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Higher Consciousness States Through Meditation – A Phenomenological Study



This paper examines the relations between the experience reported by meditators and what the scholarly literature on consciousness can tell us. There appears to be a gap between what regular and intensely engaged meditators say and how current Western theories of consciousness represent the meditation experience. Using in-depth interviews with six practicing meditators, I use Van Manen’s approach to phenomenological analysis, combined with Gadamer’s hermeneutic interpretation strategy to draw comparisons with selected features of the human consciousness research literature. Understanding and transcending this gap has implications for how to bridge collective consciousness raising, individual meditation practices, and new trends in spiritual and global leadership.
Higher Consciousness States 1
Higher Consciousness States Through Meditation A Phenomenological Study
Dorianne Cotter-Lockard
Fielding Graduate University
Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Human Sciences
Pittsburgh, October, 2008
Contact Information:
Dorianne Cotter-Lockard
5157 Churchwood Drive
Oak Park, CA 91377
(805) 428-2600
Author Note
I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Fielding Graduate University Research Grant
Program for providing funding for this study. I am grateful to Dr. Valerie Bentz, who provided
guidance and feedback all the way through this research project, including the “Scholarly
Writing Workshop,” taught by Dr. Bentz and Dr. Steve Figler. Suggestions and exercises from
the workshop and critical feedback from my fellow students greatly improved this paper.
I also thank Michael Sessions and Luann Fortune, who provided helpful editing feedback during
the writing process and most importantly, the study participants who gave their time, insight, and
content for this study.
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This paper examines the relations between the experience reported by meditators and what the
scholarly literature on consciousness can tell us. There appears to be a gap between what regular
and intensely engaged meditators say and how current Western theories of consciousness
represent the meditation experience. Using in-depth interviews with six practicing meditators, I
use Van Manen’s approach to phenomenological analysis, combined with Gadamer’s
hermeneutic interpretation strategy to draw comparisons with selected features of the human
consciousness research literature. Understanding and transcending this gap has implications for
how to bridge collective consciousness raising, individual meditation practices, and new trends
in spiritual and global leadership.
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This paper addresses the following question: what is the lived experience of those who
have a deep and consistent meditation practice during and after meditation and does their
experience align with current Western and non-Western consciousness theories? In this study, I
add narratives of other meditators’ experiences to my own, reveal the structure and meaning
within the text by applying Van Manen’s and Gadamer’s interpretive approaches (Bentz &
Rehorick, 2006; Gadamer, 1975; Van Manen, 1990), and compare the narratives with
consciousness theories
A review of consciousness theories reveals two divergent viewpoints with many points in
between. At one end of the continuum are attempts to represent consciousness theory in
mathematical language, coming from a Western positivist perspective. In his original work
derived from artificial intelligence research, Marvin Minsky describes the mind as a society of
agents that perform together in patterns that result in thought and action (1986). Douglas
Hofstadter took this idea a step further and defines consciousness as a set of strange loops,
applying a mathematical concept introduced by Gödel (1992).
At the other end of the spectrum is Sri Aurobindo’s consciousness theory, which assumes
consciousness exists beyond the physical body (Satprem, 1968). Aurobindo contends that
consciousness is independent of human existence, thought or feeling. He states there are several
paths to higher consciousness, but meditation is the most common. Aurobindo set a goal to
evolve the human species through meditation practice to a new level of intellectual and physical
being in order to save our species and our planet from extinction.
Is human consciousness a purely physical phenomenon that can be dissected and
understood by using our five senses? Can meditation help us to evolve the human species to
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higher levels of consciousness in which we are better able to solve world problems? A
phenomenological-hermeneutic study of meditation and higher states of consciousness invites us
to explore these questions. By understanding these experiences, we can open the door to
dialogue about how to address the challenges of our day-to-day world by lifting the
consciousness of individuals and communities.
Consciousness and Meditation - Definitions
The formal definition of consciousness is: “the quality or state of being aware especially
of something within oneself” or “the state of being characterized by sensation, emotion, volition,
and thought: mind(Webster, 2005). This definition fits well with a phenomenological
approach to understanding consciousness. The word meditate is defined as: “) engage in
contemplation or reflection; 2)
For me, meditation is a means to awaken to one’s internal and external awareness, and is
a path to higher consciousness. I believe there is a consciousness continuum for every living
being, from a bacterium to the highest levels of human consciousness. Though I did not directly
ask participants their definition of meditation or consciousness, their narratives provided insight
into their typifications and norms surrounding these terms.
to engage in mental exercise (as concentration on one's breathing
or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness”
Research Approach
I applied the Spiral of Mindful Inquiry framework (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, pp. 42-53) to
guide my research process. The framework includes four major turns in a spiral: critical social
science, phenomenology, hermeneutics and Buddhism. Since this was my first encounter with
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I analyzed the narratives, using the phenomenological process described in Max Van
Manen’s Researching Lived Experience (1990). He prescribes three approaches to identifying
, I started with some basic readings about phenomenology (Bentz, 1995, 2002;
Paget, 1988; Rehorick & Taylor, 1995; Schutz, 1970), which helped me to scratch the surface the
topic. I then used phenomenological techniques described in Max Van Manen’s Researching
Lived Experience (1990) and de Sales Turner’s work (2003) to conduct my research. I directly
applied three turns in the Spiral of Mindful Inquiry (1998) and indirectly addressed the fourth
spiral, Buddhism, through my inclusion of a consciousness theory based on Buddhist
mindfulness concepts.
I started my research process by developing the research questions (see Appendix A) and
then answering them from my personal perspective. Next, I interviewed six people who meditate
regularly and have experienced higher states of consciousness, according to their own definition
of higher consciousness states. Fielding Graduate University’s Institutional Review Board
approved this research project and the participants signed an informed consent agreement.
