Today, let us study the four states of human consciousness and their relationship to different kinds or levels of attention. This is not a simple exercise, but it is an important one, given how many things—large and small—pull at our attention right now, causing us distraction and stress. By examining our consciousness and becoming more mindful of the importance of all four states to our health, we can reduce that stress a great deal and better exist in the world, especially during difficult times such as these.
To put us in the mindset to consider these four states, let us begin by asking essential questions that have been with humankind for many years. Perhaps one or more of these will resonate with you:
What is the mystery of living? What is the objective world and what is our relationship to it? Is there a reality beyond the objective world? What is this reality? Does it require a new way of perception? What does it mean to be psychologically free i.e. to not be a slave to every desire, whim, emotion, or thought that clouds our minds? Can we relate to each other in a totally new way? Can there be a new way of living?
This is the state that nature provides us to balance the functions of the body, while repairing and healing the tissues. It is also psychologically cleansing since it releases psychic waste through dreams.
When the scriptures allude to this state, it is not for the physical activity of sleep, but for its characteristic, which is zero attention. In sleep, our attention goes back to its source and we remain in a state of zero attention.
Our work is to become aware of this state of zero attention when we are in the so-called waking state. That is, while our bodies may move and perform the tasks of daily life, our level of attention is the same as in deep sleep. Instead of holding our attention in the present moment, we allow our attention to drift as though into a dream. We call this daydreaming and brooding. Daydreaming is what we imagine about the future while brooding is pondering something from the past. The root of the word Nidra is ‘Nid’ which means drowsiness, i.e. we are never present.
We spend a great deal of our lives in this state of nidra or sleep, the lowest state of consciousness. If we are driving but daydreaming about stock prices, then we are in this state of nidra. We could be watching TV but brooding over how someone insulted us five years ago and how we will get the better of them. Again this is the state of nidra. In both these cases, there is zero attention in the present.
Here we do not mean the dreams we have at night, but the state in which we live all twenty-four hours. That is why it is also called psychological sleep or the hypnotic sleep of life. In this state, we eat, drink, move, and go about our day-to- day life.
Unless we experience a moment of higher consciousness, however, we are never convinced that we are living in a dream.
We can divide this second state of consciousness into two parts: a lower part and a higher part. In the lower part, we are in a state of seduced attention. Our attention is automatically attracted to what we are doing. There is no effort to hold the attention. We may be watching an interesting movie, reading a gripping book, playing with our loved ones, or watching a game. In all these cases, our attention is automatically held in the outer event. We may be hypnotized in a negative emotion, in a state of anger, or upset about something. This is the state of attracted attention where we are immersed in what we’re doing.
The higher part of this dream state is characterized by directed attention. That is, we have to make a special effort to hold our attention in what we are doing. It requires the focused holding of attention with will. The more we remain in this state, the more will we create. When we study for an exam or try to understand something, we are in this state.
Many people cannot today attain this directed state of attention but quickly want to fall back to the state of attracted attention. But there remain many statesmen, great teachers, scientists, and judges who are able to hold this state of directed attention for long periods of time. This state of very powerful, directed attention is very close to the higher state of consciousness called Jagruti or the Awakened state.
The typical trait of this state is Self-Consciousness. That is to say, in this state we make an extra effort to be conscious of the ‘I’ doing an action or experiencing a moment.
For example, while I am in the present moment drinking tea, I simultaneously feel myself as watching myself drinking tea. I take in two experiences simultaneously – that of drinking tea and that of observing the ‘I’ drinking the tea. It could be ‘I’ having a bath, ‘I’ driving a car, etc.
To be able to hold this state, we must be capable of dividing our attention. This is characteristic of the state of Jagruti. One arrow of attention is on what we are doing, drinking tea for example, while the other arrow is on the feeling of watching the ‘I’ drinking the tea. The minute we lose this state of divided attention, we fall back into the state of swapna or the second state of consciousness. Even if while meditating, attention is one-pointed and not divided, we are in the state of Swapna, not Jagruti.
Our goal should be to keep practicing so as to hold this state for very long periods of time. Slowly, we will become established in this state and begin experiencing a Self which is separate from the dream of life.
Real Prayer is only possible when in this state. People often pray from the second state of consciousness, but this prayer can never help. An answer to prayers can only come from being in a higher state of consciousness, and so this state can only come those in Jagruti, not to Swapna.
This is the state of truth, where we see things exactly as they are. We understand the process and laws through which Divinity penetrates into the three worlds.
This final state of consciousness is not simply there to be acquired—it comes in bits and pieces. If the journey through Jagruti is from 1 to 100, when we have risen a little in Jagruti – say to 10 – then that equivalent part of Turiya comes to meet us. Our darshan or perception is then more established in truth. When we reach 90, our whole being is immersed in truth.
Thus, Turiya is not achieved but comes down to meet us in the state of Jagruti. This is called Avataran or Descent. In the state of Turiya, our attention has reached the source from where it first came. This state is where attention is attentive of attention. This is the state of Swayambhu or Self Manifested. It is the highest state of consciousness that a human being can reach.
In the Shrimad Bhagvad Gita, these four states of Sleep or Nidra, Swapna or Psychological Sleep, Jagruti or Self Consciousness, and Turiya or Objective Consciousness are represented by Dhritharashtra, Sanjay, Arjun, and Sri Krishna, respectively.
Whatever religion or path we follow, these four states of consciousness are our the only spiritual map we need.