Theosophical University Press Online Edition
Indirect Method of Study
The Waking State of Consciousness
Going to Sleep
Sleeping — Dreaming
Abnormal States of Consciousness
Deductions Regarding States of Consciousness
During sleep and after death when the Ray of Consciousness has withdrawn from the outer plane, it is active on inner, invisible planes of Nature, or on levels of consciousness different from that of our waking state. The Human Ego of the ordinary individual in its present stage of evolution, is not able to follow the Ray of Consciousness as this recedes to higher planes, for it is just the withdrawal of the Ray from the human vehicle that causes the Human Ego to become non-functioning and pass into a dormant state.
There are a few rare individuals in the world, who have evolved so far that their Human Ego has become one with their Higher Ego and they can even now step across the thresholds of sleep and death in full possession of their consciousness. They are the Masters of Wisdom, Compassion and Peace, who are the custodians of the Ancient Wisdom Religion, and who have given these teachings to Mankind. They were at one time ordinary human beings and it is the destiny of all men eventually to attain this high state, and then the higher planes of consciousness will be as familiar to us as the outer world is now.
Since we cannot make a study of these planes or states of consciousness by direct observation, the next best approach will be to study our waking state and what little we know of the dream state and certain abnormal states to see if we cannot thereby get at least a side-light on the subject.
In our ordinary waking state of consciousness it is the Human Ego, including in this term its higher, intermediate and lower or personal aspects, that is the active center of consciousness and its field of activity is the outer physical world and an inner, unseen world of thoughts and feelings.
The feature that distinguishes the waking state of consciousness from other states seems to be that it consists in a simultaneous awareness of both the physical world and the mental plane. The Ego observes the outer world through the five senses and the inner world by watching the succession of thoughts and feelings that follow each other on the "screen of the mind." Our activity may be chiefly physical, but even while we are thus occupied, there is an undercurrent of thought running through the mind; or our work may be mainly mental, but even then we are still aware of our physical surroundings. We do know, however, that if we are exerting our utmost effort in either field, the activity in the other direction is at a minimum. For instance an athlete could not run a race and simultaneously concentrate on some mental problem. What little mental activity he may have must be applied to sustain his physical effort. On the other hand if we are to give our full attention to some mental problem, the best preparation is to reduce the body activities to a minimum.
The automatic functions of the body, such as circulation of the blood, breathing, digestion of food, etc., must of course go on continuously for these make up the power plant that furnishes the energy for the brain. These functions, however, play no direct part in mental work, but neither are they a hindrance unless they have been overstimulated. We know, for instance, that it would be difficult to concentrate on a deep metaphysical problem after a heavy meal.
An active body, whether overstimulated by food or physical exercise becomes a handicap to mental activity. A body so passive that we could forget its existence would be the least obstacle to mental work.
There are then three partners necessary to produce the ordinary waking state of consciousness: the Human Ego-aspect of the Ray, the mind and the body, the latter term including the model body etc. Of these the Ray vitalizes both mind and body, the mind is the connecting link between the other two and the body is the substratum for the activity of the whole. If either partner is absent, the Ray becomes unconscious of this plane. All partners must be present and cooperating harmoniously as a unit in order that the Ray may experience the ordinary waking state of consciousness.
A partial disconnection of the Ego from its sense-apparatus can take place during the waking state.
After living on a noisy street for some length of time we cease to notice the noises. The sound waves come to our ears just as strongly as before, but we have sub-consciously learned to prevent these sound impulses from reaching our consciousness. We have succeeded in "throwing out the clutch" between the Ego and its sense-apparatus in this particular respect.
Or we may sit in a room deeply interested in the reading of a book, or in solving some abstract problem and not hear that the clock strikes or notice that a person passes through the room. The person passed within the range of our vision, the sound waves from the striking clock reached our ears; the eyes and the ears were as perfect as ever, yet the impressions transmitted by eyes and ears to the brain did not register in our consciousness for the Ego was preoccupied on the mental plane. This time "the clutch was thrown into full gear" on the mental side with the result that the Ego ceased to be aware of the physical plane for the time being.
