The Hidden Levels of the Mind:
Swedenborg’s Theory of Consciousness
With an Essay by Reuben P. Bell
Scattered throughout the works of Emanuel Swedenborg are descriptions of our mind and how it relates to both the physical and spiritual worlds. In this book, Douglas Taylor guides the reader through the levels of the mind, comparing our everyday mind with the state of a person who has been regenerated—that is, someone who has allowed their mind to be opened by the Lord.
This is the first time in many decades that a book has been published on Swedenborg’s philosophy of the mind. Taylor’s straightforward commentary gives readers a rare insight into this crucial aspect of Swedenborg’s theology.
The book includes an essay by Dr. Reuben P. Bell that traces ideas of the mind throughout the ages, starting with Plato and following a string of philosophers to Swedenborg, putting these ideas in their historical context.
Douglas Taylor was born in Terang, Victoria State, Australia. He received a BA from the University of Adelaide and went on to earn a Diploma in Education in Edinburgh, Scotland. While teaching French and English literature at a private school, he encountered the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and was instantly hooked, eventually becoming ordained as a Swedenborgian minister. He is the author of Escape from Egypt, Landmarks in Regeneration, and Spirituality That Makes Sense, and he currently lives in Bryn Athyn with his wife, Christine.
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Read an excerpt from the first chapter of The Hidden Levels of the Mind:
A general answer might be that the mind is an organ of consciousness. This is only partly true, because there are also levels of our mind that are above our conscious awareness while we are living on earth. However, we tend to identify most often with the part of our mind that makes us aware of our surroundings in this world—the part that you are using at this very moment.
As Swedenborg states in Divine Love and Wisdom, at birth every human being has a soul and a body, but only the rudiments of a mind. We all know from the experience of seeing a newborn baby that he or she has very little consciousness. One of the great delights of parenthood is to watch the growth of understanding in children as they gradually become aware of the world around them.
Like our soul, our mind is made of spiritual substance. This is what distinguishes the mind from the brain. Since our brain is made entirely of physical matter, like all the organs of our body, it can be seen by our physical eyes. Not so our mind. It can never be detected by our physical senses (even when aided by a powerful microscope), because it is on a higher plane of existence. This higher plane, the mental level, is not subject to the laws of time and space. For example, in our imagination, we can we can fly, travel from one place to another in a split second, and watch our thoughts manifest themselves in front of us.
Yet our mind, though made of spiritual substance, is in one respect inferior to the soul: it does not receive love or wisdom directly from the Lord. Instead, these things enter us through the medium of the world of spirits, by thoughts and feelings flowing in from its inhabitants (Soul-Body Interaction §8). Just as our soul, mind, and body exist on separate levels, so does all of creation: At the highest level is heaven, where people who have lived good lives go after death; all of the angels there were once human beings living on earth, just as all of the devils in hell also were human beings. Below heaven is the world of spirits, where people of all types gather first of all after death; it is there that we discover what truly lies inside us, and whether the things that we love will pull us toward heaven or hell. All of the spirits there were once human, also, and the inhabitants of the world of spirits are closest to our physical world.
The world of spirits is the level or plane of existence that separates heaven from our physical world and acts as the medium between the two, just as our mind mediates between our soul and our body. Like our mind, the world of spirits has no physical substance and cannot be detected with any instrument; it can only be perceived by its effect on us. Swedenborg repeatedly reminds us that while our soul is above the heavens and the whole spiritual world, our mind is in the spiritual world—even now at this very moment—and is therefore subject to the influences of both good and evil spiritual forces. We need to realize also that the mind that we use while living in this natural world “is made up of both spiritual substances and earthly substances. These latter substances fade away when we die, but the spiritual substances do not. So when we become spirits or angels after death, the same mind is still there in the form it had in the world” (Divine Love and Wisdom §257).
