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The Highest State of Consciousness   The Highest State of Consciousness
John W. White

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What is the highest state of consciousness? St. Paul called it “the peace that passeth understanding” and R. M. Bucke named it “cosmic consciousness.” In Zen Buddhism, the term for it is satori or kensho, while in yoga it is samadhi or moksha, and in Taoism, “the absolute Tao.” Thomas Merton used the phrase “transcendental unconscious” to describe it; Abraham Maslow coined the term “peak experience”; Sufis speak of fana. Gurdjieff labeled it “objective consciousness” while the Quakers call it “the Inner Light.” Jung referred to individuation, and Buber spoke of the I-Thou relationship.

In this anthology John White brings together a diverse collection of writings by contemporary thinkers such as Aldous Huxley, P.D. Ouspensky, Alan Watts, Kenneth Wapnick, Richard Maurice Bucke, Abraham Maslow, and many more, and asks the question; What is the Highest State of Consciousness?

1. Altered States of Consciousness

2. The Search for Ecstasy 

3.  The Supra-Conscious State

4. States of Consciousness

5. Visionary Experience

6. The Perennial Philosophy

7. From Self to Cosmic Consciousness

8. Self-Transcendence and Beyond

9. Transcendental Experience

10. Mystical States and the Concept of Regression

11. The Mystical Experience: Facts and Values

12. Mysticism and Schizophrenia

13. On Creative, Psychotic and Ecstatic States

14. Psychotherapy and Liberation

15. Zen Buddhism: A Psychological Review

16. The Psychology of Mysticism

17.The Ecstasy of Breaking-Through in the Experience of Meditation

18.Drugs and Mysticism

19. LSD and Mystical Experiences

20. Transcendental Meditation

21. The Experimental Induction of Religious-Type Experiences

22. Meditation and Biofeedback

23. Trance Dance

24. Transpersonal Potentialities of Deep Hypnosis

25. The “Core-Religious” or “Transcendent” Experience

26. In Search of the Miraculous

27. Introduction to the Tao Te Ching

28. Death and Renewal

29. The Resurrection of the Body

30. The Mystic Union: A Suggested Biological Interpretation

31. This Is It

32. From The Magus

33. Postscript: Psychical Research in Relation
to Higher States of Consciousness

About the author

JOHN WHITE is an internationally known author in the fields of consciousness research and higher human development. He has authored 15 books, including The Meeting of Science and Spirit, A Practical Guide to Death and Dying, Pole Shift and the forthcoming Enlightenment 101. He was also General Editor of Omega Books (published by Paragon House), which is devoted to works about the nature of ultimate reality and higher human development.

His writing has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Omni and San Francisco Chronicle.

John was born in 1939, served four years as a naval officer, was director of education at The Institute of Noetic Sciences, founded by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, to study the human mind for personal and planetary transformation. Holds a bachelors from Dartmouth (1961), a masters from Yale (1969), and taught English and journalism at college levels.  He and his wife Barbara have been married for more than 50 years. They have four children and five grandchildren and live in Cheshire, Conn., USA

Sample chapter


What is the highest state of consciousness? St. Paul called it “the peace that passeth understanding” and R. M. Bucke named it “cosmic consciousness.” In Zen Buddhism, the term for it is satori or kensho, while in yoga it is samadhi or moksha, and in Taoism, “the absolute Tao.” Thomas Merton used the phrase “transcendental unconscious” to describe it; Abraham Maslow coined the term “peak experience”; Sufis speak of fana. Gurdjieff labeled it “objective consciousness” while the Quakers call it “the Inner Light.” Jung referred to individuation, and Buber spoke of the I-Thou relationship.

But whatever the name for this old and well-known phenomenon—enlightenment, illumination, liberation, mystical experience—all are concerned with a state of awareness radically different from our ordinary understanding, our normal waking consciousness, our everyday mind.

