PSYCHOLOGY OF CONSCIOUSNESS

V.George Mathew

1. Physical methods

2. Social Methods

3. Psychological methods

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INTRODUCTION

Consciousness has been defined as awareness of awareness. It has emerged as a field of psychology only in recent times though some of its concerns have their roots in religion, mysticism and occultism. The emergence of the study of consciousness in psychology reflects a change in the mentality of people. Today people are more troubled by existential problems than hysteric symptoms. People are asking questions about self-actualization and the possibility of growth instead of how to get rid of pathological symptoms. Consciousness is also becoming a new approach in psychology, a new way of looking at behavior, based on systems theory and the holistic method. The study of consciousness emphasizes certain areas like dreams, creativity and supernormal experiences. Consciousness has relevance for all science, as it is related to philosophical issues and the model of man. It is empirical, but open to descriptive, theoretical and insightful understanding. In the 21st century psychology may well be redefined as the study of consciousness and all psychology may be rewritten in that perspective. The study of consciousness may also serve to integrate many areas of psychology and other sciences.

The concept of consciousness arises out of the experience of altered states of consciousness. An alteration in consciousness involves qualitative change in perceptual, cognitive and conative aspects. It involves alteration of mediational processes between stimulus and response. Altered states of consciousness can be induced by overstimulation, sensory deprivation or by altering body chemistry.

ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS

1. Waking and Sleeping

These two states which are so different are regularly experienced by everybody every day. Some people experience a pronounced hypnogogic state in between waking and sleeping and some people get vivid hallucinations during this state.

2. Dreaming

Dreaming involves a state which is physiologically and psychologically different from deep sleep. Lucid dream is a still different mode of functioning where the dreamer has the awareness that he is dreaming. This state is said to be conducive for gaining insight into and awareness of the unconscious and is a technique in mystic training.

3. Hypnosis

This state is characterized by increased suggestibility and surrender of one's will.

4. Pathological States

The hysteric trance and schizoid states have been studied as altered states of consciousness using the phenomenological approach.

5. Orgiastic Trances

This type of trance results from group singing and dancing, often associated with religious ceremonies. These may be psi conducive states.

6. Drug Induced States

The notion of altered states of consciousness evolved originally as a result of the study of subjects who were habituated to drugs like LSD. Aldous Huxley's `Doors of Perception' which he wrote on the basis of his experiences with Mescaline is one of the pioneering classics in this area. Many of the effects are due to physiological changes like hypoglycemia. Some of the positive experiences include remembering forgotten painful experiences, ego dissolution, seeing beauty and significance in trivial things, and increase in awareness

while those who do not trust get bad trips characterized by terror, panic and suicidal tendencies. Though there seem to be some similarities between drug induced states and aesthetic and mystic states, the similarities may only be superficial and the drug may be producing these effects by damaging the brain of a person who may not be ready or mature enough for a transformation of personality required for genuine mystic experiences. Therefore most authorities do not recommend the use of drugs for altering consciousness though some think that under expert supervision the drugs may play a useful role in efforts to alter states of consciousness. Drugs like ganja, traditionally used for mystic training produce memory disorders, decrement in complex psychomotor tasks, lethargy, lack of motivation and lowering of testosterone levels. Some develop psychosis.

7. Aesthetic State

Many great artists have described sudden changes in consciousness revealing great beauty which inspire them for creation of works of art. It is almost like a veil falling off from the eyes. Some people regard the aesthetic state as `extraverted' mystic experience i.e. the projection of the experience of integration within onto the external world.

8. Mystic State

This is the most important among all the altered states of consciousness. The term mystic is used in the sense of beyond description. This is supposed to be the absolute state of pure consciousness. This involves an alteration of the self-process and freedom from symbolic thinking. At the perceptual level there is unity, the experienced emotion is bliss and at the conative level there is control and self-sufficiency.

Mystics belonging to different mystic traditions have different names for this experience. Hindus call this samadhi, Buddhists nirvana, Sufis fana, Christians pneuma and the term used in Zen Buddhism is satori. Those experiencing this consider this realization of truth or self-realization, This to some extent overlaps with Maslow's transcendent self-actualization. Fragmentary mystic experiences (peak experiences) have been reported by artists, and spontaneous experiences resembling the mystic experience by people viewing landscapes and during childbirth. The highest mystic experience is supposed to be beyond time and space.

