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Levels of Consciousness

April 7th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina          Email this article to a friend Email this article to a friend

In the book Power vs. Force by David R. Hawkins, there’s a hierarchy of levels of human consciousness. It’s an interesting paradigm. If you read the book, it’s also fairly easy to figure out where you fall on this hierarchy based on your current life situation.

From low to high, the levels of consciousness are: shame, guilt, apathy, grief, fear, desire, anger, pride, courage, neutrality, willingness, acceptance, reason, love, joy, peace, enlightenment.

While we can pop in and out of different levels at various times, usually there’s a predominant “normal” state for us. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re at least at the level of courage because if you were at a lower level, you’d likely have no conscious interest in personal growth.

I’ll go over these levels in order, mostly focusing on the ones between courage and reason, since that’s the range where you’re most likely to land. The labels are Hawkins’. The descriptions of each level are based on Hawkins’ descriptions but blended with my own thoughts. Hawkins defines this as a logarithmic scale, so there are far fewer people at the higher levels than at the lower ones. An increase from one level to another will result in enormous change in your life.

Shame - Just a step above death. You’re probably contemplating suicide at this level. Either that or you’re a serial killer. Think of this as self-directed hatred.

Guilt - A step above shame, but you still may be having thoughts of suicide. You think of yourself as a sinner, unable to forgive yourself for past transgressions.

Apathy - Feeling hopeless or victimized. The state of learned helplessness. Many homeless people are stuck here.

Grief - A state of perpetual sadness and loss. You might drop down here after losing a loved one. Depression. Still higher than apathy, since you’re beginning to escape the numbness.

Fear - Seeing the world as dangerous and unsafe. Paranoia. Usually you’ll need help to rise above this level, or you’ll remain trapped for a long time, such as in an abusive relationship.

Desire - Not to be confused with setting and achieving goals, this is the level of addiction, craving, and lust — for money, approval, power, fame, etc. Consumerism. Materialism. This is the level of smoking and drinking and doing drugs.

Anger - the level of frustration, often from not having your desires met at the lower level. This level can spur you to action at higher levels, or it can keep you stuck in hatred. In an abusive relationship, you’ll often see an anger person coupled with a fear person.

Pride - The first level where you start to feel good, but it’s a false feeling. It’s dependent on external circumstances (money, prestige, etc), so it’s vulnerable. Pride can lead to nationalism, racism, and religious wars. Think Nazis. A state of irrational denial and defensiveness. Religious fundamentalism is also stuck at this level. You become so closely enmeshed in your beliefs that you see an attack on your beliefs as an attack on you.

Courage - The first level of true strength. I’ve made a previous post about this level: Courage is the Gateway. This is where you start to see life as challenging and exciting instead of overwhelming. You begin to have an inkling of interest in personal growth, although at this level you’ll probably call it something else like skill-building, career advancement, education, etc. You start to see your future as an improvement upon your past, rather than a continuation of the same.

Neutrality - This level is epitomized by the phrase, “live and let live.” It’s flexible, relaxed, and unattached. Whatever happens, you roll with the punches. You don’t have anything to prove. You feel safe and get along well with other people. A lot of self-employed people are at this level. A very comfortable place. The level of complacency and laziness. You’re taking care of your needs, but you don’t push yourself too hard.

Willingness - Now that you’re basically safe and comfortable, you start using your energy more effectively. Just getting by isn’t good enough anymore. You begin caring about doing a good job — perhaps even your best. You think about time management and productivity and getting organized, things that weren’t so important to you at the level of neutrality. Think of this level as the development of willpower and self-discipline. These people are the “troopers” of society; they get things done well and don’t complain much. If you’re in school, then you’re a really good student; you take your studies seriously and put in the time to do a good job. This is the point where your consciousness becomes more organized and disciplined.

Acceptance - Now a powerful shift happens, and you awaken to the possibilities of living proactively. At the level of willingness you’ve become competent, and now you want to put your abilities to good use. This is the level of setting and achieving goals. I don’t like the label “acceptance” that Hawkins uses here, but it basically means that you begin accepting responsibility for your role in the world. If something isn’t right about your life (your career, your health, your relationship), you define your desired outcome and change it. You start to see the big picture of your life more clearly. This level drives many people to switch careers, start a new business, or change their diets.

