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What is Consciousness?

Answering the question that serves as the title of this paper is akin to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s remark that he could not define pornography, but he knows it when he sees it. In fact, in the very introduction of The Psychology of Consciousness, author Robert Ornstein suggests there is no simple way to write down the answer, but that consciousness is experiential[1]. One would be accurate to say that consciousness is awareness, but it is considerably more complex than that. Certainly one can have consciousness, ie: be awake, but have no consciousness of the reason he or she acts out with compulsive activity. In this essay I intend to flesh out consciousness and elaborate on a model of how it manifests.

Ornstein goes on to explain that psychology actually started as the science of consciousness, but was narrowed down by the Behaviorism movement, initiated by John Watson, which specifically excluded consciousness as a factor in psychology. Yet it is clear that behavior is a reliable, if limited, measure of consciousness. Let’s assign it a primary level in a model of how consciousness manifests and try to understand other ways. A model created by Graywolf Swinney[2], a psychologist and self-described Consciousness Engineer, suggests that the first four levels at which consciousness manifests are thus:

Belief System
Personal Mythology

This model suggests that the most superficial way in which consciousness manifests is through Behavior and Physiology and gets more complex from there. After Personal Mythology, his model gets murky, but includes two other levels for which the model developed by Dr. David Hawkins[3] may be more articulate. Dr. Hawkins uses the methodology of kinesiology (muscle testing), the validity of which is under great debate. Somewhere between the levels between 350 and 540 on the Hawkins Map of Consciousness[4] is where I would put the next level of consciousness. Level 350 is cited as the level of acceptance, where a harmonious life-view dominates in a process of transcendence. Certainly when we have reached a level of acceptance and transcendence, we can see ourselves as the latest manifestation of a certain mode or type of existence, though with the new twist that our cultural moment helps to create. The archetypal level may be seen as a template for one’s life. The American Heritage dictionary defines archetypes as an inherited pattern of thought or symbolic imagery derived from the past collective experience and present in the individual unconscious.

In the larger groupings created by Swinney, the final and 6th level was referred to as Chaotic Consciousness. We might call it Cosmic Consciousness as we can imagine was experienced by Christ or the Buddha-Field, which is John Hogue’s[5] term. On Dr. Hawkins map, this would be levels 700 to 1,000, which he says is the highest level which the human nervous system is designed to handle.

So, to finish our model as was so well-started by Swinney, we would have the six levels as:

Belief System
Personal Mythology
Chaotic/Cosmic Consciousness/Buddha-field

Of course conceiving of consciousness in such a way is not new. Ken Wilbur[6] points out thinkers as diverse as Plotinus and Sri Aurobindo have mapped out their own models, going in an order opposite the one above:

Absolute One (Godhead)
Nous (Intuitive Mind) [subtle]
Soul/World-Soul [psychic]
Creative Reason [vision-logic]
Logical Faculty [formop]
Concepts and Opinions
Pleasure/pain (emotions)
Vegetative life function


Satchitananda/Supermind (Godhead)
Intuitive Mind/Overmind
Illumined World-Mind
Logical mind
Concrete mind [conop]
Lower mind [preop]
Vital-emotional; impulse
Matter (physical)


To suggest that consciousness manifests in humans as physiology would correspond to the notion of matter being at the most superficial level.

Behaviorism has shown us that with a reductionist paradigm, we can easily see what is wrong with a system, but we are less able to define what is right. In psychology today there is a reliance on pharmaceuticals and, what is a pathologizing. Find the bad part and kill it. Yet, we can benefit from the advent of technology that allows us to detect the physical manifestations of consciousness, by measuring the physiological symptoms present that would indicate an absence of deeper consciousness. That’s where Richard Lee comes in.

Consciousness is the Absence of Noise.

