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Higher States of Consciousness: Can East Meet West?

Why are we so obsessed with pathology in the world of psychology?

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A marked feature of western psychology in the twentieth and twenty first century, at least in its North American form, has been its focus on pathology. Oceans of ink have been spilled on topics such as psychopathy, narcissism and sociopathy with popular television shows revealing a similar preoccupation in the general public. There has been much less written about the features of a healthy mind and even less about cultivating and refining the psyche. With the exception of the humanist schools of psychology, which are increasingly out of favour, western psychology has seemed to aim at best for a psyche that is free of serious impairment, anxiety or depression.

Our ability to imagine higher, more positive, states of consciousness in mainstream psychology, has, unsurprisingly, been almost entirely lost. To speak of self-actualization or self-realization is to be accused of living in the Age of Aquarius. It is instructive to look back at this time, however. A number of our blogs have been critical of the hippie movement, but in this regard the 1960’s counter-culture was on the vanguard of those pioneering a new approach to understanding of the mind.

In their emphasis on living a life of meaning that allowed them to achieve their full potential, members of the counterculture made a lasting contribution to western society. During this period of experimentation in the 1960’a and 1970’s, a significant number of people embraced the ideas found in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In doing so they were attempting to move beyond the goal of mere survival into higher modes of consciousness. As a result, many in the counterculture were among the first to experiment with various forms of meditation and other techniques aimed at the development of the mind.

In his article “The Levels of Human Consciousness and Creative Functioning” Maharaj Raina argues that eastern conceptions of the mind are a way to bring western psychology back into conversation with the goals of self-actualization. Using the model of the five koshas, drawn from the Hindu tradition, he discusses the ways in which this understanding imagines the progression from gross to subtle. He also proposes that truly creative people, whether they are in the arts or sciences, are able to access these more subtle realms (180). Having access to the deeper aspects of consciousness, then, has important consequences in the world. A society that has a significant number of people who can utilize these spacious, open, synthetic and creative states of mind can only be enriched.

Even on a more pragmatic level we depend on those who have been able to discipline and refine their minds and to think beyond narrow self-interest. Whether it is the awe inspiring actions of people like Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, or the cool, disciplined reactions of first responders we know that a different sort of consciousness is necessary in life or death situations. What has been largely lost, however, is the idea that this requires training and cultivation. As an increasing amount of research is now showing the human mind is extremely plastic, even into old age. To develop it’s capacities and potentials, however, requires concentrated effort. As much of the psychological world in North America has completely accepted the machine model of the human mind much of the implications of these findings are overlooked. Or, as in the case of cognitive therapy, the mind is viewed as something to be trained and limited rather than developed and expanded.

How we imagine the mind, and the metaphors we use for it, have real world implications. A slavish adherence to the enlightenment metaphor of the machine leaves us with an extremely limited conception of human consciousness. This type of limited thinking was not always the case as is demonstrated by the work of one of the most important early American psychologists, William James. James was willing to discuss a wide variety of states of human consciousness . Unsurprisingly, this meant that he was open to engaging with religious and spiritual approaches to psychology. In his influential book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1905) he sarcastically noted that medical materialism, “ snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as a hereditary degenerate” (13).

The increasingly narrowing sense of human consciousness has been been the result of a slow and steady process in western psychology. It can be directly linked with increasing secularization which renders many traditional understandings of states of mind such as dreams, visions and mystical insight as pathological. In her book Fits, Trances and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience From Wesley to James (1999), Ann Taves traces this process in which any form of consciousness outside of pragmatic and literal rationalism was by the twentieth century seen as a form of derangement. So Stevie Nicks was right—best to keep your visions to yourself.

It interesting to see, then, the ways in which Hindu and Buddhist approaches are entering into conversation with western psychology. Again, their direct links with spiritual traditions can make these techniques a subject of suspicion for some. Despite this, many psychologists and psychiatrists now use meditative techniques to work with the transformation of consciousness. It turns out that not only do these practices lead to a decreased experience of anxiety and depression but also to a state of awareness in which, according to Raina, “our perceptions become finer, more complete, and profoundly creative”(178). One can hope this indicates a growing interest in moving beyond a fixation on pathology and towards an openness to engaging with expanded conceptions of our human potential.


William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York and Bombay: Longmans, Green and Co, 1905.

Maharaj K. Raina. “The Levels of Human Consciousness and Creative Functioning: Insights from the Theory of the Pancha Kosha (Five Sheaths) of Consciousness. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. 2016. Vol.48, No. 2.

Ann Taves. Fits, Trances and Visions. Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

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