The States of Consciousness in the Indian Spiritual Thought
Psychology defines human consciousness as awareness of one’s self and the environment — of one’s inner and outer world. It includes the sensory, physical, mental and emotional experiences. Most people are aware of three psychological states, or three common states of consciousness: waking state, dreaming state, and dreamless (deep) sleeping state. These states naturally occur in the course of a full day.
The Common States of Consciousness
The Upanishads, sacred scripts of ancient India, represented these three states of consciousness in the symbol of ૐ (AUM).
In the waking state (“A”), our consciousness is oriented outwards, toward our environment — through our physical senses, we receive, process and interpret inputs from the external world.
In the dream state (“U”), our consciousness has an inward focus. This state is the playground of the mind which manifests its inclinations, needs, wants and aversions through the dream. One is immersed in an imaginary dreamworld.
In the state of dreamless deep sleep (“M”), both the activity of the physical senses and the activity of the mind are suspended. This state has been describes as oblivion, free from both material objects and mental images — a state of object-free consciousness.
Modern science, on the other hand, uses using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the frequency and the amplitude of the brainwave patterns characteristic of each state of consciousness. For example, in the waking state, high-frequency brainwave patterns (beta brainwaves) are predominant, while the states of dreaming and dreamless sleep are characterized by low-frequency brainwaves (delta brainwaves). These frequency bands of the brain electrical activity (delta, theta, alpha, beta and gamma) are mapped not only to the different states of consciousness, but also to some of the in-between states or special states (such as falling asleep, daydreaming, meditation, visualization, etc.).
Turya — “The Fourth State” of Consciousness
Many Eastern and Western Schools have long established that human consciousness spans over more than just three commonly recognized states of consciousness. To begin with, the Upanishads talk of Turya i.e. “The Fourth State,” represented symbolically by the bindu (the dot) in the Sanskrit symbol for AUM (ૐ). Turya is the state of pure consciousness, a sort of a background that permeates the three common stares of consciousness. Turya is also associated with the silence between two utterances of AUM, a reminder that it is in stillness and silence that one experiences an elevated state of consciousness.
The Seven States of Consciousness Framework (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the yoga master known for his worldwide-popular system of Transcendental Meditation, spoke of seven levels of consciousness. To the basic three levels he added four more — Transcendental Consciousness, Cosmic Consciousness, God Consciousness and Unity Consciousness. The latter four states are what every human should aspire toward; yet these levels are typically not accessible to people who do not engage in meditation or any other self-development practice.
The Pure Transcendental Consciousness is a state in which although the senses and the minds are silenced, the consciousness is fully awake. This state is cultivated through silence and stillness, and possesses the quality of bliss. Starting with a research in the early 1970s, many scientific studies have found that accessing transcendental consciousness leads to numerous physiological, psychological, and sociological benefits. More importantly, transcendental consciousness is the “bridge” between the lower three and the higher three states of consciousness.
The Cosmic Consciousness (also known as “witness consciousness”) is realized when one succeeds to cultivate and sustain a state of silence in everyday life. In other words, this is a permanent state of transcendental consciousness which is not affected by one’s engagement in thoughts and activities. The individual stops identifying with their isolated and limited personal ego, and realizes that they are pure consciousness. The silence, peace and limitless awareness are always present in their life, irrespective of what they do (even during dreamless sleep and dreaming). Maharishi Mahesh Yogi insisted that this state of consciousness is not only accessible to every human, but that it should be considered the state of normal consciousness. The lower three states are sub-normal (i.e. less-than-optimal) states of existing.
The God Consciousness is characterized by profound bliss, experiencing joy in everything, and opening up to gratitude and devotion. This state is achieved when one transcends the thought and reaches the Self (the Source, Atman, the Absolute). This is the state of liberation, when one is able to fully engage in life, without the attachments, stress and suffering.
The Unity Consciousness, one is fully awakened, aware of the timeless, limitless abundance which they are. This is not the end of the path — on the contrary, it is a state of continuous deepening, expansion and never-ending unfolding of the soul’s purpose. This is the state of non-local mind, often called Universal Mind, or One Mind, in which “there is no other.”
The path toward expanding one’s state of consciousness beyond the lower three states (waking, dreaming and deep sleep) has been laid out, throughout the history, by numerous self-realized humans belonging to various cultures and spiritual traditions. As Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught, those higher states of consciousness are not reserved for the yogis, mystics and secret schools only — they are the standard, normal, and natural way of experiencing the reality. Only through these higher states of consciousness can we live our lives to the fullest of our potential.