The Fourth State of Conciousness: Thoughtless Awareness
We tend to think of our conscious selves as being either awake, asleep or dreaming. And we tend to think of wakeful cognition — the conscious processes of knowing, thought, awareness, perception, reasoning — as the highest level of brain functioning. But the meditator who reaches the state of thoughtless awareness discovers a fourth state of consciousness. It’s not a wake state, sleep state or dream state. It’s a powerful realm of consciousness that allows the human mind to transcend the normal abilities of those three ordinary states.
In other words, we are able to reach a transcendental state beyond mind itself: thoughtless awareness. Or as British neurosurgeon, Sir Geoffrey Jefferson once said:
“The brain, silent and motionless, traffics with the imponderable.”
That the human mind can travel to a higher plane of consciousness like thoughtless awareness isn’t surprising. Consider the vast complexity of the human brain, after all… a hundred billion neurons; a practically unimaginable abundance of synaptic junctions; a multitude of neurotransmitters and neuromodulators with their infinite possibilities for creating brand new neural circuits linked to intricately woven webs of experience — all seem to point to much larger possibilities than the normal performance and achievement we experience in our daily lives.
What’s happening in our brains during that state of consciousness known as thoughtless awareness?
Obviously, the brain doesn’t simply stop, switch off. It keeps working 24-by-7 — if it didn’t, after all, we’d be dead!
Thoughtless awareness has been described as pure consciousness that manifests itself like a mirror becoming bright when the dirt and dust are cleared.
The brain ignores ordinary things and becomes engrossed in the purest form of consciousness itself. This pure consciousness is the true person, not his or her body, mind, senses or thoughts. This is essentially the phenomenon we often hear referred to as experiencing the “inner self.”
In the state of thoughtless awareness, we can inhibit the ongoing internal dialogue of the mind. As Dr. Rammurthi, a neurosurgeon who wrote about thoughtless awareness, once said:
“The brain isolates itself from unnecessary activities and develops its power to comprehend consciousness. It then tries to go beyond time and space and beyond the boundaries of logic and reason; the Turiya Avastha, or the fourth state of consciousness. Nature protects an organism from the continuous onslaught of sensory impulses, through numerous inhibitory mechanisms at different levels throughout the sensory system. These mechanisms often operate unconsciously. These senses can also be selective (as seen when, for example, a mother sleeping in a busy railway station responds immediately to her infant’s crying).” (Rammurthi, B., 1995)
Can humans activate these inhibitory mechanisms at will?
Meditators can. The experienced meditator, for example, can ignore sensory impulses both exteroceptive (outside the body) and proprioceptive (within the body). During meditation, higher cortical brain regions (e.g., the frontal cortex) can inhibit or exert control over incoming impulses, allowing us, for example, to ignore pain. This capacity to inhibit occurs at many levels, including at the level of the reticular activating system (RAS), which influences brain states, such as our ability to wake up, or our ability to ignore stimuli and inhibit impulses during deep meditation. With practice, even painful or nociceptive stimuli can often be prevented from reaching conscious awareness and also from causing emotional and autonomic (automatic or involuntary) responses that tend to accompany painful stimuli, such as wincing, or triggering an adrenocortical reaction that causes stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to cascade through the bloodstream.
To the brain, thoughts are events. Most of our thought-events have a corresponding somatic or bodily reaction because they’re filtered through the limbic or emotional system. For example, angry or anxious thoughts increase blood pressure and heart rate; kind or loving thoughts have the opposite effect, decreasing blood pressure and heart rate. Unless you’re contemplating neutral, unemotional thoughts — say, for example, how to use pi in some complex mathematical algorithm — your thoughts will directly influence the functioning of all bodily systems to one degree or another.
The reverse is also true: bodily events can trigger thoughts in the brain; for example, when you feel pain, your thoughts may focus on the pain.
How does one achieve thoughtless awareness?
In Sahaja meditation, it’s the awakening of the inner energy (Kundalini energy) through simple meditation techniques that takes us to the fourth level of consciousness or Turiya state — thoughtless awareness. Achieving thoughtless awareness with an assist by the inner energy is much easier than trying to achieve thoughtless awareness at level of the mental plane, where you’re surrounded by the very thoughts and feelings that we’re attempting to transcend. The energy, as it rises, does much of the work for you.
You can think of the inner energy as rocket fuel that can propel you to thoughtless awareness and beyond. This is the essence of an effortless form of meditation like Sahaja meditation.
In fact, this effortlessness is reflected in the origin of Sahaja meditation’s name. In several ancient Indian languages, the colloquial usage of the word “Sahaja” is synonymous with “spontaneous,” “effortless” and “natural.” Sahaja literally means “born with,” reflecting the spontaneous or built-in nature of the energy and of its awakening and movement through the mind and body.
The inner energy is a living force that almost seems to have a personality and will of its own. Perhaps the inner energy’s personality is best understood as being similar to that of a loving mother, who is always caring and concerned about her child (in this case, every meditation practitioner), not just when the child is in her presence. The energy is not only working for us during meditation; it’s working for us at all times. It’s possible for the energy to continue rising up through one’s energy centers without one being in the state of thoughtless awareness; thoughtless awareness is a separate process in itself. Thoughtless awareness depends on the energy, but the energy does not depend on thoughtless awareness.
