What is Consciousness?

Theosophy differs widely from the common modern and scientific teachings when it comes to the subject of consciousness. While materialistic science views consciousness as a phenomena that arises out of matter, theosophy teaches that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality and an equal partner, so to speak, with matter—the two being co-eternal and essentially two sides of the same coin. Thus the whole theosophical system rests on the view that consciousness has been present from the very beginning, and that while it is itself unchangeable, it arises in different states depending on the condition of the matter through which it operates.

The theosophical teachings on the nature of consciousness begins with “an Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable Principle,” also called Parabrahma, which is “‘Be-ness’ rather than Being.” “This ‘Be-ness’ is symbolised in the Secret Doctrine under two aspects. On the one hand, absolute abstract Space, representing bare subjectivity, the one thing which no human mind can either exclude from any conception, or conceive of by itself. On the other, absolute Abstract Motion representing Unconditioned Consciousness.”

H. P. Blavatsky explains how we go from this Absolute Unconditioned Consciousness to our individual consciousness thus:

“Parabrahma (the One Reality, the Absolute) is the field of Absolute Consciousness, i.e., that Essence which is out of all relation to conditioned existence, and of which conscious existence is a conditioned symbol. But once that we pass in thought from this (to us) Absolute Negation, duality supervenes in the contrast of Spirit (or consciousness) and Matter, Subject and Object.

“Spirit (or Consciousness) and Matter are, however, to be regarded, not as independent realities, but as the two facets or aspects of the Absolute (Parabrahma), which constitute the basis of conditioned Being whether subjective or objective.

“Considering this metaphysical triad as the Root from which proceeds all manifestation, the great Breath assumes the character of precosmic Ideation. It is the fons et origo [source and origin] of force and of all individual consciousness, and supplies the guiding intelligence in the vast scheme of cosmic Evolution. On the other hand, precosmic root-substance (Mūlaprakṛti) is that aspect of the Absolute which underlies all the objective planes of Nature.

“Just as pre-Cosmic Ideation is the root of all individual consciousness, so pre-Cosmic Substance is the substratum of matter in the various grades of its differentiation.

“Hence it will be apparent that the contrast of these two aspects of the Absolute is essential to the existence of the ‘Manifested Universe.’ Apart from Cosmic Substance, Cosmic Ideation could not manifest as individual consciousness, since it is only through a vehicle of matter that consciousness wells up as ‘I am I,’ a physical basis being necessary to focus a ray of the Universal Mind at a certain stage of complexity. Again, apart from Cosmic Ideation, Cosmic Substance would remain an empty abstraction, and no emergence of consciousness could ensue. . . .

“Thus from Spirit, or Cosmic Ideation, comes our consciousness; from Cosmic Substance the several vehicles in which that consciousness is individualised and attains to self—or reflective—consciousness . . .”—Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:14-16

While it is very difficult to give a concise definition of consciousness per se, we can see here that it is associated with the idea of motion and with the term Spirit.

The above gives us our starting point, but the process that allows for self-consciousness is one that involves the teachings on Planetary and Human Evolution.

Consciousness and Self-Consciousness

Since consciousness can be said to permeate all matter, theosophy teaches that everything is conscious in its own way and on its own plane. But this is not to say that everything is self-conscious, or that everything has a consciousness that approximates the conditions of human consciousness. Consciousness working through a plant-form obviously results in a different condition than consciousness working through an animal-form, and this again is different than the consciousness working through Man, and so on.

