Essays with Allan Ajaya

The Evolution of Human Consciousness

©2009 Swami Ajaya, Ph.

Two ways of knowing and being

We will be exploringthe transition from our usual way of experiencing to a vastly different way of being, which I will refer to as being awareness ornon-dual awareness. Ordinarily we find ourselves to be separate from what we are experiencing; a subject experiencing objects, me experiencing what I consider to be not me. Then we try to close the gap between these two to get closer to what we are not. This gap is an artificial division created by the rational mind. In being awareness or non-dual awareness there is no such gap; there is intimate being, an opening to and participation in what is. This may also be referred to as “participatory awareness.”

Franklin Merell-Wolff, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century made a similar distinction between ordinary knowing through perception and conception and what he called “knowledge through identity.”1Jewish theologian Martin Buber also differentiated between what he called “I-It” experiences and “I-thou” relationship. He described the latter as “fusion into the whole of being”.2

In order to have a context for understanding a change in human consciousness that is taking place today we will now briefly explore the way that human consciousness has been evolving over the course of human history. By viewing contemporary consciousness in its historical context we can shed light on the way that it is currently unfolding out of subject-object or I-it experiences to bring us to the threshold of partaking in non-dual awareness.

The History of Consciousness

According to Indian philosophy and psychology as set forth in the Puranas, the consciousness of human beings evolves through four stages, each lasting thousands of years. Human understanding progresses from the darkest, or the most ignorant epoch through successively more enlightened periods. It eventually arrives at an age of profound wisdom in all aspects of life. After reaching its zenith, this cycle begins to reverse itself and truth becomes increasingly obscured. During the course of several thousand years discrimination becomes more and more clouded. Understanding of oneself, ones origins, and ones world becomes less and less comprehensive. At the time of greatest darkness the forward cycle renews itself once again, and humankind slowly progresses toward wisdom and enlightened living.

Swami Sri Yukteshwar, the spiritual master of ParamahansaYogananda, used astrological calculations to discern where we are in this cycle. According to his calculations the descent to the most complete obscuration of wisdom occurred in A.D. 499. During the next 1200 years human beings lived in relative ignorance. At around A.D. 1599, a new era began with the discovery of electricity, the telescope, the microscope and the laws of gravity.3 We continue to evolve out of what Western historians have called “The Dark Ages” toward an ever increasing understanding of ourselves and of our universe. 

Jean Gebser, who devoted his life to the study of how our way of knowing and being has changed over time, has found five progressive stages in the evolution of human consciousness. Gebser has referred to the first four epochs of consciousness as the archaic, magical, mythical, and mental. He called the fifth era that is now emerging the “aperspectival” or “arational-integral” consciousness. According to Gebser, we have been evolving within the mental consciousness for over a thousand years and are now in a transition into integral consciousness. Gebser’s detailed observations enable us to see what is lost and gained with the evolution into each new phase of consciousness along with the limitations of that phase. Here is a very brief summery of Gebser’s five stages of consciousness: 

The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is an allegorical depiction of the earliest form of human consciousness and of how we emerged out of that mode. Initially humans experienced themselves as one with nature and with all of life. Eventually, they became conscious of distinctions, such as male and female, good and evil, and inside and outside. This recognition initiated the second of the five stages. Eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a metaphorical way of saying that our earliest ancestors began to develop a consciousness that partook of polarities. They could no longer maintain their initial state of union. This is further symbolized by their leaving the Garden of Eden.