Furthermore, all are agreed in calling it the highest state of consciousness: a self-transforming perception of one’s total union with the infinite. It is beyond time and space. It is an experience of the timelessness which is eternity, of unlimited unity with all creation. One’s socially conditioned sense of “me” is shattered and swept away by a new definition of the self, the I. In that redefinition of self, I equals all mankind, all life and the universe. The usual ego boundaries break down, as the ego passes beyond the limits of the body and suddenly becomes one with all that has being. The self becomes integrated with what Emerson called the Oversoul (and possibly what Arthur Clarke in Childhood’s End called the Overmind.) Self becomes selfless, ego is seen to be an illusion, and the ego game ends. The Maitrayana Upanishad  puts it this way: “Having realized his own self as the Self, a man becomes selfless. . . . This is the highest mystery.”

A New Mode of Self-Understanding

This mode of self-understanding may come dramatically, as with St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or it may come with no apparent outward sign of the inner drama. But the resulting experience has been uniform around the world and throughout history. By their own testimony, the “illuminati”— people who have experienced the highest state of consciousness—have felt the deepest sense of peace with others and harmony with the world. They comprehend the universe, as Dante wrote at the end of The Divine Comedy, to be moving to the power of Love. They perceive a cosmic plan, a moral order, to the seeming chaos and accident of stellar gas and intergalactic dust. They see, with Hamlet, “a divinity that shapes our ends.” This is the “god” (or Buddha or Tao or Brahma) of countless religions and philosophies. In all cases the self-enveloping awareness that “I” and “the other” are unified, makes new or reborn men. It changes a bleak and hopeless notion of life to one in which everything has a joyful meaning. It changes a gestalt of existential absurdity to a world view of inevitably hopeful exuberance because the subject discovers the fundamental design in what were previously only disconnected, confusing perceptions and experiences.

Just as important as self-testimony have been the observations of others about illuminati. Almost without exception, they have been regarded as saints and visionaries and prophets: Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, Jacob Boehme, Ramakrishna, Walt Whitman, Aldous Huxley. Socially revered, they have exhibited exceptional courage, sweetness, compassion, wholeness, and holiness. Even though they have retained the characteristics of men, they have been set apart in a special way and made recognizable by an aura—sometimes literally visible as a glowing light—which affects other men in powerful ways.

And they have ceaselessly urged others to prepare themselves through prayer, good deeds, study and meditation to receive the highest blessing of life. It is a blessing that cannot be forced or foreseen; it is always a surprise when it happens.

Yet they maintain that it should be sought, to use the words of Jesus’ commandment, “with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind.”

How to Save the World

It is only through a change of consciousness that the world will be “saved.” Everyone must begin with himself. Political action, social work, this ism, that ology, are all incomplete, futile actions unless accompanied by a new and elevated mode of awareness. The ultimate action, then, is no action at all except to change consciousness. In other words, the true revolution is revelation. When that has occurred on a global scale, the old problems and prejudices and inhumanities will vanish, and revolution will become evolution—but not until then.

Where does one begin? The following readings have been chosen from the literature available in English as some of the best descriptions of the highest state of consciousness. But it must be emphasized that they are only guides, not guarantees.

Description is not enough. The liberated have continually stressed that words are only about truth, not truth itself.

Truth cannot be known except through direct experience, through enlightenment. And often language is a barrier to knowing the truth because there is a confusion between beams of non-verbal intuition and that learned arbitrary framework called language. For it is quite clear now that learning to speak a language means learning to think in a language— that is, learning to think in terms of abstract verbal concepts and grammatical categories. Language is symbolic; language-thinking is symbol-thinking. And symbols are always less than the realities for which they stand. As such, language constricts consciousness and places limits on understanding. One must go beyond words and other symbols to a direct, unmediated vision in which perceptions are not filtered through a linguistic screen existing in the mind.

Another aspect of the mystical state is emotion. Francis Younghusband observes in Modern Mystics that mystical experience brings “emotionalism to a degree unbelievable by those who have never witnessed it. ...” But he continues, “There should indeed be no objection to strong emotion in itself. ... No love of beauty or love of a mother for her child could ever be felt with too deep an intensity. The fact that the mystical state is a highly emotional state must therefore be accepted.” The mystical state, then, is beyond words and is highly emotional.

More than that, the unifying principle at work in illumination dissolves the learned semantic categories of “thought” vs. “feeling” and “reason” vs. “emotion.” In the mystical state, intellect and intuition merge. There is a fusion of insight and instinct which results in a new condition of being. That condition is not the detached, euphoric state commonly referred to as “being high” or “tripping” (although, as some authors report here, psychedelic drugs can give access to truly expanded consciousness, when wisely used). Rather it is holistic; it involves the whole organism.