“Everything in the Universe, throughout all its kingdoms, is conscious: i.e., endowed with a consciousness of its own kind and on its own plane of perception. We men must remember that because we do not perceive any signs—which we can recognise—of consciousness, say, in stones, we have no right to say that no consciousness exists there. There is no such thing as either ‘dead’ or ‘blind’ matter, as there is no ‘Blind’ or ‘Unconscious’ Law. These find no place among the conceptions of Occult philosophy.”—Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:274

“Nature taken in its abstract sense, cannot be ‘unconscious,’ as it is the emanation from, and thus an aspect (on the manifested plane) of the absolute consciousness. Where is that daring man who would presume to deny to vegetation and even to minerals a consciousness of their own. All he can say is, that this consciousness is beyond his comprehension.”—Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:277

So consciousness is everywhere and in everything, but the “vehicles” or forms through which that consciousness works differ, and therefore the resulting display and functionality of that consciousness is different. Just as we see that electricity is one and the same thing, but electricity run through a wire, or run through a lightbulb, or run through a computer, each display different results. The difference is not in the electricity itself, but in the material forms through which it operates.

One of the most important distinctions made in theosophy, in regards to how consciousness works through matter, is the distinction between what we might call regular or instinctual consciousness and self-consciousness or reflective consciousness. Theosophy teaches that self-consciousness can only arise through a vehicle (form) that has reached a certain degree of complexity, i.e. the nervous system needs to be complex enough to allow for self-consciousness to operate. Modern science recognizes this fact in the differences between plant, animal and human nervous systems and resulting consciousness. The human brain has within it a certain degree of complexity that allows for a keener and somewhat more complex sense of self than animals display. Within the animal kingdom there is a great range of complexity, with the simplest animal forms displaying only very basic instinctual, almost automated consciousness, up to the most complex animals whose condition of consciousness reaches almost up to that of a human. The plant kingdom shows an even more basic form of automated consciousness which in the most complex plants reaches almost up to the lowest animal conditions. So also the mineral kingdom displays basic consciousness which blends in its highest levels into the lowest of the plant. Another way to phrase this, is that as the forms become more complex, consciousness is able to display itself in a more individualized manner, arriving finally at the human stage where definite individual self-consciousness becomes the normal condition. A few quotes from theosophical literature will illustrate the general outline of progressive vehicles and resulting consciousness:

“The gradual obscuration of spirit [consciousness] as it passes into concrete matter [reaches] the evolutionary position of the mineral kingdom . . . [then reaches] the three stages of organic life, vegetable, animal, human. . . . The ‘Monadic Essence’ begins to imperceptibly differentiate in the vegetable kingdom. . . . And though, as shown by those plants that are known as sensitives, there are a few among them that may be regarded as possessing that conscious perception which is called by Leibnitz apperception, while the rest are endowed but with that internal activity which may be called vegetable nerve-sensation (to call it perception would be wrong) . . . The ocean does not divide into its potential and constituent drops until the sweep of the life-impulse reaches the evolutionary stage of man-birth. The tendency towards segregation into individual monads is gradual, and in the higher animals comes almost to the point. . . .” (“About the Mineral Monad”)

“Leibnitz conceived of the Monads as elementary and indestructible units endowed with the power of giving and receiving with respect to other units, and thus of determining all spiritual and physical phenomena. It is he who invented the term apperception, which together with nerve- (not perception, but rather)—sensation, expresses the state of the Monadic consciousness through all the Kingdoms up to Man.”—Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:179

“Man, philosophically considered, is, in his outward form, simply an animal . . . He is a living body, not a living being, since the realisation of existence, the “Ego-Sum,” necessitates self-consciousness, and an animal can only have direct consciousness, or instinct.”—Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:234

“But the evolution of the internal or real man is purely spiritual. It is now no more a passage of the impersonal Monad through many and various forms of matter—endowed at best with instinct and consciousness on quite a different plane—as in the case of external evolution, but a journey of the “pilgrim-soul” through various states of not only matter but Self-consciousness and self-perception, or of perception from apperception.”—Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:175

In Theosophy, self-consciousness is associated with the principle called Manas (Mind), which is directly connected with Ahamkara (Egoity, or the sense of “I”). It is only when there is a form (i.e. a brain and nervous system) of sufficient complexity that self-consciousness can arise or display itself through that vehicle, or on that plane. This, in theosophy, is what marks the fundamental difference between Man and animals. It is not in the consciousness itself, it is simply that those monads (selves) who have arrived at the human kingdom, and inhabit human forms, have a central nervous system complex enough to allow more of the Manasic type of consciousness to operate on this plane.