Gebser has shown that a new mode of consciousness does not actually appear as a sudden or complete shift out of the previous way of experiencing. Various aspects of this new phase of consciousness gradually emerge over hundreds of years. As our forbearers progressively evolved out of the initial stage of non-differention of polarities and became aware of the relative world, the world of distinction and contrasts, they also began to develop magical thinking and rituals. This step in the evolution of consciousness enabled early man to gain mastery over the polarized world of distinctions that he was beginning to experience. Gebser says, “in this magic structure, he makes the almost superhuman attempt to free himself from the jungle-like bonds and spell of his fusion with nature.Here lies the basis of all sorcery and magic, such as rainmaking, ritual, and countless other forms by which magic man tries to cope with nature”. 4

After thousands of years still another form of consciousness gradually emerged. This was the mythical consciousness. Humans discovered the depth of their internal world and they elaborated on and shared their new awareness through the telling of myths. The age of mythmaking arose simultaneously in various parts of the world. Myriad myths such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata in India, the myths of ancient Greek civilization, and the myths passed on in all indigenous cultures revealed the nature of the soul and its journey. Gebser tells us, “Myth…renders the soul visible so that it may be visualized, represented, heard, and made audible.” 5

This mythical consciousness no longer prevails in our lives as it once did; nevertheless, it still influences us. Each new mode of consciousness supersedes its predecessor, but does not eliminate it. The older structures still live within us, just as older parts of the brain continue to play an important role even after the development of the frontal cortex. These three forms of consciousness, the archaic, magical, and mythical, continue to greatly influence us today although they have become overlaid with a fourth structure of consciousness that has been emerging for several hundred years, the mental consciousness.

In this mode of consciousness there is a focus on measurement and rationality. The mental consciousness has led to a greater mastery over the natural world than ever before; but this has come at a great cost. This rational consciousness divides the world more than ever into separate parts; subject is separated from object, humans from nature and from one another. We alienate ourselves from that which we objectify. Since the eighteenth century, there has been an excessive reliance on reason at the expense of other ways of experiencing ourselves and our world. “Faith in reason has led to a fragmentation of the individual, a devaluing of the body and of feeling, to a complete negation of all structures of consciousness other than the rational.”6

When we live in the rational we lose our experience of participation in the numinous, which the mythical form of consciousness brought forth. The mythic structure now functions as the collective unconscious and continues to affect us through dreams, and metaphors, rather than having the central or valued place in our conscious life that it once did. At the height of rationality the effect of earlier modes of consciousness were denied, however, during the past one hundred years, depth psychology has revealed the enormous influence that the magical and mythical structures still have in our everyday life. This recognition signals a shift out of exclusive rationality to a more inclusive awareness.

Each structure gradually comes forward and evolves over centuries. It begins modestly, but in time becomes more extreme and its limitations also become ever more apparent. For example, the development of perspective in Western art in the Sixteenth Century demonstrated that human consciousness had developed the ability to stand apart and observe the world from a particular point of view. This capacity continued to become more predominate over the next four hundred years in how we relate to the world and ourselves.

That which is observed from a perspective is experienced as an object. The seat of observation, the mind, is identified as “I’. The object is seen as separate from oneself, to be manipulated for ones ends. This approach to life is epitomized in the engineer, who attempts to shape and dominate the world with his calculations, and in our attempts to engineer our lives. The observer focuses on the object rather than on the observing itself. This attention on the object leads to the notion of objectivity. One forgets that his is one of many perspectives. He believes that his perspective is the true way of seeing things, that he is being objective. Identification with ones perspective and the shared perspective of his society has led to the disdain of other viewpoints and the domination of other cultures.

This objectification of our world made possible the development of our sciences with all their benefits. It is ironic that during the last century physicists led the way in dismantling the notion of objectivity. They have shown that the observed is affected by the very act of observing, rather than being independent of it. This understanding has gradually spread into our culture and we have begun a transition out of the objective consciousness to a recognition that experience exists in relationship.

The way that we experience our world and our place in it changes radically, depending on which structure of consciousness predominates. When we are in one mode of consciousness we may have difficulty understanding or appreciating another. A few years ago I was riding in a car in Arizona with a woman who lived there. Her work brought her in contact with Native American tribal leaders. As we drove by a small mountain considered to be sacred to the Yaqui Indians, she told me that the tribal elders believed that human life originated on that mountain, which they considered to be the center of the universe. She was astounded that these educated leaders could believe such nonsense, which was not at all in accord with scientific and archaeological facts. Like many of us who have relied so exclusively on rationalism, she could not understand, appreciate, or benefit from mythical consciousness.

