Psychotherapy often intersects with philosophy. In the exploratory process that is psychotherapy, recurring themes often center on issues of meaning of life, personal identity and legacy. Self-exploration in psychotherapy can persistently circle around issues that are not only fundamentally philosophical, but also frankly spiritual.
The highest forms of psychotherapy, in fact, evoke philosophical issues, because as one resolves psychological conflicts gathered in earthbound life, there remains the question of the ultimate transition from life’s now, to the infinite thereafter.
This paper derives from the experiences of individuals who have come to center their quests along these lines, and who have attained clarity on some of these issues. Insights gathered, often derived from novel states of mind attained in meditation and hypnosis, can propel the sense of beingness to new configurations (Sunnen: “Spiritual epiphanies during hypnosis”). Rewards from these forays range from new experiences of authenticity to greater harmony relative to others, and to a richer comprehension of one’s unique yet universal relationship to the ecology of life.
Difficult as they may be to describe, these perceptions can shift the way we experience and direct our live trajectories. The title of this paper suggests that it is the concept of “Pure Consciousness” that is transformative. While this is true when the concept is deeply absorbed, it is its impactful experience, however short and fleeting, that creates the most profound transformations in self.
On the place of meditation in psychotherapy
Psychotherapy essentially seeks to assist in the transformation of consciousness, from a lesser state, to a higher state. The lesser state is usually one of psychic malaise, existential pain, dysphoria in all its myriad forms, from all manner of persistent depressions and paralyzing anxieties to painful self-esteem and self-image issues. The coveted higher states of consciousness, on the contrary, imply relief, or even liberation from these dysphoric challenges.
Various therapeutic techniques may be recruited to assist and augment psychotherapy’s efficiency (Sunnen: “So you want to get better faster?”). Meditation, therapeutic hypnosis and self-hypnosis are among several effective candidates. Most meditators, however, initiate meditative practice as a solo discipline. Meditation thus goes beyond being an adjunct for psychotherapy, to becoming an individual discipline aiming for personal transcendence. What sparks and fuels the determined drive of these hardy meditators?
The push for embarking on a meditative path may stem from the need to soothe the travails of psyche’s malaise. Before embarking on this journey, if this is the case, it will be helpful for nascent meditators to clarify the source of their motivations. Which, it may be asked, of the great dysphoric spectrums, drive their meditative calling? Are motivations stemming from to the anguish/insecurity/fear spectrum? From the hurt/anger/aggression spectrum? Or from the melancholia/blues/depression spectrum? Or from mixtures of all?
Meditation can be of assistance in all these spectrums. Meditation can defuse anxieties by extending awareness far into the body’s organ systems, effectively shutting down the very mechanisms that create them, opening portals to deeper levels of calm. Meditation can soften the intensity of the hurt/anger spectrum by bringing out higher perspectives on personhood relative to the world, such as gratitude and empathy. Meditation can also help to lift some depressions via its capacity to stimulate the biologic functions of organs via the energizing impetus of guided awareness.
A number of motivations for embarking on meditation practice, however, spring from other sources. They may find their origins, for example, in quests for fuller knowing of identity and meaning. Many people, although they function quite well in society, nevertheless seek bolstering emotional connections to their fellow humans and to the greater world at large, wishing for more rewarding comprehension of a society that at times seems uncomfortably perplexing.
Meditation, in this eventuality, also offers possibilities for resolution because it strives to bring out fundamental knowing. So, if not relief from emotional pain, what are dedicated meditators seeking? Spending hours daily year after year in arduous practice, what are their quests, and what could be the imagined rewards that drive so many for so long to such devotion?
Meditation and the quest for permanence
Most are familiar with the adage associated with Eastern philosophies that any and all that changes is illusion. Said changes include most everything. All that time shapes includes the milieu that surrounds us and, internally, the very physicality and workings of our bodies. In the realms of the persona, time is the medium driving the continuous changes in our daily experiences and their memories, the flow of our thoughts and states of mind.
Individual personality is unique, a last proprietary holdout, seemingly permanent and immutable, and so we dearly want to hold on to it. Yet, just as personality was constructed over time, it too is subject to deconstruction. Nor is persona luggage that can transfer to the afterworld. So, in the inventory of impermanence, is anything left?