Consciousness is Qi and intention, according to Richard H. Lee. The Director of the China Pathways Institute has done extensive research into the validity of the Chinese concept of Qi, which he says is understood not as a scientific substance, but rather, “as the essence of life, the bridge of consciousness between mind and body, and the ‘eternal now’ in which all activity occurs.” Those people renowned for developing their Qi in the Chinese tradition are known as Qigong masters who, Lee says: “Through years of training, gradually gain mastery over their own mind (through focus of attention), emotions (through calmness and releasing desires), and physical body (through discipline).[7]

According to Lee, the energy emitted by Qigong masters can be measured in a variety of ways and the level of consciousness can be reflected, in part, by the calmness, or lack of noise in the system. We associate deeper states of consciousness with the awake, but calm state, of meditation. It would come to reason that a person who meditates regularly would reflect the benefits of that practice and the accompanying calm could be measured and in fact Lee’s Scientific Investigation into Chinese Qigong states that several different ways to measure Qi and its healing capabilities exist, from measuring the output of Qi in a Qigong masters hands[8], to measuring the effects of Qigong on malignant tumors[9] and even accelerating immune systems response in rabbits[10].

We have all had the experience of being so angry or nervous, we can’t keep our hands from shaking. Lee says: “Vibrational trembling appears to be a way memory is stored of processed in the physical body…When someone is full of anger…he may tremble extensively in the theta range of EEG[11].” Lee suggests excess worry is measured in the beta range. Therefore one may extrapolate that consciousness may be recognized as the absence of such trembling or noise in a system.

A Poetry Writing Process as Consciousness-Building Discipline

Richard Lee cites three main facets of the mastery of Qigong masters as being “mastery over the mind (through focus of attention), of emotions (through calmness and releasing desires), and of the physical body (through discipline).” I believe that the act of having a regular writing discipline, meaning a daily practice of writing and especially a free-associative/spontaneous writing process, is one that leads to mastery in the Qigong vernacular, or to individuation in the Jungian tradition, or a deeper consciousness.

To write every day requires a focus of attention. It requires calmness to write clearly and the urge toward that clarity which is glimpsed after a number of years of having such a discipline, which only deepens once one has had a taste of it. It may even be a matter of homeostasis. If Dr. Hawkins is correct about the nature of attractor fields, the notion that when the pupil is ready, the teacher appears may be explainable by field theory. Fields, as defined here by Rupert Sheldrake, are:

“A region of physical influence. Fields interrelate and interconnect matter and energy within their realm of influence. Fields are not a form of matter; rather, matter is energy bound within fields. In current physics, several kinds of fundamental field are recognized: the gravitational and electromagnetic fields and the matter fields of quantum physics. The hypothesis of formative causation broadens the concept of physical fields to include morphic fields as well as the known fields of physics.”[12]

Poet Michael McClure’s line is:

We swirl out what we are and watch for its return[13].

Why is a Free-Associative/Spontaneous Writing Practice a Better Mode of Consciousness-Deepening?

In Projective Verse, poet Charles Olson called for an Open poetics, where the poetry (among other things) was being composed with scrupulous attention to the syllable, the minims of language where Olson said is: “speech where it is least careless and least logical.[14]” Anyone who has experienced the prototypical POETRY WORKSHOP EXPERIENCE has seen that least logical word or phrase be chosen as the first candidate for removal. To go back to Dr. Hansard’s comment in an earlier essay likening T.S. Eliot’s work to forensics, it’s EASY to start hacking away at this corpse we call a poem. But Olson realized that moment, if cultivated and recognized, has a deeper intelligence and resonance than the composing poet could be aware of, and certainly superior to the typical workshop leader. That person would likely know little of the Personal Mythology of the poet in question to begin making assumptions that may take away the beauty and mystery of the line being analyzed.

That moment often does have a deeper consciousness than one is aware of while in the act of composing. Of course we know free-association as a technique to get at the unconscious and that is part of where the beauty (and power) of the spontaneous/open form process comes in to our notion of deepening one’s consciousness. If consciousness is awareness, but we agree that there are different levels, then it is the making aware of those aspects of shadow that is the first step of this individuation process and owning them being the second. The resulting change in the Personal Mythology of the practitioner is one of the consciousness-deepening aspects of an Open Form practice. The act of writing down on paper is a moment of creation akin to ritual which marks the moment of individuation. And like the intuitive choice Olson speaks of when we are, in a split-second, deciding which syllable goes next into the poem, we have the choice to have that drink, or one-night-stand, or casino moment after we are aware that it is dragging our life down and that choice always reinforces those attractor fields, in the language of David Hawkins or Morphic Fields in Sheldrake’s vernacular.

