The spheres and dimensions of human consciousness are astonishing and have puzzled mankind well before the psychedelic explosion with Huxley and afterwards in the 68’s. The great wisdom traditions from Zen Buddhism, to Christian mysticism, have mapped a great variety of spiritual spheres of consciousness and their sequence.
Modern modern scientist have mapped several levels of consciousness in various ways which are in correlation with each other and backed up by rigorous research. It remains confusing to many however how these two scales interact or if they do square at all.
At first we will try to establish and clarify these two scales by themselves before we go on to put them in reference to each other. We will start with the stages of development which are arguably more straightforward. In this post I will only explain them very briefly as I have already dealt with them in depth in a post dedicated solely to the intricacies of this subject.
Generally we can state that there are several stages of development which entail each, in turn, their own worldview, value system, way of making sense of the world, level of mental complexity and so on – basically, they are distinct levels of consciousness. These stages have in themselves various names and also lines of differentiation.
They can be seen in the graphic. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by the various lines. For the sake of the clarity of states vs. stages we are going to pick the second one from the right by Gebser.
He outlines the development of human beings as follows:
- Archaic, where it is all about out impulses and emotions and where no real disctinct self exists
- Magic, where a certain animism and believe in the supernatural and superstition abound
- Mythic, where we have immense elaborate narratives which explain the world. From “Once upon a time” to “In the beginning there was” until later it is based on convention
- Rational, where reason and scientific and reflection governs everything
- Pluralistic, where “everything is relative” and individualistic
- Integral, where paradigms are understood and systemic thinking rules
- – beyond –
As can be seen in the complex diagram the distinctions between different stages can be drawn and it is often very reasonable to do so. However, it is important to remember that these developmental stages are more like a spiral without exact boundaries rather than akin to steps on a staircase. The transition from one stage to another is fluid without a sharp breaking point. And even when one may be able to point to a specific event that changed one’s mindset, this instance has been building up over a long time.
Now over from the stages of consciousness to the states of consciousness. Even if one is not “spiritually inclined” at all or believes that all kinds of mysticism are in fact the illusions and fantasies of lunatics, one has to admit that there are different states of consciousness throughout one’s 24 hour days. The big three spheres of this consciousness include the waking state, the dream state and the deep sleep state. Everybody experiences them and we believe that this is quite natural – and indeed one has not to be very mentally creative to accept that.
Where we have to be more imaginative, or in other words what is less obvious, however is that these three states domains actually are the three genuine realms or dimensions of consciousness that exist. There are different forms of peak experiences that one (potentially) can have as one goes along the spiritual path. These stand in a special correlation to each other and are laid out in the following:
- The waking state is also called the “Gross” dimension and the kind of mysticism that is experienced here is often referred to as “nature mysticism” as one experiences here that all is nature and that there is a oneness in nature, including oneself. Here one experiences the world of concrete form.
- The dreaming state also has the name of the “Subtle” realm and the experience of there only being God and being one with God has given it the name of Deity mysticism. This world of dreams is also the dimension of splendid visions and exalted feelings, among others the presence of God.
- Finally, the deep sleep state also bears the name “Causal” and this dimension is completely formless. This emptiness has lent it the name “formless mysticism” ?. Here we may talk of Buddhist nirvana or Meister Eckhart’s Abgeschiedenheit.
This correlation is valid for it lays out correctly the kind of realms of consciousness that are present naturally in a certain state of consciousness. There is of course the possibility to induce them via meditative practice (or drugs) in the waking state as well, but the subtle and the causal are present literally every day without any “effort” or practice.
The subtle virtually is everything that happens between the Gross and the Causal realm, as it is neither concrete form nor complete formlessness but something in between. A peculiarity, a gap to be filled, for the Gross state in relation the spiritual experiences or the mysticism that one might experience there, in what is nothing else but the waking state, is addressed at the end.
Bringing It All Together
One of the most crucial understandings when it comes to spiritual experiences is that there is a difference between having a transitory and a stable awareness of it. The concept of “peak-experiences”, thus short lived moments of a sudden realization that are clearly out of the ordinary, is familiar to most. Sometimes these transitory experiences are a bit longer lasting, but still not permanent, which might be called a “plateau experience”.