To ancient philosophers, impermanence could evidently not belong to anything in the observable physical world, including our bodies, although our atoms and their subatomic constituents are theoretically endowed with perpetuity. Impermanence, it was reasoned, could then only pertain to something relative to mind. Their best and only candidate: Our consciousness.
Many seek permanence in creating works that will last concretely in four-dimensional space-time. Works of literature, art, music and architecture, among others, carry the hope that they will transport their creators’ essence as far into timelessness as possible. Those individuals, however, who have been schooled in philosophies and religions that teach the sanctity of inner permanence and its rewards, are seemingly unmotivated by these forays of intellect and creativity, preferring instead to focus their efforts on discoveries relative to the consciousness within themselves.
Ancient texts showed intense interest in this issue. The Upanishads, written in a period circa 600 BC turned their inspiration and search to states of the mind. To condense matters, the Upanishads described four fundamental states of consciousness, namely the ordinary waking state, the dreaming state (currently known as the REM sleep state), the deep sleep state (probably corresponding to NREM sleep), and another state, called the “Fourth State.”
The “Fourth State” is essentially a distillation of consciousness. It is consciousness without its accouterments. Imagine the process whereby a medley of ripe fruits, methodically and lovingly heated, in time releases its purest spirits. The distillation of awareness through meditation similarly seeks to retain its diamonds after casting off what are considered impurities. Indeed, meditation is seen in ancient texts as a purification process, and one may ask: When awareness is stripped of all its lights, sounds and feelings, what is left?
Imagine a power source such as a 12-volt battery, solid and fully charged. It supplies a number of electronic devices, a microphone and speaker, a visual screen, a computer, a microprocessor, and an antenna. All in working order and active. One by one, each item is then removed. When all are disconnected, what happens? In this metaphor, what remains is a reservoir of electricity, in all intensity and purest form.
Now imagine the battery connected to a worldwide grid. The electricity suddenly has access to vast networks. This metaphor reflects how ancients though about consciousness, as a personal dimension ultimately branching far beyond the self, connecting to some unifying substrate to all life everywhere.
Consciousness Nature vs. Consciousness Content, and its paradox
Within this perspective, the path of the meditator is in discerning what, in personal consciousness, is fundamental essence. Encounters with the mind’s activities during meditation become, with persistence, progressively identified as belonging to “No, this is transitory” versus “Yes, this is probably truly fundamental.” As consciousness content is diligently purged from consciousness nature, there develops a more poignant appreciation for what is evanescent, such as, for example, the roles society assigns to people, and the opinions, positive or negative, that others bestow on each other.
In tandem, a visceral understanding of consciousness’s nature emerges, namely that it is a fundamentally positive and “Good” force because it feels so universal. In some fashion, the writings of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau come to mind, namely that while the core nature of humans is fundamentally good, it is the cumulation of life’s unfortunate experiences and society’s establishments that corrupts it (Rousseau, 1712-1778).
In this meditative process, as cognitive messages are progressively cleared, many will need to surmount the apprehension of their own brain silence. But in fact, the brain-mind is never silent. Awareness is always present, even if in the distant background, persisting in some form, in sleep, and even coma.
Along with meditation’s progress, the notion of self undergoes transformations, becoming more solidly connected to inner fundamentals. Less jostled by the surface waves of life, a welcome sense of continuity emerges. Ongoing meditation begins to shape the meditator’s relationship to society. The changes, even though often difficult to define, are reported to reflect a higher quality of interpersonal communications, often described as belonging to more experiential and emotional registers, combined with keener intuitions about others. Interestingly, a rising sensitivity to all things nature and life emerges. Also, commonly noted, are behaviors that reflect progressive increments of self-actualization and fortitude.
In this meditative process, the perception of “Consciousness nature” is usually reached in steps. As in most progressions, there may at first only be evanescent glimpses, as in a game of hide and seek. The meditator patiently deals with blockages and with a tendency of coveted novel perceptions to slip away. There are plateaus, regressions, then resurgences of progress. At times, however, like openings in clouds, appear ongoing beams of unadulterated perceptions of this special state of mind.
Defined as without thoughts, emotions, memories, images, or even sense of self, one may ask if it is possible to experience anything in this unique state, called “Pure consciousness.” Herein is the paradox. How can one, in a state defined as non-experiential, experience anything?
