
Cessation of Thought
Not thinking while meditating is not the same as experiencing cessation of thought in everyday life.
Cessation of thought is not spacing out, being in awe, or being lost in reverie. Nor is it not thinking, for how long does that really work?
It is a suspension of reasoning without becoming unreasonable.
It is a quiet sound in your mind while there is no movement in consciousness.
Feeling is in the background because the self does not dominate experience.
Independent will is relaxed and unconsciously waiting for direction.
One’s existence spontaneously manifests with love directed by wisdom.
Absolute knowing informs there could be no other way, nor is another desired.
Peace and timelessness of eternity prevail, and without anticipation a fresh moment appears.
Compare your experience of “spacing out” to that of not thinking.
What practices do you engage in that result in cessation of thought?
Describe what your mind is doing while still thinking but reason is transcended.
How often do you experience absolute knowing or claircognizance and what do you do with the information?
How is cessation of thought relevant to your spiritual development and goals?
Subjectivity, Union, and Being
The following is a philosophical musing offered for the purpose of clarifying concepts and experiences associated with nondual and direct experience spiritual practices. These emphasize an awakened witnessing of reality in which one is encouraged to be mindfully present in the moment or “now”. In attempting this people frequently confuse the observing ego with the Witness, and unitive awareness with Pure Consciousness. Hopefully what follows provides a language that is useful in discerning one’s awakening (to kensho, i.e. satori), and then living as witness awareness, eventually leading to enlightenment.
Regardless of one’s spiritual tradition earnest practice eventually leads to change in one’s identity. While recognizing cognitive aspects of identity it is important to note the felt-sensing aspect, or subjectivity. Drawing from object relations the agency one feels viscerally and kinesthetically is the subject that one refers to as oneself. This is the “I” or “me” that interacts with everything else separate from it, i.e. the other objects in the world. This subjectivity is a felt-meaning experienced and conceptualized as the existence of oneself, and is accompanied by the classically egoic cognitions, emotions, and actions. One feels a self, and one thinks one a self; and one is also able to recognize the feelings and thoughts associated with these aspects of self. This self-awareness along with the capability to partition one’s awareness, e.g. as in mindfulness or hypnotic trance, is an observing ego. Having this experience in any given moment is not being in the “now”. It is common awareness of bodily sensations with reflection, reason, and imagination.
Through spiritual practice this separated individual subjectivity gives way to oneself having experiences of union with other objects. Transpersonal psychology frequently describes this as unitive awareness, a form of transcendence. It may be conceptualized as awareness without object because (often through powerful concentration) one has merged with the object of one’s attention while one’s individual subjectivity prevails, dominating the experience. This is experienced as greater closeness and attachment to the object, providing the impression one knows the object in an intimate manner heretofore unavailable to one. Boundaries weaken and one feels a subjective expansiveness of one’s self or identity. However, in this feeling of communion with the object there is a subtle duality of two separate objects being joined because there is no witnessing to the event of union. One is subjectively absorbed in the experience of it, preserving the impression one is having an experience; one is doing something and there is a pleasant result. Subject-object relations remain, and it is frequently recounted as the self having experienced union or oneness, having had a spiritual moment.
Comparatively, awakening may be described as a subjective experience in which Pure Consciousness (Source, Buddhist emptiness, Christian Godhead, Nondual non-conceptualization) witnesses to the union or oneness described. Pure Consciousness recognizes Itself as the only permanent object, and as the overarching Subject observes the subject-object phenomena of union. Most importantly, this experience is characterized by a gnostic certainty (knowing beyond normal belief) that reveals that both the egoic object observed (i.e. myself) and the object of unitive awareness experienced (i.e. myself in union with an other) paradoxically are not separate from Oneself (Subject, Pure Consciousness). Having identified with this Subject one is residing in/as witnessing awareness. While in this awakened state there is a direct knowing which is an informative wisdom of a non-discursive integral nature. It arises suddenly in awareness without forethought, and for this reason may be referred to as “thinking without thinking”. Arising similarly there is “feeling without feeling”, emotion and felt-sensing characterized by equanimity and nonattachment. Not only are cognition and feeling altered in this manner but also action is experienced as “action without action”. This is spontaneous action without willfulness, the action prompted by both the direct knowing and the “feeling without feeling”. In these conceptualizations of thought, action, and feeling, “without” is used to also connote the paradoxical existence of both a self and no self, and also of both participation and no participation in the experience. This characterizes the genuine living in the “now”, the nondual realization subjectively experienced as Being. One is receptive to, while naturally and unconditionally accepting reality with complete lack of (commonplace or existential) fear experienced as deep and blissful resilient peace. There is also perpetual awe with feelings of freshness and renewal, cognizance of a vast reality that is boundless and limitless, all co-occurring with feelings of timelessness and eternity. Subjectively, one feels one is the world and the world is oneself. Body, mind, spirit, and world are not separate, but are the One. Pure Consciousness, embodied as the Witness, (directly) knows it is the substance from which all objects are made and (Subjectively) recognizes all objects as forms of Itself. With no other, identification is always with Oneself. Simultaneously aware of Itself as both Source and object true Presence radiates forth. There is no striving or getting, nor even a giving, but rather participation in the arising of the events and experience that emanate from Pure Consciousness. Experienced as Being, there is (unconditional) divine love and happiness perpetually arising regardless of circumstance or relations. One is awakened to the true nature of reality, directly perceiving and living in and as the Now.
What changes have you noticed in your personality that you directly attribute to your spiritual practice?
There are enduring qualities associated with the subjective feeling of “me”, e.g. strong-weak, confident-uncertain, empty-fulfilled. What are some adjectives you would use to describe your “me”?
What words do you use to describe the difference between your individual awareness and awareness when in union with someone or something else?
Remember one of your important spiritual moments that included union or transcendence, and describe its impact on you at the time.
From your spiritual perspective, and assuming it considers enlightenment, how would you describe the relationship between Pure Consciousness, Being, and enlightenment?
(A version of this article first appeared in the Vermont Psychological Association Newsletter in 2013)
Moment of Infinite Possibilities
When there is significant outcome, whether good or bad fortune some are quick to declare that an event or circumstance was predetermined, meant to be. Frequently comments reveal a superficial application of karmic principles, or of Divine will. But the wise know that destiny is not destiny until after it has happened, that one’s fate is never predetermined. Interestingly these two worldviews are brought together at the moment of infinite possibilities. While it is true that all that has preceded any given event (and here “all” means everything that has occurred in all of reality, no matter how big or small, no matter what form) leads to the occurrence of that event, there is more to the process. Even as this powerful force moves reality toward a seemingly certain outcome there is an equally powerful force contained within it capable of producing a different result. In this moment of infinite possibilities that exists immediately prior to manifestation, Divine omniscience and omnipotence exert influence, doing so according to the trajectory determined by history even as it remains open to alternatives. And if sufficiently in tune with the Divine, one may alter that which seemed to be immutable and co-create with the Divine that which was unanticipated, though always possible. And only then, when the moment of infinite possibilities has past and reality manifested, can it be said we have lived out that which was destined.
What do you think when undesired or harmful events occur in your life?
Do you believe in free will, or do you believe all is predetermined?
When you read or think something was destined to happen, and you firmly believe that was so, what do you mean by “destined”?
The “moment of infinite possibilities” requires certain conditions be met. Does your spiritual practice support those conditions?
When something goes badly, what do you mean when you tell yourself or another that “everything will be okay”?