My goal was to focus on lived experience and its meaning from the participants’
perspectives. I intentionally used open-ended questions during the interviews and refrained from
responding to the narrative during the interview. Four of the interviews were conducted in
person, two were in the participants’ homes, one at my home and one was conducted in a hotel
lobby (not the best place for a phenomenological interview). The two remaining interviews were
conducted over the telephone. I digitally recorded the interviews and had them transcribed by a
transcription service. Each research participant reviewed their transcript and provided corrections
and changes to their narratives.
1 I am a first-year doctoral student. I decided to conduct a research project early on in my studies to immerse myself
in the world of academic research.
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thematic aspects within a text: 1) a holistic or sententious approach, in which the interpreter
reads the text as a whole and then formulates a phrase that captures the foundational meaning; 2)
a highlighting approach, in which the interpreter selects specific phrases or sentences in the text
that capture the essence of the phenomena; and 3) a detailed approach, in which every sentence
is examined to determine what it reveals about the experience (1990, pp. 92-93). I used all three
I started by highlighting phrases and words that really captured the essences of the
experience within each interview. Then I wrote the words in the margins of the documents. I
noticed several words stood out across the interviews. I created a new document that contained
the list of words and grouped them together. Then I copied representative quotes from each
interview into another document and grouped them together as themes emerged.
Another key step in my process was to listen to the interview recordings as a form of
meditation. Since I’m studying higher states of consciousness through meditation, it seemed
natural and necessary to me to add meditation into my analysis process. Drawing deeper into
myself, I created a space for a form of triple-loop feedback (Torbert & Taylor, 2008). In Triple-
loop feedback, the inquirer questions their internal assumptions and changes the quality of their
attention (p. 240). I sat in my office armchair with the text in my lap, closed my eyes, slowed
my breath, and played the recorded interview, while continuing to breathe slowly. My internal
‘witness’ brought forth a word or phrase after listening to the interview. I wrote down the word
or phrase and later incorporated it into the thematic analysis..
According to Bentz and Shapiro, Habermas talks about “understandability” and
communicating “from similar norms and frames of reference(1998, p. 47). Because I have
meditated regularly for over twenty years, I share similar norms with most of the study
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participants. In the past, I adopted certain typifications (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, p. 173; Schutz,
1962, pp. 226-273) related to how one should meditate (e.g., sit in a straight-backed posture, use
various breathing or mantra techniques and spend 20-60 minutes on a daily basis). However,
over time I altered my typifications to include chanting, walking, running, washing the dishes,
and playing the violin as valid meditation approaches. The study participants had similar
typifications about meditation, including one who said “the purpose of meditation is to get rid of
the meditator.”
I used a Gadamerian approach to interpret four selected Western and non-Western
consciousness theories (1975). The hermeneutic section compares and contrasts the
phenomenological experiences captured through this study with the consciousness theories. First,
I opened myself to being influenced by the interaction between the consciousness theories and
participants’ experiences. Next, I reflected on how I was transformed through my interaction
with the participants, their narratives, and the theoretical literature (Bentz & Rehorick, 2006).
Context: A Critical Social Science View
Phenomenology requires that we view people’s experiences within the context of their
lifeworlds. The lifeworld is a compendium of socio-historical background, personal psychology,
and one’s current level of awareness. A critical social science perspective allows us to identify
certain aspects of the lifeworld that reflects the context of the researcher and to link the research
to social change.
The world can no longer be divided into separate, isolated economies or ecosystems.
Human resources are hired, engaged and managed on a global basis. We are at a critical stage in
our planet’s ecology, where species are becoming extinct at an accelerating rate and our polar ice
caps are rapidly melting. Our planet’s health depends on cooperation among all countries, many
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of whom have different values and goals regarding growth and competition. This level of
cooperation requires an ability to see each other’s needs from alternate perspectives and may also
involve sacrifice.
These socio-economic conditions present huge implications for today’s leaders. The
influence and importance of world cultures are critical to successful organizations. Leaders need
to understand people’s mindsets and lifeworlds around the globe in order to influence positive
World cultures and communities each have different centers of gravity or perspectives in
relation to consciousness. Albert Einstein reportedly said; “We can't solve problems by using
the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
” We need to raise our level of
thinking, or more broadly, consciousness, in order to address world issues.
This section describes and interprets my lifeworld, the participants’ lifeworlds, my
meditation experiences and the participants’ meditation experiences and typifications.
My Lifeworld and Meditation Practices
The phenomenologist examines her own lifeworld and experience to further her
understanding of her research participants’ experiences.
In my youth, I felt connected with what I call Infinite Presence through life experiences
that I now consider to be forms of meditation. I define Infinite Presence as an energy that is
omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. I visualize and feel this presence as an energy force.
As a child, I camped and hiked with friends’ families in the Sierra Nevada mountains. On one
occasion, I sat beside a creek on a rock overlooking a valley where I felt at-one with nature and
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Infinite Presence. I became intensely aware of the creek’s patter as I smelled fresh, cool air, and
my gaze embraced softly colored plants and flowers. I felt peaceful and alive at the same time.
As a teen, I studied classical violin and immersed myself in a flow of creative energy
during performances. During the next ten years, music performances became my meditation
practice. During my early twenties, I studied Eastern philosophies. I felt an easy kinship and
alignment with many Eastern values and beliefs. I followed a daily yoga practice for a number
of years. During yoga sessions, I felt contented, calm and nurtured.
I spent twenty-five years in the corporate arena; including several years as Fortune 100
company executive, managing a large international workforce. Over the years, I pondered the
topic of consciousness as I interacted with the company’s leadership: observing whether leaders
were aware of and concerned with their personal psychology and consciousness. I consequently
left the corporate arena to follow a scholarly path.
Currently, I meditate in silence for 30 minutes and pray on a daily basis, read spiritually
enlightening material and poetry, and participate in a variety of other spiritual practices. I also
run as a form of meditation because it takes me outdoors and requires focus on the breath.
The Participants’ Lifeworlds
The participants’ lifeworlds varied. One was a business consultant and leader of a
Buddhist monastery and another was a life coach and author. A third participant worked in the
medical field. Two were clergy members and one was an author and TV personality. The
participants engaged in a wide range of meditation practices, including Tibetan Buddhism,
Primoridal Sound meditation, being in the silence, Sufi practices, and nature-walking meditation.