We say of a person in such a state of mind that he is in a "Brown Study," "he is day-dreaming," recognizing as we do, that he is in a state similar to sleep. Or we may say: "he is absent-minded," — "he isn't all there."
When we want to arouse him we say jokingly: "Come back to Earth" and perhaps accompany this with a gentle touch. The Ego then withdraws its attention from the mental plane and again takes note of its physical surroundings.
When the Ego returns after such an excursion on the mental plane, it may appear dazed and at first not recognize its surroundings, for mentally it "has been in some other place" and now confuses that with its actual physical surroundings. But in a few seconds the situation clears up and the Ego is back in its usual "observation seat" and is again in full possession of both its mind and sense-apparatus. It has made the transit from a purely mental state to the ordinary waking state. It has "descended into matter." It has "shifted the clutch into mid-position" where it operates the usual combination of mental and physical activity.
It was possible, then, for the Ego to recede from the physical plane and cease to exist there and yet exist on the mental plane and be active there. This shows that it is possible for the Ego to retain full mental consciousness without physical consciousness.
During this period the physical plane might as well be nonexistent so far as the Ego is concerned, for it plays no useful part in the Ego's mental activity.
During its absence from the physical plane and while existing on the mental plane the Ego still retained its identity and recognized itself as the same I-Am-I as in the ordinary waking state.
The Ancient Wisdom tells us that there are other and higher planes above the mental and that just as the Ray of Consciousness can withdraw from the physical plane and still be active on the mental plane, so can it also withdraw from the mental plane and become active on one of these higher planes. As its vehicle on the mental plane was the ordinary brain-mind, so its vehicle on the next plane is a higher Mind, part of a higher vehicle, existing independent of the physical body and brain. The reason we are not aware of these experiences in our waking state, is that they do not take place in the ordinary mind and are therefore not recorded as memories in the brain.
To us, whose ordinary experiences do not extend above the mental plane, it might be difficult to imagine any activities above the mental and to picture the nature of the plane in which such activity could take place. We might therefore conclude that no such activity and no such planes could exist. But is such an attitude justified? By comparison let us see how our mental activity appears to an entity whose chief activity is centered on the physical plane, a dog for example. Suppose his master is sitting in his easy-chair completely absorbed in reading a book, while the dog is lying on the rug watching him. He sees his master, immovable like a statue staring at the pages of a book. To the dog this is utter and useless inactivity and a sheer waste of time. He is incapable of understanding that his master is intensely active on the mental plane.
May not the apparently inactive periods of sleep and the after-death states of the Ego similarly be filled with intense activity, even though we have no way of forming an opinion as to the nature of this activity?
The presence of the Ray vitalizes the mind and body into activity during the day, but this activity is a drain on the resources of the body, which towards evening results in exhaustion. In this condition the body and brain are no longer serviceable tools for the use of the Ray, and the latter then withdraws from its vehicles on the physical plane. During the ensuing period of inactivity, the body energies are restored by Nature's healing and rebuilding processes.
Our program in preparing for sleep is one of reducing the body-activity to a minimum. We seek a quiet place and a comfortable bed so that noise and discomfort will not keep the consciousness chained to the body. We turn out the light and have then as far as possible disconnected ourselves from our sense-apparatus. We have "thrown the clutch out of gear" on the physical plane. Or, borrowing a phrase from the ancient Upanishads: "we have closed the avenues of the senses."
The Ray of Consciousness continues to vitalize the brain, however, with the result that the Human Ego is still aware of its existence. While waiting for sleep to come it may think of something that happened during the day or make plans for the morrow. Gradually these mind-pictures grow vague and hazy and it becomes increasingly difficult to center the consciousness on them. If it happens to be something of importance, however, the Ego may assert its authority and force the Mind back to work, perhaps several times in succession, showing, that even to the last moment before withdrawing the Ego remains unchanged. Its function is still that of commander and observer. But as there is a limit to the capacity of even a willing servant, so there comes a point beyond which the brain refuses to work, and the Ray is finally compelled to disconnect itself from its exhausted partners. It has now completely "thrown out the clutch" between itself and its physical sense apparatus and lower mind. It then loses consciousness of the physical plane for it has abandoned its only vehicles for contact with this plane.
