Three Minds and Three Levels of Consciousness: A Self Relations Framework for Generative Trance

by Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.

Generative trance is a higher state of consciousness wherein new identities and realities may be created.  This state allows consciousness to unbind itself from the fixed settings of the conscious mind and re-attune to the infinite possibilities of the creative unconscious, thereby making possible the reorganization of the mental filters underlying reality construction.  This blog overviews a model of how to do this. We will start with the central premise of three interacting minds—Somatic (in the body), Cognitive (in the head), and Field (in the space around).  We will then see these three minds can operate at three different levels of consciousness— Primitive, Ego, and Generative.   These core distinctions of “three minds, three levels” can suggest how and why generative trance can be developed.

Central to the framework is the idea that the state in which an experiential pattern is held significantly determines its meaning and subsequent unfolding.  This was the basis of Milton Erickson’s core principle of utilization, which I believe was his most radical contribution to the practice of psychotherapy.  The utilization principle states that under proper conditions, a problem can become a solution.  Thus, creative acceptance of a problematic pattern allows you to turn it into a resource while also opening beyond it. This is what we are looking to do in generative trance: create the proper conditions that will allow a transformational relationship with a challenging experience.  What generally happens when individuals face a difficulty is that their state degrades—that is, they move from an ordinary “business as usual” ego state to a primitive “fight, flight, or freeze” state of diminished resources and response potential.  In generative trance work, we look to turn the tables by giving priority to establishing and then sustaining a high quality state of consciousness, so that the connection to the experiential challenge results in a positive outcome.

Three Minds of the Generative Self: Somatic, Cognitive, and Field

To develop a generative trance, it is helpful to distinguish three different minds that interactively operate in human consciousness—the Somatic mind of the body, the Cognitive mind of the intellect, and the Field mind of the larger contexts to which we belong.  The Somatic mind is the animal mind shared by all mammals; it is your embodied intelligence, knowing yourself and the world through feeling, action, nonverbal awareness, and emotion. The mammal mind carries a past and a present, but no future awareness.  Like your pets and young children, it has the potential for amazing awareness, but no self-awareness; that is, it can’t think about itself or represent itself.  It is attuned not only to your personal history, but also to ancestral history.  It carries instinct, archetypes, and intuitive knowing, all basic elements for transformational change.  In terms of trance, it is the first (but not only) “unconscious mind”.

The Cognitive mind is the conscious mind “in the head.”  It uses verbal descriptions and symbols to “re-present” self and the world in terms of images, maps, plans, meanings, beliefs, and possibilities.  It thinks in terms of narrative and story, sequences and values.  It has the potential to see the world from many different perspectives and with many different values, even though it often gets locked in one or two.  In traditional hypnosis, it is the “conscious mind” that is usually targeted by a hypnotic induction to dissolve or at least relax for awhile, so that the hypnotist’s “conscious mind” can re-program the person’s base somatic mind.  As we will see, however, in generative trance the cognitive mind is shifted to a higher level of consciousness and invited to be an active part of the trance process, in reciprocal interaction with the other minds.

The Field mind is the greater systemic intelligence that is operating all around us.  There are many different fields that may be operating at any given moment in time: culture, family, personal history, political, etc.  You may work in the field of psychology, or be absorbed in the field of your “family trance”, or sense a “negative field” in a business meeting, or be absorbed in the “zone” of “creative flow.”   These contexts for our consciousness may be positive or negative, and constitute a second type of “unconscious mind”, that is, the creative unconscious beyond the individual ego position.

Three levels of Consciousness: Primitive, Ego, and Generative

The three minds can take different forms, depending on the level of consciousness at which they are operating.  Self-Relations distinguishes three different levels: Primitive, Ego, and Field.

(1) Primitive Level: Wholeness without self-awareness.  This base level is connected with the core energies and forms of the primordial world.  It has “wholeness without self-awareness,”  a sort of “quantum soup” or great field of consciousness, without any linear order or conscious control within it.  Nature is an obvious example: Everything is part of an ecological unity.  The creative unconscious is another example: It is a unitary system of auto-poetic intelligence that guides the creation and balance of psychological life.   Its strength lies in its wholeness: within it, “everything is connected to everything” as part of a deeper unity.  Because it is the ocean from which our individual consciousness arises, we must sometimes return to it for rest, integration, and healing.  In this way, trance—whether it is developed through hypnosis, music, rituals, symptoms, etc.–is a return to primitive consciousness, a psychobiologically necessary state of consciousness.  At least periodically, we need to let go our constructed separateness and return to our native wholeness.  As we will see, this is not only when we need to rest, it’s also when we need to create new identity maps.