Eileen Myles in a 2002 interview I conducted with her said:

Poets can easily align themselves with the desire for the poet to be dead. Because the dead poet is much more easily historicized and kind of…YOU KNOW IT’S NOT A REVOLUTION KIDS, IT’S SOMETHING WE STUDY AS A DEAD SCIENCE  and then we can see where The Beats are and count the metrics, and really not be disturbed by this stuff but just dissect it quietly and

PN – “and control it?”

EM – Uh-huh, yeah. So it’s sort of like Olson, being the person who used the word Proprioception in poetry. Writing poetry with the sense that you’re actually in a body enacting this poem in a real moment. That that alive moment can not even be gotten rid of even when the poet is dead…and that’s the problem and the glory of poetry. When you see poets start to take sides with the people who would prefer the poet to be dead, it might be helping them with “their career” right now but it’s not helping anybody else with anything else anywhere at all.

PN – And in 200 years people aren’t going to read that work.

EM – Well, when we see who people were reading at Whitman’s (time) it was some crazy sentimental treacly poetry was being written in Whitman’s moment. The best-selling poetry in America was…was it work by a woman? I hate to make it that easy, like Miss Fanny’s you know Flower Box or something. It was some insane-sounding you know like ornate chocolate box of poetry…

What is the terror about being alive? The possibility that you can die and that it can be taken away? If you’re already living dead, so much for THAT fear which may explain the appeal of dead poetry or the poetry of forensics as Dr. Christopher Hansard calls it. But the moment of writing, when one has the nerve to write whatever comes up, can be exhilarating. It is a high and those previous activities and substances which had made the high watermark in our pervious experiences with altered consciousness become impediments to that crystal-clarity which writing in the moment allows and demands. A lot of what comes out of this process is without that clarity, or that energy and we can choose what we show others or read in public. But, to nurture that capacity to recognize the real moment and allow it to work through you, is a gift and sustains the nerve of those who write in this manner, as difficult as it is. As Whitman said:

Something long preparing and formless is arrived and form’d

       in you,

You are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes[15].

Writing projective poetry is not easy. It takes discipline, practice and deep experience, like any other good poetry, but the energy required for Projective Verse is more intense and I contend that the best of this kind of poetry reflects the strength of this energy. Olson called it a high energy-construct and an energy-discharge. Robert Creeley near the end of his life did not write in the projective and the last book of his published while he was alive is traditional verse with end rhyme. Denise Levertov was a projectivist early on in her career and her falling out of projection may have coincided with her anti-war poem period and the breakdown of her friendship with Robert Duncan.

In the book The Ending of Time[16], a transcript of conversations between J. Krishnamurti and Physicist David Bohm, there is a chapter called Senility and The Brain Cells, which is applicable here. For a writing practice that does not allow the un-understood, the mysterious, (the irrational – those lines that are taken out of a poem in a typical workshop session), in such a practice the possibilities of interesting mistakes and the epiphanies they can facilitate are diminished. No growth suggests a rut. Krishnamurti likens that rut to one who continues to accumulate knowledge:

DB: So if you keep on accumulating knowledge about yourself or about relationships…

K: …yes, about relationships. That’s it. Would you say such knowledge helps the brain, or makes the brain somewhat inactive, makes it shrink?

DB: Brings it into a rut.

K: Yes.

DB: But one should see what it is about this knowledge that makes so much trouble? In relationship, that knowledge creates trouble.

DB: Yes, it gets in the way because it fixes.

K: If I have an image about someone that knowledge is obviously going to impede our relationship. It becomes a pattern.

DB: Yes, the knowledge about myself and about him and how we are related, makes a pattern.

K: And therefore that becomes a routine and so it loses its energy.