Understanding comes to the one experiencing liberation through the total use of all channels for sensation and perception.

Difficulties in Altering Consciousness: Culture

Part of the difficulty in altering consciousness, though, resides in those very channels, and the difficulty is both biologically and culturally determined. Those who study perception have learned that our senses are blinded in many ways.

They point out that men are generally in a state that I will call “sensory repression.” For example, culture can build screens in the mind which usually remain unconscious to a person.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s investigation of proxemics (The Hidden Dimension) shows that different cultures have different sensory worlds. “Selective screening of sensory data,” he writes, “admits some things while filtering others, so that experience as it is perceived through one set of culturally patterned sensory screens is quite different from the experience perceived through another.” The preface to Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan gives a memorable summary of the matter:

Anthropology has taught us that the world is differently defined in different places. . . . The very metaphysical presuppositions differ: space does not conform to Euclidean geometry, time does not form a continuous unidirectional flow, causation does not conform to Aristotelian logic, man is not differentiated from non-man or life from death, as in our world. . . . The central importance of entering into worlds other than our own . . . lies in the fact that the experience leads us to understand that our own world is also a cultural construct.

A quest for ultimate knowledge of reality must account for various culturally determined realities.

Difficulties in Altering Consciousness: Biology

Biology also contributes to our state of sensory repression because sensory processing is the initial stage in determining reality. Consider the fact that vision is more than just an event in which light is passively received by the retina and transmitted to the brain for interpretation. The process of seeing is an active one, in which some signals and perceptions are deliberately blocked or filtered out by the optic nerve and reticular activating system so that others can be attended to by the brain. If a human being were to allow every signal that bombards his senses to rise into consciousness (as seems to be the case when under the influence of LSD and other powerful drugs), he would be unable to focus awareness on the simple tasks for survival.

The famous frog’s eye experiment performed at MIT by Warren McCullough, et al (available in his Embodiments of Mind) showed that a frog’s visual attention is caught only by moving objects the size of the average insect, while other visual perceptions are normally repressed. This suggests by extrapolation to homo sapiens that nature has constructed us on a basis of sensory repression; it was necessary for evolution.

A biological-cultural process developed our everyday state of consciousness and separated us from animals by giving us a self-concept, by making us aware that we are aware. But by that process we were also separated from that organic unity which animals have with the natural world. Normal self-consciousness (which seems to develop in humans at about the age of two) is both a biological advance and a biological handicap. In terms of development of the race, it was necessary for survival. In terms of development of the individual, it is no longer necessary and now appears, unfortunately, to be the major cause of our rush toward extinction.

Becoming God-like

Our normal state of consciousness shuts off awareness of our affinity with creation, our union with the divine. But if we are normally in a state of sensory repression, it is of equal importance in the study of consciousness to note that man’s capacity to modify or edit his sensory processes means that he is capable of exaggerating or enhancing them to animal-like sensitivity, as well as inhibiting them. This is what seems to occur in many experiences of ecstasy, where the subject becomes hypersensitive to all kinds of stimuli. Ecstasy, ex stasis, is the transport out of a biologically and culturally ordered mode of thought and perception into the mystic mode.

In that mode man returns to the primal state of affairs. But the return is on a higher level. It is both a circle (revolution) and a linear progression (evolution): an upward spiraling. Man regains his primitive condition, but rather than being unconscious or unaware of it, as animals are, he is superconscious of it. It is paradoxical: By recovering his animal nature, man becomes God.

Enlightenment and the Brain

In terms of the brain, enlightenment seems to involve a repatterning of neural networks. Whereas before there were unconnected or “compartmentalized” areas of the brain’s nervous system, in enlightenment there is a breakthrough which results in an integration of the nerve pathways by which we think and feel. Our multiple “brains” become one brain. The neocortex (the “thinking-intellect” part) and the limbic system and thalamus (the “feeling-emotion” part) and the medulla oblongata (the “intuition-unconscious” part) attain a previously non-existent—but always possible—mode of intercellular communication. A threshold is passed—probably explainable in terms of both cellular electrochemical change and growth of new nerve endings. However it is accomplished in neurophysiological terms, though, the result is a new state of consciousness. This, in turn, creates a new mode of perception and feeling which leads to the discovery of nonrational (but not irrational) forms of logic, which are multi-level/integrated/simultaneous, not linear/sequential/either-or.

