The pivotal power we have to individually shape our life and sense of self is our mind. On the one hand, we create and define ourselves, our perceptions and our experience of life with our thoughts, beliefs and ongoing focus. What are you tuning into on a daily basis and how much content in your mind is there by conscious choice? On another level, we can open ourselves to the question of whose mind it really is – who is the thinker of conditioned and creative thoughts and maker of choices? What is it that you connect with in your heart, mind and guts and say “this is me”?
Since our thoughts and feelings are projections of consciousness, then the key to self awareness lies in our ability to identify not with the content of our minds, our appearance or performance, but with the consciousness from which they arise. When we explore this experientially as many meditators, sages and teachers before us, we go through a number of layers of observation and insight before we get to a place of being where we truly feel we are absorbed in the being-ness or substance of what and who we are.
I propose here five stages and have put in bold the practical focus to use as an exercise for each stage. As a practical exercise, it is best to only go as far as the stage you can rest in the experience of, for a prolonged period of 5 minutes or more or even indefinitely. That can take any length of time and sessions to achieve, depending on the individual, the willingness and openness, the regularity of practice, but progress does and will come. Progress through these states then becomes a natural process of observation. Gradually you will notice aspects of a further stage has been occurring with practice of sitting in silence and presence. No particular sitting position is required except that a comfortable and upright position is best for non-disturbance and alertness.
We are attuning to living consciousness that is already there, so many people can be experiencing insight and realisation of elements of all five stages while still wrestling with stage 1 or 2. However, being able to consciously reside primarily at each stage progressively reflects a fairly natural progression and integration of what some call presence, being in the ‘now’, or even aligning and uniting with spirit. There are many sophisticated and more complex systems of meditation and spiritual awakening in traditional paths throughout the world, some of which I have practiced. The stages below are a simplified set of steps to help guide conscious awareness and experience in what is otherwise a very simple but not necessarily easy practice. They do not replace the many benefits of a good teacher, a simple, virtuous and generous life while putting one’s deepest values into daily practice for conscious awakening.
We all need encouragement, guidance and inspiration and this can be from reading, video’s, sessions with teachers or other practitioners, what we focus on, the people and environment of our daily lives. Since a state of presence gives us an ability to rise above causes of suffering and reach new levels of wellbeing, it could be said to be the inner goal of all life enhancing pursuits.
Read the following slowly and feel each point as you go before practicing.
The Five Stages
1. Sensory Perception
Firstly, we must take a moment to relax the body, be aware of a few deep breathes coming in and out, and observe our experience of being here. The first stage is characterised by being present with our sense perceptions and the world around us. Our five senses are taking in data all the time whether our attention is on it or not. Go through each sense during the course of a few breathes – observing what is being seen, heard, felt, smelt, and even tasted while in a relaxed observing state develops sense acuity and alertness. Often a sense of goodness and appreciation can arise as the mind quietens with pure non-judging observation. At this stage of observing the sense-perceptions, our awareness and identification goes deeper and the mind begins to relax and notices more in the immediate present moment.
2. Mental and Emotional Thoughts and Feelings
At the second state, as the mind quietens down, in the space of our being and amidst sense perceptions, observe thoughts or half thoughts, feelings or hints of feelings as they come and go. Being present with the stream of thoughts and feelings that normally takes us with them, by observing them as they arise then letting them go, leads to a more spacious and quieter state of mind and alert presence. Therefore, in this second stage we get glimpses of the still and vast spaciousness of consciousness beyond the thoughts, feelings and perceptions and notice with fresh experience and insight that we are not our thoughts and feelings. They are contents of our consciousness as much as any other perception.
Eckhart Tolle in his talks distinguishes the contents of our consciousness as occurring in linear time (of past, present and future) which he terms the horizontal dimension. Going deeper experientially into consciousness here and now can be termed the vertical dimension.
3. Inner-body Awareness
In the third state where mind activity is settling, we start to become aware of a silence and living stillness within and around us, the feeling of ‘inner body awareness’ becomes the base or grounding of our sense of being. Proprioception is the sensing of the relative position of one’s own body parts without vision (also sensing the strength of effort being employed in any movement). The qualitative aspects of total body awareness as a unified energy field and alive presence can be heightened at this stage. Inner-body awareness with a relaxed mind and heart grounds the subjective sense of presence more deeply in the present moment. The horizontal dimension of linear time dissolves into a spacious eternal nowness where the ‘now’ is a more prominent reality, in the absence of mental activities and projections of memory or an imagined future moment.