The co-partnership that made consciousness on this plane possible has ceased to function as a unit and is for the time being broken up into its component parts. Of these the body lies in bed inert and passive. The lower mind with its brain is devitalized. The Ray of Consciousness has withdrawn and the Human Ego has become dormant.
These component parts have not ceased to exist, although their state of being is now entirely different from that of the complete unit. The case might be compared to that of water when this is decomposed into its elements. The water then disappears from sight as a liquid and ceases to exist as such for the time being. It still exists potentially, however, as its component parts, although the state of the latter as two invisible gases is entirely different from that of their combined product, the water.
When the Ray of Consciousness withdraws from the physical-mental plane it retires to the higher mental plane. Here it functions through its vehicle, the Higher Mind, as the Reincarnating or Higher Ego, and this Ego now enters upon what is its real existence. While asleep our external life seems like an unreal dream to the Higher Ego just as the activity of the Higher Ego during sleep appears to the Human Ego as blank unconsciousness or occasionally a confused dream.
The reason we in our waking state do not recollect any of the real experiences of the Higher Ego during sleep, is that these experiences do not take place in the lower mind and are therefore not recorded in the brain, but occur in the Higher Mind, and only occasionally does the Ego on its return to physical existence carry with it a few fragments which may then be transmitted to the brain. In passing through the brain and lower mind, these are usually distorted, so that we cannot in our waking state form a true conception of the activities of the Higher Ego during sleep. Our dreams do however give us hints that there are modes of existence different from our waking state.
When we return to the waking state in the morning, we may have a clear recollection of some dream, in which we know we took an active part. Other times we have a feeling that we have had a dream, but are unable to recollect what we dreamt of. Occasionally we may wake up suddenly and catch the tail-end of a dream that swiftly eludes our grasp like the last few feet of a film that is just disappearing from the screen. It is as though our Higher Ego had been watching a film on another screen in some unfamiliar portion of the Mind.
Perhaps most frequently the night is a complete blackout of all consciousness and when morning comes we have no recollection of any dream experience. But this absence of recollection is not necessarily a proof that we had no such experience. After such an apparently dreamless night it sometimes happens that later in the day there suddenly flashes into the mind the recollection of a dream, which until that moment we were totally unaware of, but that now returns to us quite clearly and with many distinct details. The Ego now remembers and recognizes itself as the actor and participator in certain experiences that took place on the dream plane, showing that after all the Ego or some part of it had been conscious and active during sleep, even though the waking Ego would at first have denied this. This shows that even what we call dreamless sleep, may not be dreamless, but that here too we may have had some form of consciousness, although in this case the memory does not return to us.
There are dreams in which we realize that there is more than one Ego in us. While one portion of our consciousness is taking an active part in some dream experience, another portion seems to stand apart and watch the event, for we find ourselves thinking: "I know that this is only a dream."
Whatever the dream experience may be, we feel ourselves, or some portion of ourselves, as taking the leading part in the dream. We do not dream of someone else as the chief actor, but we recognize the identity of the dream actor with the I-AM-I of waking life. This feeling of identity between the waking Ego and the dream Ego is due to the fact that both Egos are but different manifestations of the same Ray of Consciousness.
When we go to sleep soon after we have indulged in a heavy meal or some other unwise excess, it sometimes happens that the intensified activity of the body retards the consciousness so that this is unable to free itself from its now obnoxious partner. "The clutch drags" and the result is a stupor in which the Ego is still partly conscious on the physical-mental plane. The subsequent uneasy slumber, which is often accompanied by chaotic, idle visions, is not real sleep and it does not result in the beneficial rest that would follow if the body's activity were reduced to its automatic functions only.
The dreams experienced in this state have their locus in the stupefied lower mind, and have no relation to the real experiences of the Higher Ego during deep sleep.
