Integral Basics, Part 5: States of Consciousness

One of my most profound memories is from the day after my youngest nephew, David, was born. It was the first time I had ever held a newborn and I was totally unprepared for the experience. It was in many ways such a normal thing — I had held babies, including his two older brothers, countless times — and yet it struck me as a profoundly spiritual moment. The sense of connection with this new life — one of seven billion but unique and precious and beloved — drew me out of my everyday consciousness and I became aware of being a link in a vast chain of life. As I Christian, I interpreted this as being connected with the powerful, protective, parental love of God, though of course I could have equally interpreted it as being connected to the powerful, primal, protective instincts of living things, or any number of other ways. However I interpreted it, holding this tiny, wriggling creature and watching him fall asleep in my arms drew me out of my own limited day-to-day experience and connected me to an awareness of something far bigger. It made me feel huge. It made me feel small.

Experiences like this are why the language of transcendence is often used as a synonym for spirituality. We perceive something, whether unique or mundane, as spiritual when our experience of it transcends — goes beyond — the basic, surface-level facts.

The recognition of such different states of awareness or consciousness, and how they can help us to grow, is the fourth component of Integral spirituality. These include such states as waking, deep sleep, dreaming, meditative witnessing, and peak experiences. As with my experience of holding David for the first time, most experiences we call “spiritual” engage with states of consciousness that depart from our normal waking state. When we are in an altered state of consciousness, the brain functions differently and so we perceive the world differently.

Intentional state training is an important feature of religious traditions the world over, and the greatest advancements and achievements in this ‘first quadrant’ realm are all ancient. The classic example of this is meditation, whose goal is to access a witnessing state, in which we are able to observe our mental processes as they happen. Dreaming, which in many traditions around the world has been understood to be inherently spiritual, similarly represents a change from our normal thought patterns. The same could be said for substance-induced hallucinations, which feature in many religious and spiritual systems, especially those indigenous to Central and South America.

But, while we may associate shifts in consciousness primarily with these practices that often seem “exotic” by Christian standards, they are also at play in practices or experiences more familiar to traditional Christianity. While we think of prayer, for example, as communicating with God, or a sense of communion with God, these experiences result in a shift in our perspective of our circumstances in light of the greater truths of our faith. I know that when I am anxious about something in my life and I pray, the most common result is a feeling of expanded awareness; the prayer expands my vision so I am no longer focused on my narrow immediate circumstances but see them within a bigger perspective of God’s love and faithfulness. So even this practice that is rooted fully in normal waking consciousness engages with a greater sense of awareness and consciousness.

The different states of consciousness are similar to the stages of development described previously in that both are essentially about what we are able to perceive about the world around around us and our place in it. But, they are describing different aspects of this shifting awareness. The stages refer to cognitive structures, or ‘memes’ (in the original sense of the world), that guide how we interpret the world; the states of consciousness are different mental experiences that change what we perceive about the world. If the stages are like different floors of a building, the states are more like snapshots taken from the perspective of a flying bird overhead. Both are ways of seeing from a higher perspective, but while the stages are durable places where we can live, the states are brief and often unpredictable glimpses of perspectives we have not yet attained in a structural way.

While the different state experiences are available to everyone, we will interpret those experiences through the cognitive structures and lenses of our dominant stages. And so, a medieval peasant without formal education, a trained monk, a contemporary charismatic, or a postmodern progressive may each have similar experiences of God, but the language they use to describe them, and the lessons they will take from them will likely be very different. This is why even great spiritual masters and adepts can remain narrow-minded, conventional, and even xenophobic. (And, of course, the Integral understanding of lines of development reminds us that growth along the spiritual line is not always accompanied by growth on the moral, relational, or cognitive lines.)

This isn’t to say, however, that experiences of different states of awareness are pointless. Quite the opposite: different state experiences can be incredible catalysts for growth. The glimpses of broader perspectives provided by state experiences are important because they show us there is more to the world than what we are used to seeing. If we have enough of these experiences, if we start seeing more and more that our existing worldview cannot explain or contain, it will eventually create enough cognitive, or spiritual, dissonance to push us into a new stage of development. Just as seeing an older brother walk encourages a crawling baby to want to walk herself, experiencing a sense of connection with all life during prayer or meditation makes us aware that such connection is possible and desirable. If we see more, we are aware of more; and the more we are aware of, the more internal pressure we’ll be under to integrate this ‘more’ into our worldview. In the Integral understanding, this is one of the major ways we grow: by making more an ‘object of our awareness.’

If we put all this together, we see that not only does Integral theory have room for a wide variety of religious experiences and the spiritual ‘technologies’ our traditional have developed over the millennia, but it keeps them at the centre of its framework. They broaden our perspective, bring more into awareness, and therefore are catalysts for our growth.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Have you had any of the state experiences described in this post? If so, what were they? What did they make you feel? What, if any, lasting effects did they have?
  2. What are some ways you can engage more with different states of awareness?


Please see the Annotated Bibliography on Integral Thought for sources, works cited, and further reading.

6 thoughts on “Integral Basics, Part 5: States of Consciousness

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