9. Other States of Consciousness

There seems to be no sharp line of demarcation between feeling states and states of consciousness. A person in a fit of rage functions differently from his normal pattern of behavior. Fainting may involve alterations in consciousness and effects of isolation may produce alterations in consciousness. Activities like sports may induce peak experience in expert players.

VALIDATION OF THE MYSTIC EXPERIENCE

Since mystic state is the basic altered state of consciousness with which all other states are compared, validation of the genuineness of this state as different from the pathological states becomes very important. Before the psychology of consciousness evolved as a discipline, many psychologists considered such experiences as close to withdrawal into intra-uterine narcism and undifferentiated infantile ego state of Freud. Jung has written that the 'samadhi' experience involves merging of the meaningful contents of the unconscious into a meaningless homogeneity, unlike the state of full integration achieved through his technique of individuation where the different contents of the unconscious are accessible to the self.

There is no logical reason to suppose that the ordinary experience of reality is the most valid one. All perception is essentially subjective and psychological research has demonstrated how perception is influenced by constancy phenomena, illusions and past experience and unconscious factors. Modern physics has given a jolt to the supposition that reality is as it is experienced by the senses. Perception of time changes with alteration of consciousness. When the psyche observes itself, space and time become relative. Just because we seem to agree upon certain aspects of our ordinary waking experience and just because it has some pragmatic value in our everyday life we cannot assert that this experience is the most valid one. The mystic says that there is an absolute state wherein the person has full insight and is able to experience reality uncolored by any subjective equation. Much of the psychology of consciousness is concerned with validating the mystic experience and studying the nature and characteristics of this experience and means for achieving this experience.

DYNAMICS OF CHANGE IN CONSCIOUSNESS

Deautomatisation is the process of changing the hierarchical ordering of perceptual and cognitive structure and function which limit, select, organize and interpret stimuli. It involves nullifying the habitual patterns of behavior. It means getting freedom from instinctual stimulus-response patterns, released by social milieu and strengthened throughout life. It amounts to becoming less of an S-R machine and becoming more of a person. It is the culmination of a process of intensification of awareness and consciousness and becoming more live. It is the end point of the development of insight and self-control. The ordinary man is the slave and victim of a set of situationally induced motives and it is not easy to get out of the socially induced matrix of loves and hates. Deautomatisation involves loosening of existential insecurity and reduction of survival anxiety and the consequent change in the perception of self-environment relationship. Solitude, renunciation of usual stimuli, blocking habitual stimuli by chants and meditation, exposure to unusual stimuli (eg. large expanse of water, scenery, view from a mountain top, etc.) and so on may help in Deautomatisation. Exposure to mightiness and immensity of the elements and forces of nature helps in losing self-centeredness and self-importance. This leads to acceptance of the triviality and insignificance of one's individual existence and ego dissolution. When an individual is not bothered about himself, his restlessness ceases, leading to increased tranquillity and peace.

The change in personality leading to mystic experience is one of increasing integration, opposite to the psychotic change, which is change towards disintegration.

BASES OF CONSCIOUSNESS

The factors which influence, mould and maintain a habitual functioning level of consciousness can be grouped into three : Physical, Social and Psychological.

1. Physical bases of Consciousness

Some philosophers think that mind and body are one. It is supposed that the structure and form determine the emergent vitality. Though the systems of physiognomy and phrenology in which bodily signs are used to predict behavior traits are not accepted by many, there is some evidence showing that bodily structure and function influence behavior, in general terms. It was believed that Buddha had a perfect body. The modern psychosomatic concept also points to the same direction. Mystic consciousness is supposed to involve body transcendence. A healthy functioning of the body is essential for forgetting the body. Any disease or imperfection cause pain or lethargy and brings down the level of mental functioning.