Once a monad reached the human kingdom, their evolutionary journey takes on an entirely new character due to that self-consciousness. His evolution becomes increasingly self-devised and self-induced. The process of his evolution takes place across seven planes, in each of which he is able to gradually unfold real self-consciousness. This upward journey is explored in detail in the teachings on the Path of Adeptship.

States of Consciousness

Theosophy views Nature as divided into planes of consciousness-substance, i.e. within Nature there are distinct planes or states of substance which exist in co-adunition but not con-substantiality. This is to say, that the planes exist in the same “Space,” so to speak, but are not formed of the same type of substance. Therefore, these can also be viewed as distinct planes of consciousness, because beings operating therein experience each plane through a different condition of consciousness. Once the human kingdom has been reached and self-consciousness awakened, Man’s journey of awakening in each of these planes can begin.

“Whatever plane our consciousness may be acting in, both we and the things belonging to that plane are, for the time being, our only realities. As we rise in the scale of development we perceive that during the stages through which we have passed we mistook shadows for realities, and the upward progress of the Ego is a series of progressive awakenings, each advance bringing with it the idea that now, at last, we have reached “reality”; but only when we shall have reached the absolute Consciousness, and blended our own with it, shall we be free from the delusions produced by Maya.”—Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:40

The material, physical universe which we experience in our waking consciousness, through our physical body and senses, is considered to be a specific plane—the lowest of the planes that are accessible to self-conscious Man. We operate here through a particular condition of our consciousness, which is limited by our physical vehicle (the body with its senses and nervous system). However, Theosophy teaches, as do the Hindu philosophies, Buddhism, etc. that it is possible to self-consciously experience other planes than this one. The conditions of our consciousness are different on those planes and its limitations are much less than on the physical plane, because our consciousness is able to operate through subtler and less restrictive vehicles.

“Occultism teaches that physical man is one, but the thinking man septenary, thinking, acting, feeling, and living on seven different states of being or planes of consciousness, and that for all these states and planes the permanent Ego (not the false personality) has a distinct set of senses.”—Blavatsky, Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge, p. 73

“Our philosophy teaches us that, as there are seven fundamental forces in nature, and seven planes of being, so there are seven states of consciousness in which man can live, think, remember and have his being. To enumerate these here is impossible, and for this one has to turn to the study of Eastern metaphysics. But in these two states—the waking and the dreaming—every ordinary mortal, from a learned philosopher down to a poor untutored savage, has a good proof that such states differ. . . . Believing in seven planes of Kosmic being and states of Consciousness, with regard to the Universe or the Macrocosm, we stop at the fourth plane, finding it impossible to go with any degree of certainty beyond. But with respect to the Microcosm, or man, we speculate freely on his seven states and principles.”—Blavatsky, Key to Theosophy, p. 89-90

The types and degrees of consciousness possible for Man is a vast subject, only really given in outline form in theosophical teachings.

“In Occultism every qualificative change in the state of our consciousness gives to man a new aspect, and if it prevails and becomes part of the living and acting Ego, it must be (and is) given a special name, to distinguish the man in that particular state from the man he is when he places himself in another state.”—Blavatsky, Key to Theosophy, p. 118

The most common way of delineating the basic conditions of consciousness that are within the reach of human beings, is to use the fourfold Hindu method, which uses the terms waking (jāgrat), dreaming (svapna), deep sleep (suṣupti), and the fourth, turīya. This is taught originally in the Mandukya Upanishad. These states are connected with the system of Upadhis (vehicles) in Raja Yoga, where there is shown to be a distinct vehicle through which each state of consciousness arises—waking through the sthula-upadhi, dreaming through the sukshma-upadhi, and deep sleep through the karana-upadhi, with turiya beyond (see the teachings on the Constitution of Man). In The Voice of the Silence (see p. 6 etc.), these planes are illustrated as “Halls,” named the Hall of Ignorance, Hall of Learning, and Hall of Wisdom, with the fourth beyond.