Participants had practiced meditation over an average span of 26 years; five of the participants
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actively taught meditation; ranged in age from mid-forties to mid-sixties; lived primarily in the
U. S. and were evenly divided between males and females.
Meditation Experiences and Typifications
This section includes a phenomenological analysis of the study participants’ and my
experiences during and after meditation. The narrative analysis revealed five major themes in
our meditation experiences: 1) letting go to become the observer; 2) cleansing and purifying; 3)
merging with energy and love; 4) retreating in silence to a home of infinite belonging; and 5)
healing and serving others.
Letting go to become the observer.
Meditation practice is a very personal process. Each participant expressed challenges in
finding a meditation method that worked for them. In the West we are trained to think in terms
of “right and wrong,” believing that we are supposed to feel stillness while meditating. We live
in a perfectionist society, where people are reluctant to start something new or challenging
because they fear the embarrassment of failure. Every participant in the study struggled with
letting go of the “shoulds” of meditation. One participant said:
I’ve done so many different modalities and then there’s still that part of me that’s
struggling to do it the right way. And as long as “he’s” in the equation, I’m not having
effective meditations, because that’s the perfectionist, that’s the judge, that’s the critic,
and that’s the one that always thinks it’s the form that matters, when it’s really going
beyond the little self . . . you meditate to get rid of the meditator.
The meditator or ego keeps us grounded in an ordinary consciousness belief system of
perfectionism and form. Getting rid of the critical self opens the door to the meditative
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experience. When participants let go of the need to achieve a particular goal, they allowed
meditation to flow unencumbered.
Meditation permeated participants’ daily life. Most participants had a moment when they
broke through a boundary surrounding their meditation practice to discover a new mode of
being. With a newly heightened level of awareness, the meditator became the observer and
everyday activities served as the ground of practice.
And it’s like something just snapped, it popped. And I had to let go of the rigid structure
that I was doing, and allow the moment to determine how the meditation was unfolding. .
. . So once I let go of what I felt was the right way, then I began to discover that it’s all
meditation. So it’s how I walked the dogs, it’s how I got up in the morning. . . . It’s how
I went into the kitchen and prepared the coffee or whatever.
The following participant no longer reacted to what was occurring, but became a witness
or observer in daily life. She entered a calm state, as she accepted the surrounding environment
and circumstances.
You become the observer and the non-reactive person. The ego is gone and there’s this
place of, which is similar to meditation. You’re out of the body and you’re observing as
you’re having a conversation with somebody and your ego is completely gone and you
are just simply in the conversation with the person in a pure place.
The term peak experience is sometimes used when describing altered states of
consciousness or performing in the flow. When I asked about their peak experiences, most
participants focused on witnessing the normal and everyday; they did not place much value in
invoking supernatural consciousness states. “You’re in the world, you’re witnessing what’s
happening, and you’re not seeking to achieve some supernatural state of consciousness.”
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Several participants experienced a deep form of listening during meditation which they
were subsequently able to incorporate into daily life. One participant described whole-body
I can meditate on a flower and I can feel the message of the flower. I mean it literally
begins to just reveal this deep, almost gospel. I can sit in nature and it all begins to
preach. That’s an awareness that comes through, and it’s not linear. . . So to listen, you
don’t listen with the mind, you listen with, I don’t know, with your heart maybe? I don’t
know. The whole body listens, yeah, so I begin listening.
This participant uses the words “gospel” and “preach” to describe his experience which
resonated with his religious orientation. Another participant described a deep listening
awareness while meditating in nature:
I used to go out in the desert in the middle of the night and go up to the Saguaros and
listen. And listen to the sound of the sea inside the Saguaros. Because they are the
sentries of the desert so they hold the water for all the kingdoms and animals during the
intense heat of the summer. And I listened to stones . . . and I would take walks late at
night and commune with flowers and see how the wind would stir and move as I became
cognizant again of presence of Spirit.
Several participants attuned themselves to an inner wellspring of answers to questions,
creative ideas, or feelings that served as guidance or learning. This meditator states:
So that inquiry method is all up here in this observer self. So it’s like the meditation
reveals what wants to emerge. . . . I listen, and from this infinite mind comes through this
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Out of the stillness comes insight. The experience is of being taught by an unknown
source and learning surprising things in unexpected ways.
Cleansing and purifying.
One characteristic of humans is the mind chatter that accompanies our daily life. Often
my daily silent meditation focuses on breathing and a mantra. It takes a while to calm the chatter
in my head. I start off with good focus and intention and my mind takes over. I’m thinking
about my plans for the day, people I need to call, or other activities. I gently bring my focus
back to the breathing and mantra. Sometimes my mind settles into a peaceful state, but more
often I experience cycles of mindfulness interspersed with mind chatter. Most meditation
traditions provide a process to quiet the mind. All of the study participants mentioned their
process of letting go of their inner dialog. Most described this process as cleansing, purifying or
purging the mind. “You could say meditation is about purification. . . . you observe what comes
up, what’s coming up is coming up to be observed, integrated and released at some level.”
Personal responsibilities, work commitments, and volunteer obligations may weigh on
the mind. We worry about our future, our children and the welfare of the planet. This weight is
cleansed by letting go. Meditation can bring up blocked or repressed feelings, but with practice
they too can be let go. Letting go of repressed feelings brings an experience of clearing out of
debris that allows space for a healing breath:
I quite often am doing it as a therapeutic process, to let go of and clear what I’ve taken on
. . . it is very healing to consciously enter in to letting go, and letting go of every person,
place and thing. On releasing all of the energy . . . that does not belong in this form, in
this body, I can now breathe, breathe, and [set] a new space intention, of healing and just
in this moment letting it go.
