What are the levels of consciousness?
We experience consciousness every day, but how conscious are we of consciousness, let alone its quantity and qualities. Most of us are aware that there is a conscious mind sitting atop a subconscious mess like the tip of iceberg, most of the mass of our thoughts are below the level before we recognise them as even being thoughts. We can recognise the disturbances that the mass causes, through the tides of our feelings and emotions, is like a black hole that we can only see through its effects, and we know that the body ticks along because of that black box in our head regulating our circulation, heartbeat, digestions and body temperature.
It is only really possible to experience your own consciousness, experience is an event or effect of having consciousness and it is difficult to avoid a circular explanation. Awareness could be a quality of consciousness, but you also have to be aware of experience for it to be conscious. Strangely your subconscious can have experiences that you are self-evidently not conscious or aware of, and yet it learns from them.
Perhaps we should start the most basic consciousness, that is consciousness of stimulus. When a fire spreads it is conscious of whether something is fuel or not, any source of energy it reacts to by burning, that is having a chemical reaction to the stimulus of materials that feed the reaction. Indeed firefighters speak of fires in terms of being alive, they travel, have levels of intensity, ignition points, hotspots and they react to their environment. Obviously such a consciousness is so alien to us is difficult to view it as truly conscious, but that does not mean that those dealing with it are not capable of empathy with it.
The next level up is where there is an awareness of the environment, not just a reaction, at a basic level even bacteria demonstrates some awareness of its environment with its searching out of what is around it. If you observe the bacteria its walls wobble outwards in different directions seeking something to connect with, and it will continue that search intil it finds what it wants, of course the vast majority of bacteria never find what they are looking for, as it just needs one bacteria to find its source of food to ensure its survival this basic awareness is enough for it. This level of awareness probably covers most of the animals in the world, the degree of awareness increases both in terms of number of stimuli that animals are aware of and a number of reactions that they can have to such stimuli. Some really quite complex behaviours can be explained just with awareness of the environment, plants for example have internal clocks that react to the weather seasons but not single one of them world worries about being late.
It is that self-awareness that represents a major breakthrough for consciousness, when it starts to recognise that it is an actor on stage, when a cats stalks a mouse, it is aware of its own behaviour, it moves quietly and low down to the ground. It realises that it is in the same environment as the mouse and that the mouse can become aware of it. This is not the same as being aware of self, dogs for example when confronted with a mirror image do not recognise that image as themselves rather it recognises the image as being another dog who strangely act the same way as it, few animals past this test, a few mammals such as dolphins and whales, primates such as orang-utans and humans, a handful of birds.
And beyond self-awareness is sapience, which is defined as wisdom or judgement, people in theory all pass this definition, though in practice it may take a while for it to develop for babies and we can certainly lose it later in life to some degree or other. It is probably the hardest level to discriminate, how much wisdom a blue whale has is debatable, certainly from a human point of view it is hard not to empathise with blue whales and imagine that they do, but is hard to point to a single action that demonstrates such awareness in anyone, rather it is something that is experienced. As is the awareness of time, you can certainly imply an awareness of time in behaviour, whether that awareness is different from a reaction is inherently subjective.
The point of exploring these levels of consciousness is to show that there are levels of consciousness below us, which opens up the possibility of levels consciousness above where we are at the moment. The Olympic athletes of consciousness are the monks who have spent tens of thousands of hour meditating on their awareness, and they report that there are higher levels that most of us never experience. On a personal level, you can certainly grow as a being a consciousness, your awareness of relationships, self-esteem, self-worth, finding meaning in your life, making a difference and serving your community, they will grow your awareness. There can also be an emotional journey through guilt, shame, anger, grief, fear, desire, neutrality, optimism, acceptance, inner light, wisdom and love, leading to oneness, presence and non-duality, then beyond towards full consciousness. It is perhaps just enough to know that higher levels of consciousness are available for the doors to open, then at least you have a destination to begin your journey towards.