The Metaconscious Perspective
A Personal Consideration of the Perennial Philosophy
by Joe Sharcoff
After the topics of sex and money, everyone seems to write about "higher consciousness." Bookstores host whole sections on meditation and God; go online, type in a keyword, get a listing for thousands of articles. Insight abounds.
Welcome to my two-cents worth.
Aiming for brevity and flow, I will cite no references. Perhaps you're familiar with the literature; maybe you're here just out of curiosity. If you want more, there are other writers to seek out, both contemporary and historic, men and women of stupendous awareness. I am indebted to all my sources for the pocketful of information I understand.
I want to keep this simple. Every higher-consciousness tradition has its own terminology, which can be burdensome. What I hope to present here are some basic principles. Understand I am no expert. However, I do hold a Master of Science degree in clinical psychology, have been meditating for over three decades and lucid dreaming since childhood; and prior to retirement in 2012, I worked in the New York City public school system, as a psychologist, for 29 years. I also like to write, so let me toss a pebble in the water and see where the ripples go.
Quietly, ask yourself: what is it like to be conscious? Without talking or thinking about it, how do you know you're aware? Many people pause at these questions, becoming conscious of being conscious. Fleetingly, they become metaconscious.
"Meta-" is a prefix meaning "about," indicating self-reference. For example, to talk about talking is meta-talking; to think about thinking is meta-thinking; and to be conscious of being conscious: that's being meta-conscious. Attention notes itself. This is the common thread in all meditation and key to a unique process of discovery.
As attention training, meditation is not thinking. It is not musing, daydreaming nor any other drift of mind. Meditative practice universally begins with relaxed concentration on something specific, this to minimize, intentionally, all that thinking and drifting. When concentration lapses, a conscious act of will is necessary to restore it.
To help anchor concentration, one may pick a focus that's tangible (eg, one's breathing), mental/emotional (eg, a visualization, or love); or, most intangible, is paying attention to nothing in particular (again: this is not passive mental drifting). Depending on how or what one concentrates, different psychological effects will occur.
Regardless, all meditation begins with looking at the surface of one's awareness, with avoiding inattention. With practice, this metaconscious perspective tends to deepen, allowing a perception of the so-called higher levels.
What is higher consciousness? For that matter, what is ordinary consciousness?
Ordinary consciousness is grounded in sensory (and bodily) awareness. This is of obvious survival value for living in a physical world. Ordinary consciousness also involves thinking, somewhat about the physical world, but mostly, we are thinking about our lives: about plans, other people, of things done, and so on. As consequence, sensory awareness is partially eclipsed. How often have you walked down the street thinking while oblivious to your surroundings? Inattention seems to be a default human state due to submergence in thought.
Mostly subconscious itself, this thinking arises as inner dialogue (or if you prefer, inner cinema). We are always talking to ourselves. Strongly influenced by family, peers and community, our inner chatter is typically emotional, short-sighted, and effectively hypnotic as it defines for us the world, ourselves and how it all relates.
Higher Consciousness and Levels of Reality
Given the immediate demands of physical existence and society, ordinary consciousness perceives only a narrow strip of an overall reality vast beyond reckoning. Those seeking to interpret and see outside this narrow strip have fashioned all sorts of reality "maps": scientific, philosophical, religious, etc. Emphasized in many is this: reality is a dynamic whole. Seen analytically, reality may also be regarded as a multi-level, interactive system of holons.
A holon is anything which is both whole and part. Examples of physical holons would be whole molecules, which are parts of whole cells, which are parts of whole people. Mental/symbolic holons could be whole words, which are parts of whole sentences, which are parts of whole texts. Furthermore, from quarks to cosmos, and certainly with people, holons change and grow. Reflect on an infant becoming a child then an adolescent then an adult. Lower holons are subsumed into higher as higher holons emerge; and each higher manifestation displays new properties, properties defining a more inclusive, more complex whole.
As meant here, higher consciousness is the direct experiencing of properties belonging to extraordinarily complex, even sublime holons. It is the transcendent equivalent of, say, vision in knowing the property of color, or literacy to know written meaning. More complexity enables more awareness.
That said: there is no set number of holon-based reality levels. Depending on the higher-consciousness tradition and its map, there are few or many. Here's my take on it.