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Cleansing and purifying as a result of meditation can be uncomfortable. During an
intensive breathing workshop, following a release of deep emotions, I saw an immense aqua and
golden light surrounding my body. When I came out of the state, I couldn’t move my bod y I
felt a huge weight on my chest, could hardly breathe and my body felt completely numb and
paralyzed from the waist down. It was scary. My body gradually came out of the paralysis and
we interpreted that the meditation had awakened cell memories of anesthesia I had been given
during my daughter’s birth and during subsequent miscarriages. Deep breathing had triggered a
physical and emotional purifying process at a cellular level.
All participants reported experiencing an improved ability to make focused decisions and
to communicate more clearly as a result of this cleansing and purifying process. When I
meditate, I may sit with a question or decision in quiet, paying attention to the quality of energy
in my chest or abdomen. I call forth a scenario and observe the sensation in my chest. Does it
feel tight or light? Now I imagine the opposite scenario and breathe into it. I can feel “yes” and
“no” within my chest. At that moment, I experience being tapped into something much greater
than myself that provides wisdom and clarity to make the right decision.
Merging with energy and love.
The most powerful aspect of deep meditation expressed by these meditators is the feeling
of merging with all of life. They surrender all sense of individuality and separateness from other
aspects of the physical universe. Participants described the sensation as a sense of belonging,
flowing in an ocean of energy, and living in unbounded spaciousness. “I’m the wave that
belongs to this ocean, and so meditation is the wave surrendering into it with every breath, and it
never stops.”
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Sensing energy plays a key role in these experiences of connection and merging. There is
an awareness of energy that is at once within and yet surrounds. This person experienced energy
in nature during an open-eyed walking meditation:
I would go into the forest and there [I was, on] more than one occasion, being absorbed in
green energy. And the experience was just amazing because I would see the trees and the
leaves . . . vibrating and voluminous color of all, infinite varieties of shades of green.
And being just swept into that power and that grace and . . . that we’re in multi-
dimensions simultaneously.
This meditation experience extends beyond the visual impact of color. He experiences
energy as a series of vibrations and felt the power of the energy drawing him in. During
meditation, we can enter into a state of consciousness that allows us to perceive the energy of
another in non-local space and time. The following participant described her experience of
merging with another person’s energy across a continent:
There’s a woman who meditates with [our group]. . . .She’s in [a distant city] meditating
at the same time. Her name came to me and I connected, I said, ‘oh hello.’ I connected
with her. I just felt her. Well, she’s a very large woman, very big. I don’t know how
much she weighs, she won’t tell me, but I think 300 pounds or so, and I was sitting there,
… all of a sudden my body felt very heavy and it started to get heavier and heavier and
heavier. I couldn’t move my hands off of my thighs. . . . I felt the chair was getting tight
and that I couldn’t move. . . . I just felt large, like my legs were large and my body was
large, but I didn’t connect it to her. . . . And not until later did I put two and two together
and realize that was her way of connecting with me and that when I [later] shared with
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her that I felt what it would be like probably to be in her body it was profound for her and
I, that was wild.
Many participants described feeling energy through a sense of oneness with people and
objects. They used the word “love” when describing this experience which defines the word as
something much greater than our normal usage. The energy that permeates this expanded
meaning of love transcends eros, agape, and philia: “And once you’re in that frequency of love,
it’s an energetic thing; then you witness what arises, that you allow the love to expand, and then
you just kind of merge with this love, the awareness of love.”
Another participant became the object of energy in his meditation, which was a star in a
constellation. The star symbolized power and light; merging with this star brought a sense of
unbounded love and completeness.
Swirls of light, that were like a spiral, bringing me up into the, the potency and power of
that star. The reality that there was no distance between us. That as I had observed it, it
had observed me and it was simultaneous and there was that, that losing consciousness of
anything other than I am the star, I am that, I am, I am it. It is me, I am that and again
that pure love and that’s all I need to know, that it is, that’s it.”
Noted brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor2
And I lost my balance and I'm propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm
and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. . . . And all I could
detect was this energy. Energy. . . . And in that moment, my brain chatter, my left
, in a talk given at the Technology, Entertainment
and Design (TED) conference in February 2008, relates her experience of a stroke as interpreted
through a scientist’s lens. Her experiences were similar to those reported by the meditators in
this study as her left brain hemisphere shut down:
2 Permission to excerpt the transcript was granted by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor (on 4/16/2008) and (4/18/2008)
Higher Consciousness States 17
hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and
pushed the mute button and -- total silence.
And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was
immediately captivated by the magnificence of energy around me. And because I could
no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at
one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there (Taylor, 2008).
Some participants sensed this energy as a resonance with people, plants, and other
aspects of the physical world during their daily activities.
I’ll just begin to merge with this baby, or a flower, or my wonderful dogs, you know. . . .
So, rather than to see me and the dog as separate, I see the dog as an opening for my heart
to find that resonance. It’s about resonance, about energy.
The word “resonance” means a sound as a result of vibration, one that is rich and varied
(Webster, 2005). The term is used with regard to vibrations or frequencies of the human body (e.
g., chest or nasal cavities) and emanating from musical instruments (e. g., violin or cello).
Resonance can also be “a quality of evoking response”
Retreating in silence to a home of infinite belonging.
(2005). I have experienced energy
resonance beyond sound while performing classical music. I transcended to another realm once,
while performing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in New York City’s Lincoln Center. Awash in
sound and emotion, my body and soul fused with my violin, and I felt complete unity with the
musicians, stage, audience, music and the Infinite Presence.
Traditional meditation is built on the premise that we bring ourselves to a place of silence
and emptiness. It is difficult to describe this state of being to people who’ve never experienced
Higher Consciousness States 18
true silence. Most participants initially resisted answering my request to describe how they
experienced this silence, yet they offered the most poetic narratives during their interviews.
When the mind has finally quieted and the ego fallen away, I enter a state where time and
space no longer exist. My body and physical surroundings retreat into the background of
conscious awareness. I have no idea where I went during that time. Another participant
describes how their meditation took them away from physical existence.
A lot of times when I do long meditations I go completely away and I’m not sure exactly
where that is and there’s a name for this . . . it’s not sleeping and it’s . . . It’s a different
state . . . Unaware of the body, not in the body anymore and not really aware of the room,
but completely away, but not asleep and just – how do I explain it? It’s just away . . . It’s
just completely away.