While many of us debase these earlier modes of consciousness, others romanticize them. They see their positive features, but not their deficiencies. It is true that these modes of consciousness provided ways of experiencing that are lost to the rational consciousness, such as a more intimate relationship with the natural world. The mental consciousness enables us to take a major step in self reflection and in comprehending our phenomenal world and has brought vast benefits along with its drawbacks. Much would be lost by simply regressing back to earlier ways of being.

There is evidence that a new consciousness is now emerging, one that goes beyond the rational consciousness. The previous structures of consciousness were exclusive; if you were functioning from one mode, you could not simultaneously experience the other forms of consciousness. This newly emerging aperspectival or integral consciousness, as Gebser called it, encompasses awareness of the previous forms of consciousness. 

Teachers from the East have also spoken of a consciousness that includes within itself all other forms of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo has called this “supramental consciousness” and Swami Rama referred to it as “superconsciousness”. According to the ancient traditions of India, this consciousness is self existent. It does not arise out of or depend on anything outside of itself such as time. It is not evolving; it has always existed and is inherently complete.

It is the capacity of the human being to function from this form of consciousness that is evolving. Throughout history remarkably gifted forerunners including exceptional artists, scientists, philosophers, and spiritual leaders had the capacity to live in and express themselves from this consciousness. We can look to them to learn more about its qualities, but ultimately it rests on each of us to open to this way of being.

The Mandukya Upanishad, a highly revered philosophical treatise of ancient India, also refers to such an integrated consciousness, which it calls “Turiya.” This Upanishad describes four states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and Turiya. Waking consciousness may be compared to the mental consciousness, dreaming to the both the mythical and magical consciousness, and deep sleep is considered to be a state of oneness analogous to the archaic consciousness. Contemporary neurological research has discovered distinct brainwave patterns that parallel these states. The Mandukya Upanishad states: “In deep sleep all experiences merge into the unity of undifferentiated consciousness.” 7 This Upanishad further informs us that the fourth state, Turiya, comprehends the preceding three. “Turiya is that state in which consciousness is aware of …the other three states…. Consciousness…spontaneously realizes a total reintegration of all levels of reality.” 8

The writings of contemporary developmental psychologists suggest that the way that consciousness develops in each person from infancy through adulthood recapitulates the way that consciousness has collectively evolved during the course of history. Margaret Mahler, a British psychoanalyst, has described an initial stage in which the infant experiences a sense of oneness similar to that of the archaic consciousness. The developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, found that magical thinking develops between ages two and four. He also concluded that the culmination of cognitive development in contemporary society occurs in adolescence with the acquisition of abstract reasoning, which he called “formal operations.” This corresponds to Gebser’s mental or rational consciousness. Recently cognitive theorists have extended Piaget’s model of human development and have described a further stage in the development of consciousness, beyond abstract reasoning. Herb Koplowitz refers to this stage as Unitary Consciousness. 9

The evolution of the stages of consciousness described by Gebser is also reflected in the way that spiritual practices have changed through history. For example, in India the rituals of the early Vedas and Tantric practices were the earliest traditions to appear. These are both expressions of the magical structure of consciousness. Followers of these traditions use ritualistic magic to gain mastery over the natural and supernatural world as well as to burn through the world of appearance and merge with the source of manifestation. The Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas, which bring into play mythological stories that help the listener to experience his true essence as well as how to conduct himself in the world in harmony with his divine nature, came much later.