How can a person attain the highest state of consciousness? There are many doors to the same room. Some have been discovered; others have been developed. Classic trigger-situations have been dance, fasting and diet, self-torture, electric shock, sensory isolation, sensory overload, psychotic episodes, trauma and birth by ordeal, extreme fatigue, sexual relations and simply gazing on natural scenery. The more systematic approaches, often requiring strict adherence and discipline, include prayer, yoga, Zen, Sufism, tantra, transcendental meditation, psychedelic drugs, hypnosis and occult methods such as those of Gurdjieff and Madame Blavatsky.

Recently, light shows, biofeedback and structural integration (“Rolling”) have also shown potential. An uncompromising introspection—what Gurdjieff called the way of the clever man—has brought some to a state of salvation.

But none of these methods is a sure way to attain liberation.

Evelyn Underhill, in her monumental Mysticism, distinguishes three stages on the way to ecstasy: awakening of the self, purification of the self and illumination of the self. Other terms such as “the meditative stage” and “the purgative stage” may be preferred, but the important point is this: no matter how hard enlightenment is sought, it can never be attained—only discovered. A somewhat discredited and discarded Christian concept applies here: grace.

Here also it is important to assert that enlightenment is not hallucination or illusion. Even if it were, experiencing it would be valuable simply in terms of its beneficial effect upon human lives. But, as I will try to show later in this introduction, the highest state of consciousness is far more than pure subjectivity.

It is subjective, but in a paradoxical manner: Enlightenment reveals that what is most deeply personal is also most universal. In the mystical state, reality and ideality become one.

Content of Consciousness vs. Consciousness Itself

It may appear that greater attention is given in the following readings to the content of consciousness than to the origin or source of consciousness—i.e. consciousness itself. Some scientists—Sir Russell Brain, for example—have posited that many things may be learned about consciousness, but consciousness itself cannot be defined on other than a subjective basis or in terms of something less fundamental than consciousness. That is, we may accumulate data on what takes place during consciousness but never on the actual qualities of consciousness itself.

Can consciousness itself be defined? What is the relation between activity of the brain’s neural networks and mentation by the mind’s cognitive systems? How does electrochemical action become thought and feeling? What are the determinants for each state of human consciousness? Theories of consciousness are now being developed by scientists and philosophers. Laboratory work in artificial intelligence and in lower animal consciousness may offer exciting discoveries; it may also be a blind alley. For example, Gunther S. Stent, a molecular biologist, states in The Coming of the Golden Age: “. . . there now seem to remain only three deep problems yet to be solved: the origin of life, the mechanism of cellular differentiation, and the functional basis of the higher nervous system. ... I do not [forsee a solution to] the mechanism of consciousness . . . since its epistemological aspects both posit it as the central philosophical problem of life and also place it beyond the realm of scientific research.” On the other hand, the anthropologist Roger W. Wescott offers the intriguing hypothesis that consciousness is internal bioluminescence, a concept which may prompt investigation of the possibility that enlightenment is a physical and measurable event in the brain. In The Divine Animal Wescott proposes that endocranial bioluminescence, “a literal form of light generated in, by, and for the brain,” may be the stuff of pure consciousness. “... Awareness itself may consist of the internal generation and reception of perceptible radiation—in a word, of light.”

Enlightenment: The Eye Seeing Itself

My own experience leads me to suggest that in the highest state of consciousness, there is no difference between the content of consciousness and consciousness itself. Integration or unity is the principal characteristic of that state, both literally and figuratively. In the highest state, what you are aware of is the vital force, the universal condition which issues forth as intelligent awareness having your own name. It amounts to the eye seeing itself, to thought turning itself inside out and thinking about thinking. Enlightenment is the reflexive act wherein the mind understands itself, including that very experience of understanding. Return to godhead (content of consciousness) is equivalent with awareness of Cosmic Awareness (consciousness itself).