Reason - At this level you transcend the emotional aspects of the lower levels and begin to think clearly and rationally. Hawkins defines this as the level of medicine and science. The way I see it, when you reach this level, you become capable of using your reasoning abilities to their fullest extent. You now have the discipline and the proactivity to fully exploit your natural abilities. You’ve reached the point where you say, “Wow. I can do all this stuff, and I know I must put it to good use. So what’s the best use of my talents?” You take a look around the world and start making meaningful contributions. At the very high end, this is the level of Einstein and Freud. It’s probably obvious that most people never reach this level in their entire lives.

Love - I don’t like Hawkins’ label “love” here because this isn’t the emotion of love. It’s unconditional love, a permanent understanding of your connectedness with all that exists. Think compassion. At the level of reason, you live in service to your head. But that eventually becomes a dead end where you fall into the trap of over-intellectualizing. You see that you need a bigger context than just thinking for its own sake. At the level of love, you now place your head and all your other talents and abilities in service to your heart (not your emotions, but your greater sense of right and wrong — your conscience). I see this as the level of awakening to your true purpose. Your motives at this level are pure and uncorrupted by the desires of the ego. This is the level of lifetime service to humanity. Think Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Dr. Albert Schweitzer. At this level you also begin to be guided by a force greater than yourself. It’s a feeling of letting go. Your intuition becomes extremely strong. Hawkins claims this level is reached only by 1 in 250 people during their entire lifetimes.

Joy - A state of pervasive, unshakable happiness. Eckhart Tolle describes this state in The Power of Now. The level of saints and advanced spiritual teachers. Just being around people at this level makes you feel incredible. At this level life is fully guided by synchronicity and intuition. There’s no more need to set goals and make detailed plans — the expansion of your consciousness allows you to operate at a much higher level. A near-death experience can temporarily bump you to this level.

Peace - Total transcendence. Hawkins claims this level is reached only by one person in 10 million.

Enlightenment - The highest level of human consciousness, where humanity blends with divinity. Extremely rare. The level of Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus. Even just thinking about people at this level can raise your consciousness.

I think you’ll find this model worthy of reflection. Not only people but also objects, events, and whole societies can be ranked at these levels. Within your own life, you’ll see that some parts of your life are at different levels than others, but you should be able to identify your current overall level. You might be at the level of neutrality overall but still be addicted to smoking (level of desire). The lower levels you find within yourself will serve as a drag that holds the rest of you back. But you’ll also find higher levels in your life. You may be at the level of acceptance and read a book at the level of reason and feel really inspired. Think about the strongest influences in your life right now. Which ones raise your consciousness? Which ones lower it?

One thing I like about these levels of consciousness is that I can trace back over my own life and see how I’ve been moving through them. I remember being stuck at the level of guilt for a long time – as a child I was indoctrinated into a belief system where I was a helpless sinner, being judged according to the standards of someone at the level of love or higher. From there I graduated to the state of apathy, feeling numb to the whole thing. By high school I had reached the level of pride — I was a straight-A student, captain of the Academic Decathlon team, showered with accolades and awards, but I became dependent on them. I hit the level of Courage in my late teens, but the courage was very unfocused, and I overdid it and got myself into all sorts of trouble. I then spent about a year in neutrality and moved through willingness and acceptance during my 20s with a lot of conscious effort. At present I’m at the level of reason and getting closer and closer to completing the leap to love. I experience the state of love more and more often, and it’s guiding many of my decisions already, but it hasn’t yet stuck as my natural state. I’ve also experienced the state of joy for days at a time, but never with any permanence yet. That state is a pervasive feeling of natural euphoria, as if I’m exploding on the inside with positive energy. It literally forces me to smile. I’ve been in that state for most of this morning, probably because I haven’t eaten anything yet today (I find it easier to hit that state of consciousness when I eat lightly or not at all).

We’ll naturally fluctuate between multiple states throughout the course of any given week, so you’ll probably see a range of 3-4 levels where you spend most of your time. One way to figure out your “natural” state is to think about how you perform under pressure. If you squeeze an orange, you get orange juice because that’s what’s inside. What comes out of you when you get squeezed by external events? Do you become paranoid and shut down (fear)? Do you start yelling at people (anger)? Do you become defensive (pride)? What happens to me under pressure is that I become hyper-analytical, but recently I just had a pressure situation where I handled it mostly by intuition, which was a big change for me. This tells me I’m getting close to the unconditional love state because in that state, intuition can be effectively accessed even under pressure.

Everything in your environment will have an effect on your level of consciousness. TV. Movies. Books. Web sites. People. Places. Objects. Food. If you’re at the level of reason, watching TV news (which is predominantly at the levels of fear and desire) will temporarily lower your consciousness. If you’re at the level of guilt, TV news will actually raise it up.

