The Structure of Human Experience
So, what can we say about the structure of human experience? (And, in this instance, what can I say about my experience?)
First and, perhaps, foremost as we have seen, my experience is an experience of consciousness. If I am not conscious of something, then I don’t experience it. It may affect me, but I don’t experience it. What then is this consciousness? Consciousness is an interior experience of the world outside and the world inside. Consciousness is a succession of instants of awareness in a stream of awareness with an over-arching unity that enables us to connect the immediate past with the immediate future and make some sense of what’s happening in the immediate present.
Second, my conscious experience has a center and vectors in space and time. I experience everything outside of me from the perspective of my location in space. I experience everything inside of me along the vector of time – a succession of presents that remember their pasts and anticipate their futures.
Third, my consciousness has different degrees of focus, clarity, understanding, and power. I hear sounds up close more clearly than I hear sounds at a distance. Some of my experiences make sense and some don’t. For a very young child, perceptions are fuzzy, not much makes sense, and it’s hard to act effectively. As the child grows, perceptions became clearer. The world makes more sense. And effective action becomes easier.
Fourth, I experience different forms of consciousness. Waking and dreaming are the two clearest examples. Waking consciousness tends to focus on outer experience. Dreaming consciousness focuses on inner experience. Through meditation, it becomes possible to focus waking consciousness on inner experience.
Fifth, if I practice being aware of my consciousness and learn how to direct and focus it, I can strengthen my consciousness, my understanding, and my power to act.
Without some practice for strengthening our concentration and focus, our consciousness tends to jump from one short sensation or memory or feeling or thought or intuition string to another, without our controlling where the next associational jump will take us. We tend to construct our home, work, and recreational environments as outside stimulae that help us guide our consciousness into loose tracks.
However, the Yogis and the Buddhists and the Taoists and the Sufis and the Kabbalists all practice ways to focus and concentrate consciousness. Almost all of these practices start with paying attention to the flow of our consciousness. One of the simplest ways is just to pay attention to our breathing for an extended period of time. For people who haven’t put in some serious practice with this, it is shockingly difficult to do. Our minds just wander off and we suddenly realize that we are worrying about something or anticipating something or participating in some other stream of mental activity and we aren’t paying attention to our breathing any more.
With practice, however, it becomes possible to pay continuous attention to our breathing for many minutes, even hours, and eventually constantly. Then conscious awareness of our breathing becomes the backdrop on top of which we can think thoughts, or feel feelings, or have memories, or anticipate what will happen on purpose by guiding our consciousness. As this type of practice continues, a coherent self begins to emerge that can guide our consciousness to focus anywhere and stay focused there until we decide to focus somewhere else.
Consciousness is a little like an iPad. Initially our consciousness is like an iPad that jumps from one App to another App semi-randomly. A successful consciousness practice enables us to learn the way the iPad operating system works and how to choose which App we want to access and what we want to do in that App and then, when we are finished, how to move on to another App.
Some consciousness practices train us in new consciousness capabilities. Visualization is a good example of a very useful consciousness capability. We are told that Einstein had a very powerful ability to visualize. If we can’t visualize, the iPad of our mind can’t access visual images leaving us in a world restricted to words or feelings or sensations. A comprehensive consciousness practice begins with training us to be aware of and to focus our consciousness and then to access the full range of types of consciousness available to humans. We become fully aware of and fully able to choose to participate in our inner and outer worlds.
For most of us, when we begin to pay attention to our consciousness, what we find is that we are talking to ourselves silently in our minds. Some say that the way we keep our world together and keep functioning is through this “inner dialogue”. We tell ourselves how to interpret events, how to react, what to do, how we should feel, and so forth. Some of the various spiritual traditions refer to this inner dialogue, this inner talking to ourselves, as our ‘Ego’.
For many of us, our inner world is composed almost exclusively of this Ego, which helps us cope but also can get us into a lot of trouble. The other aspects of our inner world often operate subconsciously. Feelings, for example, may take place below the surface of our consciousness and subconsciously determine how the inner dialogue proceeds. If we don’t like a particular feeling for some reason, we may tell ourselves to act in a way that avoids causing that feeling, even though that action may be quite counter-productive.
Paying Attention to Breathing and Turning Off the Inner Dialogue
After some time spent undertaking one or more consciousness practices, it becomes possible to turn off this inner dialogue and shift levels of awareness to become conscious of other aspects of our inner worlds. One of the simplest ways to do this is to pay attention to something else, like our breathing. This is because our consciousness has a certain size or scope. If our consciousness is full of one form of awareness, another form of awareness won’t fit.
One way we can assess the size of our consciousness is to check to see how much of our body we can be aware of at one time. Is it a finger, a hand, a whole arm, two arms, two arms and a head? Most people, when they start out developing a consciousness practice, can be aware of maybe one finger or, even, perhaps one hand. Their consciousness is about the size of a finger or a hand. Typically, their inner dialogue fills up their consciousness and there isn’t room for anything else.
