Seventeen or eighteen years ago I made the most surprising and most important discovery of my life. I noticed for the first time that I had always been unconscious. During all the years I had been alive, during almost every waking minute, I had been lost in thought.
When I say “unconscious” I don’t mean, for example, that I was oblivious to pain. I mean that during every waking minute I was thinking compulsively and furiously but I didn’t know what I was thinking or that I was thinking.
The fact that you are lost in thought cannot be seen until you extricate yourself from that state. While you are lost in thought, you think you are conscious even though you aren’t.
I thought this discovery was probably of great importance for getting enlighted. After all, when Buddha was asked what made him different from other people he famously said, “I am awake.” Obviously his statement implies that everyone else is asleep. Now I saw what he meant by asleep. He meant lost in thought. He meant unconscious in the way I just described.
But strangely, there were almost no spiritual books where the authors said explicitly, “Most people spend all their waking hours in the lost-in-thought state. This state is a kind of unconsciousness.” I found only three authors who did say so: Ouspensky, Anadi, and Susan Blackmore.
So thirteen years ago, to make this discovery known to other people who might be interested, I wrote an article about it and created this website and posted that article on the home page. The article is still there. I called it How to Stop Thoughts but it’s really about the lost in thought state and how to notice that we’re stuck in it and how to emerge from it.
I illustrated the main idea of that article with this picture of the waking state:
The picture implies that there are two modes or substates in the waking state: (1) being lost in thought or (2) being aware.
Almost from the beginning I realized that this was an oversimplification. I saw that there is more than one mode or substate on the right side of the arrow. In other words, there is more than one way of being aware or more than one mental configuration in which consciousness is present. (I use the words ‘awareness’ and ‘consciousness’ as synonyms.)
But I didn’t write about the multiple ways of being aware because they puzzled me and I wasn’t sure what to say about them. I’m going to remedy that omission now.
I have noticed and closely observed three and possibly four modes or substates on the right side of the arrow. That means there are four, possibly five, substates of waking consciousness. You can learn to switch between them voluntarily and easily. Here’s a list of them. Red means unconscious. Blue means conscious.
1. Lost in thought.
3. Impersonal field of consciousness.
4. Knowing beyond or above or “meta to” 2 and 3.
5. Something that takes over.
Substate 1. Lost in Thought
This is the ordinary waking state, the normal one, the only one that most people will ever notice. I’ve written a great deal about the lost-in-thought state on this website so I’ll merely say that I don’t think anyone can make much progress on the spiritual path until they recognize that state and learn to voluntarily extricate themselves from it.
I’m willing to talk to people on the phone and help them notice this. There is no charge for this. I don’t charge for spiritual teaching.
Here are a few links to articles on this subject:
Substate 2. Me
This is the state that results when you are conscious and you withdraw your attention into “me”. Most people who practice Ramana’s Self-enquiry probably end up in this state, if they end up anywhere at all. It feels like being me rather than attending to me or focusing on me. Consciousness becomes more vivid and apparent.
When the me-state began to become apparent to me years ago, it seemed to be localized in the center of my head. As the years went on it often seemed to drop to the base of my skull and even lower. Once it sank to the center of my chest. Sometimes I felt a different variety of “me” in the front of my head.
The sense of “me” can get attached to any part of the body and probably anything outside the body. My girlfriend Julia, for example, feels “me” in her heart.
The crucial point about the sense of “me” that I’m describing here is not its location but rather that it incorporates intense consciousness.
My experience today is that the location of “me” has become a bit paradoxical. When the withdrawal into “me” is complete, consciousness of everything other than “me” is lost. As a result the state feels like being in a cave because nothing but “me” is “seen.” I’m putting “seen” in quotation marks because “me” doesn’t seem like an object. This “me” cannot have a location with reference to anything else since at that time there is nothing else.
At other times both “me” and objects are experienced simultaneously. When this happens the world seems to be inside me rather than the other way around.
Both the lost-in-thought state and me-state feel like being in a cave because in both cases attention shrinks to a tiny spot. In the first case the spot is a thought, and in the second case the spot is “me”. But the first state is unconscious so the cave-like aspect isn’t experienced except perhaps afterward in memory. The “me” embodies consciousness so in the second state, the cave-like aspect is experienced.
This me-state is both personal and individual.
The me-state is not the I-thought. The me-state is intrinsically conscious. The I-thought, in contrast, like all problematic vasanas, exists or operates only when it is not consciously observed. It’s like some sort of insect that lives only in the dark. The I-thought is the fundamental generator of thoughts. The me-state has nothing to do with thoughts.
Substate 3. The impersonal field of awareness
This is the state that results when you are conscious and you look away from everything including yourself. It can manifest when you try to make the fact of being conscious become more intense without regard to objects. I wrote about this technique in How to Stay Conscious 1.
When the impersonal field of awareness first became apparent to me years ago, it seemed to be located outside my head in two areas on either side slightly above and ahead of the temples. Over the years the field expanded until now it seems to be the whole universe. When I pay attention to the field, it is like being aware that the universe or the fabric of the universe is conscious.
There is nothing personal or individual about this field. It seems to be the universe itself.
Several times over the years — three times, I think — the me (substate 2) and the impersonal field (substate 3) merged. Each time a new state was created that was more clear, more conscious, more homogenous, and more effortless. Each time this happened, substates 2 and 3 disappeared for a while. But after a period of a few days or weeks, they reemerged in an intensified form.
I suspect that this process of merger that I just described was the inspiration for Hegel’s dialectic. It may also be what Richard Rose described in his Jacob’s Ladder.
In case anyone who is interested in Hegel happens to have come to this page through a search engine, I should say that Hegel had spiritual experiences and was interested in God and mysticism. Perhaps these facts about Hegel are well known today, but when I went to graduate school 43 years ago, they were not.
Both substates 2 and 3 are intensely, vividly conscious. The difference is that 2 is personal and individual, and it’s contracted. Substate 3 is impersonal and non-individual, and its scope is infinite.
Substate 4. Pure knowing beyond or above or “meta to” 2 and 3.
This state is awareness of knowing. When it’s glimpsed, it seems like the next level beyond whatever experience is happening. That’s why I say it’s “meta” to substates 2 and 3. When substate 4 is glimpsed, it becomes possible to pay attention to it in and for itself, without any objects. However this is hard to do because it’s very subtle.
When I started years ago to become aware of substate 4, it seemed like something dark and almost invisible behind my head. Sometimes it seemed like God watching over my shoulder. Now it seems like me, but not the same me as substate 2.
Substate 5. Something that takes over
I’m not sure about this one. Sometimes I think I notice moments when something unexpected makes everything stop. It’s subtle, not dramatic. For some reason my mind perceives these events as red. I haven’t been able to observe these moments clearly. I wonder if this is where Self-realization comes from. Maybe if and when this becomes stronger, it will turn out to be what Ramana meant by the avesam he experienced when he realized the Self.