Stages of Awareness
The most important part of Assagioli’s work was his ability to create a diagram that showed the relationship of the different planes of existence within a person’s physical life and he created an outline of the stages of awareness that a person moves through as they mature psychologically. Below is the diagram that Assagioli designed to explain how the different planes of existence co-exist.
- The Lower Unconscious
- The Middle Unconscious
- The Higher Unconscious
- The Field of Consciousness
- The Conscious Self or “I”
- The Higher Self
- The Collective Unconscious
The lower unconscious contains a person’s personal psychological past in the form of repressed complexes, long-forgotten memories, dreams and fantasies.
The lower unconscious is the realm of the person relegated to the experiences of shame, fear, pain, despair and rage associated with primal wounding suffered in life. One way to think of the lower unconscious is that it is a particular bandwidth of one’s experiential range that has been broken away from consciousness. It comprises that range of experience related to the threat of personal annihilation, of destruction of self, of nonbeing, and more generally, of the painful side of the human condition. As long as this range of experience remains unconscious, the person will have a limited ability to be empathic with self or others in the more painful aspects of human life. At the same time, ‘the lower unconscious is merely the most primitive part of us. It is neither bad nor good.
The middle unconscious contains the capacity to form patterns of skills, behaviours, feelings, attitudes and abilities that can function without conscious attention, thereby creating the framework of consciousness.
The function of the middle unconscious can be seen in all spheres of human development, from learning to walk and talk, to acquiring languages, to mastering a trade or profession, to developing social roles. These are all skills that must be consciously learned so they may become an automatic habit that supports the waking life.
The higher unconscious holds “our higher potentialities which seek to express themselves, but which we often repel and repress” (Assagioli). As with the lower unconscious, this area is by definition not available to consciousness, so its existence is inferred from moments in which contents from that level affect consciousness. Contact with the higher unconscious can be seen in those moments, which are often difficult to put into words, experiences in which one senses deeper meaning in life, a profound serenity and peace, universality within the particulars of existence, or perhaps a unity between oneself and the cosmos. As long as this range of experience remains unconscious – the person will have a limited ability to be empathic with self or other in the more sublime aspects of human life.
The higher unconscious thus represents ‘an autonomous realm, from where we receive our higher intuitions and inspirations – altruistic love and will, humanitarian action, artistic and scientific inspiration, philosophic and spiritual insight and the drive towards purpose and meaning in life.
Pervading all the areas mapped by the oval diagram, distinct but not separate from all of them, is Self. The concept of Self points towards a source of wisdom and guidance within the person, a source that can operate quite beyond the control of the conscious personality. Since Self pervades all levels, an on-going lived relationship with Self—Self-realization— may lead anywhere on the diagram as one’s direction unfolds (this is one reason for not illustrating Self at the top of the diagram, a representation that tends to give the impression that Self-realization leads only into the higher unconscious). Relating to Self may lead for example to engagement with addictions and compulsions, to the heights of creative and religious experience, to the mysteries of shared experience, to issues of meaning and mortality, to grappling with early childhood wounding, to discerning a sense of purpose and meaning in life.
The relationship of “I” and Self is paradoxical. Assagioli was clear that “I” and Self were from one point of view one, writing, “There are not really two selves, two independent and separate entities. The Self is one.” Such a non-dual unity is a fundamental aspect of this level of experience. However, Assagioli also understood that there could be a meaningful relationship between the person and Self as well:
The experience of the Collective or Universal Unconscious is not rooted in the individual experience yet there are many trends that try to force the Universal experience into an individual understanding. Doing so makes the experience one driven by personal ego and the inconsistent Personal Unconscious.
By understanding that the Universal Unconscious is something that we share in as a species and that exists beyond our lifetimes, yet can be influenced by them; begins to move a person into living in a symbiotic relationship with the Universe. They have ceased to define the Universe by how it relates to them. Instead, they begin to see themselves as an active participant in the timeless existence of the Universe.
By exploring the evidence of the influence of the Universal Unconsciousness in your own life, you can begin to understand your calling and purpose as a role in the existence of the Universe that only you can fulfil. The symbols that you are drawn to, the stories, the dreams that you have; if you begin to look at these things not just for what they mean to you in your life, but how they place you in a historical context, you begin to discover your unique purpose and potential for contributing to the health and survival of the Universe.
The magic involved, is a sense of revelation and purpose that originates from within, and connects to what is outside, because you recognize that the Universe is not just around you, but within you as well.