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The 3 levels of consciousness

5 minute read

Once again I am in that dreadful place. The place every student can tell you about. 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 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 Instagram 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.


One of my favorite 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. It is when our feelings confuse us, where we usually respond with unconscious distractions. 

Surely, nobody wants to be a slave of their emotions. Nobody wants to give in to the beast. Here is where we need to distinguish between three levels of consciousness.

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. This response takes place without interference of our thinking mind. We just act.

It’s 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 Instagram and fail to stop ourselves from scrolling to the next kitty cat.

Levels 2: The emotional realm

At some point, our distant ancestors started living in groups and collaborating with each other. Basic reflexes were not enough anymore. We needed a means to produce hierarchies and other social constructs. Our brains developed a complex network of emotions.

We are all well aware that we can not steer these emotions directly. These emotions are driven by our personal core values.

Mix of emotions, by Yossi Kotler

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 labor proved to be insufficient for human ambition. With the appearance of the first humans, so did thinking enter the game. “If we save some food today, maybe we won’t have to feel hungry tomorrow”. 

The core idea in most of the world’s 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. As Jordan Peterson puts forward in his latest book, 12 rules for life: we need some goal to make our lives worthwhile and counter the world’s suffering. And we can only reach this goal if we align it with our 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.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 fulfillment and meaning for the future. 

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. 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.

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 behavior, instead of on our environment
  3. give us plenty of opportunities to fulfill the value

And guess what, this stuff actually works! The trick here is to choose values that are very much accomplishable but also challenge us appropriately. 

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

3 thoughts on “The 3 levels of consciousness”

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