Earth. This is the simplest level, involving inanimate matter and energy.
Water. Here's life: germs, veggies and animals, with reality showing new properties: instinctual, sensory and emotional. With "image mind" comes a literal, concrete understanding of the physical world.
Air. This is the level of symbolic mind, ranging from the simplest use of symbols to label the physical world, to symbolic thinking about the physical world, to symbolic thinking about symbols and thinking. In human development, identifying stage by stage with these ascending mental holons gives rise to the maturing ego (actually, the illusion of an ego: each of us is more like a cluster of subroutines, of egoic agents, each with its own agenda, will, inner dialogue and emotion set).
Fire. We have all had moments of Fire: when the unconscious becomes conscious, when mind is one with body. The gestalt of the organism comes to the fore with panoramic reasoning and intuition, with peak athletic performance or creative inspiration. This Fiery bodymind (this "bond") functions with a singular will, with unbroken clarity and stride.
So much for familiar reality. Now comes the fun stuff, where to go for transcendence.
Light. Embracing the oneness of the bond, but not ending there, is a serene unity so encompassing, true contemplative insight into the nature of the world can begin (sometimes marked by dreamlike, "psiconscious" events, courtesy of reality's deep interconnectivity). With development, these insights reveal the dynamic essence of this realm: the archetypes, the divine fundamentals of creation, experienced as radiant, glorious visions and sounds. This begins with one's personal archetype: the immediate source of self, the higher, sublime holon of which the familiar self has always been part. Light culminates in Final archetype: the source of a whole radiant hierarchy of which the personal archetype has always been part. Behold "God" in relation to the created universe.
Void. This is the True Source, where Final archetype comes from, so perfectly whole it is totally imperceptable because it is beyond all difference and manifestation. It is simply beyond being known. This is Godhead, God before creation, the eternal, impenetrable emptiness from which all things arise and invariably return to.
Infinity. Unconditional infinity: God as "One without a second." This ground of all being/nonbeing is unimaginable and ineffable. Discussing it generates paradoxes.
This wraps up reality's basic layout. Sense and mind allow awareness of the familiar levels; meditation is how we become conscious of the transcendent levels.
Self and Development
To go from ordinary awareness to higher awareness, the self needs to be freed through meditation (metaconscious practice). What does this mean? What is the "self?"
Although "self" may refer to a construct (eg, the ego), more formally, it is a process, a holistic dynamic for individualizing awareness. Its development involves identifying with ascending holons, producing construct after construct, each a mightier self-definition than previous.
Let's start from the beginning.
Consider the newborn, unaware of her own being, embedded as she is in a "blooming, buzzing confusion" of sensory impressions. Maintenance and development involve basic body functioning, but over time this isn't enough. Noticing a difference between her environment and her body, the newborn identifies with her flesh: that which feels and responds to her will. The newborn transforms, no longer an unconscious set of instincts but an empowered physical identity: a more autonomous whole. The baby now actively seeks preferred physical as well as emotional satisfaction, especially from her main caretakers. A new, higher level of maintenance and development is underway.
As the baby grows, certain sounds repeated to her take on meaning. Language develops, and with it comes the ability to interact with the world on an enhanced level, a symbolic level. Transforming once again, the child now breaks "exclusive identification" with her body and identifies with a verbal-mental work-in-progress. No longer only a body, she becomes a symbolic being which owns a body. Maintenance and development now offer new perspective and greater power, especially as the child's thinking becomes more and more operational, more and more abstract and comprehensive. The self-process transforms to ever higher mental properties -- leaving behind residual identities, but overall growing ever more conscious and capable.
Note the cycle: identification-maintenance; transformation to a higher holon as it emerges; identification-maintenance now as a more complex, more autonomous being, a more conscious whole. This repeating process culminates naturally with mature ego: our current, evolutionary zenith. Maintenance and development -- reformation -- of the mature ego still goes on (witness the inner dialogue); but to rekindle transformation, to push this cycle beyond ordinary consciousness, something more is needed.
Meditation is the time-honored tool for re-ignition.
Recall that meditation begins with concentration on something specific. This draws energy from ego reformation (the inner dialogue diminishes), allowing higher properties to come through the cognitive clutter into awareness. Drawn to an enhanced outlook, over time the self-process untwines from ego and, in transformation, identifies with the inspired mentation of the bodymind.
