The Layers of the Mind

Throughout the world in all the spiritual traditions, and even in modern psychology the same understanding about the layers of the mind pops up again and again. It is described in different ways, and in different contexts, but the essence of it is always the same. In yoga they are called the layers of the mind or Koshas. In Christianity St Teresa d’Ávila described them symbolically as the mansions of the heart – different houses that we can live in inside our heart. The Theosophists describe the 7 rays, Zen and chinese buddhism have an artistic representation based on the story of a Bull that runs away and must be found and brought home. In western psychology they are described as stages of psychological development, but no matter what system you want to use, we all go through the same stages in our personal growth. The same recognisable experiences – presumeably because we are opening up the same levels of our consciousness. Of course exactly how many stages and how you describe them varies slightly, but there is a fairly close consistency across the traditions and around the world. Here is my best understanding of those layers of the mind

1. Instinct

Those who live by their instincts respond quickly and effectively to emergency and survival situations, but may have trouble controlling themselves in situations where the challenges are less direct. Modern city life for example does not lend itself well to a purely instinctive existence. Instinct is necessary, and it creates the fastest responses, but not always the wisest, or most loving.

2. Conscience

Our conscience leads to honourable and righteous behaviour, it restricts and controls the instincts so that they can be adapted to suit more closely our social existence. It is the conscience that allows us to live well in society, to become an upstanding, professional member of society. You will see the conscience well developed in most religious people, and it is a large part of what conventional, conservative religion teaches. It is also the foundation upon which all more elevated spiritual experiences begin.

3. Intellect

The scientific and technological revolution that has led to the wonders of modern society was the upswelling of this layer of the mind. It is responsible for deep thought, and analysis. This is a wonderful thing, only limited by the fact that analysis by its nature is divisive – it understands by separating things into small pieces and comprehending each little piece. In order to understand the systems and connections between things – the patterns that underly everything – one needs to access further layers, but enormous knowledge and ability can be developed at this stage.

4. Insight

Beyond the intellect is creativity, inspiration, dreams, and insight into oneself and others. All of these things are part of one way of looking at the world – a way that does not divide into pieces, but rather looks at how the different elements fit together. It is not precise, but rather inspired. It is this that allows us to develop emotional intelligence, to create inspired artwork, and to come up with creative solutions to the problems facing us. Many of the greatest scientists, although they worked primarily in the field of intellect – their great breakthroughs were when the inspired creative mind came through with an answer that changed the way we look at and understand the world. Many of our great artists access this part of the mind a lot, and it is responsible for the sensitivity that leads people to humanism – to championing justice, human rights, freedom, equality and such positive qualities.

5. Compassion

Even creativity for all its wonderful qualities can be stressful and overwhelming, and only when we can step beyond it can we find peace, and in that peace a deep compassion for others. This is the layer of mind that is responsible for detachment – the ability to step back and be at peace, not to grasp at what one desires, or thinks should be important; and also for the quality of discrimination which allows one to see what is important, and what is superficial, and to create wise priorities in life. And these qualities lead to wisdom. To a deep understanding of what is important and what is not, and to a sense of compassion that allows the holding space for others true self expression and growth.

6. Ecstacy

Peace and compassion are lovely, but in their quietness they do not engage our passions, and naturally as human beings we have a lot of passion. As we step beyond the layer of compassion we open up the layer of ecstacy where our passionate nature is engaged into our spiritual journey, and where we experience directly for ourselves the deepest aspects of the nature of the universe, and love itself. Devotion, and the divine love affair often find their expression here, and the gnostic experiences of direct perception of the nature of reality. Belief no longer is relevant because you can observe directly for yourself what is true. This is a powerful experience, an intense loving experience, but at times one that is too strong to be comfortable.

7. Connection

The loving ecstacy has a profound quality of love – I love you, and you love me, I love God, or I love everything. In whatever form it takes there is a lover and a beloved, but in the layer of connection all becomes one – I can no longer love you because I am you, and yet it is one of the most profoundly loving experience one can have. It is this experience of connection that people call oneness, and that leads to selfless service, and worldly effectiveness at the same time as deep inner peace and joy. The intense feelings that we experienced in the ecstatic phase have softened, so that the love is still there in some form, but it no longer feel difficult or intense, rather it feels peaceful and satisfying.

8. The Beyond

This is a book devoted to Oneness and Connection and yet to be complete I must point out that there is an experience beyond that – the experience of Emptiness, of Nothingness that is infinite peace, and completely detached from worldly existence. This experience allows people to step outside of our ordinary reality and experience profound bliss while they are totally unaware of their bodies. The greatest of joys, but in some way impractical – one cannot operate in the world at this level, and so after our little holiday in the beyond most people eventually choose to come back to reality (or at least this reality), and bring just a touch of infinite bliss with them.