Raja yoga which was not systematized until the fifth century AD is a very orderly series of practices for climbing the ladder of self-mastery. This systemization of yogic techniques was compiled during the early phase in the development of the rational consciousness. It is an attempt to establish an inner science comparable to our Western sciences, which concern themselves with the outer or material world and which bloomed more than a thousand years later. Raja yoga is often referred to as the science of Yoga. It focuses on attaining a series of objectives to reach ones final goal, non-dual consciousness. This systematic approach is characteristic of the rational consciousness, thus it is not surprising that this form of awakening to ones true nature has had the most appeal in contemporary society.

The shift from a focus on self improvement and self mastery, from achieving ones objective to becoming aware of what is already here is just beginning to gain prominence in contemporary society. In contrast to raja yoga, this way of exploring does not employ any techniques in order to perfect oneself. There is no interest in achieving anything. In what has been called the “direct way” one ceases to move away from the truth of what is in order to arrive at what is more favored ones ego ideal.

The historical periods of evolving human consciousness have lead to the development of unique practices in each period. But each of these approaches has the potential to lead to awakening out of that mode of consciousness. It would be incorrect to assume that practices that arose in one era are inferior or superior to those of another era. The practices that emerge from a particular structure of human conscious can have a range of effects from the mundane to the transcendence of the ego identity. For example there are distinct schools of Tantra with different objectives.One may practice Tantric rituals to attain mastery over the natural world or may participate in the Tantric practices of Kashmir Shaivism, which lead to awakening from phenomenal existence. 10 One may practice aspects of Raja yoga to achieve physical well being, or to reach various stages of Samadhi.

The progression of humans through successive structures is a means of developing reflective consciousness. It has enabled us to reflect on our existence in distinct and ever more comprehensive ways. Consciousness becomes progressively more conscious of itself. As human consciousness evolved through its archaic, magical, mythical, and mental structures, it became increasingly able to marvel at itself and the extraordinary appearance of this existence. As we integrate each of these modes of consciousness in our awareness we have an ever-increasing capacity to reflect this awe inspiring manifestation and its source.

A creation myth from ancient India, found in the Kalika Purana, offers a glimpse into how consciousness comes to reflect upon itself. It depicts the way that Brahma, who is manifesting the phenomenal universe out of himself, beholds what comes forth. This narrative portrays how he (and by analogy human consciousness) becomes fascinated and captured by the drama that unfolds. Joseph Campbell says, “The really wonderful thing about Brahma’s power is that he can discover infinite meaning is every one of the forms and events….” 11

A similar discovery and appreciation of the world anew takes place in humankind as it evolves to experience from each progressive form of consciousness. Eventually, after experiencing the wonders and limitations that come from functioning from a particular structure of consciousness, human civilization moves on to the overlay of a new organizing structure and to the wondrous experiences offered by that new structure ultimately transcending the confinements of all of these structures and opening to the penetrating recognition of non-dual awareness. In this process we transition from consciousness unaware of itself to growing self awareness. Each step in the evolution of structures brings forth a mounting comprehension of the magnificence of this manifestation and its source.

The Transition from Rational Consciousness to Being Awareness

Awakening, which I have been calling “being awareness,” “non-dual awareness,” or “participatory awareness,” is not a fifth mode of consciousness. It is an awakening out of all forms of consciousness. In order to emphasize this difference I have chosen to refer to this as “awareness” as distinct from “consciousness.” The archaic, magical, mythical and mental modes of consciousness are limited ways of experiencing, while being awareness is that from which all of these forms of consciousness derive. These forms of consciousness are particular ways of experiencing, whereas “awareness” as I am using the term is the ground of being in which forms of consciousness arise including subject-object consciousness in which one may say he is conscious of something. In being awareness one is not aware of something because there is no distinction between an experiencer and that which is experienced. Sri Nirsargadatta Maharaj, a respected master of Advaita Vedanta made a similar distinction between consciousness and awareness. 12Franklin Merrell-Wolff, on the other hand, preferred to retain the term consciousness for this way of being. He distinguished between ordinary consciousness and what he called “consciousness without an object.” He explained that this is a consciousness for which there is neither a subject nor object, neither self nor other. The archaic consciousness is also a state in which there is neither subject nor object. However, in this state consciousness is not aware of itself. In progressing through successive stages, consciousness finally arrives at recognition of itself in infinite forms and expressions as well as the formless and unnamable.13