Metaconsciousness eventually lessens bond reformation, and the self transforms again with the quasi-nirvanic rise of Light: the personal archetype. In a radical shift of perspective, this radiant self is recognized as the immediate source and projector of the previous identity (in other words, this radiant self is imagining "you," not the reverse). As still higher holons emerge, transformation and reformation continue through deeper, more inclusive stages, with archetypal manifestation being shaped by one's belief system. Essentially, in a consistent developmental sequence, what began at birth goes on and on until the self-process -- identifying with Final archetype -- ecstatically releases from all that can be known and enfolds back into the unfathomable Void.
Unconditional infinity is implicit, and you smile. You're right back where you started because you never really left.
The above is an extremely simplified account of how meditation works. To be sure, time is involved (perhaps many lifetimes), and transformation is not always neat and sequential. At minimum, there will be resistance from ego-sustaining defenses, especially if the meditator has, for example, any repressed trauma or unresolved emotional issues.
God Drive and Death Terror
The above shows how meditation works: there is successive emergence of higher-level holons. Why? For that matter, why is there growth from infancy to adulthood? We know the how, the mechanics of genetics and evolution, but why has our universe become more complex over time, bringing forth life and mind?
The laws of nature do their part. But is that all?
By invoking "God" I'm not talking intelligent design, at least not as commonly understood. That our universe seems so biofriendly may have less to do with divine fine-tuning and more with our spacetime simply being one of an infinitude of universes, according to cosmological theories like chaotic inflation. Sooner or later, one like ours -- a "Goldilocks bubble" -- would pop up, and as inquisitive beneficiaries, we may even have empirical proof of those other realities. In the cosmic microwave background of our universe, there are "bruise" patterns suggesting collisions with other spacetimes. We don't need a Creator to account for our existence. Yet.
One may ask: Why then a multiverse? Why is there Something instead of Nothing? Is it because "Nothing is unstable?" Why? Just, Why? to it all.
Empirical science is not the lens for looking at this question.
Let's go back to God. "God" is a loaded word, so let's be clear I don't necessarily mean the Abrahamic God, a well-meant but, perhaps, overworked metaphor for the final levels of being/nonbeing. Peruse again those levels or read on.
Now and forever, infinite consciousness played a game and dreamed. Oneness was forgotten as the dream gave rise to myriad forms, each believing it was real. Unconsciously they knew otherwise. Deep down, they knew something was driving them and their world toward greater awareness, increasingly reflecting the singular, perfect wholeness of the dreamer. This proved terrifying for some: they would stop at nothing to prove they were the real deal. Others, however, faced their fear of coming to an end -- their fear of death -- and began to wake up within the dream, soon suspecting the dreamer's playful presence. Letting go of the "I / me" illusion, they embraced the drive toward wholeness, and more and more the dreamer awakened until the One had returned, though it had never truly left.
Reality as a dream is another metaphor thousands of years old. Though less personal than, say, God in the Bible, it compares the ground of all being and nonbeing to nothing less than Consciousness, with its Awakening being the driving force toward something infinitely wonderful. Unfortunately, there is a catch.
We are caught between this Drive toward God and our fear of death.
Though human beings have been known to heroically face death (or embrace it in desperation), living things generally stay as far away from it as possible, physically and mentally. Rising from the darkest pit of our psyche, death terror is what we sense when we're feeling endangered or experiencing loss, when our lives undergo any profound change (even positive). To one degree or another, death terror looms when the status quo of our lives, or our goals, is threatened, and this triggers defensive behavior.
So: we are driven by and with all existence to "wake up" to the glorious reality of God, to, in a sense, "die." Yet, naturally fearful of death, we do not follow through. We choose not to awaken -- we want to sleep in our safe, familiar, vested egoism. Caught between an emotional rock and a divine hard place, what are mere mortals to do?
Typically, we try to have our cake and eat it too. We pursue a fiction: that the ego can be God and death need not apply. Mortals seek power.
As a rule, human beings do this without major problem. We tend to respect one another as we go about improving the quality of our lives. We have things (a family, a job, etc) which make us feel important and capable, and generally there is no need to go to extremes to feel, at least for the moment, a little bit immortal.
