The 3 levels of consciousness

11 minute read

Once again I am in that dreadful place. The place every student can tell you about. For many students the reason they won’t finish their study within the prescribed time. The reason that you’ve probably got a pile of laundry in the corner of your room. I am situated in the treacherous shadows of my thesis research, cast by the long shadows of the dreaded beast. I am, of course, talking about the procrastodragon.

So here I am. Writing this blog for you, while I should be working on my thesis research. Supposedly reading hundreds of stuffy pages discussing the difference between the words ‘importance’ and ‘significance’. OK maybe I’m exaggerating, but you know what I am talking about. Instead of working I find myself being drawn into countless distractions. Yes, sure, I succeeded in tricking myself into writing this blog instead of watching cat-memes on 9gag (don’t go there now, this blog is way more distracting, trust me). That doesn’t mean however that the procrastodragon has any less power over me.

So who is this beast? Where does he come from, and how do we slay him?

Recognize these moments when you open your phone and start browsing Facebook without thinking about it? Maybe that is even how you ended up on my blog. Maybe you were actually intent to get some work done. Yet here you are. Your body followed your habitual pattern of opening your phone and before you know it you are procrastinating. That is where it starts.

Photo from

If you think about it, our lives are filled with these habituated patterns. We immediately turn on the TV when we get home. We put on some music before getting on the bike. We intent to drink one beer and then go home, and find ourselves arriving home stupidly drunk in the middle of the night instead. The thing is, we regularly tune-out from the world around us. We are constantly distracting ourselves. And most of this happens according to habituated patterns without us even being aware of it.

But hey! Distraction is not necessarily a bad thing.

One of my favourite self-help authors, Mark Manson, proposes that we need distractions to postpone negative emotions. To postpone pain. Until later, when we can handle these feelings. Sometimes this distraction is a very obvious thing. We all know the stereotype of the girl post brake-up watching Netflix with a liter of ice-cream on her lap. The crying girl understands that she feels sad because of the brake-up and makes a conscious choice to distract herself from these painful feelings. To distract herself until a later moment when she can bear the pain. There are however many moments in our life that we suddenly experience confusing emotions without understanding where they come from. This is where we usually respond with unconscious distractions. It is when our feeling confuse us. And this is where the beast comes in. It is when we are unconsciously shielding ourselves from pain in this moment, at the cost of something that could bring us long-term happiness.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

– Carl Gustav Jung, founder analytical psychology

The 3 levels of consciousness

Surely, nobody wants to be a slave of their emotions. To let them dictate our behaviour. “But if I am initiating these distractions unconsciously, how can I ever stop doing it?”, you might ask. Here is where we need to distinguish between three levels of consciousness.

I am surprised by how often these three levels of consciousness are re-discovered by different people. Yet how little we are using their distinction to develop and empower ourselves. Tony Robbins calls them the three levels of mastery. Mark Manson talks about three levels of self-awareness. And in the scientific literature they are known as Bloom’s taxonomy.

Level 1: The physical realm

The three levels can be considered as a hierarchy. They are built on top of each other, through millions of years of evolution leading up to our modern brain. The oldest part is also the most unforgiving. It’s our reflexes. The immediate response of our body to sensory input. It’s the evasive movement we make when something unexpectedly hits us. This response takes place without interference of our thinking mind, of out self-aware ego. We just act, only to have our thinking mind catch up later. The thinking mind is ooooh so slow, you see.

But it’s also the act of taking your phone out of your pocket and unlocking your screen when you sit down on the toilet seat. It’s when we’re using 9gag and fail to stop ourselves from scrolling to the next kitty cat. Some reflexes we learned to ourselves. And many of the reflexes we learn to ourselves are not constructive. This means that the very first step in overcoming our bad habits is to monitor our own behaviour. To distance yourself from your acting body. To simply observe. This is the only way to start getting a sense for how we relate to the world around us.

Levels 2: The emotional realm

At some point, our far ancestors started living in groups and collaborating with each other. Basic reflexes where not enough anymore. We needed a means to produce hierarchies and other social constructs. Our brains developed a complex network of emotions. Rewarding us with pleasurable feelings whenever we accomplish something good, and punishing us with painful feelings whenever we fail to meet our desirable goals.

Mix of emotions, by Yossi Kotler

We are all well aware that we can not steer these emotions directly. When we’re sad or angry, we’ll generally just have to wait untill the feeling passes. Emotions are driven by our personal core values. We can find out what these are by watching our level 1 habits very carefully.

In my personal life, I worked out that my top three core values at this moment are personal growth, health and connecting with others. In that order. One example of behaviour that brought me to this conclusion is in my nightlife. I love going out and socializing with people. I am however also generally the first person to head home. This is because deviating a lot from a normal sleeping rhythm makes me feel un-healthy. I’d much rather use the next morning to work out and read some Nietzsche or whatever aristocratic stuff. Really, I do. I know that my value of connecting and socializing is very important to me. My behaviour has shown me however that these other values are even more important to me.