In fact, once our inner energy has been awakened (a one-time event), you can often feel it moving throughout your body as you go about our business each day, even when you’re not attempting to meditate. For example, you might feel it rise and penetrate the crown of your head while you’re listening to music or conversing with someone. Once you become attuned to its rhythms, it becomes a quiet, intuitive voice, guiding you down the path to Enlightenment.
Once you understand these concepts, it’s easy to understand the real meaning and mechanics of enlightenment.
Enlightenment is simply the light within oneself. It is the knowledge, perception and experience of the “inner person.” It is the ability to detect this energy and realize how it influences the states of each energy center, ultimately impacting and positively improving our personal traits for the long term.
Enlightenment is both the knowledge and the experience. Knowledge without experience has limited power and only allows us to see the surface of enlightenment, from a distance. The concepts involved in achieving enlightenment are often misunderstood, misinterpreted, exaggerated, or relegated solely to the mystical, esoteric or philosophical planes when in reality, enlightenment is associated with this clear and simple process of inner energy perception, movement and improvement. Enlightenment is more practical than that, more real than that. It’s not an abstract.” Within this definition, a scientist can be as or much enlightened as a saint in the Himalayas.
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Thoughtless Awareness as a Mechanism for Psychological Healing
In a state of pure and thoughtless awareness, the mind is empty. It contains no cognitive content.
It is into this empty field of consciousness that thoughts and feelings arise and are then observed in a detached, nonjudgmental, nonreactive way. These thoughts and feelings come and go, leaving only empty, pure awareness, internalized attention.
Investing your conscious attention in the vastness of the present gives rise to the understanding that thoughts are only thoughts, feelings are only feelings. We are not only our thoughts and feelings.
Thoughtless awareness is imperturbable for there is nothing to perturb. Thoughtless awareness, in a sense, brings you “out of your head” into the immediacy of the present moment. It is a pre-verbal, primal experience that creates different perspectives of the rest of ordinary experience. We can let go of thoughts and feelings. We can let go of the ego.
The process of internalized attention stimulates a detached, observing ego — a sort of “mediator” — which ultimately leads us to greater self-awareness. In thoughtless awareness, we maintain awareness of the flow of psychological experience, rather than the contents. The mediator can segregate awareness itself from the contents of awareness.
We normally experience ourselves as a coherent system of thoughts and feelings. But in thoughtless awareness, the process of focusing inward with a nonreactive, nonjudgmental attitude triggers a shift in perspective, in point of view.
What was previously “subject” (the thoughts and feelings that comprise our sense of self) now becomes the “object” of awareness.
The observing self is able to experience its true nature devoid of the contents of awareness, including the ideas and feelings wrapped up in our sense of self.
This shifting of perspectives is, effectively, a therapeutic split in the ego — a disidentification of self from ego (Engler, J., 1984). The empty self is disidentified with the contents of awareness.
How does a therapeutic detachment from ego contribute to psychological healing?
One possibility is that it helps restructure the superego. The superego is the ethical, idealistic component of human personality, comprised of internalized ideals that we absorbed from our parents and others we come to admire throughout our lives. You can think of the superego as the behavioral conditionings we’ve accumulated from our past experiences. It’s how we’re “supposed” to think, act, do, or be in any situation. It’s the “should” and “ought” voice. The superego’s job is to make the ego behave morally, rather than realistically. The superego is the self-legislative, judgmental voice that sets moral standards for the ego and attempts to “keeps us in line” by suppressing the urges of the more impulsive, hedonistic id. The superego’s positive aspirations and ideals ultimately become our own idealized self-image, and its rules, criticisms and inhibitions become our conscience. When we violate the superego’s lofty standards, we feel guilt or anxiety, and perhaps the need to atone for our “bad” behavior.
During thoughtless awareness, the superego is stripped of its power over us. In meditation, the thoughts and feelings that arise from superego functioning are viewed as not being our ultimate truth (whatever that might be for us, individually), but we can encounter those thoughts and feelings with nonjudgmental, compassionate acceptance, rather than guilt and anxiety. The ego emerges from meditation with a more realistic perspective of itself and of the rest of the universe, no longer suffering because it has been trying to reconcile the unrealistic ideals of the superego with the ultimate truth.
Reality is perceived with a purer, more unified awareness. We experience freedom and a lightness of being.
Thoughtless awareness provides unity with the present moment, which ultimately brings about acceptance, understanding, joy, serenity and self-fulfillment, even as we act to make changes in our lives. This state of pure, empty awareness is a source of the experience of wisdom and enlightenment.
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Engler, J.. Therapeutic aims in psychotherapy and meditation: Developmental stages in the representation of self. J Transpersonal Psychol 1984;16:25–61.
McGee, M. Meditation and Psychiatry. Jan. 2008.
RAMAMURTHI, B. (1995), The fourth state of consciousness: The Thuriya Avastha. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 49:(2):107-10.