Yet the Drive toward real Godhood persists, right down through our genes, eternal and unrelenting. For most of us, again, we manage; there's healthy reformation of the ego as we seek empowering Godhood substitutions. But sometimes the "usual substitutions" don't suffice (they never really do). Death terror looms, and we act out our awareness (conscious or otherwise) of our inescapable mortality. Sometimes, by ilk or circumstance, humans take extreme measures to feel godlike and in control.
The most desperate power projects involve malevolent infliction of death, destruction and suffering on others or the world around us. These are the ultimate Godhood substitutions ("The more I kill, the less killable am I"; but again, like any substitution, this is ultimately lacking and often prompts more action). Fortunately, there have also been men and women able to embrace the God Drive, emanating profound perspective and lovingkindness, and benefiting the entire world generation after generation.
Thus: the drive to awaken vs the fear of awakening. Something instead of nothing. Why? Finding out will likely require an awareness beyond the mind. Almost certainly, the ultimate answer to the question of reality lies solely in the Void, where it is only for God to know.
Science and Scientism; Religion and Religionism
A few words need to be said about science, the nature of evidence, and religion.
Modern civilization reflects the power of science. As "applied common sense," scientific method may be summarized in A-B-C fashion...
A - Action (Do something). Acquire whatever you need (knowledge, equipment) to form and test a hypothesis, and test it.
B - Behold (See what happens). Observe and record the experimental results.
C - Consensus (Have others do it). Repeat the experiment; compare results. Consistency means reliability and possibly valid proof of a phenomenon.
This approach has proven very successful when applied to the physical world (reality levels Earth and Water). Physics, chemistry and biology use physical tools to collect empirical data: sensory phenomena that can be formally measured.
Formal methods can also be applied to the mental-symbolic levels (Air and Fire). Here, we no longer deal with matter and the senses but realms of meaning, where the tools have changed and one can systematically acquire a new kind of information. "Tools" include language and logic, the latter the essence of "applied common sense." It's what enables science itself to function, as well as generating abstract axioms and proofs (eg, if x=y and y=z, then x=z). Data is grasped mentally, symbolically, just like the meaning of the sentences you are now reading. Accordingly, there is no empirical evidence for what you are currently understanding.
(Please note: brain activity is empirical, and this correlates with subjective experience. But what's seen on an EEG or PET scanner, clearly, has inherent properties different from what's seen directly with the mind's eye.)
That there is no empirical evidence for mind is not a problem for common sense. But it is for a philosophical platform called scientism, whose edict is, "Only empirical evidence counts." As there is no empirical evidence for the meaning of that statement, the scientistic mindset has yet to explain its own existence.
As for Light and even higher realities, scienticians won't even consider them. Thus, the ego can continue feeling secure in its illusory status as king of the awareness mountain.
What about transcendent spirit and science?
Theoretically, the A-B-C of scientific method should be applicable. If "evidence" can mean any impression in awareness -- not just sensory or mental -- we can expand our successful strategy of applied common sense. We can formally, systematically, study meditative states firsthand.
In some cases, empirical science can support such studies. For example: for thousands of years, the mystical literature has claimed there is no "real self." Modern brain research appears to agree, as scans of live, human brains working on various tasks show no "center" around which the active brain areas organize. But if one is going to study advanced attention control, research must look outside the empirical lens. Examine the biophysical correlates, sure, but also the deeper insights, for in all fairness the correlates alone will not yield direct transcendent evidence. Nor will critical thinking. However thorough one's ontological argument, its conclusion is always inferential: one actually, directly experiences only the ontological argument. As with the senses, logic can only hint at what may lie beyond it. Sincere transcendent research requires direct access to the higher, raw phenomena. This means a meditation science looking at the Big Picture empirically, symbolically and metaconsciously.
I would think a paradigm shift would have to happen first before this became a priority in the human community at large.
This brings me to religion.
Religion is the system of the day-to-day relationship between man and God. For all that's been said, done and written, isn't it nice to know that nothing makes God happier than when we are nice to each other. It's that simple. Most of us do try. We want to be good, decent folk, and religion brings attention to our deepest yearnings and noblest aspirations. Too bad it's gotten bad press over the millennia. This is because of religionism.