In regards to the waking condition, it is, generally speaking, simply our normal waking life. However, in the esoteric philosophy, we ought to make a distinction between the ordinary waking state of the average human being and the real wakefulness of the adept. The subjects of mindfulness and present awareness, focus, concentration, etc. come into play in this regard. We can easily observe a profound difference between being, let’s say, casually awake, and being really hyper-wakeful. Thus in the waking state we find a range of degrees of wakefulness.

While modern science considers all dreams to be nothing more than electro-chemical phenomena in the physical brain, theosophy teaches a more complex view of various types of dream condition, and makes an important distinction between ordinary dreams (or “idle visions,” as Blavatsky calls them) and real dreams. The “idle visions” are, as science says, caused by electro-chemical phenomena, to which theosophy adds that they involve the lower principles of our nature and their instinctual motions. Real dreams, however, are said to be experienced through a subtler vehicle than the physical, and on a different plane than the physical. As Blavatsky points out: “The nature and functions of real dreams cannot be understood unless we admit the existence of an immortal Ego in mortal man, independent of the physical body.” These real dreams are experiences of the Ego on another Plane, independent of the physical personal self, of which we may sometimes retain distorted glimpses after we wake. “The Self is the real Ego, and . . . it lives and acts . . . on a different plane. The external life is a ‘dream’ to this Ego, while the inner life, or the life on what we call the dream plane, is the real life for it.” For more on this subject, see Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge, p. 59 etc. For instance, consider this fascinating statement by Blavatsky:

Q. Do Adepts dream?

A. No advanced Adept dreams. An adept is one who has obtained mastery over his four lower principles, including his body, and does not, therefore, let flesh have its own way. He simply paralyzes his lower Self during Sleep, and becomes perfectly free. A dream, as we understand it, is an illusion. Shall an adept, then, dream when he has rid himself of every other illusion? In his sleep he simply lives on another and more real plane.

In this we see the teaching that along the Path of Adeptship, one eventually becomes able to transition from waking to the real dream plane with self-conscious choice and will, and then there is no “dream-illusion” as such, but simply self-conscious life on another plane.

Beyond the real dream plane, or dream state, is said to be another distinct plane or state, which is generally referred to as either “Deep Sleep” or “Dreamless Sleep.” Very little is said in theosophical literature about the nature of this state or plane, other than to say that it is beyond the plane of real dreams and is associated with the principle buddhi. See, for instance, in The Secret Doctrine Dialogues, p. 76 etc., when Blavatsky was asked about dreamless sleep and offered very little explanation. In The Secret Doctrine, 1:47, she defines it simply thus:

“Dreamless sleep is one of the seven states of consciousness known in Oriental esotericism. In each of these states a different portion of the mind comes into action; or as a Vedantin would express it, the individual is conscious in a different plane of his being. . . . [Dreamless sleep is] that state of consciousness in man, which, not being remembered in a waking state, seems a blank, just as the sleep of the mesmerised subject seems to him an unconscious blank when he returns to his normal condition, although he has been talking and acting as a conscious individual would.”

Of Turiya even less is said, and perhaps very little can be said, as that state is simply too far removed from the condition of consciousness to which we are familiar. The following is the definition offered by Blavatsky in the Theosophical Glossary:

Turiya Avastha. Almost a Nirvanic state in Samadhi, which is itself a beatific state of the contemplative Yoga beyond this plane. A condition of the higher Triad, quite distinct (though still inseparable) from the conditions of Jagrat (waking), Svapna (dreaming), and Sushupti (sleeping).

We can begin to see in the above exploration just how complex the question of consciousness and states of consciousness becomes as we delve deeper into theosophical study. As with other subjects, consciousness must be studied in combination with other teachings. So one must study the doctrines involved in the Divisions of Man and Nature and Evolution-Involution, along with the doctrines of Human Perfectibility, in order to gain a better overall picture.

Selected Writings on Consciousness and States of Consciousness