Progressing from one level to the next requires an enormous amount of energy. I wrote about this previously when discussing quantum leaps. Without conscious effort or the help of others, you’ll likely just stay at your current level until some outside force comes into your life.

Notice the natural progression of levels, and consider what happens when you try to short-cut the process. If you try to reach the level of reason before mastering self-discipline (willingness) and goal-setting (acceptance), you’ll be too disorganized and unfocused to use your mind to its full extent. If you try to push yourself to the level of love before you’ve mastered reason, you’ll suffer from gullibility and may end up in a cult.

Going up even one level can be extremely hard; most people don’t do so in their entire lives. A change in just one level can radically alter everything in your life. This is why people below the level of courage aren’t likely to progress without external help. Courage is required to work on this consciously; it comes down to repeatedly betting your whole reality for the chance to become more conscious and aware. But whenever you reach that next level, you realize clearly that it was a good bet. For example, when you hit the level of courage, all your past fears and false pride seem silly to you now. When you reach the level of acceptance (setting and achieving goals), you look back on the level of willingness and see you were like a mouse running on a treadmill — you were a good runner, but you didn’t pick a direction.

I think the most important work we can do as human beings is to raise our individual level of consciousness. When we do this, we spread higher levels of consciousness to everyone around us. Imagine what an incredible world this would be if we could at least get everyone to the level of acceptance. According to Hawkins 85% of the people on earth live below the level of courage.

When you temporarily experience the higher levels, you can see where you must go next. You have one of those moments of clarity where you understand that things have to change. But when you sink into the lower levels, that memory becomes clouded.

We have to keep consciously taking ourselves back to the sources that can help us complete the next leap. Each step requires different solutions. I recall when making the shift from neutrality to willingness, I listened to time management tapes almost every day. I immersed myself in sources created by people at the level of willingness until I eventually shifted. But a book on time management will be of little use to someone who’s at the level of pride; they’ll reject the very notion with a lot of defensiveness. And time management is meaningless to someone at the level of peace. But you can’t hit the higher levels if you haven’t mastered the basics first. Jesus was a carpenter. Gandhi was a lawyer. Buddha was a prince. We all have to start somewhere.

Look at this hierarchy with an open mind and see if it leads you to new insights that may help you take the next leap in your own life. No levels are any more right or wrong than others. Try not to get your ego wrapped up in the idea of being at any particular level, unless you’re currently at the level of pride of course. ;)

Discuss this post in the Steve Pavlina forum.

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10 Responses to “Levels of Consciousness”

  1. Gabriel Says:

    Wow. A very interesting article. And I may have to start believing in synchronicity - in the last few weeks I’ve been feeling a vague desire to “acquire knowledge”. I’m studying languages. I’ve been reading books on many topics - I’m even reading random Wikipedia pages for fun :)

    I feel quite identified with the “Courage” level (”interest in personal growth / skill acquisition”) and to a lesser extent with the “Neutrality” level. Even more interesting, I know I wasn’t like this 4 months ago - when I took a big step, left my day job and gone full time indie game developer. I don’t think it’s a coincidence either!

    So once again thanks, Steve, for I know I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for your articles - in fact, they were very important when I had to take the (then seemingly) difficult decision of leaving my job.

  2. Bugiman Says:

    I think it’s noteworthy to say is that what you describe (or rather what the original author does) is a model and there are not any real levels of conciousness. Say, you are a scientist. First, you are an undergrad, then you go to grad school, then do your post grad and then you get your own lab (these are just stages). While this happens, one naturally progresses to a new “scientific level” so to speak. It’s called learning. We also know from psychology that people do change and people’s priority do change. Just finished reading a anti-marketing book about know gen X-ers are different from Baby Boomers.
    Most people understand that, but some will try to find out on what (nonexistant) levels of conciousness they exsist right now (what a waste of time)
    Here is an intersting blog entry by John Carlton, I think it’s a good topic for one of your future blogs.

    There are a couple of famous rat studies we both find relevant to our lives. Researchers use rats a lot because the little rodents share our basic nervous system. What irritates or pleases a rat, also irritates or pleases most humans.

    Get over it.

    In one study, scientists put what they knew to be a “sustainable” number of rats into one large cage. They functioned well in this environment, mating normally, rearing little baby rats, getting along with each other.

    Then, the lab coats began to add more rats. Just a few more. To see what happened. Quickly, the large cage became Chaos Central. Result: Cannibalism, buggery, murder, rape, and lots of eating the young.