Participants used the words peace, calm, equanimity, eternity and bliss to describe this
state. The study participants come from a variety of religious backgrounds, yet they all
referenced having a spiritual connection with something that is eternal and infinite. This is the
place they entered while in a deep state of meditation and experienced finding their home.
In those states of consciousness I feel I’m home. I feel I’m in my eternity. . . . And there’s
no place like home, and in that place, I know there are answers and resolution to
everything I don’t understand right now.
Many participants spoke of retreats in which they entered into extended meditation.
Often they reported it took time to return to “normal life” after their retreat. They felt intoxicated
with love and were uninhibited in their joy and expression of love towards others.
I would leave these retreats and my mind wouldn’t think. . . . I couldn’t find thoughts.
I’d just be hanging out in this kind of intoxicated place . . . you feel intoxicated on the
Higher Consciousness States 19
love. You’re drunk, and you can’t stop smiling, and you, you love everyone . . . even
when a thought that arises that’s not even a pleasant thought, you know it’s not even real.
It just kind of comes and goes like a cloud going through the sky.
The following participant feels a sense of remembrance. Remembrance means “calling to
mind,” comes from the Latin root memor, which means “mindful(Webster's dictionary, 1999).
I weep. I feel the energy of spirit and it's beyond defining love, it's more union and it's
such a union of remembrance … that all is well and everything is temporary and there’s
an eternity that just goes beyond defining. It's remembrance and love.
The participants experienced a sense of retreating away from temporal life while at the
same time unifying with all of life. They felt nothingness and beingness simultaneously, as
described by the following participant.
You know, this is kind of the ineffable, when you’re taught touching this place, there’s
this incredible sense of emptiness and nothingness and beingness, and there’s a feeling of
belonging that accompanies this experience.
What does it mean to feel a sense of belonging? The root word “longing” elicits thoughts
of yearning, moving toward, reaching, and desiring. We “belong” when we’ve arrived at some
destination within the heart through meditation practice.
Healing and serving others.
All of the participants expressed their desire to affect the world by improving conditions
and helping people. They see meditation as a critical contributor to impactful change on a global
scale and view their role as serving others.
It’s not something that’s separate from life. It’s life itself. And I think it’s crucial right
now. . . it’s crucial that we bring the meditation in creative ways. Bring it into the cities,
Higher Consciousness States 20
into the rap community where young people can do it, you know, so that it’s not
something that’s only linked to a Hindu teaching or a Buddhist teaching.
One participant has dedicated time, money and effort into creating a nature retreat where
others can visit sacred spaces for meditation and contemplation. He views his role as planting
the seeds of love in order to nurture the space, wildlife and those who visit it.
Whenever I go to [X], I’m usually doing my practices or saying mantras while I’m
walking around or sitting in the various sacred spaces . . . . It's about spiritual deposits.
Putting one’s spiritual energy into the space rather than trying to take it away.
Meditation opens up other avenues for communication. Understanding each other on
non-verbal levels adds richness to our connections. The following meditator suggests we
meditate in groups to shift planetary consciousness, echoing statements made by the other
When we . . . as a human race or human beings can learn to meditate and get quiet, that
we will begin less speaking…We will start to understand each other through the mind
instead of through words and . . . the more peaceful we will become as a planet
…collective conscious meditation is huge when a bunch of people get together and
meditate. We can change the planet just by having the same, you know, conscious
thought, so meditation rocks.
Four Consciousness Theories
In this section, I examine four consciousness theories, from works by Douglas
Hofstadter, Sri Aurobindo, Jenny Wade and a team including Franciso Varela, Evan Thompson
and Eleanor Rosch.
Higher Consciousness States 21
In I’m a Strange Loop (2007), Hofstadter uses the terms consciousness, I, and soul
interchangeably. He theorizes that each human is born with no soul or consciousness. Over
time, our brains categorize the phenomena we take in with our senses into symbols. Symbols are
then grouped into complex patterns of strange loop structures. A strange loop is an “abstract
loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one
level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a
hierarchy” (pp. 101-102). Hofstadter contends the feeling of upward movement is an illusion
because the loop feeds back to itself.
Eventually, the human develops a sense of soul, self or I which is the sum of his or her
thoughts, dreams, and experiences. According to Hofstadter, the I is an illusion. A person’s soul
gradually fades away after death, as others their life has touched also die.
In his book, Sri Aurobindo: or, The Adventure of Consciousness (1968), Satprem
describes the planes of the mind that one encounters in seeking higher consciousness.
Aurobindo’s planes of mind include ordinary, higher, illumined, intuitive, overmind and
supramental mind consciousness. Sri Aurobindo says there is no such thing as unconsciousness;
only other consciousness.
According to the Upanishads (Ghose, 1960), consciousness is energy vibrating at different
frequencies. This means that everything has some form of consciousness depending on its
vibration, including plants, animals and inanimate objects. They are not considered to be lower
than human consciousness, just different vibrations of energy. This supposition contradicts
Hofstadter’s view of no-to-little consciousness in non-human entities.
Satprem explains that thoughts are vibrations. They originate from a Universal Mind; we
receive these vibrations, and depending on our level of awareness, we can choose to accept or
Higher Consciousness States 22
reject them. As we receive these vibrations, we translate them into symbols; a similar concept to
Hofstatder’s view of perception (2007).
Aurobindo defines several higher consciousness planes. The Illumined mind is
characterized by deeper experiences of joy and enthusiasm. Artists, dancers and musicians
embody illumined consciousness. The Intuitive mind experiences joy as a recognition. It sees a
subset of the truth as a flash of insight. Overmind consciousness is rarely attained and
represents an experience of cosmic consciousness without loss of the individual. The overmind
sees huge extensions of space and time and experiences universal love, joy and beauty. At this
plane, the entire being is linked together with every level of consciousness. This is a key concept
according to Aurobindo; higher consciousness is not complete without encompassing lower
planes of consciousness.
