From the Humanist Health News Network REHUNO Health we set up a place of exchange where we find a new look on daily life based on experiential and existential psychology (the Psychology of New Humanism), and which gives some concrete proposals of personal work to reach a full sense of our existence and a life free of unnecessary suffering. It is not, therefore, therapeutic psychology, nor does it deal with any pathology, but is aimed at anyone who wants to understand themselves and have the tools, if they so wish, to initiate a positive change in their lives. Psychological wellbeing is undoubtedly one of the foundations of integral health, which is why it is an aspect that needs to be addressed.
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By Jordi Jiménez
We all have the experience of sleeping, waking up from sleep and going to sleep on a daily basis. The consciousness functions with this daily sleep-wake cycle thanks to which it can open up to the external world and carry out activities in it for a good number of hours, and it closes in on itself to reorganise and elaborate the experiences of the day. It is often said that during sleep the consciousness and the whole body rest and recover for a new day of activity, but the truth is that during sleep the consciousness carries out an infinite number of operations in which it “puts order” to all the complex experiences that have been lived in vigil. But it will be in the next article that we will talk about the world of dreams and even their possible interpretations when they involve images. Today we will content ourselves with describing, from the point of view of experience, the different levels of consciousness through which we pass every day, and we will also describe some unusual levels, although accessible to any of us.
The levels of consciousness form a continuum, i.e., there is no abrupt jump between the level of vigil and the level of profound sleep, but one passes through intermediate levels to progressively enter or leave sleep. However, although in experience there is this degradation without jumps between levels, we are going to differentiate between them in order to better explain their characteristics and the consequences that each one has on our functioning.
We will then make this pedagogical differentiation between the levels of consciousness:
- Attentive vigil
- Vigil with reveries
- Active semi-sleep
- Passive semi-sleep
- Dreaming with images
- Profound or vegetative sleep
Let’s start with the “lowest” level, which is deep or vegetative sleep. By the way, “low” or “high” is usually said because, as we said in the first articles of this series, every mental representation has a spatial location in a three-dimensional space. And levels of consciousness also have a register of some spatial location. For example, we feel that when we sleep our location goes downwards and when we are very awake and with a lot of energy, we say that “we go upwards”.
Moreover, it happens that in the lower levels, the register of oneself is internalised, i.e., the signals of the innermost senses are amplified (intrabody cenesthesia) and the signals of the outer senses (sight, hearing, touch…) are attenuated. This is why it is best to sleep in dark and quiet places, to help attenuate the external senses and allow us to “spill out” into sleep more easily. As our level of consciousness rises, the register of the self (i.e., the register of the “I”) becomes more externalised as the signals from the external senses increase and those from the internal senses decrease, allowing us to open up to the outside world and carry out our activities.
From there, let us return to the lowest level of consciousness, which is deep sleep. There is a phrase that is vegetative sleep, very profound, in which there are no images or sensations of any kind and in which the register of the “I” has disappeared. It is as if one ceases to exist during those hours. At other times of the night, this sleep becomes a little more superficial (it goes up a little) and it is then that dreams with images appear, which we will deal with in the next article.
Semi-sleep and vigil
When we come out of sleep, we find ourselves in a level of consciousness that we could call semi-sleep. We register this intermediate level both when we come out of sleep and when we enter it. There is some fairly basic waking activity and also a strong influence on the level of sleep as the inner senses are still sending strong signals and the outer senses are not yet fully activated, in case we are waking up. The register of oneself is as if one is also somewhere in between, neither asleep nor awake. Activity in the world is, shall we say, lazy, slow and above all very mechanical. We can do things that we already have mechanised and we do them without thinking much (showering, making coffee, getting dressed…). As we do this, we notice that we are waking up and that we have more control over what we do and what we want. There are people for whom semi-sleep lasts a few minutes and then they are like a motorbike, and other people need hours to wake up properly. In short, there is a wide range of human diversity.