Here is a key point, the energy loss consistent with a pattern. If one is making a dresser, a pattern is preferred, but in poem-making as Charles Olson said in Projective Verse (and he was interested in the kinetics of the poem-making process) the poet can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself[17]. Each poem has a distinct form and when this is an organic process, it prevents energy loss in the way Krishnamurti describes above.

Now back to Myles. She can recognize that feeling of when a poem is welling up inside her and can go out and hunt the poem down:

“So I think pretty early on I realized there was some real connection between my metabolism and the poem and if I felt something and didn’t know what to do with that feeling, I could go out and find it.” (The poem.)

She also recognizes how poetry can be an antidote to that rut:

“I think people just get hammered with information. We all do and it’s like, what do you do with it? And I think the good fortune of being a poet is we have something to do with it. And if you don’t and you just keep on getting hammered and then you’re pushed out into the marketplace to find a way to survive in that, it’s sort of like suddenly the space of available possibility, imagination, just shrinks and shrinks and shrinks and government cutbacks on (programs like) Poets in the Schools… like (we poets) we’re an opportunity to expand and whether that opportunity is allowed to contact the young mind is…American freedom.”

There is no rut in the poem hunting experience she describes above. It is the antidote to imagination shrinkage. When the form is being created along with the poem, even if one uses some kind of spine as in the case of a form like a Phrase Acrostic, the poem-hunting instinct takes over in the poet versed in this art of recognizing and seizing the moment.

McClure’s words in the author’s preface to Dolphin Skull[18] have guided me since 1995: “If poetry and science cannot change one’s life, they are meaningless.” The challenge for science in this day is consciousness science. The ultimate challenge for poets at this critical time in history may be to take on a poetry writing discipline that helps to liberate them and others who are exposed to their work. The rut Bohm and Krishnamurti discuss may be comfortable, but it IS spirit-deadening. William Carlos Williams said: “For there is in each age a specific criterion which is the objective for the artist in that age. Not to attack that objective is morally reprehensible – as evil as it is awkward to excuse.[19]

While some may feel that backing a certain political candidate, or getting a certain law passed or blocked from passage, or organizing anti-war protests are what our age calls artists to do, my poetry radar is tuning into the lessons of 20th century physics, some of it now 100 years old, and suggesting that as we hone our craft and deepen our own consciousness, the field will emanate and take others with it. That does not mean avoiding such activities as these important ways of engaging in society, but they must be secondary to the real job at hand. Dr. Hawkins says that one person at the Cosmic Consciousness level can balance a planet under what he calls the line of human integrity. The field is open. It’s time to play.

[1] Ornstein, Robert.  The Psychology of Consciousness.  San Francisco:  Freeman,  1972.

[2] In the mid-nineties, I studied with Dr. Swinney for the better part of two years in the effort to become a dream journey guide, but ended my studies before being certified in any of his processes.

[3] Hawkins, David.  Power Vs. Force.  6th Ed.  West Sedona:  Veritas,  2004.

[4] ibid.

[5] Hogue, John.  1000 for 2000: Startling Predictions for the New Millennium from
Prophets Ancient and Modern. 
San Francisco:  Harper San Francisco,   1999

[6] Wilber, K. (1995b), Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (Boston and London: Shambhala).

[7] Lee, Richard H.  Scientific Investigation into Chinese Qi-Gong.  San Clemente: China Health Pathways, 1999,  pg 4.

[8] ibid, pg 46

[9] ibid, pg 57

[10] ibid, pg 37

[11] ibid, pg 63

[12] glossary

[13] McClure, Michael.  Three Poems.  New York:  Penguin,  1995,  pg 86

[14] Olson, Charles. Projective Verse from Poetics of the New American Poetry, Allen, D and Tallman, W. eds. New York: Grove, 1973

[15] Whitman, Walt. To Think of Time, from Leaves of Grass. New York: Bantam, 1983, pg 349.

[16] Krishnamurti, J. & Bohm, D. The Ending of Time. San Francisco: Harper SF, 1985.

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

[19] William Carlos Williams letter to Robert Creeley dated March 3, 1950 and published in the Poetics of the New American Poetry, ibid.