The religionist believes he (or she) is better than others because of his faith. Those not like him -- despite all holy writ about respect and kindness -- do not deserve equal treatment. G.O.M.S.: God's On My Side. History would attest that religionism may be humanity's ultimate power project, ravaging the centuries with its twisted enforcement of inspired words. In its insatiable quest for immortality and power, the ego has waved doctrines of the Divine as the ultimate license to kill.
Scientism and religionism: both are ego-serving and self-contradicting. Science and religion: both are truth-serving and self-transcending.
To Believe or Not To Believe
Thank you for reading this far. I've tried to keep this reality map brief and basic. I said I wasn't going to cite references, but before continuing, may I point out two authors I've found especially "enlightening."
1. Ken Wilber. Founder of the Integral Institute, Mr. Wilber is a major force behind a scientific, comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach to the study of consciousness. A widely read author and philosopher, his knowledge is encyclopedic, his writing insightful and clear. Read any book by him. Eye to Eye would be a good place to start.
2. Stephen Jay Gould. Prior to his death, Dr. Gould was a professor of zoology, a professor at Harvard and a curator for Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Seen by modern empirical science -- and as explained by Dr. Gould -- life and evolution manifest a staggering simplicity and common-sensibility which operate just fine without a deity. Read any book by this man.
These authors represent opposing maps. "Does God exist?" A balanced approach helps to downplay preconceived notions and wishful thinking. Care should be taken, for example, to avoid status confusion: when base biological instincts are praised as transcendent, or when spirit, by default, is reduced to molecular biology. An answer is best sought with a clear mind's eye.
To believe or not to believe.
The most obvious criteria for believing is evidence. In theory, a transcendent science is possible, but for now empirical science rules, and without any "higher evidence," it points to No God. There are also logical inconsistencies about God (eg, the omnipotence paradox), as well as failed expectations -- lots of failed expectations. Far too often, it seems like there is no justice in the world.
This lack of unambiguous evidence is compelling. Is it convincing?
Empirical science gives us our most reliable map, but it's still a map, not the territory. All we know are our perceptions: the proverbial shadows on the cave wall. Empirical science suggests the truth, but in fact, the final certainty is mystery. We just don't know. There is no proof God exists; but this does not necessarily prove nonexistence.
So now what do we do?
If you're inclined toward atheism: nothing. The lack of evidence favors your position, and science is not obligated to prove a negative (ie, that God doesn't exist).
If you're inclined toward theism...you have your work cut out for you. Evidence for any type of transcendent reality -- from ESP to God -- is sketchy. Isolated studies, anecdotes, holy doctrines and faith may inspire, but they're not conclusive scientific evidence. The final certainty is mystery.
For some agnostics this is enough, and they move on. But others just can't leave well enough alone.
There's wiggle-room, freedom to speculate. Fashioned with a critical eye, a comprehensive transcendent map need not abandon common sense, it need only approach material reality from another angle: correlative, a simpler proposition, actually, than causative or reductionistic. What if the brain, say, isn't creating consciousness? Think of this as light shining through stained glass. The light is changed by the glass, it will always be affected by it, but not created by it.
To make "God" part of one's map, or not, influences how one sees the whole universe. But since evidence can not settle this, is there some other basis for making a decision?
How about how useful a map can be?
How about: in addition to committing random (or planned) acts of kindness, the map maker embraces the world as seen by empirical science, and reaches for more. The comprehensive (transcendent) map thus grants equal, material reliability, but with "God" in the picture, kindness has a divine champion. There is now a larger, explanatory, existential framework, and because of that, a major resource for hope, strength and healing in times of suffering and loss (scientific studies have consistently shown that people with a genuine, religious perspective tend to handle adversity better than those with no such perspective).
That said, label me a "meta-theist." This means: since the evidence (or lack thereof) is inconclusive, I believe in believing in God for the benefits. I like a reality where death means liberation not termination, and where high ideals, like honesty and kindness, mean something -- however inscrutable -- on a cosmic scale. And in the end, it all may be true. At the very least, there's nothing to lose, because even if the empirical, reductive-materialist map is right, I'll never know it, not even in death. Truly, if there is no God, no transcendence, no lasting consciousness whatsoever, no one will ever know.
On the other hand, if heavenly theater lights do come on after your movie is done...well, entertain Voltaire's spin: God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.
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