In semi-sleep, there is also a multitude of images going through our heads in an equally mechanical way: about something I’m going to do today or about something left over from yesterday, about something I have to remember to do and then forget to do, and so on. But above all, it is about “trains” of images that run without much control on my part and
that link up with each other almost of their own free will. The consciousness as a whole shows a very mechanical and very little directed activity, and that is why I often forget things in those fateful moments of morning semi-sleep, even if I will be willing not to forget them, such as the famous house keys.
If it’s the other way around and I’m in semi-sleep, but going to sleep, something curious happens in some cases. Instead of letting myself go and forgetting about the things of the day to spill out into sleep (downwards), on the contrary, I notice a great mental activity and a great energy that gives me a “rush” (another very accurate expression) that prevents me from sleeping as I would like to. On the other hand, when I wake up in the morning, it seems that my consciousness wants to continue sleeping. But why does it go the other way? Well, it is clear that levels of consciousness have their inertia and it takes time to move from one to another, there is a tendency to maintain the level one is at, except in situations where there is a lot of tiredness and we spill out easily. This inertia or tendency to maintain the level will be of interest to us later on.
And after the coffee we move on to the vigil level. At this level the consciousness directs the activities with a certain independence, the signals from the external senses arrive at their maximum intensity and the capacity for criticism and self-criticism is also at its highest. This means that we have the possibility to reflect on what we do, to plan and to choose, because we can first imagine our action and after that decide on the basis of the sensations that the imagined situation produces in us (for more details see the first articles of the series).
But a curious phenomenon occurs in vigil: reveries. What are reveries? They are a kind of mechanical daydreaming, of images that circulate through our consciousness, even when we are with our eyes open and doing any activity. It is also often called “daydreaming”. For example, we are cooking and we are thinking about other things, or we are walking down the street and thinking about other things. These “thinking” are the reveries. They appear and move automatically, without our request, covering our perception with a thin veil. This is the most common and habitual state of all of us on a daily basis. These reveries that flood our vigil are only silenced when we are engaged in some activity that requires our full attention or when we are very focused on something that requires all five senses. Then, if that activity becomes more mechanised, more automatic, our attention drops again and the famous reveries return. Therefore, attention is the only thing that can overcome these reveries. The problem is that, unfortunately, the act of paying attention is usually associated with physical and mental tension, which registers as undesirable, so as soon as we have been paying attention to something for a while, we stop.
And why should we have to go beyond reveries? Because we are interested in “waking up”, we are interested in an awake, lucid, and fresh consciousness. We are interested in our psychic system advancing towards a new level of consciousness that we call “self-consciousness”. It is a level that is above ordinary vigil and is characterised by a decrease in reveries, by an almost permanent attentional state, but associated with an evident inner calm. Calm attention to what is happening around us, but also to what is happening within us. In other words, it is a state where internal and external phenomena are observed and perceived intertwined at the same time. That is why there can be reveries and images that appear and move, as in vigil, but the difference is that when one is at this level of consciousness, one observes these images, these reveries, one sees them as if from outside, while perceiving oneself acting in the external world also as if from behind, at a little distance from what one is doing.
Consciousness of self
We have already said that the spatial location of images is very important for understanding the functioning of consciousness. In this case of consciousness of self, the register of oneself seems to be a little bit backward and at a distance. The important thing about this level is that it greatly increases reversibility, i.e., the ability to realise what one is doing and to decide what response to give with much more consciousness.
It is not easy to train one’s attention to work with intensity and at the same time with a relaxed calm, but it can be done. In the same way, it also takes time to forge this attitude, this predisposition to self-awareness, since the mechanicity of reverie is very powerful and is very consolidated in the consciousness from a very early age. As we said before, the consciousness tends to maintain the level it is at, so from the vigil, it takes a little effort (albeit sustained) to jump to a higher level. It’s like getting out of bed when we’re all warm and cosy. A clear intention is needed in that sense, although it is not necessary to force things either but to move forward gently and without haste. However, these efforts have a reward that very few people have access to, even though it is something we all have within reach: to approach a new level of consciousness and a new life that is clearer, cleaner, and, finally, much freer.