In primitive consciousness, time is cyclical rather than chronological.  There is a rhythmic circulation of elements: night and day, exhalation/inhalation, active/passive, etc.  As such, primitive consciousness is not especially generative; its evolutionary (or “generative change”) rate is rather slow. it is generally content to recreate endless versions of itself, only very slowly growing beyond itself.  In the ancient myth of the race between the turtle and the rabbit, it is the turtle.  (And as I tell my clients, always remember who wins that race!).

While its strength is its systemic wholeness, its shortcoming is its lack of self-awareness.   It cannot “stop time” and analyze a situation, or isolate one part of the system, or rapidly generate multiple different maps.  It changes from the inside out, (very) slowly evolving a greater complexity, and even more slowly making “evolutionary leaps” to higher levels of consciousness.

(2) Ego Level: Self-awareness without wholeness.   One of the most astonishing evolutionary leaps in the history of the universe is the emergence of self-awareness.  This capacity for symbolic self-representation has given rise to a second level of consciousness to rest on the surface of the Primitive, like waves arising from the ocean. The emergent properties are amazing: consciousness can now step out of time and create imaginary worlds in which symbols of all sorts are used to run very fast, virtually endless simulations of possible realities.  The evolutionary fruits of this shift are obvious and stunning: verbal language, art, awareness of future possibilities, technology, whole cities and other time-transcendent miracles.

All this, of course, has come at a great price.  Perhaps because this gift of self-awareness is so relatively new, we only seem able to self-identity with a small part of consciousness at a time.  Thus, I might end up identifying with the “me” of my physical body, or the “us” of my group, against the “it” or “them” of the rest of consciousness.  In this way, the Ego Level has self-awareness without wholeness.  We end up dividing the unbroken wholeness of primitive consciousness into endless units of “self” vs. “other”, “good” vs. “bad”, “us” vs. “them”.  This is not necessarily harmful in itself; in fact, the analytical process of breaking the whole into parts allows us to then recombine the parts in many novel ways, allowing the creation of new wholes which transcend the previous unities.  In other words, it allows evolution to develop at markedly increased levels.

However, the way we typically do it is what spells trouble. First, we usually break our connection to the natural world to enter the symbolic; in the simplest terms, we think with contracted muscles and inhibited breathing, thereby creating a functional dissociation from the living world.  (In trance terminology, the conscious mind is most often a disembodied intellect that dissociates from the creative unconscious.) Second, we identify with our ego position in a way that dis-identifies with the rest of the field.  Third, we maintain these one-sided ego positions inflexibly and indefinitely, not allowing a rhythmic shifting among different positions that would enable a more whole view.

As we will see, these limited forms of self-awareness are unnecessary though very seductive; like an addiction, once we get hooked on them, they’re difficult to release.  The predictable resulting experiences are alienation, loneliness, and violence.  We cut off from the wisdom and healing of natural intelligence and become disconnected from a space bigger than our map-making, leading to ever-more imbalances and unhappiness.  For many people, it is only when they “hit bottom” with terrible suffering that new options are possible.  This is where generative trance is helpful: it allows a safe letting go of ego positions and a reconnection with primitive consciousness. As we will see, however, this is not sufficient for healing and transformational change.  For that, we need to open to the third level of generative consciousness.

(3)  Generative Level: Mindful awareness within differentiated wholeness.  A core idea in Self-Relations is that it is possible to creatively combine the intense energy and wholeness of primitive consciousness with the disciplined intentionality and self-awareness of ego consciousness to form a tertiary system of generative consciousness. This integrated state allows intention with spontaneity, yin and yang, self and other, inner plus outer, conscious mind with creative unconscious. We can operate at two levels simultaneously: the wholeness of the field and its many differentiated parts. This creative patterning breaks the tyranny of the fixed ego positions while still allowing intentional thinking.  It is especially useful at those times when our regular maps are insufficient or unhelpful, when we need to go beyond where we’ve been before.  While the ego position is essential conservative, looking to re-generate versions of the past, the generative state allows fundamentally new realities to emerge.