    All because of overcrowding.

    In the other study, the coats introduced alcohol to a normal society of rats. Most of them avoided it, some used it as “Miller Time”, and a percentage just went overboard. The stats mirrored what we know of alcohol use in normal human environments.

    Then the researchers, always happy to screw things up, raised the stress level of the rats. Loud noises, cage jarring, unpredictable electric shocks, all sorts of disorienting stuff.

    Result: The tea-totalling rats started guzzling booze. The Miller Time crowd became 24-7 lushes. And the alcoholic rats literally drowned themselves in the liquor.

    What does all this mean? Well, besides revealing how sadistic the guys in lab coast can be, it at least makes you think about modern life, and our place in it.

    Humans like to think of ourselves as above the animal world — cleaner, smarter, better suited to rule the planet.

    We are, of course, none of these things. We make a mess of everything we touch, and there’s some strong evidence that we’re killing the surface of the earth.

    Plus, we make people like Britney Spears rich and famous. Could Hell have noises any worse than what she produces?

  3. Nenad Ristic Says:

    Very good article, remins me somewhat of Timothy Leary’s 8-Circuit model, but I think that the one you present here is more usefull.

    At the moment I am somewhere in the neutrality-willingness-accpetance area (mostly willingness).

    I disagree with your theory that how you react to stress shows your “true” level… I think that stress tends to push your level down, from whatever it is at that moment (not sure if I am explaining what I mean very well)

    Excellent articel, I am getting addicted to your site!

  4. Yynatago Says:

    Good article! I particularly like the part where you point out that your natural level of consciousness can be determined by how you react under pressure. Your example reactions made it easier to understand and relate to those levels of consciousness. We probably use this to determine what level another person is at by how they handle pressure.

    I’m not quite sure of one of your statement in the final paragraph, “No levels are any more right or wrong than others.” Are you saying that its okay to be at any of the levels? While I can understand that there should be no shame for being at a certain level (even shame!), a higher level would always be better.

  5. Steve Pavlina Says:

    Nenad, it’s about how you react to external pressure coming from your environment, not stress. Stress is itself a reaction.

    Yynatago, viewed from the individual perspective, higher levels may seem better than lower ones. But viewed from the perspective of life as a whole, everything is as it should be.

    Bugiman, rats don’t have access to the higher levels of human consciousness. So while experimental reactions done on rats may align with humans at the lower end of the scale, they won’t align with people on the higher end. Rats don’t set goals and make plans to achieve them in the way that humans do. In order for a scientist to even treat animals in the disrespectful manner you described, s/he would have to be well below the level of love. These experiments reflect more on the level of consciousness of the scientists than they do on the rats.

  6. Mate Says:


    I am always impressed by your long stories and articles on your blog and website. For me, they are really useful.

    I decided to change the way of my lifestyle some month ago and some people’s useful advices - like yours - has been helping me a lot to do so. However, I know I have to develop a lot more to reach the level of consciusness I want to reach, at least I have the flavour of persistence.

    I appreciate your efforts updating your blog. Thank you for that!


  7. Aaron F Stanton Says:

    One thing worth noting is that the journey is not done with enlightenment. There are levels of consciousness beyond even that, but they are indistinguishable from each other to someone who has not yet attained enlightenment. The subtle variations in behaviour between people who have attained enlightenment may be accounted for by the simple fact that they are in different situations, or it may be that they are at different levels, and none who has yet to reach it can identify which is the case.

  8. pradip mukherji Says:

    the website gives another perspective to levels of consciousness

  9. The Owner's Manual Says:

    #80 Best of Me Symphony

    You say Falklands, I say Malvinas. What is it about geographical place names that brings out peculiar pedantry in pretentious pooftahs? Idler-Yet asks Why Must the G Be So Hard? No one wins them all, and your failures, when

  10. Dika Dooka Says:

    I guess Im at a very much higher level of consciousness, I control my reality profoundly, and feel respoonsible for much that goes on in the universe.. iunno maybe…im kinda bi-polar too (chronic insomnia) so I go from being very apathetic and angry to euphoric happiness all the time… My brain is very very fuzzy..its hard to put together coherent thoughts at times.. My best guess of what is beyond enlightenment is you gotta take care of what happens in the universe… not just our solar system..or the milkyway..or the lots of milkyways..or whatever is beyond that…each one has there own set of physics and stuff, like peoples minds, they are much diffrent worlds. Thats my guess… ima get there maybe this only 14 and I recently discovered how to go through a bunch of these consciousnesses in a short period.

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