The Five States of Awareness

4th state

As you might imagine in a spiritual culture so preoccupied with the nature of consciousness, attention is given to the various states of awareness that each of us moves through every day: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and so on. Of course, as usual, tantra has an argument to make about how many states of awareness there are. Many people not familiar with spiritual practice would say there are three. Meditators who have experienced samadhi (deep meditation) think there are four. Non-dual Saiva Tantra argues that there are five.

Williams James, a great American philosopher of the 20th century, once wrote:

Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it parted from it by the filmiest of screens there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting  their existence, but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are there in all their completeness. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness disregarded.

The five basic states of sawareness are presented below in tabular form:

Jagrat: The Waking State

The ordinary waking state is one in which we tend to perceive ourselves primarily in terms of the physical body. In this state we are focused on (or even lost in) the objects of perception, perceiving them in terms of their mutual differentiation and our resultant preferences. Though we call this the “waking state” to differnetiate it from our sleep and dreams, from the spiritual perspective it is the most “un-awake” of all the states. Scholar Mark Dyczkowski has written:

In this state, a person is completely unconscious of his own subjective nature, and he never asks himself who he is. Whenever he sees an object he immediately identifies with it and forgets himself as the perceiver.

This is why Abhinava Gupta calls this state “the unwakened.” Most peple move through their life as if in a dream. Thus, the Bhagavad-Gita says (I paraphrase), “What is day to most people is night to the person of wisdom, and vice versa.”

Within the waking state, we also experience the other states, for the first four states all interpenetrate each other. Dreaming-in-waking is the state in which we all have daydreams, reveries, or fantasies, in which we are lost in our mental impressions and almost unaware of our physical surroundings. Deep sleep-in-waking is a moment of completely blanking out, a spontaneous thought-free state in which one stares off into space. It is a state of unity-consciousness, but we are not aware of it as such. (If we are aware of it,  then it is really the following). The Fourth-in-waking is a moment of spontaneous meditation, a thought-free state in which self-awareness is primary, even while perceiving the “external” world. This is called “true wakefulness” by Abhinava Gupta.

Svapna: The Dream State

In the dream state, we occupy our subtle body (sometimes called the “energy body,” it is composed of prana, subtle elements, and mental faculties), and we roam in the world of our various impressions of our various experiences, exercising our capacity for imaginative mental representation. In this state there is unity-in-diversity (bheda-bheda), for all the various elements of the dream state are unified by being aspects of a single mind. The dream world is not a creation of random firing within the brain, but can tell us about our subconscious world. Therefore, there is the possibility of doing “dream yoga,” a topic addressed by Abhinava Gupta in Chapter 10 of his Light on the Tantra. As he says there, “Wise ones experience a dream as a form of inner knowing, which operates on known entitities in whatever way it wants, independently of their external existence.” In other words, through dream-yoga we can make inner shifts, re-write our past, and have new insights.

Waking-in-dreaming is commonly called lucid dreaming. is an important part of dream yoga; for to make conscious choices in the dream world, you must learn how to wke up and realize that you are dreaming. Otherwise, lucidity in the dream state will come and go at random. Some people never experience this; but if you have, you can cultivate it. Dreaming-in-dream is the ordinary kind of dreaming, in which awareness is sacttered and self-reflection is difficult. Deep sleep-in-dream is said to be a state in which one has greater self-awareness in the dream (because deep sleep is associated with subjectivity). Finally, the most important is the state of the Fourth-in-dream, that is to say, fully focused awareness while dreaming. It is said that if you can learn to practice meditation in the dream state, it bears fruit more rapidly than in the waking state.

Sushupti: The Deep Sleep State

In deep sleep, we are immersed in pure subjectivity but without self-awareness. Entering this state every night is necessary for mental and physical health. In this state, we are temporarily free of our waking thoughts and our subconscious impressions, both of which can be taxing on our systems. From the yogic point of view, it is precisely because the deep sleep state is close to our pure subjectivity, the innermost Self, that it is refreshing and rejuvenating. The human being cannot survive long without deep sleep or meditation.

Waking-in-deep-sleep is a state where some trace of awareness emerges, by virtue of which, when we wake up, we are able to say, ” I slept well” or “I slept a long time.” Dreaming-in-deep-sleep is an expansive state in which one is unconscious but still receiving impresions: for example, some people in comas are in this state, and though unconscious, when they are out of the coma, they have some sense of who was with them during that time. By contrast, in the peaceful deep sleep-in-deep-sleep, one is aware of nothing whatsoever, and upon waking, has no notion of how much time has passed, but wakes feeling deeply refreshed. Finally, the Fourth-in-deep-sleep is an extremely rare state of becoming conscious of the absolute void of pure subjectivity during one’s sleep period, and meditating there spontaneously.

Turya: The Fourth, or Transcendental State

The transcendental state of meditation, commonly known as samadhi, consists of accessing the state of total subjectivity, the void of pure consciousness – with the usual objects of awareness (including thoughts) absent, the senses quieted, and even the subliminal impressions temporarily quelled. Simply, it is a state in which one accesses the level of deep sleep while completely awake and aware. Put another way, it is non-dual awareness of pure subjectivity or “I-ness,” on the level of the individual Self (purusa, atman), not the all-encompassing universal Self.

Samadhi literally means “absorption,” because in classical yoga the most common method of achieving this state was to quiet the mind by focusing it one-pointedly on any object (a candle flame, the breath, etc.) until the mind merged with the object of meditation and dissolved. In this state, the object alone shines forth, suffused with consciousness, yet free of any associations, interpretations, or cognitions. One skilled in this technique eventually learns to attain it even without an object of meditation (nirbija samadhi).

For many Indian (and Asian) spiritual traditions, this is the highest state. They regard it is the ony state untainted by the messy and limited manifestations of nature. Such schools of thought are “transcendentalist” in that they seek transcendence as their goal. But in the tradition of Saiva Tantra called “Supreme Non-dualism” (paramadvaya), which is the focus of this blog, it is taught that we can exist in the stainless clear Light of Consciousness even in the midst of worldly activity. This is the condition known as turyatita (beyond the Fourth).

Turyatita: Beyond the Fourth

As you might expect if you are starting to understand the pattern of reality in NST, this state is not called the “Fifth” because it does not top a hierarchy; it is not comprehensible in hierarchical terms. Referred to as that state “beyond the Fourth,” Turyatita is best described as the complete permeation of the first three states by the Fourth. It expresses the fundamental movement of the self-liberating autonomous consciousness: transcendence followed by pervasion of the mundane by the transcendent. Thus it is final liberation and full awakening, as the tantrikas conceive it, under another name. This is what is referred to in the Siva Sutra 1.7-11.

In other words, the non-dual tantrikas assert that it is possible to experiene the supreme Light of the Divine in the midst of any and all worldly activities, and even in the midst of any and all moods or states of mind. To be more accurate, in this state we do not experience the Light in spite of our mood or condition, but as the very substance of those. The successful establishment of this state is Turyatita, the liberation beyond that of the transcendentalists. As it is taught in the Stanzas on the Recognition of the Lord:

One whose self is the universe, knowing fully that “All this is my own expansion,” experiences the divine state even in the flow of differnetial cognitions.

Once again, then, the Ultimate Reality is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, constituing the very substance of your moment-to-moment experience yet inexpressibly more than that: the timeless ground upon which it al unfolds.

SOURCE: Wallis, Christopher. Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition. Anusara Press, The Woodlands, TX, 2012.