Maps of Consciousness
Consciousness has been a curious phenomena for hundreds of years. While some approaches have been investigating the concept from a philosophical point of view, others have been working on experimenting with consciousness and exploring its limits. Ancient traditions and religions from around the world have been experimenting with the states of consciousness using various techniques. Altering the states of consciousness has significant cultural meaning such as representing rites of passages or rebirth. Consciousness has also been the target of philosophical conversations. For example, the materialism approach has been considering whether consciousness can be considered material for many years.
One of the most popular names in the consciousness field is Stanislav Grof, father of the holotropic breathing technique. He spent decades studying states of consciousness using psychedelics and breathwork techniques. With these techniques, subjects were able to dive deep and explore different levels of their psyche. Grof concluded that there are three levels of psyche: biographical, perinatal, and transpersonal. This new model showcases similarities between ancient traditions and also includes elements from western science on consciousness.
1. The Recollective-Biographical Level of the Psyche:
This level is the most accessible in experiential therapy. Common psychotherapy approaches work with this level. The Biographical Level of the Psyche includes events, experiences, and situations from an individual's life, including repressed memories or unprocessed trauma.
2. Perinatal Matrices:
This level of psyche connects the transpersonal and biographical experience. The deep exploration can lead to intense experiences of pain and emotions. People sometimes experience feelings beyond the individual such as pain suffered by the entire humankind. Physiological symptoms are common in this level, for example nausea, twitching, and changes in pulse rate. Death and birth related experiences are intertwined in prenatal matrices, and are the characteristic experiences in this level. People can identify themselves with sick people or a fetus which are some of the representatives of death and birth at this stage. Some people relive their clinical birth in detail. Birth trauma is one of the core aspects of this level, thus the level is named ‘prenatal’. Patterns of experiences include mythological, mystical, archetypal, historical, sociopolitical, and anthropological characteristics. The Prenatal level reaches into psychological, spiritual and philosophical realms. It mirrors existential crises and is closely tied to nature with life and death. A person can resolve this crisis deeply by connecting with the psyche and collective unconscious. Prenatal matrices are categorised into four constellations: First Perinatal Matrix (The Amniotic Universe), Second Perinatal Matrix (The Experience of Cosmic Engulfment and Hell), Third Perinatal Matrix (The Experience of Death-Rebirth Struggle), and Fourth Perinatal Matrix (The Death-Rebirth Experience). These stages have similar characteristics to clinic birth stages and have common thematic patterns.
First Perinatal Matrix - The Amniotic Universe:
This matrix represents the state of unity between mother and the baby while the baby is still in the womb and the clinical birth hasn’t started yet. This condition includes safe, satisfied optimal feelings with positive emotional experiences. The themes are related to the lack of boundaries. Being part of the ocean or space is a common experience. Heaven and mother nature-related content can be observed. If the embryo life of the individual was disrupted, the experiences in this level can include feelings of fear and sometimes images of underwater dangers or demonic figures.
Second Perinatal Matrix - The Experience of Cosmic Engulfment and Hell:
This level is linked to the onset of clinical birth. The tranquility of the fetus in the womb is disturbed with signals and contractions while the passage is closed. Danger, anxiety and paranoia are common elements. People sometimes feel like they are being sucked into the centre of something when they are deep into this level, for example a beast swallowing them. A common form of this experience is going the underworld, to hell. The fetus is stuck in the womb without an exit, and feelings of hopelessness arise. Another common experience is identifying with prisoners or sinners in the underworld.
Third Perinatal Matrix - The Experience of Death-Rebirth Struggle:
This level is associated with the second stage of birth in which the cervix is now open and the baby is moving through the birth canal. Struggle to survive, and death-rebirth struggle through pressures and suffocation is a common theme. There is the element of fighting or being in a battle which may include mythological elements. Some sadomasochistic experiences, sexual arousal, demonic episodes, scatological involvement, and encounters with fire, raging elements of nature, sequences from bloody revolutions and wars, images involving pornography and deviant sexuality, violence, crucifixion and ritual sacrifice can occur at this level.
Fourth Perinatal Matrix - The Death-Rebirth Experience:
This level mirrors the third stage of birth which is the actual birth. The pain and all the built-up tension ends and relief is experienced. Cutting the umbilical cord means separation of the baby as an emerging individual. Experiences related to catastrophic feelings, hitting the cosmic bottom can occur in this stage. After these feelings, intense liberation feelings and cosmic beauty images follow. Redemption, and salvation are common themes. One feels free from burdens and positive emotions arise.
3. Transpersonal Dimensions of The Psyche:
Death and rebirth sequences commonly lead the way to transpersonal experiences in the psyche. In this experience, consciousness breaks the individual barriers and expands the time and space.
Transpersonal level experiences are categorised under three themes:
- Experiences transcending timelines which involves historical regression or historical progression are the first category.
- Experiences transcending spatial barriers are the second category.
- The domains that are not accepted as a part of reality by Western culture are the third category, according to Grof.
Some transpersonal experiences include microcosmic and macrocosmic realms which are out of reach for human senses in regular conscious states. Transpersonal experiences show the interaction between the person and the cosmos that is outside of comprehension. This exploration journey starts at the individual level and the transcendence into explorations of the universe is called cosmic consciousness or the superconscious mind. The furthest experiences which are transpersonal in nature are identification with Supracosmic and Metacosmic Void. Transpersonal levels of consciousness show us that the barriers between self and the universe are flexible.
Another school of thought on consciousness comes from Buddha. According to Buddha, consciousness is continuous and it has four levels: mind consciousness, sense consciousness, store consciousness, and manas.
- Mind consciousness refers to the working consciousness which is responsible for making plans, conceiving ideas, and analysing things.
- Secondly, there is sense consciousness which comes from the senses. Sense consciousness consists of sense organs, the object and our perception.
- Store consciousness is the deepest type. Everything is stored, processed and transformed in this level of consciousness. All the information is stored in the form of bija, which means seeds.
- Manas, is the last level of consciousness and is attached to store consciousness. It is a state of possession, the state of ‘I am’. Manas separates the self from all other elements.
Overall, studying consciousness has important implications on what it is to be human, how we connect with the universe, what is the limit of our minds and how far we can go. Studies from different fields, philosophy to religion and different techniques to alter consciousness demonstrate important findings.
Grof, S. (1988). Chapter Five - Modern Consciousness Research and Human Survival. Human Survival and Consciousness Evolution.
Thich Nhat Hanh (2019, December 06). The four layers of consciousness. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.lionsroar.com/the-four-layers-of-consciousness/