When considered abstractly, consciousness, like light, has both a physical and spiritual aspect. But unification is the concrete reality behind, beneath, above and within it all-subtle but nevertheless real, as recent evidence of plant perception shows.

Consciousness as biochemistry may be analyzed in terms of neurons, electrochemical firings across synapses and molecular bundles which permeate membranes.

But these too can be analyzed until the atomic level is reached, and then the subatomic level. Where does it end? Cleve Backster, the rediscoverer of ancient India’s knowledge of plant perception, has found that primary perception (the ability of plant and animal cell life to perceive human and animal thoughts and feelings) can be demonstrated with minerals, metals and even triply distilled water. A capacity for perception resides in everything. The whole cosmos is sensitive and (in both meanings) sensible. In the “final” analyisis, consciousness can be seen as the interconnectedness of all creation or, more precisely, the fundamental context of that connectedness which makes it possible. Zeno the Greek asked his fellow philosophers, “Why not admit that the world is a living and rational being since it produces animate and rational entities?” A scientific basis for such an observation is given by F. L. Kunz in his essay “On the Symmetry Principle” in the March-April 1966 issue of Main Currents: Surely consciousness ... is a localization in a primal field, presumably that one in which all else originates.

As we have said, such a proposition can only be justified very slowly. Yet it is already becoming clear that some form of consciousness accompanies all organic life, even the most primitive protoplasmic slime, and there is an accumulating body of evidence which points to its presence below the threshold of life.

From ancient days, Hindu thought declared that the atman, man’s deepest center, is one with the Brahman, the deepest center of creation. Now science confirms it: I am the universe; I am Universal Mind.

Levels of Existence

This notion may be better understood through the metaphor of levels of existence. Try to conceive creation as having five levels. From bottom to top they are atomic, biological, psychological, social and cosmic. If you search for an answer to that ultimate koan, the question “Who am I?”, everything you examine will dissolve into the other categories of this metaphor. Start in the middle. You study psychology and soon the psychological brings you to the social through group psychology. On the social level, group psychology extends into sociology, which in turn leads to a study of religion and philosophy. From there you find yourself concerned with the meaning of existence and the relation of men to the universe.

You are now on a study of the cosmic.

Going downward in search of an answer to the question “Who am I?” you soon pass from psychology to a study of biology and chemistry. As you seek to know yourself better you study cellular composition and neural networks and the chemistry of emotion, perception, learning and memory. But in seeking to understand mentality you find that soon you have descended to the atomic level and are considering the structure of DNA, the transmission of atomic radiation and quantum theory. All of which brings you down to the top level! For subatomic physics leads you into the study of matter and anti-matter on a cosmic scale. Cosmology is that branch of metaphysics which treats of the character of the universe as an orderly system. The underlying unity of all things and all knowledge brings you full circle and demonstrates the validity of the ancient occult saying: “As above, so below.”

A New Model of Man

Man appears to be constructed in the manner of Yeats’ intersecting gyres or as a miniature model of the doughnut-shaped Van Allen radiation belt surrounding our planet. A local vortex in a sea of energy, man is a visible emblem of the steady-state theory of creation. It is not so much a case of “I think” as “I am being thought” or “I am constantly created.”

Consciousness as the basis of all bodily activity and mental functioning becomes a sort of internal radiation which is not internal at all, but rather is a focused or concentrated area of external cosmic radiation. The aura of mystics and the stylized halo of saints is then explainable as self-induced electromagnetic energy stepped up and brought into the visible-light area of the spectrum by their “spiritual purity” —that is, by their lack of interfering vibrations from confused thought processes.

From quarks to quasars, from pulse to pulsars—and all because of a question: Who am I? The final analysis turns out to be an original synthesis, and consciousness becomes the interconnectedness of all creation in a great chain of being.

Content and process, science and religion converge in the study of self-identity, revealing the true meaning of “psychedelic.” Psyche delos: mind-manifesting, showing forth the true dimensions of the self-spirit.

Who am I? I am the universe; I am Universal Mind.

Publisher: White Crow Books
Published July 2012
492 pages
Size: 229 x 152 mm
ISBN 978-1-908733-32-0
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