The fact remains that experiencing persists in the experience of “Pure consciousness.” But it embodies new properties, while shedding others. The experiencing in this state is ineffable because there is a connection void between the new state of consciousness and the brain’s language centers. In this state, concepts that challenge (and stymie) the everyday mind are easily understood, but non-verbally. In fact, the mind in this state does not think in concepts because, in the ordinary sense of the word, it does not think: Can the universe really have had no beginning and is to have no end? Can consciousness move on beyond death? Can anything travel faster than light? The knowing mind answers: Yes, consciousness itself.
Experiencing “Pure consciousness,” even if transiently, is transformative, even if it happens stepwise. Changes manifest most poignantly via feelings of personhood. Finding a personal center in these experiences translates to a more constant and reliable source of personal life force and philosophical perspectives on the changes that life brings. Other changes may follow as well, having to do with one’s affective connections to others, in the dimensions of authenticity and empathy. Research is much needed (Vieten, 2018). But although our culture is laudably enamored with all that is evidenced–based, this line of discovery may escape its reach for measurable proof of concept for a long time to come.
There are many styles of meditative practice and, for the beginning meditator, much of the initial work is discovering a right personal fit. To that end, a guide can be helpful as it is likely to save time. Regardless of the style of meditation, however, the essence of meditative science contains the following core properties of mind.
One is awareness. Meditation can only be called as such if it involves the active engagement of awareness. Awareness is a force bridging the whole span of the mind-body continuum. The production of awareness is connected to complexly intertwined neurological systems (Sunnen: “The Neurology of Meditation”). Humbly setting aside all impressive recent scientific progress from neuroanatomy to molecular biology, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that awareness’s very nature, and the processes that create it, remain totally enigmatic. Yet, despite all, awareness, whatever its origins and genesis, is an essential driving force for meditation because it is the medium through which changes are created. Concentrated awareness can indeed reshape neural networks, regulate bodily organ functions, and even impact the very genetic codes that determine our biology.
A second dimension implicated in meditation is the nexus of selfhood, translated experientially as the feeling of “I,” or “Me,” vividly felt as acute sentience in the experiential moment. Attempts to locate its neurological seat give way to an appreciation that, despite the fact that some brain centers participate more than others, total brain involvement is necessary for its full expression (Sunnen: “Hypnosis and Meditation as States of Heightened Brain Plasticity”). Connected to this dimension are vital cognitive tools: concentration, memory, logic, intelligence and imagination, among others.
A third element is the faculty of will, whose soft side, the capacity to gently and persistently direct awareness, is central to meditative action. Will is essential for giving direction to awareness.
A fourth element allowing for the expression of meditation’s potential is nature-given, namely the organism’s astounding interconnectivity. Via direct links and through far-reaching chemical messengers, all organs, and especially all nervous system networks cross-talk trillion times per microsecond, in wakefulness and during sleep.
Beyond the brain’s physicality, the mind’s proprietary awareness sits as the penultimate overseer. While many processes live below its threshold and thus belong to veiled realms of the vast unconscious, awareness has possibilities for traveling throughout nervous system circuitry to all its connected organs. Meditation’s pathways join the highest light of awareness to the most intricate mechanisms of bodily cells.
The interaction of these dimensions underlies the high potential of meditation. The gentle push of soft will, directed on path, drives awareness not only into the peripheral highways of the nervous system, but also into the higher brain conduits that generate awareness. Awareness, directed to itself, kindles itself.
Some special states of consciousness, once experienced, can shift one’s view of self, others, and greater society to new perspectives. While these states can be experienced spontaneously as a normal outgrowth of personal change and evolution, they are encouraged to emerge via dedicated meditative practices.
The highest mission of meditation aims to distinguish the perception of “Consciousness content,” namely all that the mind elaborates in its relation to the physical and social world, from “Consciousness nature,” which manifests as the core essence of awareness. The experiencing of this unique non-configuration of awareness is a goal of a number of meditative practices. Perception of this essence can provide a poignant experiential notion of permanence, and personal centering; and, in the context of psychotherapy’s goals, can function as a facilitator for transforming insights into actual changes. Contacting “Pure consciousness“ is not only a generator of existential aplomb, it is also a catalyst for the blossoming of higher qualities of being.
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Gérard V. Sunnen M.D.
Board Certified in Psychiatry and Neurology.
(Ret.) Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry,
Bellevue-NYU Medical Center, New York
200 East 33rd St.
New York, NY 10016-4831