This higher state of “disciplined flow” that comes from harmonizing the Primitive and Ego levels is distinguished by a variety of emergent properties. Five bear brief mentioning here.  The first is non-dual field awareness—that is, a “space of oneness” opens up, thereby making room for all the different forms in the field of awareness.  This non-dual field is non-judgmental, humanizing, and welcoming.  Examples are the “we-ness” that develops in a mature loving relationship (in a couple, a group, or even an individual) that allows all the different “me-nesses” to be welcome in their differences.  Gregory Bateson once defined wisdom as the capacity to sit around a table and talk about differences without trying to change them.  In this sense, the non-dual field is the base for wisdom.  As we will see in later blogs, it certainly is a necessary condition for a generative trance that can integrate and transform the many parts of a systemic identity.

A second property of generative consciousness is subtle energy.  At the ego level, awareness is muscle-bound and thus heavy-handed and relatively coarse; at the generative level, the “chi” flows in currents of grace and skillful sensing.  This is apparent in any aesthetic experience—for example, reading a good book, cooking, listening or playing music, being in nature.  In such intrinsically rewarding experiences, awareness becomes more subtle, less rigid, more differentiated and skillful.  I was once talking about this in a Berlin workshop, and a participant raised his hand.  He shared that as a brain surgeon, he often performed 10-12 hour operations with his team.  He noted that they typically listened to classical music and discussed philosophy while operating, and he had just realized why: Such aesthetic practices created the subtle awareness that a brain surgeon needs to do such intricate, demanding work.  As we will see, subtle awareness is similarly needed for the challenging work of transformation and creativity.

A third property is mindfulness, which we might define here as non-reactive self-awareness permeating an experiential field.  That is, you can be with something without reacting with the “fight, flight, or freeze” that distorts and degrades consciousness, thereby re-creating a “problem” state.  You can notice negative thoughts without being disturbed by them, become aware of different ego-parts playing out their automatic games, and sympathetically and analyze a particular conditioned pattern.  This allows consciousness to be helpful and not harmful, curious and intelligent.

A fourth generative property is what might be called quantum superposition, or the capacity to hold multiple contradictory states or positions simultaneously, without conflict.  (Interestingly, this is the definition of “trance logic,” which is typically regarded as a defining feature of trance.)   This means that something can be “true” and “not true” simultaneously; or something and its opposite are both true; or even more widely, that multiple positions can be simultaneously valid.  This “both/and” logic has been found in different studies of creative genius—e.g., those done by Frank Barron in the 50’s, and by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 80’s—to be a fundamental property of creative consciousness.  It is especially relevant in therapeutic work, where conflicts between different parts often create impasses.  By being able to hold multiple parts in a generative state, the possibility of creative reorganization of those parts into a deeper wholeness becomes possible.

A final characteristic of generative consciousness is creative flow of information and energy.  That is, when a subtle “space of oneness” is opened that allows mindful awareness of all the different parts of the whole, this naturally allows energy and information to flow freely.  This is encompassed in a core suggestion of both trance and meditation—“just let it happen”. This “creative flow” is the superior alternative to “fight, flight, and freeze allowing healing, vitality, and many new possibilities to emerge.  Oriental medicine generally holds that illness reflects “blocked chi,” and that healing and well-being occur when the life force is flowing within and through us.  This is precisely what we’re looking to develop and sustain in Generative Trance work.

In the next blog, I will further develop these ideas of “three minds, three levels of consciousness.”   We will investigate how the different minds can operate in negative or positive ways, depending on the human presence connected with them.  We will see also how significant life changes—for example, a birth or death in the family a job change, starting or ending a significant relationship—break a person’s normal identification with ego identity, and moves consciousness back into the Primitive level. If the neuro-muscular lock of a  “fight, flight, or freeze” response develops within this regression, a symptom is created.  But if a mindful state of “creative flow” is present, then the “death” of the old identity leads to the “birth” of a new self-identity that is more whole (integrated) and differentiated (i.e. more choices), i.e., you become more intelligent and capable of greater happiness. By learning how to develop and sustain a generate state of consciousness, we become able to significantly succeed on this amazing path of self-realization.

Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.
February 19, 2011

NOTE: You can learn more about Generative Trance—how to help yourself and others to use it creatively—by attending my July “Trance Camp” held in San Diego.  Click here for further details.