A person in a deep, sound sleep is totally unaware of what is going on around him. He receives no impressions from the outer world through his senses, although these are perfect. He does not know where he is, whether he is alone or in company, whether it is day or night, hot or cold. His mind has ceased to function. He can not communicate with his friends and they can not communicate with him. Except for the automatic body functions he has ceased to exist on the outer plane, for the duration of the sleep, and could not be less active there, nor less accessible to his friends if his body were actually dead. Every time we go to sleep the consciousness undergoes a process of disembodiment. It frees itself from the trammels of the material body. It "dies a daily death."
During the night Nature's beneficent processes rebuild the worn-out tissues, and when morning comes the body and the brain are rested and refreshed. The Ego now returns from its nightly wanderings in unknown territory and passing through the mist of forgetfulness that separates the two states of consciousness, reenters and revitalizes its dormant vehicles on this plane.
Although the Ego has been absent on some other plane, yet we know that this absence is not equivalent to non-existence, for we may be awakened in the middle of the night and the Ego is immediately on hand in response to the call, after which it again returns to the dream-state when its attention is no longer required here.
It seems intended that the experiences of the Ego on the inner planes should be kept separate from those on the material plane, for in passing from one to the other, the new existence entered upon completely blots out the one just left behind. Our transit from one plane to another is so gradual and gentle that we are unable to watch the process, but we seem to pass through a "swivel door" that closes on one plane as it opens on another.
When re-entering this outer plane the Ego sometimes seems to hesitate on the threshold. We half wake up, and then go back to sleep again, and it may happen that before the Ego emerges fully into the waking state it shuttles back and forth several times between this and the dream state. "The clutch drags" and the Ego hovers as it were between the two planes, until it finally steps over the threshold and "throws the clutch into full gear" on the waking side of consciousness.
The process is the reverse of that followed by the Ego in going to sleep, when it returned back to the waking state after it had begun to glide into the mist of sleep.
Upon first entering its physical vehicle the Ego sometimes seems dazed and bewildered as though it finds itself in unfamiliar surroundings, as a traveler feels when he wakes up in a strange hotel, and it may take a few seconds before it realizes that it has reentered its vehicle of yesterday.
But finally the process is completed. The Ray of Consciousness has returned and revitalized the brain, and the lower mind begins to function, and again the Ray is conscious and active on this plane as the Human Ego. The Observer, back at his observation post, picks up the threads of thought from the memory-deposits in the brain and lower mind where he left them the night before, and again begins to watch the pictures on the screen of the mind. Once more he feels the impulses from the bodily organs and receives impressions from the outer world through his five senses. The co-partnership of yesterday is re-established and again acting as one working unit, and the human being resumes his daily round of activities on the physical-mental plane.
Just as when hydrogen and oxygen unite, they emerge from their invisible gaseous state and appear in their visible liquid state as water, so likewise, do the co-partners of the human constitution, when they are re-united, emerge from their various inactive or invisible states to appear in combination as a human entity active on this plane.
In the process of awakening, then, the Ego has returned from an unknown higher state of existence to its material vehicle. It has descended or "fallen into matter." It is "re-in-carnis" again in flesh. It has undergone its daily process of re-birth.
In certain fevers and other diseases the patient loses consciousness of the world around him and becomes delirious. He seems to be conscious "elsewhere." He sees and observes entities and events, and passes through experiences that do not take place in the physical world. Yet these happenings seem very real to the patient and produce a deep impression on him. His body may perspire and he may show signs of being terrified by his experience. He may speak as from a far distance and incoherently describe what he sees, but does not hear what is spoken to him and is not conscious on the outer plane.
After the disease is surmounted, he may not remember any of his experiences and may be disposed to deny that he ever had any. Yet the watchers at his bedside know from his state of agitation that he did have some kind of experience and hence some kind of existence on one of Nature's planes, different from the physical or ordinary mental.
A similar case is that where the patient lapses into a state of coma or prolonged unconsciousness, which in some cases may last for months. During this period the patient does not register impressions received through the senses, even though these remain perfect, nor is he mentally active. We have no indication in this case where the consciousness may be, but when health is restored, the patient may be completely unaware of the experience he has passed through. He may even be disposed to deny that he experienced a prolonged period of unconsciousness, thinking that he just woke up after a few hours' sleep.