Your core values are an important part of who you are. They are a reflection of your personality. Realizing any small change in them is a process that will take many years, if it is even possible. You can not simply choose them. You’re stuck with them. But what you can do is to identify your own core values. Work out your internal hierarchy. And make sure you fulfill all your values on a daily basis.

“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”
– Tony Robbins

Level 3: The thinking mind

And this is where stuff gets interesting. Somehow we went one step further in our evolution. Living in groups and dividing some basic labour proofed to be insufficient for the human ambition. With the appearance of the first humans, so did thinking enter the game. We were now developed enough to predict the near future. “If we safe some food today, maybe we don’t have to feel hungry tomorrow”. The ability to impose suffering on ourselves now to induce pleasure in the future is unique to the human race. We developed the ability to set goals for our own futures. To “create our own destiny”, as Tony Robbins would put it.

“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

The core idea in most of the worlds religions and philosophies is that the process of existing is generally a painful thing. The only thing stronger than our drive to pursue pleasure, is our drive to avoid pain. And we won’t be able to always do so. This is where a nihilistic way of thinking finds its doom. As Jorden Peterson puts forward in his latest book, 12 rules for life (more on this book in a later blog): we need some sence of purpose to make our lives worthwhile and counter the world’s suffering. We need to envision a goal for ourselves, that makes our lives worth living. And we can only reach this goal if we align it with out personal values.

To strive for your personal goal takes more than just a vision. It takes discipline. And it is definitely worthwhile to discipline ourselves. It is worthwhile to keep going despite of the pain we might encounter in the process. To keep swimming while the world keeps throwing bigger waves at you takes courage. Doing so builds character.

God of pain, photo by Will Radik

And this is what the procrastodragon really is. It is our preference to avoid pain now, while enduring it could potentially provide us with a sense of fulfilment and meaning for the future. We know we should really do the work. We even want to on some level. But our minds expertly try to avoid the small bump of discomfort that is waiting for us in starting on the task at hand.

“If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures;
if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the shame endures.”

– Musonius Rufus

Luckily, we didn’t come to face the beast unarmed. We have a deadly double-edged sword in our hand and only need to learn how to use it. I’ll let you in on the secret: we can use our thinking mind to alter the way we relate to our values. By altering the way we relate to our values we can influence our emotions. Preferably in a way that is aligned with our life goals. And through influencing our emotions we alter the way we conduct ourselves in day-to-day life, the way we relate to reality. Yes, it might be a long process. But once we understand what our intrinsic values are and once we decide on a goal to strive for, there is only one more thing to do: We can choose to alter the rules by which we judge our values.

Fulfilling our values is what gives us a feeling of pleasure. It is what makes us feel good. If you hardly ever experience these feelings of contentment, chances are you are playing the tyrant over yourself. Take my number one core value for example: personal growth. Now what does personal growth mean to me? I could say to myself that my value of personal growth is fulfilled when I understand all the great literature of the past. But can I even track down all this literature? Would I ever be capable of understanding all these great minds? And is this something I can fulfill on a daily basis? This rule would make it impossible for me to reach a feeling of fulfillment and as a direct result I will start to avoid even starting on developing myself. Leaving me sad, unfulfilled and consequently chasing after something to distract me from these negative feelings.

According to Tony Robbins, you should set up the game so that you can win. This means that we redefine our rules so that they are

  1. accomplishable
  2. only depend on our own behaviour, instead of on our environment
  3. give us plenty of opportunities to fulfill the value

And guess what, this stuff actually works! If I wanted to, I could even convince myself that I feel personal growth whenever I have the the Gulag Archipelago laying on my bed stand. Regardless of if I even open it. Now, while this might leave me content, it won’t help me to reach my life goals anytime soon. The trick here is to choose values that are very much accomplishable but also challenge us appropriately. So instead my value for personal growth is fulfilled when: I meditate for 20 minutes per day, I read one inspiring blog-post every day and I write a blog every three weeks. This is completely within my control and whilst it’s not very demanding it allows for a lot of development over the years.

I review my personal rules on fixed monthly intervals to re-align them with my personal goals. This is actually an entry in my agenda. And in doing so I am slowly manipulating myself to associating sufficient pain with procrastination to slay the beast once and for all. I hope that I will one day reach this point.

Now just to re-align my rules with understanding the difference between ‘importance’ and ‘significance’…

“The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you do that, you’re in control of your life. If you don’t, life controls you.”

– Tony Robbins

3 thoughts on “The 3 levels of consciousness

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