The same mind continues unchanged—but its function is different. In this world our “earthly mind” makes us aware of the world of nature. At the death of our body, however, when its natural substances recede, we can no longer be conscious of, or in, the natural world; we make the shift to become permanently conscious of and in the spiritual world. Death, then, is only a transfer of consciousness from the natural to the spiritual world, like switching the radio from one station to another. Shutting one door opens the other.
When seen in this way, our mind is also our human spirit (Divine Love and Wisdom §387). The same substance that we call our mind becomes the spirit when our consciousness, and thus our residence, is automatically transferred to the spiritual world after our physical body dies.
Swedenborg describes the mind as being organized on three distinct levels or grades of mental activity: the natural or earthly, the spiritual, and the celestial or heavenly (Divine Love and Wisdom §237). In the original Latin, he used the term gradus, meaning a step or grade, to describe these levels. In the past, this term has usually been translated as “a degree.” However, with some readers of Swedenborg that has been confusing, and the concept has acquired an aura of mystery, particularly when the term discrete degrees is used. The term degree refers simply to different levels of mental activity; when the word
discrete is attached, it means that these levels exist separately and cannot be thought of as mixing together. It is important to attach clear ideas to those terms; otherwise they will become almost meaningless words that are easily repeated mindlessly. Accordingly, we will use the word level instead of degree.
Swedenborg describes the three levels of our mind in this way:
The mind of man, which consists of will and understanding, is from creation, and therefore from birth, of three levels, so that man has a natural mind, a spiritual mind, and a celestial mind, and can thereby be elevated into and possess angelic wisdom while he lives in the
world; but it is only after death, and then only if he becomes an angel, that he enters into that wisdom, and his speech then becomes ineffable and incomprehensible to the natural man. (Divine Love and Wisdom §239)
That passage says that we can be “elevated into and possess angelic wisdom” while living in this world, but that is referring only to our potential. It is nothing more than a possibility. We all have that wisdom implicitly, but we enter into it according to our life on earth and use it fully and explicitly only after death and if we become an angel.
The highest level of our mind, the celestial, receives love from the Lord—the purest form of love, and the part of our self that manifests it most clearly. It is the fulfillment of the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). With regard to conscious understanding, this part of our mind receives the divine wisdom—the ability to see all things in heavenly light—that is the offspring of divine love.
The spiritual mind or level of mental activity consists of love of others and feelings of goodwill or charity. In the next verse of Matthew, the Lord identifies this as the second of the two great commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself ” (Matt. 22:39). When we experience this love and express it in words or actions, we are saying what we really believe.
We gain a fuller understanding of these two commandments when we realize that in the Greek of the New Testament there are two words for love: one means “to be fond of ” and the other means “to consider the welfare of.” The second word is used in both commandments, and elsewhere whenever we are commanded to love. The Lord can certainly command us to consider the welfare of others: that is real love, an outgoing love. But no one, not even the Lord, can command us “to be fond” of another. That happens spontaneously or it does not happen at all. We are either fond of a person or we are not fond. It is a personal matter. Consequently, the Lord is not commanding us to be fond of everyone; but he is commanding us to consider the welfare of others—whether we like them or not. Verses that mention our love for the Lord have a similar meaning. Our salvation does not depend on our being “fond” of the Lord, but on considering his welfare and that of his kingdom. That is why he said: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me” (John 14:21).
The two higher levels of the mind, the celestial and the spiritual, constitute what Swedenborg calls the internal mind. We can also think of it as the supra-conscious mind, as opposed to the conscious mind and the subconscious mind that Sigmund Freud wrote about. While the subconscious mind exists below our conscious awareness and houses
our less-than-perfect impulses, the supra-conscious mind exists above our conscious awareness and can lift us up above the influences of the subconscious. This internal mind is in contrast to the external or natural mind, which we will discuss below.
Spiritually speaking, the internal mind obviously belongs to heaven, since its ruling or predominant love is either love for the Lord or charity toward the neighbor. In fact, it could also be called the heavenly mind. This is where the Lord dwells with us.
