Consciousness is the fundamental fabric of the entire universe. Everything that is, was, and ever will be brought into being is merely a unique expression of this single underlying Consciousness.
All objects in the universe are manifestations of consciousness, and all subjects (e.g., you and me) are manifestations of consciousness imbued with the capability to be conscious of itself – awareness.
Whilst we appear separate from one another we are paradoxically also all connected - we are merely unique perspectives of the one universal Consciousness looking upon itself from different vantage points.
There are 5 (+1) layers of consciousness that can be experienced – like an onion, if you will. However, unlike an union, these layers aren’t distinctly separate, just more subtle – each layer is perceivable in the layers that exist ‘above’ it.
The construct of language, however, invites misidentification - we all too easily equate the description of our experience of a particular layer to our being, mistakenly identifying our ‘self’ as only that/those layers. This is where suffering arises - as a result of failing to see ourselves as the whole, not just the layer we’re identifying with.
Working from the outermost layer inwards, these layers and example of (mis)identifications are:
· External (I am rich)
· Body (I am fat)
· Heart-Mind (I am smart/happy)
· Prana - fundamental life-force (I feel energised/drained (mood))
· Transcendent Void (I am not of this world)
· Core (I am That)
This is identifying with our possessions - our ‘stuff’. When identifying with ‘stuff’ we mistake the object for a part of ourselves - it expresses itself through such statements as ‘I am rich’, ‘I am poor’, etc.
When we identify with this layer we can end up believing the more we have the more whole we’ll be, and we can then become protective and possessive of our stuff (and we live in a time where we’ve become heavily attached to external objects e.g. ‘my phone’, ‘my car’, ‘my jacket’, ‘my yoga mat’). This attachment to material items, wealth, and status invites suffering due to the inherent impermanence of these objects - they are neither stable nor certain.
However, this doesn’t mean that these objects cannot be enjoyed or loved - they are still a layer of our consciousness to be experienced. It’s the forming of an identify solely upon that layer that becomes problematic - i.e., if there is an unhealthy attachment to that external something.
Whether you love/enjoy something or you’re actually attached to it requires discernment - conscious judgement (which is true not just for this layer, but for all subsequent layers).
The body is our outmost physical manifestation of consciousness, and as such is the most easily identifiable layer.
It’s easy to get stuck at this superficial layer, especially existing in a society that glorifies and celebrates aesthetics. ‘I’m fat’, ‘I’m skinny’, ‘I’m ugly’, ‘I’m beautiful’ - these over-identifications with this layer become the labels that we define ourselves by, and torture ourselves over when undesirably labelled by others.
This, coupled with the way the West has hidden away death (out of sight is out of mind) is why so many people fear getting old - their identity is based on their physicality. The inescapable truth, however, is the impermanence and mortality of our corporeal form - our bodies will age and decay until they’re no longer capable of carrying us.
By understand and accepting this truth, and the realisation that you are more than just your physical dimension, the body can be appreciated and looked after as our soul’s home, and ageing (and even death) can be met with grace.
The heart and the mind are not two different things but are two ends of a single spectrum; they are the same contracted consciousness vibrations (vrittis) of citta (“mind-stuff”), only experienced differently - thoughts are vibrations with a greater logical or linguistic component, whereas feelings are vibrations with a greater emotional component.
Some may be more attuned to thoughts, others to feelings, but they’re both considered the same layer of consciousness. This is why it’s impossible to have a feeling that’s not attached to a thought or story, and vice-versa.
This is the layer people typically become most identified with. Even though we can actively think things, we’re not fully in control of our thoughts or feelings (try not to think of a pink elephant - you can’t, because in order to not think of one you first have to think of one). We misidentify using such statements as ‘I am smart’, ‘I am stupid’, ‘I am happy’, ‘I am sad’.
Just as the body can be scarred from its experiences, so too can the heart-mind. But whereas the body’s trauma can be more easily identified and dealt with, the heart-mind’s is more allusive, and as such can be often overlooked.
Samskara (mental impressions) are the scars of the heart-mind. When we view the world through the lens of our past experiences we see a distorted representation of it, rather than the truth of the situation - what we see is ourselves through our interpretation, rather than what’s actually in front of us.