Of the different systems of the body the endocrine system and the nervous system are perhaps most important in conditioning the mind. The pineal gland and the limbic system have been related to physical changes mediating higher levels of consciousness. It has been hypothesized that pure consciousness is experienced when the brain comes to a state of rest, permitting transcendence when the excitatory and inhibitory processed have been stilled. Recent evidence points to the conclusion that experience can to some extent modify and alter heredity. There are hormones which switch on and off the functioning of various genes. Genes change place (jumping genes)altering characteristics, mediating higher forms of consciousness. It has been found that the two hemispheres of the brain function somewhat independently. This has been called the split brain hypothesis or bimodal consciousness. For right-handed people, the left hemisphere mediates rational and analytic functions more than the right, while the right hemisphere mediates holistic, synthetic and intuitive functions. Naming, ordinary speech and reading and writing, abstraction, arithmetic processes and aggressive, manipulative problems solving, etc. are more a function of the left hemisphere, while the right shows dominance in singing words, arts and crafts, recognition, affective experiences, body images, dream, figurative modes of function and so on.

It has been found that processes like meditation lead to better integration of function of both hemispheres (as indicated by increased coherence of brain waves from the two hemispheres), which may be required for experiencing the higher states of consciousness.

2. Social Bases of Consciousness :

A. Culture & Reality

Different cultures codify reality differently. An individual, growing up in a culture imbibes the characteristic perception of reality in that culture. Modern cultures emphasize the analytical, logical mode. Language is the main mechanism for transmitting a mode of consciousness and an analysis of language can to some reveal the mentality of people who speak that language.

In modern cultures words denote specific objects while in some primitive cultures words denote emotive reactions to objects rather than observed forms. For example, in Java, the word Ave (for sibling of the opposite sex), literally means strain and propriety and Kainga (for sibling of the same sex) means easy relationship. Intensification of consciousness is associated with emphasizing the present more than the past or future. In modern cultures, as a result of concern over the future and consequent stress on causality and linear connection of events, people lose touch with the present. In some primitive cultures, the concept of causality is almost absent. In a Trobriand culture, events and objects are seen as self-contained. There seems to be no perception of change, or lineal connection. Their language has no adjectives. There are separate words for a green fruit and ripe fruit. An object ceases to be itself when it changes. There are no words for past or future.Past and future are described in the present tense. There is no notion of becoming, only pre-ordained patterns are recognized.

B. Social Relationships

Man's self-concept is related to his perception of others. Your perception of other people and how you treat others reflect your attitude to self. How a person functions is determined largely by his matrix of loves and hatreds, attachments, identifications and rivalries. Situationally induced motives and socially conditioned tension-relaxation patterns influence how a person functions. Survival depends on the pattern of co-operation and competition. This determines release of instincts and their possible sublimation and transcendence.

3. Psychological Bases of Consciousness

The elevation of consciousness is supposed to be a function of degree of Psychosynthesis achieved, the degree of integration of the conscious and unconscious elements, the degree of insight achieved. This depends on self-acceptance, awareness, detachment and instinctual transcendence. This implies freedom from pre-conceptions, entanglements, complexes, inferiorities and dissociative tendencies. Insecurity, restlessness and compensatory desires lead to self-love, self-importance and the ego. On the other hand stilling of the mind and loss of ego lead to increased unitiveness.

METHODS OF ALTERING CONSCIOUSNESS

Unlike most other fields of activity and attainment, there is no guaranteed one method that leads to higher states of consciousness. In fact the `doing-achieving' orientation itself is supposed to be a block. It is not what you do actually, but the mental state which counts.

1.Physical methods

  1. Relaxation:

The physical methods suppose that the body is almost the same as the unconscious. Free body movement implies free emotional expression. Every repression is a muscular block.

Energy gets locked up in bodily tension. Conflicts are contained in and expressed through the body. People who are mentally tense have physical symptoms like clenched fist, gripping arms, blinking, mannerisms, gestures, propitiatory smiles, strained voice, shallow breath and dead hands. Presence of coldness, inability to express anger, etc. show up through the body. Increasing body awareness is one method of achieving relaxation. According to the Weber-Fechner law, there is greater sensitivity in lower muscular tension. So cultivating body awareness by concentrating on various points in the body and achieving bodily relaxation is a method of achieving mental or total relaxation. Jacobson's relaxation technique or yogic techniques of yoganidra and savasan help in relaxation.