The Supramental mind cannot be described in either mental or three dimensional terms.
It is not the pinnacle of consciousness, though it is considered to be transformational. The
Supramental mind’s vision is global and simultaneously includes all viewpoints. The
Supramental consciousness lives in the Absolute – there is no past or present. There is no
duality; “the two poles of all things are constantly spanned in another ‘dimension’” (Satprem,
1968, p. 271).
In Changes of Mind: a Holonomic Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness (1996),
Jenny Wade presents a theory based on data from empirical studies, using a post-Newtonian
approach. Wade suggests that the three-dimensional, Newtonian perspective does not adequately
describe consciousness. Wade presents the mind as a hologram in which every part contains the
whole. She applies David Bohm’s theory from Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1981) to
support her theory, stating that “the Absolute order is present in its entirety, interpenetrating
Higher Consciousness States 23
every point of space and time, so that all of eternity and the cosmos is wholly present right here
and now” (1996, p. 13).
Wade contends that human consciousness exists apart from the physical body; it is
transcendent and eternal. Transcendent consciousness permeates the physical body as a form of
energy, has an awareness that is distinct from brain and nervous system-based awareness, and
may be accessed through right-brain activity.
Wade’s (1996) stages of consciousness are roughly sequential but can overlap. Wade
derives these stages from a broad set of existing theories. The earliest stages include Reactive,
Naïve, and Ego. Wade considers the Conformist stage to be mainstream consciousness, which
values institutions, norms, self-image, and dogma. The next two stages are equivalent in Wade’s
model. The Achievement stage is left-brain dominant, male-oriented and focused on
independence, logic, control, and performance. The Affiliative stage is right-brain dominant, is
female-oriented and focused on love, intuition, subjectivity, relationship, and dependence.
Wade (1996) contends that as people access higher consciousness states, they experience
“non-Newtonian realities” and these experiences are “integrated into the brain-bound
consciousness” (p. 251). These stages are Authentic, which is self-actualized, free from fear of
death, detached from ego, and uses whole-brain thinking; and Transcendent, in which one,
through “disciplined practice that focuses the mind,” feels oneness with all, is in service to
others, and whose experiences are ineffable and beyond time and space (p. 177). The final stage
in Wade’s theory is Unity in which there is no perceiver, the person experiences complete unity
with the “Ground of all Being” or God, and “the self is transcended by dis-identifying with all
mental, emotional and physical objects” (p. 205).
Higher Consciousness States 24
Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch aim to bridge the expanse between
cognitive science and lived experience in The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human
Experience (1991). Their key assertion is that science dominates our thinking and overshadows
our direct experience. Direct experience cannot be ignored if we are to understand
consciousness. The authors see “cognitive capacities as inextricably linked to histories that are
lived, much like paths that exist only as they are laid down walking” (p. 205).
Most Western science and thought systems are based on the concept that the world “has a
fixed and ultimate ground” (1991, p. 130) and that the world is independent from our perceptions
and cognition. Non-Western philosophies, such as Buddhism, start at the position that the world
is groundless; form is constantly changing and co-created. Furthermore, the Western mind
vacillates between objectivity and subjectivity, constantly grasping for new ground or a desire to
return to former ground, whereas Madhyamika Buddhism offers a middle way to embrace
groundlessness (p. 141).
The authors (Varela et al., 1991) contend that both cognitive science and Buddhism,
coming from different perspectives, conclude there is no self, or “I.” Madhyamika Buddhism
accepts the premise that there is neither ground nor self and defines a set of practices to
transcend our tendency to grasp toward these non-existent concepts. If there is nothing to be
gained or lost through grasping, then there is no self (p. 247).
Hermeneutic Interpretation of Consciousness Theories
We now take two turns within Gadamer’s hermeneutic spiral (1975), where the
interpreter allows understanding to evolve and new meaning to emerge (Bentz & Rehorick,
2006) as I explore consciousness theories and their application to the study participants’
Higher Consciousness States 25
Allowing Understanding to Evolve
In this section, I dwell on the narrative text as well as the four consciousness theories,
exploring the interaction between theory and experience.
Varela et al. (1991) state that “groundlessness is the very condition for the richly textured
and interdependent world of human experience” (p. 144). The first theme of letting go to
become the observer provides a portal to living in a state of groundlessness. Participants stepped
out of their reactive selves and experienced themselves as dispassionate observers. The
observers’ self-constructed boundaries dissolved, allowing access to a rich network of human
and spiritual experience. Participants expressed that they experienced feelings of liberation as
they released their sense of self. Their experiences imply the observer transcends the brain, and
the ego or self is an illusion.
Hofstadter (2007) agrees that the self or I is an illusion. He differs by believing that
consciousness is confined to a physical, abstract representation (strange loops) within the brain.
He does not support the idea that there is a transcendent observer. Varela, et al. state that there is
“no permanent and abiding ego-self” (1991, p. 217) and claim that cognitive scientists Marvin
Minsky and Ray Jackendoff leave us with the contradiction that “although there is no room for a
truly existing self in cognitive science, we cannot give up our conviction in such a self” (1991, p.
107). Cognitive scientists seem to be struggling with their positivist perspective and their
personal attachment to the idea of self. Perhaps this is because they won’t accept the idea of a
transcendent consciousness.
Recent empirical research indicates the soul exists before birth and after death
(Chamberlain, 1998; Fedor-Freybergh & Vogel, 1988; Gabriel & Gabriel, 1992; Moody & Perry,
1991; Verny, 1987; Zaleski, 1987). These studies are cited extensively in Wade’s work (1996)
Higher Consciousness States 26
in developing her holonomic consciousness theory. Perhaps this reflects a bias in my analysis,
but I believe the representational definition of consciousness is limited. Many of the meditators
expressed feelings and perceptions that didn’t easily fit into a representational system.
Aurobindo talks about the process of cleansing and purifying as we move through
different planes of mind during meditation. Satprem states; “as soon as we have touched a
certain intensity of consciousness or light, automatically it exercises a pressure on the rest of the
nature and brings up swiftly the corresponding obscurities or resistances” (1968, p. 247).