By realising that we are not our thoughts or feelings - that this is only one layer of our consciousness - we can step back from them (using tools such as meditation) and review them objectively, healing those scars, and allowing us to ride the waves of thoughts and feelings, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and experience the present moment uncompromisingly from a place of bliss, love, and joy.
Prana translates to ‘vital energy’, or ‘life-force’; it is more subtle than the previous layers, and as such transcends individuality, being shared by all living beings.
It is connected with breath, is responsible for our general energy and moods, and relates to diet, exercise, sleep, and thought-patterns. The (mis)identifications with this layer express themselves in ways such as ‘I am energised’, ‘I am tired’.
When we over-identify with our moods we can act impulsively, sometimes at the detriment to our body and heart-mind. Because this layer permeates these layers, creating our mind-body connection, it is easy to mistake imbalances with prana as issues occurring within these outer layers - what we believe to be problems of the heart-mind or body, manifesting in ways such as anger, irritability, or physical pain, may actually be an energy imbalance easily resolved with sleep or nourishment.
An understanding of a layer of consciousness beyond body and heart-mind allows us to better understand where imbalances truly reside, and so better enable ourselves to more readily return to balanced.
Whilst the previous layers have been (relatively) easy to comprehend, this layer becomes somewhat more ineffable, and so more allusive and challenging to identify with.
This layer of the transcendent void is empty of all form and energy but permeates through all outer layers. It can be considered as Siva without Sakti - the transcendent masculine pure Consciousness (Siva), with the immanent feminine manifest universe (Sakti i.e., form/energy) existing as unexpressed potential.
This is what we experience during the state of deep sleep, or deep meditation - the sense of ‘I am not of this world’ and ‘I am beyond all things’.
The misstep of identifying with this layer is the temptation to disown our identification with the subsequent layers - seeing things, the body, heart-mind, and prana as insignificant obstacles preventing us from existing in our true state, and as such wanting to absolve ourselves of the world and remove ourselves from it.
But we are of the world – it’s what gives this human experience value – so instead we should seek to integrate all the layers of consciousness, engaging with the world so as to enjoy it from a state of peace and love.
This is the ultimate centre of our being, and essentially is God - the supreme Divine Consciousness that is the essence of all things.
This ‘layer’ permeates through all other layers, making awareness of all other layers possible, and as such is the most difficult to perceive, because it is the awareness that allows perception itself.
Because this core Awareness exists within all things it is the pure fusion of the transcendental Siva and the immanent Sakti - it is the ability to identify and experience the Divine in all contracted forms of our consciousness, not just in moments of ‘elevated’ states of consciousness.
To identify with this layer is to identify with all things as God - not separate, but nondual Consciousness experiencing (and enjoying) the phenomenal illusion of duality: ‘I am blissfully free self-aware consciousness’, ‘I am the Divine’, ‘I am whole’, or simply, ‘I am That’.
To summaries with an analogy, consider Consciousness as an ocean: unique expressions of Consciousness (you and me) are individual waves on that ocean – each separate, but still part of the one body of water. Identifying with the External layer would be to identify (for example) with a boat on the water; identifying with your Body layer would be to identify as the wave; our thoughts and feelings are like ripples on that wave (our Heart-Mind layer); our mood (Prana) would be the qualities of those ripples (temperature, colour, clarity, etc); Void is realising that you are more than the ripples but water itself; and Core is remembering that you are, always have been, and will always be, the ocean.
This 5 (+1) layered model of Self allows us to recognise which layer we’re (over)identifying with and, if stuck on a more peripheral one, to work our way back to our Core.
Through a practice of conscious contemplation of negation we can move beyond the superficial to the essence of our being. This does not mean to then ignore those superficial layers, but to experience them more fully from a state of joyful expanded wholeness: ‘I am not my thoughts/feelings, I am divine Consciousness vibrating in the form of these thoughts/feelings - I am simultaneously these, and am also inexpressibly more’. Or, to put it another way, ‘I am the ripple of a drop of water on a wave, and I am also the entire ocean’.
It’s one thing to understand this intellectually, but something else to truly live it out effortlessly - knowledge is achieved through learning; wisdom is acquired through experience. There’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.