Thus, the third state commences a more prominent sense of the vertical dimension. Taiji and xigong or yoga can train the mind in accessing these states more easily and more deeply. Other examples are heightened lucidity while deeply relaxed, or the psychological ‘zone’ in sports or dance. Simple exercises like dynamic relaxation can help here as well if you have trouble settling in this stage. Sense of time fades away as consciousness enters the fourth state.
4. Embracing the Self in Pure Consciousness and State of Presence
In the depths of this conscious state, inner body awareness becomes borderless while the mind and heart remain settled. Open spacious awareness is not a void, for there is a fullness of experience of presence and aliveness. Localised consciousness of self as a mind contained in a body dissolves into a sense of non-local consciousness where so-called ‘external’ or ‘outside’ phenomena (including thoughts or feelings of others, sounds and movement) are experienced as happening within a non-local or borderless field of consciousness. Sense of self can be displaced with this non-localised field of heightened and broad reaching awareness.
These are only words for something that is experienced in a state without words or concept. However, to give it more sense, consider the previous stages of sensory perceptions and observation of thoughts and feelings. Whether perception is of reality ‘outside’ the body or from ‘inside’ the body, it is all being processed in the brain and occurring in the mind so we are in fact experiencing everything as it is occurring in our consciousness. Without consciousness, none of it exists.
In spontaneous moments of this state, the world can seem to go into slow motion while sensory perception is unusually vivid and broad. It can be associated with unusual sensory acuity. I’ve read many accounts by sports people or others in a crisis moment describe similar states to those accessed in meditation and spontaneously.
A spontaneous shift into this state occurred when I was attacked by a group of drunken guys while walking from a concert with a friend many years ago. I had an experience of perceiving things in a 360 degree view where even small details at a distance were picked up while more immediate actions required at the time occurred effortlessly and automatically in slow motion. I blocked every kick and punch coming at me with calmness and minimal attention on them, while taking in a slo-mo panorama of everything going on all around me. It was a liberating experience without a sense of aggression, fear or reaction in myself.
This 4th stage is selfless alignment to the field of consciousness in which all experience of phenomena occurs. Thoughts are unnecessary at such times where no immediate analysis or intellectual effort is required. The moment is simply happening as we observe stillness or action occurring in it. This has been described as ‘consciousness of consciousness’ or the ‘light of presence’ and is not an intellectual process, yet is alert and aware. Heart and mind are open and clear. As one resides in this stage longer and deeper, it is accompanied with a great sense of bliss, goodness, beauty, fullness and oneness and other qualities like love which in the end are only words without the fullness and profoundness of the experience itself.
5. Embracing the World in Pure Consciousness and State of Presence
State 5 is embracing all living things and phenomena in conscious presence. Maintaining identification with the consciousness in which all reality is occurring, rather than your own mental activity and body, develops a more tangible and subjective experience of the nature of life, consciousness and energy in all things and unified connectedness. The space of presence found in stage 4 becomes inclusive and unified without being drawn into separateness by noises and motion, objects and things, without mental judgement and interpretation of events and others, or distracted by mental narrative about ones perceptions. Consciousness of consciousness cannot occur with such mental states, perceptions and activity.
It is a different modus operandi. One can function and respond with a heightened sense of freedom from an invested self. While discernment, alignment with values and standards remain intact, they are more based on resonance with the experience of consciousness than on conditioned beliefs and self-interest. Living in this state in daily life, after regular practice in a quiet place, requires a creative and spontaneous, selfless and affirming sense of harmonising with the space of consciousness in which all is happening. Sharing this state with others provides experience and insight into the source and possibilities of harmony in diversity, co-ordination or synchronisation in life.
There is so much further to be explored in the spectrum of consciousness, but the above steps are what I’ve found to be the barest foundation of most spiritual or conscious awakening practices.
Living Continuously in Pure Consciousness and State of Presence
Being able to hold the space of Stage 4 or 5 continuously in daily living is a noble aim and can lead to sublime realisation. Being a loving and aware person, then expanding the consciousness of that into a deep and continuous state of presence allows the light of awareness to infiltrate the subtlest areas of disturbance within oneself in the face of life challenges. It is consciously developing soul from both vertical and horizontal dimensions. It is transformational to all. I acknowledge all saints, masters and great teachers who truly embody conscious living as living ideals to deepen our own exploration and modern lives.