Satprem recommends that the serious student continue to move through the debris that has
surfaced in a process of “successive awakenings” (p. 249). In Wade’s Authentic consciousness
stage, the person becomes aware of internal “conflicting small minds” (1996, p. 168) and
struggles to integrate the formerly repressed shadow and anima (p. 174). Varela et al. (1991)
recommend Buddhist mindfulness practices as a way to examine and eventually transcend
“habitual patterns of grasping, anxiety, and frustration” (p. 234). Hofstadter is silent on this
The theme of merging with energy and love illustrates the participants’ experience of
complete oneness with a metaphysical essence. Wade (1996), drawing from David Bohm’s
(1981) Implicate Order theory, presents the idea that there is an Absolute Order in which the
entire Universe in all dimensions exists simultaneously in this moment. With that frame of
reference, she contends that “brain and mind both enfold and interpenetrate each other” (p. 14).
Similarly, Varela et al. (1991) propose that “organism and environment enfold into each other
and unfold from one another in the fundamental circularity that is life itself” (p. 217).
As participants deepened their meditation practice, they experienced every moment,
whether in meditation or not, as mindful connection with a multidimensional Universe. They
Higher Consciousness States 27
became aware of their complete enfoldment within their home of infinite belonging. Many of the
participants’ narratives aligned with Aurobindo’s (Satprem, 1968) concept of Overmind
consciousness. They merged with cosmic energy, felt unbounded love, and they experienced a
resonance within the silence. These experiences are also consistent with Wade’s Transcendent
and Unity stages and Varela et al. (1991), who state that there is no mind “that is separate from
and knows the world. We also don’t have a world ” (p. 225). Groundlessness implies there is
neither object nor subject.
Aurobindo mentions experiences of leaving the body, either during meditation or sleep
(Satprem, 1968, pp. 121-123). Wade (1996) provides evidence taken from studies that indicate
Transcendent consciousness exists in another dimension in between lifetimes in the physical
world (pp. 29-58; 223-247). One participant related a near-death experience:
I was having a wonderful Italian dinner with my mom and a friend, and I remember
looking down at the plate of spaghetti, and I knew that I was leaving my body. I thought
wow something is going on here. And I thought at least I’m leaving a clean plate. . . . And
the next thing I know, you know, I’m out. . . . all I remember is being rushed to the
hospital, and but in that period of time, there was a state and period of time when I was
rushing through that tunnel, literally. And I was out of my body and watching everything
happen. Watching them take me to the hospital . . . And I was in that tunnel just going
beyond defining the speed of light. . . [How did it feel?] I’m going home, yay, I’m going
All four theorists address healing and serving others in their writings. Wade (1996)
contends that the Authentic person knows they have a mission to fulfill in life, but their purpose
is not revealed until they move to a Transcendent stage of consciousness. As they move to
Higher Consciousness States 28
Transcendent consciousness, they set an intention to use their own enlightenment process to
serve others. Varela et al. (1991) contend that we are inextricably linked to others. If we
practice mindfulness/awareness, compassion for others arises naturally and our enlightenment
comes through service to others. Aurobindo set a goal to evolve the human species to a new
level of intellectual and physical being through the process of meditation, in order to save our
species and our planet from extinction. Remarkably, Hofstadter (2007) includes a final chapter
in his book, in which he admits that consciousness or selfhood is real only if there is a “sense of
other selves with whom one has bonds of affection” (p. 354). He claims that the more one gives
to others, the larger is his or her soul.
Allowing New Meaning to Emerge
In this section, I apply Gadamer’s third level of hermeneutics (1975, pp. 324-235). As
interpreter, I discuss how I was transformed by the text (Bentz & Rehorick, 2006).
Throughout the interview process, the participants inspired me to try various meditation
approaches in addition to Sri Aurobindo’s integral yoga meditation process. Though I am more
aware of a greater idea of life, I still haven’t released the small-self and embraced the
groundlessness of life. Right now, I understand groundlessness intellectually, but I haven’t
integrated this perspective into my experience. I do, however, live with an awareness of the
enfoldment of life, using meditation to expand my consciousness as I delve deeper into
groundlessness. As a social scientist, I am inspired to take the middle way that Varela et al.
(1991) recommend to provide a bridge between phenomenology and cognitive science through
my research. The following short fiction story expresses, through metaphor, my personal
journey as a meditator:
Higher Consciousness States 29
The flight to Travidanim was rather bumpy and long and I shortly found myself
standing in a hot dusty road, ready to begin the real journey on foot. I was not prepared
for this place. Hot sun grabbed at my shoulders as I picked up my bags and started
walking along the road. A man approached me, with a look of recognition on his face. I
didn’t know him, yet his eyes told me the truth - that we were connected somehow.
“You are not lost,” he chuckled, “just frightened.”
“How did you know?” I asked, with a half smile.
“I sense you are going to the temple. I would be happy to show you the way.”
Actually, none of these words were spoken, as we didn’t speak each other’s
language. The whole interaction took place through eyes and gestures. I showed him the
name of the temple and my map and he started to walk with me.
We walked for over an hour in silence. Gradually the road became less dusty and
the trees and plants by the roadside became more lush and green. In the silence, I started
sensing the energy of the trees around me. The sun was no longer an angry opponent; I
experienced it now as a large, gentle, warm friend.
Finally, my companion showed me through the door to the temple. It was cool
inside and completely empty except for the most beautiful rugs on the floors, a few soft
pillows against the wall, and candles lit in a few iron sconces on the walls.
I felt a sense of peace and gratitude for this place. It no longer mattered that I had
been frightened. It didn’t matter that I had taken a long journey. I took in a deep breath
and let it out, knowing I was home.
