Flexible Focus #43: 8 Levels of Consciousness

by William Reed on March 3, 2011

As central as the number 8 is to the Mandala Chart and the original Buddhist framework of Wisdom which it is based on, it is not surprising then to find that in this framework there are 8 levels of consciousness.

The first five are quite familiar. We call them the five senses: Visual, Auditory, Olfactory, Taste, and Touch, which are how we perceive the world, through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and touch. The sixth is Ideation, our conscious thought, referred to in Buddhist thought as the Monkey Mind, because it is typically unsettled and constantly chattering. The first six levels of consciousness then make up the conscious mind, the part that we are mostly aware of.

What gets interesting is when you delve into the subconscious mind, which has two layers; the Mana (Obscuration/Shadow) consciousness, which we refer to as the Ego, and the Seed (Storehouse) consciousness at the core. This can be visualized in concentric circles, as shown in the illustration. These terms were made familiar in Western psychology through Sigmund Freud who studied the seventh level, the Ego; and Carl Jung who studied the eighth level, the Unconscious.

In fact, Jung in particular was heavily influenced by Asian thought on the eight levels of consciousness, which actually date back 1500 years to a 4th-century Indian Buddhist Scholar Monk named Vasubandhu, and the teachings of Yogacara. This is a complex body of thought, with many permutations and interpretations in India, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. For the sake of simplicity, we will focus on how this structure of 8 levels of consciousness affects our awareness, the way we see the world, and how we can make practical use of it with the Mandala Chart.

What you see is NOT what you get

Have you ever been startled by something that turned out to be something else? Perhaps what you thought was a snake turned out to be a length or coiled rope; or maybe you put salt in your coffee instead of sugar by mistake. We are taken in by our assumptions and mis-perceptions more often than we would like to admit.

Our tendency to misperceive, or even to miss altogether, that which is in front of our face is the subject of a fascinating book called The Invisible Gorilla, by Christoper Chabris and Daniel Simons. Their now renowned gorilla experiment can be seen on video, in which a group of students pass a basketball many times among themselves, and you are asked to count the number of times the students in white T-shirts pass the ball in one minute. The students are moving around, and half of them are dressed in black T-shirts, and if you pay attention you just might get the answer right. However, about half of the people who watch this video completely miss the fact that a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks into the center of the moving students, beats his chest, and then walks off the scene on the other side. Once you know about the gorilla you can’t miss it, but half of the time even very observant people completely miss it when they first watch the video.

The authors argue that this is quite a common phenomenon, that we are taken in by illusions of awareness all of the time in our perceptions, memories, and assumptions. This can cause us all kinds of trouble. Think about accidents caused by inattentive drivers in traffic, miscarriages of justice due to witnesses with selective memories, and aggravations caused by people who think they know when in fact they don’t. At the very least, this book makes you more humble about what you thought you knew about your world.

While this phenomenon is a fairly recent discovery in Western psychology, it has been core to Buddhist thinking for 15 centuries. One of the tenets that comes from this is the idea that the world we know is actually an illusory world, the Maya or veil of illusion of Hindu philosophy, and the Yuishiki (only mind) of Buddhist thought. In this sense, the snake turning out to be a rope, and the invisible gorilla in our midst are not just misperceptions, but profound metaphors for how we see the world.

Accessing the Unconscious

While Buddhist philosophy, depending on which culture, era, and school you consult, delineates a complex set of mindsets, deities, and layers of consciousness, there are several ways in which you can approach this subject. There is enough history and philosophy behind it to have kept scholars busy for the past 15 centuries. Students of Yogacara may approach it as a meditation or way of life, in an effort to deepen their consciousness or achieve some level of enlightenment.

Or you can study the psychology of consciousness, in an effort to better understand yourself and have a higher quality of life. This is the approach that we take with the Mandala Chart. Once you are aware that your perceptions are actually filtered by your preconceptions, and that the world is often not as it seems, then you can begin to explore what are the causes of our ignorance. According to Buddhist as well as Western philosophy, the trouble begins in the seventh layer, that of the Ego, the seat of selfish desires.

We have all met the EGOTIST, who falls for the ultimate illusion that they are the center of the universe. Perhaps at times we have been one. Shakespeare described him in Hamlet, as suffering in a state of madness.

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet

The philosopher Blaise Pascal described God and the universe as a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. This is the ultimate in flexible focus, and in the meaning of the word Mandala, which is Sanskrit for Universe. The Mandala Chart then, can help us through flexible focus to overcome the madness of the Ego-Centric view, by restoring in some measure the flexible focus which is a more accurate perception of the Universe.

However, the eighth level of SEED Consciousness, which some define as basal consciousness, causal consciousness, or universal consciousness, is hidden from us or at least filtered by the seventh level or veil of Mana Obscurity, the Shadow, the Ego.

The Storehouse contains the SEEDs which we plant, and gives them back to us in kind. Whatever grows from this Storehouse, whether a garden or a jungle, the Ego takes for granted and acts upon accordingly, thereby filtering our perceptions of what we see and what we do not see. It determines how we experience and respond to the world, our karma, the cycle of cause and effect, our work, our destiny, whether we experience suffering or experience bliss.

As a Man Thinketh

James Allen (1864~1912), through his book As a Man Thinketh, wrote the seminal work of the self-improvement movement, and a key influence on Norman Vincent Peale, Earl Nightingale, Denis Waitley and Tony Robbins, and others. The central premise of this short volume is that our thoughts create our world. Allen compares our subconscious mind to a garden, which bears fruit according to the seeds which are planted and cultivated. He was most certainly familiar with Indian philosophy and Buddhism, as evident from his writings, and from contemporary accounts of the friends of James Allen.

The lesson we can draw from it, and the practical application with the Mandala Chart, is to cultivate a flexible focus and select positive and harmonious seeds to plant in our unconscious. You manifest and feed what you focus on, so given the choice, why not focus on abundance in each of the eight fields of life?

We know that the Ego can be intransigent, stubborn, insistent on having its own way. How then can we free ourselves from this tyranny of our own making? The solution in Buddhist thought is that the Ego can be transformed from a tyrant into a humble servant through an attitude of gratitude, as we have seen in the article on the Principle of Gratitude.

The more you study the process, the more everything starts to fit. This is truly food for thought.

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