Ferrell-Wolff also distinguished between two levels of consciousness that can be realized beyond the egoistic consciousness. The yoga and Buddhist traditions differentiate several stages of consciousness, referred to as stages of Samadhi or realization, beyond mental consciousness. My purpose here is to explain the transition from the contracted consciousness to being awareness rather than to focus on distinctions between transcendent levels of consciousness.

When one is functioning from the rational mental consciousness there is a degree of self awareness, however he is not aware of all that he is. He has a constricted or contracted sense of himself. The following table summarizes the ways that the contracted consciousness organizes his experience and contrasts this with the qualities of being awareness.

Some of the attributes of being awareness mentioned below are experienced in rare moments by almost everyone, but these ways of being usually pass. Most consider them to be anomalies rather than glimpses of a sustainable way of being. I will be describing essential aspects of this emerging awareness and will be exploring the ways that one can live in participatory awareness or being awareness as a way of life.

Our emergence into being awareness will be taking place over an extended period of time with various aspects becoming increasingly more evident. When previous structures of consciousness emerged intimations of these structures first came forth; gradually over hundreds of years each essential quality of that structure became more fully established. This is also happening as we move into being awareness. For example, in the contracted self one lives in chronic dissatisfaction. As he shifts from trying to obtain what he believes will be satisfying to becoming aware of what is occurring here and now he experiences an increased sense of satisfaction with what is. But this satisfaction is partial and inconsistent. Satisfaction through and through, as an inherent way of being, will not be fully realized until he transcends all polarities and arrives in non-dual awareness. Franklin Merrill Wolff describes such recognition:

“He who is enveloped in this Satisfaction is in need of nothing whatsoever to satisfy him. The Satisfaction I realized is a real and substantial Existence prior to all experiencing….It was the essence of aesthetic, emotional, moral and intellectual satisfaction at the same time….I had the full value of everything that could possibly be desired.” 14

Here is an inventory of essential qualities of each of these two ways of experiencing. In coming chapters we will further explore the distinctions made in this chart.

bound by beliefs and the identities of the personal self freedom from beliefs, living in wonder, revelation
living from a sense of scarcity living in abundance
then (past and future), sequential time living now, experiencing timelessness
exclusion unconditional acceptance
living from effort and concern experiencing grace, living gracefully and graciously
rehearsing spontaneous participation
owning non-possessiveness
comparing and contrasting experiencing incomparable being
being duplicitous not presenting an alternative to what is evidently true
living in duality experiencing both sides of each polarity and transcending it
dissatisfaction with what is here and now satisfaction
splitting, divisiveness healing, union, integrity, integration
experiencing from the perspective of the personal identity awareness without a perspective


living from conception and perception, subject-object consciousness direct knowing, knowledge through identity
constriction, contraction unfolding
a sense of entitlement or of not deserving, exploitation  equality, humility, gratitude


Beyond The Contracted Self

In summary, if you live from the contracted self, you consider yourself to be a separate individual, living within the confines of your physical body. Your attention is focused on your personal history, and the future: what you expect, hope for, or fear. Your world revolves around “I,” “me,” and “mine.” You are focused on maintaining an image of yourself that is related to your ego ideal. You experience yourself as the subject who relates to what is not you (objects). You know about these objects, through perception and conception, and you act upon them, using them for your benefit. You have definite beliefs about who you are and about what is distinct from or external to you. You defend these beliefs. Most of your efforts are directed at shoring up, expanding the influence of, and attaining the goals of the "I" that you take yourself to be. You live from a sense of scarcity. You are concerned about procuring what you believe you need to feel secure, pleasured, or successful. This is the way of the contemporary world. It functions from the experience of separation, alienation, need and scarcity. 