A person who is under hypnotic influence is not aware of his surroundings. His physical senses are unimpaired, but sense-impressions do not reach his consciousness for the delicate mechanism of Man's inner constitution has been tampered with. Another entity with a stronger will has forced itself between the Ray of Consciousness and its vehicles on the outer plane. The Human Ego has become divided and the higher portion forced to withdraw where it is no longer in control of its rightful domain. The lower portion which remains is now without the illumination and aid that come from the presence of the Ray. This poor remnant of the Man is now the helpless victim of the hypnotizer and obeys the will of the latter.
In this weakened and disorganized state the lower mind mistakes ideas held in the controlling mind of the hypnotizer for physical objects, thus showing that to "the eyes of the mind" thoughts are visible objects.
While under hypnotic influence the subject may be active both physically and with some portion of the lower mind, yet when he is released by the hypnotizer, he may have no recollection of what has taken place and may, contrary to the testimony of witnesses, insist that he was inactive during the entire period.
A sleep-walker is unaware of impressions he receives through his physical senses although he walks with eyes open and hearing unimpaired. While in this state he may be very active physically, may climb up on top of buildings and walk in places where he is exposed to the greatest danger, where one false step might mean death. In the end he may return to bed, and when he wakes up be completely unaware of his activities.
It has been shown that under certain abnormal conditions, the consciousness can be separated from the body and the latter reduced to an inactive state, referred to as "suspended animation." There are on record cases of Indian fakirs, who have allowed themselves to be "buried alive" and who have remained in this condition for several weeks, even months. The body in this case has been especially prepared so as to suspend all normal physical activities, as well as being protected from external injuries. When the time for awakening comes, and friends of the fakir have given a resuscitating treatment to the body, the consciousness returns and resumes its normal activity.
Strange examples of the failure of our memory to record our experiences even on this physical plane are often reported in the press. In this abnormal state, referred to as amnesia or loss of memory, an individual may suddenly, and for some reason not yet understood, lose awareness of his identity, his name and everything about his past life. He may find himself wandering in a strange city and in some cases seems to accept his altered circumstances and may here start a new life under another name, gradually thinking of himself as another personality.
Cases are on record where such a condition has lasted twenty years and then for some reason, just as little understood, the memory of the early life period returns with all its details, then crowding out the memory of the second period as completely as the second period had blotted out the first.
There are many mysteries here that we do not understand, but two important facts become evident: 1. Our memory can be a very unreliable witness when it comes to proving what has or has not taken place even right here on the physical plane. 2. The consciousness of the first period was not annihilated or blotted out during the second period, or it could not have returned in the third period.
The Ancient Teachings tell us that the Ego during sleep and after death exists in an ethereal-spiritual body independent of the physical body, and is active on inner and to us invisible planes.
Let us now examine the little store of knowledge we have regarding different states of consciousness and see how this compares with the Ancient Teachings.
Our waking consciousness consists in a simultaneous awareness of the physical and mental planes. The necessary prerequisite for our existence here — the vehicle through which we experience these planes — is the physical body, brain and lower mind.
In dreams and also in some abnormal states of consciousness we had experiences that did not take place on either the physical or ordinary mental plane. The fact that we had such experiences shows that we had an existence, which therefore must have taken place on some inner and as yet unknown planes.
If the Ego could observe the unfolding of events, as it did on these inner planes, it must have had a vehicle or instrument, a set of inner senses, in order to make these observations.
Just as the physical body and brain are prerequisites for existence on the physical-mental plane, so is a body with suitable sense-apparatus adapted to the plane where the experience occurs, a necessary prerequisite for existence on these inner planes.
In our waking state we found that if we want to attain maximum effectiveness in either mental or physical activity, one of these had to be reduced to a minimum in order to give the other greater scope. By a separation of the two activities, as far as this was possible, the best results could be attained. The same principle may hold true regarding separation between all planes of consciousness and may be the reason we are made to forget one plane of consciousness when we pass into another. When we go to sleep, for instance, we pass through a mist of forgetfulness, a period of unconsciousness before dreaming begins. When we wake up we seem to come out of this mist and in each case we have lost the memory of the plane we leave behind more or less completely.