B. Massage:

Massage is used to treat stress-related behavior disorders. It is supposed to have a bearing on consciousness. The theory supposes that personality is reflected in the physical body. structural blockage goes with emotional blocks. Attitudes influence structure of body. Emotions cause change in length and thickness of muscles, change in connective tissue and immobilization.

Massage causes reorganization of muscle function and reintegration of structure. Ida Rolf has developed techniques of massage called Rolfing and there is some evidence showing increased sensitivity and awareness and changes in perception following Rolfing. When several people jointly massage a person, he gets a feeling of belongingness also.

C. Dance:

All dance probably has a bearing on consciousness. Certain specially designed dances like the Sufi dance where the to dervishes whirl very fast and Tai Chi Ch'uan of China are supposed to help in alteration of consciousness in addition to promoting mental and physical fitness.

D: Yogic Postures:

The yogic system of exercises or asanas and kriyas are supposed to stimulate psychic centers. They produce a feeling of fitness and well being.

E. Breathing Exercises:

Breathing is supposed to be a bridge connecting the somatic and autonomic nervous systems as breathing is voluntary, though without deliberate effort it goes on. Deep breathing helps in relaxation, as there is a connection between breathing rhythm and the mind. Breathing pattern changes with the state of consciousness and controlling breath enables a person to control the mind. Pranayama or yogic breathing techniques help in achieving mind control.

F. Expressive Techniques:

Permitting a person to express his suppressed anger (anger therapy) and other emotions before others as in encounter groups, helps in tension release and physical and mental relaxation. People pound a pillow, stamp their feet, bite, shout or scream (primal scream therapy), venting their emotions and inhibitions. These have an indirect liberating effect on consciousness. Cathartic methods, however have to be used with caution. If overdone, they may reinforce the negative emotions and accompanying aggressive and other undesirable acts.

G. Kasina Exercise:

These are rhythmic activities used for fixating the impulse to action. These are similar to some people twitching their moustache, or playing with the tablecloth, rapping, smoking, arranging things, etc. to get rid of surplus energy. Many people use hobbies for such a benefit. Rituals also probably serve some such function. Kasina exercises were used by Buddhist monks.

2. Social Methods

A.Manipulation of Social Factors:

Getting to know several languages helps a person to get unstuck form one mode of perceiving reality. Religious teachings (eg. love thy neighbor, nishkama karma, etc.) help in altering the mode of social functioning with consequent changes in mental functioning. Changed social functioning as well as total withdrawal from society into solitude may help different types of persons at different levels of personality to achieve changes in mode of functioning.

B. Altering Social Relationships:

There is a potential growth situation whenever people interact. Counseling can have a deeper level effect than is ordinarily recognized by counselors. In consciousness oriented counseling the aim is long-term or deep level change rather than solving a specific problem or removal of symptoms. From this perspective, suffering or maladjustment is desirable, if that would lead to greater integration or growth or maturity in the long run. Many esoteric disciplines recognize periods of depression (when a practitioner realizes the impermanence of all things) or heightened sex drive during certain stages of practice, as normal. These schools recognize the personality of the guru or the stage of growth reached by him as the most important factor helping growth in the disciple. In sat sang persons develop through psychic interexchange or by sympathetic vibrations while interacting with highly developed persons. Social values and way of life are probably related to a person's personality structure and changes in these can help in altering consciousness.

3. Psychological Methods

Freud wrote that the unconscious is omniscient, omni-present and omnipotent. His main technique was integration through insight. Jung extended this concept to individuation process to include integration of the elements of the collective unconscious also. Roberto Assagioli developed techniques of concentration involving vivid visualization of archetypal symbols to achieve Psychosynthesis. Meditation, once a technique of various religious traditions is now being perfected as a psychological technique. Meditation is mind-fasting or the deliberate attempt to still the mind. It is an easy, effortless and restful state of alertness. It leads to both physical and mental relaxation. Though some people speak of concentrative meditation and opening-up mediation, the general policy is to regard concentration (on an object or idea) as a preliminary training and meditation proper as reduction of thoughts or thoughtlessness. Meditation culminates in super consciousness.