Modes of waking consciousness

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.

2. Me.

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:

How to Stop Thoughts by Freddie Yam

Am I Conscious Now? by Susan Blackmore

Self-Remembering by P.D. Ouspensky

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.

12 thoughts to “Modes of waking consciousness”

  1. Very interesting, amazing even
    I wish I had read this before posting on the previous post
    I still think your “How to stop thinking” method is extremely helpful for seeking Humanity and is the “Way” taught by many Masters throughout history
    It’s identifying with Awareness rather than thought and sensory imputs
    You have simplified that immensely
    I can maintain Substate 2 (I think going by this post) for long periods of time using your method
    For as long as I want really until I have to do something that requires thinking
    Often it expands but not the entire universe
    More localised for me at this stage
    That feels amazing
    I actually thought it was Substrate 3 (Universal awareness) but now I’m not sure
    Anyway a thousands thanks for giving us this method :-)))

    1. Hi again Ron,

      I wrote this blog post because I like to analyze things but I don’t think this business of substates is important. The important thing is what you just wrote, “I can maintain Substate X for long periods of time using your method for as long as I want really until I have to do something that requires thinking. That feels amazing.”

      You are doing GREAT. It doesn’t matter which substate you’re in and it doesn’t matter whether you feel localized or expanded. The important thing is that you are aware and you’re not thinking and it feels good. That’s what matters.

      You actually wrote “Substate 2” but when I quoted you I wrote “Substate X” to make the point that it doesn’t matter. Like you said it’s a good idea to keep this as simple as possible.

      Maybe you’ll notice the substates changing as things unfold for you. Maybe you won’t. It doesn’t matter. You’re in the groove now and whatever has to happen is going to happen automatically.

      A thousand “you’re welcomes” my friend. 🙂

  2. There is nothing to practice because I already is, here, watching/being/happening, (aka awareness, god). But it forgets it-self after years of identification with automated thinking (mostly negative), so it needs to practice what it already is, pradoxical and funny as it may sound.
    (It Is = I Am)
    It’s simple to be what it is, to turn inside, to inner silence (eye/s still and whole, breath slow), but it’s not easy because of habits and the pull of the I trickster.
    It has to fake it till it makes it. This is how the joke goes..

  3. PS. I “personally” have found it good to read, write and meditate about this subject. With vigilance, wisdom and deep understanding the suitable words act as a brainwash or an extended mantra, penetrate evey cell in the body and lead to….

  4. Hello Freddie and thank you for your comment.
    I read your post on how to stop thoughts a long time ago, and I immediately liked it as your conclusion was similar to mine. The only way to stop thoughts (from experience,) is to be aware. Here, the reminder to be aware and stay aware is by being Still.
    When the equation discovery kicked in I realized that there’s nothing that can be said on this matter, try as I may. And boy, did I try.. When It realized that trying was It too, (“The seeker is the the sought”,) it stopped trying and kept still.
    In this case it is well advised to repeat this joke as many times as it takes till it sinks in and it/you start to laugh uncontrollably..

  5. More…
    To further this hillarious paradox, you wrote in one of your posts that “you are not” there” yet. That’s only because you believed in a thought that says “you’re not there yet” ((: I do it too. Here, I just did.
    The only answer is silence. The knowing, awareness, that which is looking out of the eye right now, registering these words on this digital white canvas.. Where’s the wink icon here? (;

    1. Hi again Laura. I wrote that because I still have an ego. I’ve spent a lot of hours in silence but when the silence ends, the ego is still there. I don’t think Self-realization is a state of temporary silence. I think it’s a state where the ego is gone forever.

      The ego — the contracted lump in consciousness that has to be protected, whose interests have to be looked out for, that ultimate motive on whose behalf I do almost everything I do — gone forever.

  6. Inner silence, stillness or awareness includes noise and includes the ego. Loving the ego but remaining indifferent to it because you’re convinced it is not what you really are, might make it disappear forever one day.

    1. Has the ego disappeared entirely in your case? Or perhaps just as good, have you become permanently disidentified with it, like iamquiet in Oct. 4’s post that I just added here? In my case, the belief that I am the ego seems to control things a good deal of the time.

      I almost went back and changed the word “quiet” the other day but then I left it because I think we’re talking about the same thing even though you seem to have reached a level of peace and freedom that I have not. In my case it’s not literally quiet.

  7. Ego didn’t disappear because it doesn’t exist to begin with. Wishing the ego to not exist gives it life when it hasn’t any. What does disappear is the attachment to this so-called ego idea, the attention that is given to its moving energy. Does and not did because it’s an on-going phenomenon.

    There’s an interesting Sufi philosophy called Shattari. According to their guidelines, one should affirm ones existence (awareness) instead of trying to kill the ego. One should only affirm that he is. Quite like your post on how to stop thoughts. “There is no such state as annihilation (fana) since this would require two personalities, one wishing for annihilation and the other in whom annihilation takes place, which is dualism and not unity.” (Wikipedia).

    After years of believing there is such a thing as I, or an ego, and identifying with it as me, I had to question its validity in order to understand it’s fictional, to see what is this ‘I’ without thinking It. When I do it (when it does it..) there’s only silence, time and time again, this silent knowing. Eventually I got convinced that this is the answer. But it can still linger.

    Here’s an example. I used to react harshly when a certain nerve was touched. I was aware of its mechanism but it was so fast to reach the red zone, I couldn’t control it. Over time it grew stronger and it caused this body so much pain and suffering, that my awareness had to grow stronger too. I began to make fun of this pattern, up to a point where now it rarely appears. When it does show up it’s softer and tends to fade away faster than before, as if it has exhausted itself.
    Patterns, as well as other thoughts, are now seen in the periphery, when I am here, in the centre. They have nothing on me, so to speak. They never had. And so does the ego, the I thought, which is the biggest pattern of all..

    I also had some dramatic experiences, when I saw reality in such vivid clarity without any boundaries, as if everything was one unit, that I cried with joy and awe. I was filled with such love like I have never felt before. My heart felt like it was bursting. But like experiences do, they were temporary and passed after few hours or days. But I’m sure they had a strong affect on this being, opening it more to it-self.

    Not taking this ego idea seriously anymore, the notion that I, the ego, want the ego to disappear has disappeared completely. The search has stopped and there are longer periods of stillness, not passive but alert. Anyway, this is what’s happening over here, to answer your question.

  8. Hi Freddie, beautiful article! I also read the responses to your article and your responses to them which are also so wonderful.
    What I notice in my case is the same repetitive thoughts showing up again and again in my Awareness. My awareness then “believes them” to be “real” and then thinking really hijacks my awareness taking it here and there until the body is physically exhausted and wants to rest (sleep).
    Your “how to stop thinking” is an excellent practice. If I remain alert (as Awareness), then, I can catch this repetitive pattern in its initial stage thereby not letting my awareness be hijacked.
    I kept wondering why this thought pattern keeps repeating and never really dies forever. And I discovered that there are unresolved emotions beneath which powers these thoughts as a way to find a “resolution” to these emotions (which of course thinking cannot resolve”).
    So rather than resorting to more thinking, I’ve started to “feel” and “allow” the emotions to be there rather than attempting to wipe them out with more thinking. That seems to slow down my thinking and sometimes, the thoughts are not there at all which is a huge relief. These moments of “no thought” allow me to enjoy my own awareness more.
    Thinking, as I feel it now, is like a big disturbance on the still and peaceful lake of Awareness.
    Just thought I would share this with you. Thank you for your post and thanks for inspiring so many people undertake their journeys into awareness.

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