Higher Consciousness States 30
Has this study answered my initial question? What is the lived experience of those who have a
deep and consistent meditation practice during and after meditation and does their experience
align with current Western and non-Western consciousness theories? This study revealed that
six people who have a deep and consistent meditation practice experienced letting go to become
the observer; cleansing and purifying; merging with energy and love; retreating in silence to a
home of infinite belonging; and healing and serving others. Their experiences aligned with
several aspects of three out of four consciousness theories. I found fewer connections between
Hofstadter’s strange loop consciousness theory (2007) and the meditators’ experiences. This
supports Varela et al.’s (1991) contention that there is a gulf between cognitive science and lived
Did this study open the door to exploring whether meditation can help us to evolve the
human species to higher levels of consciousness in which we are better able to solve world
problems? All participants in the study expressed this goal as one of the reasons why they
meditate. Varela, et al. (1991) contend that grasping behavior translates to many areas beyond
self, such as racial, tribal, territorial and religious identity (p. 254). Their proposed solution is to
engage in mindfulness practices on a worldwide scale to allow us to dwell in groundlessness.
Although the question of whether meditation enables humans to solve world issues has not been
answered by this study, the dialog has begun.
Higher Consciousness States 31
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Higher Consciousness States 34
Appendix A
List of Interview Questions
Note: Not all questions on this list were discussed. The flow of the interview was organic and
spontaneous. This list helped me to remember questions I could use to guide the interview.
Background questions:
How long have you been a meditator?
How often do you meditate?
How long is each meditation session on average? Longest? Shortest?
Where do you meditate? Is there a particular setting that you prefer for meditation?
What meditation method or techniques do you currently use?
What meditation method or techniques have you used in the past?
Did you have a teacher or guide during your learning process?
What is your body posture during meditation?
Experiential Questions:
Tell me about your experience during meditation
o What do you see, hear, feel, taste, or smell?
o How do you experience your emotions?
o How do you experience your thoughts?
o How do you experience your body?
o How do you experience time?
Tell me about your states of consciousness during meditation
Describe your experience after meditation and in between meditation sessions
o What do you see, hear, feel, taste, or smell?
o What is the overall experience?
o How do you feel emotionally?
o How do you experience your thoughts?
o How do you experience your body?
o How do you experience your emotions?
o How do you experience time?
Higher Consciousness States 35
Have you had any peak or altered-consciousness states during meditation?
o What was the overall experience?
o What did you see, hear, feel, taste, or smell?
o How did you feel emotionally?
o How did you experience your thoughts?
o How did you experience your body?
o How do you experience time?
o Why do you think you had that experience?
Have you had any peak or altered-consciousness states at other times while not
o What was the overall experience?
o What did you see, hear, feel, taste, or smell?
o How did you feel emotionally?
o How did you experience your thoughts?
o How did you experience your body?
o How do you experience time?
o Why do you think you had that experience?
Have you experienced a sense of your consciousness being outside your body in some
way? What was that like?
Have you experienced changes in physical state, such as a healing of illness, pain relief or
other physical change as a result of meditation? If so, what was your experience?
Have you experienced emotional or psychological healing a result of meditation? If so,
what was your experience?
How has meditation and related states of consciousness affected your everyday life?
How has meditation and related states of consciousness affected your relationships?
How has meditation and related states of consciousness affected your decision process?
What have I missed anything else to add?
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
In this article, the author reports on a method crafted to interrogate the data of a Gadamerian hermeneutic phenomenological study that explored hope seen through the eyes of a small number of Australian youth. She advocates for transparency throughout data analysis, by commencing with an explication of Gadamerian hermeneutic phenomenology, followed by a description of the manner by which the data were interrogated. It is a basic premise of this work that all too often authors have adopted thematic analysis uncritically, and have used this method of analysis without considering its fit to the philosophical or methodological orientation of the study, and this practice has remained, by and large, unchallenged. While not advocating against thematic analysis per se, the author disputes that this analytical method is appropriate for studies that are grounded by the philosophical underpinnings of Gadamerian hermeneutic phenomenology, and therefore offers a unique method of data analysis.
Cover Blurb: Researching Lived Experience introduces an approach to qualitative research methodology in education and related fields that is distinct from traditional approaches derived from the behavioral or natural sciences—an approach rooted in the “everyday lived experience” of human beings in educational situations. Rather than relying on abstract generalizations and theories, van Manen offers an alternative that taps the unique nature of each human situation. The book offers detailed methodological explications and practical examples of hermeneutic-phenomenological inquiry. It shows how to orient oneself to human experience in education and how to construct a textual question which evokes a fundamental sense of wonder, and it provides a broad and systematic set of approaches for gaining experiential material that forms the basis for textual reflections. Van Manen also discusses the part played by language in educational research, and the importance of pursuing human science research critically as a semiotic writing practice. He focuses on the methodological function of anecdotal narrative in human science research, and offers methods for structuring the research text in relation to the particular kinds of questions being studied. Finally, van Manen argues that the choice of research method is itself a pedagogic commitment and that it shows how one stands in life as an educator.
What do we mean when we say "I"? Can thought arise out of matter? Can a self, a soul, a consciousness, an "I" arise out of mere matter? If it cannot, then how can you or I be here? I Am a Strange Loop argues that the key to understanding selves and consciousness is the "strange loop"--a special kind of abstract feedback loop inhabiting our brains. Deep down, a human brain is a chaotic seething soup of particles, on a higher level it is a jungle of neurons, and on a yet higher level it is a network of abstractions that we call "symbols. " The most central and complex symbol in your brain or mine is the one we both call "I. " The "I" is the nexus in our brain where the levels feed back into each other and flip causality upside down, with symbols seeming to have free will and to have gained the paradoxical ability to push particles around, rather than the reverse. For each human being, this "I" seems to be the realest thing in the world. But how can such a mysterious abstraction be real--or is our "I" merely a convenient fiction? Does an "I" exert genuine power over the particles in our brain, or is it helplessly pushed around by the all-powerful laws of physics? These are the mysteries tackled in I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas R. Hofstadter's first book-length journey into philosophy since Godel, Escher, Bach. Compulsively readable and endlessly thought-provoking, this is the book Hofstadter's many readers have long been waiting for.