There are three steps we can take to create happiness, make our relationships easy, and eliminate anxiety in our lives. Psychotherapy attempts to address two of these steps—not always successfully—but it doesn’t address the third. By adding the third step, we change the entire game, and make it possible for us to find what so many of us are searching for. Each step in this process awakens a different degree of our consciousness.
The three degrees of consciousness are:
- Safety consciousness
- Heart consciousness
- Spacious consciousness
Just about all psychotherapy is conducted by focusing on the first degree of consciousness, which is safety consciousness. It isn’t bad to focus on this level, but it’s insufficient. Safety consciousness operates on the presumption that we aren’t safe and must find ways to make ourselves safe. These include learning to set personal boundaries, assert ourselves, hold people accountable, be more disciplined, and find the courage within ourselves to overcome our fears.
The problem with safety consciousness is that it stimulates anxiety and fear by focusing on anxiety and fear. Again, some attention at this level is necessary, but we spend way too much time—in therapy and in life—focused on this degree of consciousness.
Heart consciousness is the second degree of consciousness and it is the basis for forming meaningful relationships with other people. The problem is that we generally think and talk about our relationships from the level of safety consciousness. This doesn’t work. Because when we start from safety consciousness we are guarded, defended, cautious and afraid of being hurt. Those are not the qualities that lead us to open our hearts.
And most of the approaches I see being used to foster heart consciousness—well, frankly, they’re catawampus. They focus on popular notions such as, “we are all one,” or “we are all connected,” or “unconditional love,” and these ideas are red herrings that lead us in the wrong direction.
To develop heart consciousness we must individuate, from our parents, partners and other people, and become comfortable with our separateness. This is the key. When we realize that love is not dependent on another person, that no one can give it to us or take it from us, that’s when we begin to experience heart consciousness. Love is your birthright. In that sense, and only in that sense, love is unconditional. But many people misunderstand this and think that love between people is unconditional.
The myth of unconditional love
The myth that love is unconditional comes from—where? Safety consciousness. Yes, the belief that love is unconditional comes from my need to believe you love me even when you treat me like you don’t. And unconditional love is a self-justification people use when they say things like, “If you loved me unconditionally you would accept my ____________.” And you can fill in that blank with any kind of inappropriate behaviors such as: dishonesty, temper tantrums, neglect, sarcasm, etc.
The third degree of consciousness, in one way, is the key to successfully navigating the first two degrees of consciousness. When we learn to access spacious consciousness we eliminate our anxieties and fears that drive so many of our first and second degree behaviors—trying to make ourselves feel safe and seeking another person’s love. We can and must work on those needs from within the first and second degree of consciousness, but the journey is slow and tedious unless we also incorporate the third degree of consciousness. That’s how we make real progress, sustainable progress—by accessing spacious consciousness and bringing that perspective back into the first two degrees of consciousness.
Mindfulness and meditation have become very popular, and these are the right ideas, but often they are executed in unhelpful ways. And here’s the key. Most approaches to mindfulness and meditation operate within a time-orientation. For example, when people talk about learning to be “in the moment,” that’s based on time. But time is the ingredient in our consciousness that generates the greatest amount of anxiety; because we all know that time is running out. So, time is not the way to get from here to there—the answer is learning to access space.
In summary, I’m suggesting that as long as we pursue personal growth only by focusing on the first and second degrees of consciousness, we will not create the satisfying lives we hope for. And, to be clear, focusing solely on the third degree is not enough either. The satisfying lives we seek to create will only be sustainable when we learn to navigate all three degrees of consciousness.
We have developed a map of the three degrees of consciousness—more details can be found in this article—along with a spacious meditation that opens up new horizons. To learn more about this, read this article, and join our upcoming free webinar.