What now is crucial to understand is that these peak moments are experiences according to one’s level of development. So our spiritual experiences are influenced by our cultural upbringing, the most apparent sharp distinction being Christians with their angels and God and Buddhists with their bodhisattvas and nirvana. And our spiritual peak experiences are furthermore dependent on the stage that we are on at the moment.
Thus one can have a PURPLE-magic experience of seeing animistic spirits all about, a BLUE/AMBER-mythic experience of subtle-deity mysticism, where one could say see angels and divine beings, a GREEN-pluralist experience of deity mysticism, where one could for example see the world in eternal diversity and embrace, and so forth.
Possibility of Spiritual Stages
That means that one can have different passing states in basically any time in one’s development. However, it does not mean that one can call it in any way to be enlightened. When we are talking about actually being enlightened we are talking about a stable awareness of the nature of things that is removed from “ordinary mortals“. According to some schools, these stable level of the realization of the nature of things, however are altogether beyond the stages we have discussed so far.
Basically, these stages of stable awareness are stacked on top of the non-spiritual stages. Thus at first there is first tier, until before integral; then there is second tier, TEAL-integral and TURQUOISE-super integral; and finally, there is third tier, the spiritual stages. First there comes a stable Psychic (or INDIGO), then a stable Subtle (or VIOLET) and finally the Causal, which is formless (CLEAR LIGHT). Ultimately there is only the Non-Dual beyond – according to one school.
A much less controversial claim is that as we grow through the stages, we are able to access spiritual states much more easily. This makes sense because with increasing capacity to see oneslef as relative also comes increasing ease to let go of the ego temporarily. Thus, the distribution is skewed towards concentrated spiritual experiences at higher stages as higher stages also enable more and higher spiritual states.
Then there are some exceptions and peculiarities which would need to be explained even in this rather short summary. There are generally taken to be three more consciousness related categories which are not included in these three realms of consciousness.
- The first of them is the psychic, which is the awareness of all things in nature being one, including oneself. This is sometimes called nature mysticism. This is generally taken to be part of the gross realm of consciounsness, thus waking. The question I would ask myself then however is: “Hey, I am awake right now! Why don’t I feel this oneness with all beings?” The thing is that this is the first major state that can be called spiritual, which is still in the gross realm. Just like it is the stage on the threshold from second to third tier, it is also a threshold to the first kind of being awakened. That is I think a fair way of explaining this noetic-self.
- There is the rather well known concept of Witness, a part of the self that is a priori to everything else. In the practice of self-inquiry into the “I” this Witness is generally what rests after one takes away all the identification with the self. Describing it as pure awareness, in the sense of only-perceiving might do it justice. This Witness, which is simply all-perceiving, does not contain anything in itself – also no wave of consciousness, which is why it is not listed.
- And finally of course there is the Non-Dual, the endpoint, the actual enlightenment. This is often described as the union of the world of form (gross/psychic & subtle) with the formless realm. As such it integrates the other waves of consciousness and is therefore not listed as a separate wave of consciousness.
In summary, these spiritual realms, which are simultaneously natural states of wakefulness, hold space for states as well as stages. The difference is that states are not permanent but “merely” passing, whereas stages (of third tier) are stabilized states. The former depends on one’s state of consciousness thus whether one is awake, dreaming or sleeping including possible peak experiences in these states and for the latter one simply needs to sit down to meditate for a few decades.
An astute observation is that the higher one is up the easier it becomes to have a spiritual experience or at least the more likely. The higher level of consciousness makes it more easy to tap into the spiritual – something that has probably caused this confusion in the first place. Overall, thus the whole Wilber-Combs lattice seems to be titled to the right as one approaches higher stages.
Finally there is a sense of communion in a very intriguing thought: The causal, which does not evolve the formless does not change it always stays the same, but the world of form evolves. Both of them together make up the non-dual. So we are of course living in a different time than the master of old did and the world of form has changed. But we indeed tap into the same nirvana as Christ and Buddha did and see the same emptiness as the great zen masters of yore.
Simply as a short clarification, I cannot really state that I have any actual awareness or realization of most, if not all of what has been laid out in this text. The difference in understanding is one of abstractly having grasped it versus having realized (comprehended, internalized) it, as I have explained in depth here. The primary source of reference for these patterns come from Wilber’s writings and particularly this sidenote G which has upon reading it again transformed my (limited) understanding on the subject.