The same is true of abnormal states of consciousness. While active in one of these, the Ego evidently is totally unaware of the physical plane, and when it returns to normal consciousness it has usually forgotten its experiences on such planes, for one blots out the other.
When the Ego withdraws from the physical plane to the dream plane or to some abnormal plane, such withdrawal has of course made no changes in the physical plane that is left behind. Yet the loss of memory is so complete that, as far as the Ego in its new environment is concerned, the physical plane is not only forgotten, it seems to have no existence at all. Similarly, to the Ego in the waking state, the dream plane seems unreal and is usually completely forgotten, and hence for the time being it has ceased to exist so far as the waking Ego is concerned.
Under these conditions it is not strange that the Ego, in one state of consciousness is disposed to deny the reality of other states. We know, however, that such denial is unjustified, for experience has shown that what looks like inactivity or even nonexistence when viewed from one plane, may be a state of intense activity of a different nature when seen from the plane in which the experience took place. Experience also showed that planes of consciousness may exist, of which we in another state of consciousness are entirely unaware, and which then seem to us non-existent.
Therefore, what seems to us a period of unconsciousness or non-existence in sleep and after death may very well be filled with intense activity on planes, of whose existence we are entirely unaware in our waking state.
Just as the physical plane ceases to exist in the Ego when this withdraws to other planes, so does the Ego disappear and cease to exist to those who remain conscious on the physical plane. The return of the Ego that follows in due course, shows, however, that the disappearance was not equivalent to extinction.
Some sense of identity or awareness of the thread of continuity of its existence is felt by the Ego in various states of consciousness. In day-dreaming, for instance, we know that the Ego is the same as in the waking state. In ordinary dreams and in abnormal states, when these are remembered, we also recognize ourselves, or perhaps a shadowy reflection of ourselves as the actor. We feel the link that binds the various ego-aspects of the Ray of Consciousness and that it is the same I-AM-I or some portion of it that is the observer, spectator or experiencer of events, that vary according to the theatre in which these events take place.
Let us now see what part the physical body plays in the various non-physical activities of the Ego.
The normal automatic functions of the body do not directly affect the consciousness states of the Ego.
Accelerated body-activity reduces capacity for mental work.
The best preparation for mental work is a passive state of the body.
In day-dreaming the body is inactive.
Sleep is caused by failure of the body through fatigue to supply the energy for the brain.
Enforced physical activity prevents sleep.
Sleep is an abandonment of the body by the Ego.
Overstimulation from a heavy meal interferes with sound sleep and keeps the Ego chained to the body.
The best preparation for sleep is to loosen the chains of the body and make it passive, thus making the Ego free to take off for other planes of consciousness.
The body is not an active partner in the experiences of the Ego while in a coma or delirious from fever.
The body is completely inactive, even its automatic functions reduced to almost zero in cases of artificially induced suspended animation.
Do not all these facts indicate that the body is of no use to the Ego and may even be a hindrance to its non-physical activities?
The body's functions are similar to those of a boiler that furnishes the steam for an engine. When the engine is running the boiler is active, but when the engineer shuts off the steam and goes home, the engine stops and the boiler ceases to be of any use and becomes inactive.
Similarly when the Ego is mentally active the body must furnish the energy needed by the brain, but when the Ego withdraws in sleep, the lower mind becomes inactive and the body ceases to be of any use to the Ego.
So far as the engineer is concerned in his off-the-job activities, the boiler might as well be on the junk pile, but if he is to return to his job the next day it is necessary to leave the boiler in good condition and with a banked fire so that it will be easy to get up steam in the morning. The body with its automatic functions is kept in preparedness for next day's activities but is of no more use to the Ego during sleep than the boiler is to the engineer when the engine is idle.
If, then, the body plays such a subordinate part in the Ego's most important activity (the mental) in the waking state, and if it is still less important to the Ego's normal activities in sleep and may even become a hindrance to these, then why should it be any more necessary to the Ego's existence and activities after death?