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Method: Classification of modes of awareness

Human Development Project


1. Classification in the literature

The state of information on modes of awareness, and the attitude towards them, is such that no comprehensive classification of them exists. Basic texts such as the Varieties of Religious Experience (William James, 1961), The Multiple States of Being (René Guénon, 1984), Altered States of Consciousness (Tart, 1971), or the Varieties of Psychedelic Experience (R E L Masters and Jean Houston, 1967), do not provide extensive classifications as might be expected.

There exist various partial classifications and many dealing with particular ranges of modes. Although none has been used in grouping this material (except through the cross-references), the following are examples of some of special interest:

(a) The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 1987) provides detailed guidelines for classifying patients with "mental disorders". It is designed as an extension of the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases. The system of classification is excellent. As the name indicates however, it describes externally visible symptoms with relatively little information on the nature of the patient's experience. It is not designed to handle the subtleties of expanded modes of awareness, other than by treating them as various forms of delusion. To the extent that there are modes corresponding to a heightened state of mental health and well-being, there is no attempt to indicate their nature. Nor is there any attempt to describe the subjective experience associated with various forms of substance abuse.

(b) As a result of the survey on religious experience carried out in the UK on the initiative of Alistair Hardy by the Religious Experience Research Unit in Oxford, a quite detailed classification of types of religious experience has been produced. This is broad in scope, not tied to a particular tradition, but not especially useful in distinguishing qualitatively between subtle modes of awareness.

(c) Many authors have remarked on the finely detailed categorization of subjective experience in Buddhist texts. The most accessible examples are those of the Visuddhimagga (Bhadantacariya Buddhagosa, 1976), especially the translation by Bhikku Nanamoli which includes a tabular presentation. An even more detailed tabular presentation of Buddhist categories of thought is given by Alexander Piatigorsky (1984).

(d) The many Sufi authors make distinctions between subtle states, as with a number of Christian mystics. These tend to be much more individualistic than Buddhist authors. Their classifications are therefore less interesting. Of special interest however, in the case of the Sufi tradition, is the distinction made between mystic stations (maqamat), as stable conditions of awareness marking particular spiritual attainment, and temporary feelings of the heart (ahwal) which may or may not be experienced at any particular station.

(e) It is rare for spiritual gurus to accord attention to insights other than their own. One remarkable exception is an extensively annotated bibliography by Da Free John (1989). Of special interest is the grouping of material from a wide range of traditions into seven levels of insight. It is appropriate to note that Ken Wilbur, a much cited author on altered states of awareness, specifically endorsed Da Free John's endeavours.

(f) In A History of Christian Spirituality (Holmes, 1980) a valuable categorization of the variety of ways of experiencing God is presented in terms of two bipolar scales: a kataphatic/apophatic scale and a speculative/affective scale. The first describes techniques of spiritual growth, the kataphatic involving the active use of the imagination and imagery as a tool for meditation, whilst at the other extreme the apophatic method is an "emptying" technique that rejects all forms as adequate media through which God may be understood. The second scale has at one extreme the speculative approaches emphasizing the illumination of the mind (or intellect), while at the other extreme the affective approaches emphasize illumination of the heart (or emotions). In arguing that balanced spirituality is an appropriate mix of all four approaches, the author is able to use them to categorize approaches which are out of balance. Examples given are: rationalism (over-emphasis of speculative and kataphatic), pietism (over-emphasis of affective and kataphatic), quietism (over-emphasis of affective and apophatic), and encratism (over-emphasis of apophatic and speculative).

(g) The Encyclopedic Psychic Dictionary (Bletzer) includes an extensive classification of "psychic skills" that incorporates many modes of awareness that would not normally be considered as psychic.

(h) One of the most interesting attempts to develop a general classification is A Map of Mental States by John H Clark (1983), with a foreword by cybernetician Gordon Pask. It is of a wider span than usual, including meditational, religious, depressive and euphoric conditions.

2. Classification in this Encyclopedia

In a crude attempt to indicate similar levels of awareness, the modes are classified on a scale "a" to "g". This is the small letter immediately following the reference number of a description. The basis for designating the code letter is a combination of: number of other entries cited in entry; number of narrower entries in a chain; number of broader entries in a chain; and a series of criteria as follows:

In fact, each state may be seen as appearing in a matrix which sets out metaphors for the spread of consciousness. The individual may be seen as following paths across this matrix, development being an upward spiral. Designation of each state in the matrix is a complex procedure which may involve distinguishing the state along dimensions such the following: Codes "a" to "g" may be thought of as columns on the matrix, with rows reduced to one square. However, one square can also represent a column (e.g. all the signs of the zodiac appear in one square, because they do not differ in kind, yet they actually represent a progression from 1 to 12).

Because some of the criteria on choice of code may mutually exclude others, there can only be a crude overall consistency. For example, an item may be very important in its own right and yet included as a minor member in some network or chain of states. Thus Nagual is coded "c", although it is narrower than Sleep which is coded "g".

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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