It is important to realize that everyone, no matter what his or her heredity or environment, has that internal mind. There are no exceptions. As we read in Swedenborg’s Secrets of Heaven, “In the internal mind are nothing else than goods and truths that are the Lord’s . . . In every person [there is] a celestial and a spiritual level that corresponds to the angelic heaven” (§978; see also §1594:5).
Although our internal mind is above our conscious awareness while we are on earth, when we pass into the spiritual world (and if we become an angel there), we gain the wisdom of either the spiritual or the celestial level of heaven, depending on which one of those two higher levels of our mind most often flowed down into us while we were living in this world.
In marked contrast to the sublime reaches of our internal mind is the conscious mind that we use in our daily life: the lowest level of our mind, the natural or earthly level. If you are reading this book and understanding it (or even not understanding it!) you are using your conscious mind, which is also called the external mind. This, Swedenborg often points out, is not the same thing as our brain. Since the mind is the person, the term external mind refers to that part of us that is conscious of the world around us. Our body (of which the brain is a part) exists only to allow us to function on the physical plane. So wherever you find the terms “external mind” or “natural mind” in this book, keep this distinction in mind.
With the internal mind focused on heaven and the external mind focused on this world, it’s easy to see how the two can be in conflict. This is the cause of our temptations; they represent our struggle to make our external mind submit to our higher levels. Our natural mind is the only part of us that can be out of heaven’s order, cause trouble, and be perverted. It often is— we all know that from experience! It is our natural mind that exercises free will, and it is there that we choose either to obey the Lord or disobey. When our external mind is aligned with our internal mind, it is because we have chosen self-compelled obedience.
Our natural or external mind, then, is the source of all our problems, individually and collectively. In order for us to progress spiritually and move toward heaven, our natural mind needs to be reformed and regenerated—to be reborn. This, says Swedenborg, is what is meant by John 3:3: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
In order for this to happen, our internal mind must take possession of and transform our external mind. But how is this done? How, in other words, can we let heaven’s influence flow into us?
A short answer would be: We have to shun our evils because they are sins against the Lord and not for any lesser or worldly reason, such as self-aggrandizement or social status.
A more comprehensive answer is that while we are born with a natural mind, it is only the beginning. We can develop our understanding by means of what we learn from the world around us. We could go on learning and learning and learning for the rest of our life; we could gain two or three university degrees; we could even acquire an impressive understanding of the Bible, the Word of God. But we would still remain natural in quality unless we began to live according to that understanding.
The more we live according to the Word, the more we are motivated by real goodness. Our actions begin to become spiritual in quality, because the spiritual level of our internal mind is opened. If this happens, our natural mind will be opened at the top, so that what exists at the spiritual level of the mind (charity or love toward the neighbor) could flow down into our conscious mind and move us in our everyday lives.
However, above the spiritual level of our mind is the celestial level. If we were to go on living a life of charity for the rest of our lives, we would indeed become heavenly, but we would never rise above that middle spiritual level. To go beyond that, we need to come into celestial love—loving the Lord (or rather, having his love come into us). We accomplish that by obeying the Lord’s commandments for his sake rather than any selfish thought of promoting ourselves. In that way, love and concern for the Lord flow down into our natural mind, making it celestial or spiritual in quality (see Divine Love and Wisdom §237).
Because we have free will, we can also choose to keep our natural mind closed at the top, so that none of these higher loves can flow in. That happens to the extent that we do not live according to what the Word of God teaches us to believe and do. In that case, we would remain the same forever, even in the spiritual world, and never be able to experience heaven’s love.
In summary, regeneration or rebirth consists in allowing the higher levels of our mind to act upon our natural level, transforming it and making it spiritual or celestial in quality. (There is a fuller explanation of regeneration in chapter 2.) However, these levels do not simply merge one into the other; they remain distinctly separate, which is the idea behind the concept of “discrete degrees” discussed above. These levels also remain distinct from the brain and the body where it lives.