The contracted self is a dreamed-up or imagined deprivation that exists within all encompassing awareness. Beyond it there exists a life of inclusion rather than exclusion, abundance rather than scarcity. There is freedom from identification with a personal self and its concerns, allowing for an immediate way of knowing and being.

The contracted self cannot experience what lies beyond its boundaries, and can hardly conceive of it. It may know about the archaic, magical or mythical forms of consciousness but it cannot experience them directly and consciously. It has no capacity to realize being awareness. From this perspective of egoistic or mental consciousness, unitary awareness appears to be an imagined or idealized way of being that has no real existence. One is mystified by it so he refers to it as a mystical experience, yet it can be known directly and in that knowing there is nothing mystical about it. It is actually more substantial and immediate than ordinary experience, i.e. experience mediated by the mind. 

Since the non-egoistic realms cannot be fully rendered conceptually, they are thought to have an inferior nature, to be dreamed up. In actuality, it is the worldly experience that is dreamed up. Transcendent being is an extraordinary exploration beyond the borders of what has been known by the contracted self. Here we participate in the unknown in the process of making itself known. Here we live in blessing.

The contracted self is a delusion. It separates itself from this blessing. In the contracted self we live in a prison fortress in the center of a bay of plenty. The fortress is our own making, a dreamed-up prison protecting us from an outpouring of love and abundance. When the complexity of ones preconceptions and preoccupations falls away, a vast emptiness is revealed. When we enter into and explore this emptiness, however, we will be surprised to find that all of phenomenal existence flows forth from it.         

How can a person who has opened to this plethora convey the existence of this extraordinary way of being to the contracted self? How could he inform someone of an experience that he has never had? How can he lead someone who is living in the ego-mind to this awareness? Since this is not a subject-object experience, one cannot clearly communicate about it. Subject-object language is inadequate as a currency for translating being awareness to the uninitiated. At best it can offer a map pointing to what lies beyond the mental structure. It cannot lead one into that awareness. Only a participatory form of communication will do.


  1. Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Experience and Philosophy (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 64-65.
  2. Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Scribner Classics, 1958), p. 26.
  3. Swami Sri Yukteswar, The Holy Science (Los Angeles, CA: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1990).
  4. Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985), p. 51.
  5. Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, p. 67
  6. Georg Feuerstein, Structures of Consciousness: The Genius of Jean Gebser – An Introduction and Critique (Lower Lake, CA: Integral Publishing, 1987), p. 117.
  7. Sri Swami Rama, Enlightenment Without God (Honesdale, PA: Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the U.S.A., 1982), p. 53.
  8. Ibid., p. 69.
  9. Herb Koplowitz, “A Projection Beyond Piaget’s Formal-Operations Stage: A General Systems Stage and a Unitary Stage,” in Beyond Formal Operations, edited by M. L. Commons, F. A. Richards, and C. Armon (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1984), pp. 272-295.
  10. John White, ed., Kundalini, Evolution and Enlightenment (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1979), pp. 98-105.
  11. Joseph Campbell, ed., The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil (Princeton, NJ: Bollingen Series XI, Princeton University Press, 1948), pp. 239-306.
  12. Steven Wolinsky, I am that I amA Tribute to Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (Stephen H. Wolinsky, Ph.D., 101 Grand Ave. #11, Capitola, CA 95010, 2000), pp. 108-109. See also Sudhakar Dikshit, I am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (Durham, NC: The Acorn Press, 1973), p. 382.
  13. Franklin Merrell-Wolff, The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object (New York: The Julian Press, Inc., 1973), pp. 129-131.
  14. Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Pathways through to Space (New York: The Julian Press, Inc., 1973), p. 117.