So paying attention to breathing means there isn’t enough consciousness to pay attention to the inner dialogue at the same time, so the inner dialogue shuts off for a (usually brief) time. As we proceed, that time gets longer. As we proceed, it begins to be possible to pay attention to our breathing and other things, like other bodily sensations, or feelings, or thoughts at the same time. Through this process, our consciousness expands. And also we can learn how to turn that inner dialogue off altogether and experience our inner and outer worlds directly, without that filter.
As we proceed with a consciousness practice, and learn how to shut off the Ego inner dialogue, it becomes possible to experience much more of our outer world. That sunset, that painting, that piece of music can affect us much more deeply if we aren’t talking about it or talking about something else in our mind while we are seeing or hearing it.
At the same time, it becomes possible to experience much more of our inner worlds, once we have shut off our Egos. Sometimes we become directly aware of a wider and wider array of our physical sensations. Good athletes, fine dancers, powerful martial artists are, among other things, people who have trained themselves to become aware of the full range of kinesthetic sensations coming from a large portion of their bodies and to build new, more effective habits for how to use their bodies.
Beyond the physical, we can gain deeper access to other aspects of our inner world. This can take the form of a various kinds of meditation. Meditation is another very useful consciousness capability. Meditation has been defined by some as continual focus on one experience, thought, feeling, or image to enable the deeper meaning of what is being focused on to emerge. Successful meditation requires being able to be aware of our consciousness and to focus it. Meditation can be thought of as a form of self-hypnosis whereby we put ourselves in a kind of trance.
Mantra Meditation can be one very useful form of meditation that builds on awareness of our breathing. A Mantra is a way to consciously talk to ourselves. The way it usually works is that we say the first part of a phrase in our mind at the same time as we breathe in and then say the second part of the phrase as we breathe out.
Try the Planetary Consciousness Mantra. Pay continual attention to your breathing. Breathe in and silently say “One,” then breathe out and silently say “Planet”. Breathe in and silently say “One,” then breathe out and silently say “People”. Breathe in and silently say “One,” then breathe out and silently say “Purpose”. Repeat this mantra for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, even 15 minutes. You will get the benefits of Mantra Mediation, and it may even be a doorway to connect with those aspects of the consciousness of the Earth and the consciousness of the Human Species that are working for survival – the emerging Planetary Consciousness.
Many meditation practices use an inner visualization as a point of concentration. The picture of the Milky Way Galaxy at the top of this page is an excellent image to visualize with our mind’s eye. By paying continual unbroken attention to this inner image, we not only strengthen our consciousness, we also provide an expanded point of reference for ourselves, beyond the concerns of our small planet. Getting our One Planet to work right, from this perspective doesn’t seem quite so daunting.
Almost every photograph used in this website can be used as a point of concentration for a visualization or a meditation. The possibility of that use is one of the reasons that they have been chosen.
It’s also possible and often useful for us to create our own inner images to visualize. If we have a disease in some part of our body, visualizing that part of our body as healthy can make a contribution to our healing. If we want to succeed in some personal or work situation, we can help bring about that success by visualizing ourselves as successful in that situation and that situation transformed by our success.
Try adding visualization to the Planetary Consciousness Mantra. With “One Planet” and see images of the beautiful Earth from space, beautiful places you have been to or you have seen pictures of. With “One People” and see images of people over time, working well together, taking care of each other, supporting each other – from your personal life, from the news you have seen, or from the books you have read. With “One Purpose” see the Earth and the Human Species transformed with the different wars and threats of wars resolved and people living in peace, with food and water and shelter and opportunity for all.
If a significant number of people actually practiced the Planetary Consciousness Mantra regularly, we might be much further along with the transformation that we need.
Another type of mediation can be referred to as “Vision Meditation.” Vision Meditation enables us to access visions, which can provide access to deeper experiences and insights and more profound knowledge and wisdom. One process for doing this can be to:
- Formulate some focus or question.
- Pay attention to our bodies, the sensation of our feet on the ground, our seats on our chairs.
- Turn off the inner dialogue.
- Pay attention to our breathing, which may be accompanied by a mantra and/or a visualization to help us engage with our focus or question.
- Allow awareness to shift to deeper levels.
- Just wait until a vision presents itself.
- When the vision comes, go with it, explore it, and see if it doesn’t provide insight into our focus or an answer to our question.
The vision can be a little like a waking dream or a movie. The visions we experience with Vision Meditation are not visualizations, like those we might use to accompany a mantra, in that we are not actively controlling the visions with our volition. Rather we receive what is presented to us on the screen of our awareness as if it’s coming from someone else or someplace else or perhaps a deeper aspect of ourselves.
Through this type of Vision Meditation our consciousness can engage with the field of consciousness that surrounds us. Some spiritual traditions suggest that our individual consciousness is a small bay connected to a vast ocean of consciousness. The psychologist Carl Jung characterized this ocean of consciousness that our consciousness is connected to as the Collective Unconscious, inhabited by transpersonal forces that he characterized as Archetypes.
Through using the Planetary Consciousness Mantra leading to Vision Meditation, it may become possible to engage with the consciousness of the Earth and participate in a kind of Planetary Consciousness, and it may become possible to engage with the consciousness of humanity, and participate in a kind of Species Consciousness. By doing so, we may be able not only to tap into a profound source of insight but also encounter an exceptional source of power. Try it.