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The Four Vertical Layers of the Human Psyche

Vertically arrange the psyche into body, heart, mind, and spirit.

Key points

  • The psyche can be mapped into different domains.
  • The four vertical layers of the human psyche are: the body, the heart, the mind, and the spirit.
  • Coherent integration across these domains is key to mental health and good psychological functioning.

Take a moment, close your eyes, and use your mind’s eye to “look around” your interior world. According to Russell T. Hurlburt and his work on the kinds of inner experiences that people have ready access to, your mind’s eye should be able to quickly “see” four different kinds of inner experience, which can be described as follows:

  1. Sensory awareness
  2. Bodily feelings
  3. Perceptual images
  4. Inner speech

There are other possible categories, such as intuition or thinking about a problem that you don’t really put into images or words, but these four domains capture the major categories of what appears to the mind's eye on the screen of conscious awareness (see here for more on this work).

Source: Microgen/Shutterstock

Now, let’s shift from the major categories into what I (and many others) call the “vertical layers” of the psyche. To “see” these, first drop down into your body. This is called interoception and is not to be confused with introspection. Introspection was what we did in the first paragraph. Interoception is focusing on the body. Shine your inner flashlight onto your gut, your loins, and the position of your body. Do a scan and “listen” to the various signals it is sending. Following Sri Aurobindo, we can call this the “vital layer” of your psyche, and it corresponds to how the core or base of consciousness interfaces with the body. Some of the key aspects that make up this layer are (a) the position of the body; (b) the felt sense of bodily states or energies (e.g., aroused or calm, defensive or exploratory), which are tied to; (c) the core needs of the body (i.e., the appetites and aversions, from food to sex to escape from harm); and finally, the (d) core feelings of pleasure and pain, which John Vervaeke and I called "valence qualia" in our series on understanding consciousness.

Now move “up” into your heart. This is in your chest area. Whereas we can think of the experience of your body as aligning with your existence as an animal, your heart metaphorically corresponds to your existence as a social primate. As such, your heart is deeply tied to your place in the social matrix (i.e., your place in the relational networks you inhabit). Think about your sense of attachment to others, and of loving and feeling loved. It makes intuitive sense that loving and being loved "fills your heart." Likewise, being rejected, abandoned, criticized, and dishonored breaks or damages the heart. Placed in the Unified Theory of Knowledge, we can map the dynamic relational world and all the drives and feelings associated with them with the Influence Matrix. This places the needs for social influence and to be known and valued by important others as the central motives of the heart. It also helps us see how needs for power and love, autonomy, and dependency are guided by your heart.

Now move up into your "head," or what many people call "the mind." (As noted here, this is technically not the right term, but it works as a commonsense term in this context). This is the part of you that thinks about the world and others and what is the case and what ought to be the case and what you should do. It consists of both the mental images that allow you to perceive or imagine possible stressors and affordances in the world, and it consists of your "ego," which is the part of you that narrates and justifies what is going on and gives answers for why you do what you do.

Now move to the top of your skull. This is where your spiritual orientation lies. A wise friend of mine received training where he was taught to imagine the sky as the skull of the world. As suggested by this metaphor, your spiritual orientation refers to your values, purpose, and meaning-making structures that transcend the ego and place you in touch with a reality that is larger than yourself.

As many of the ancient wisdom traditions, from the great Hindu yogis to Plato, have noted, the capacity to coherently integrate across the vertical layers of the human psyche is central to human well-being and good psychological functioning. Indeed, the fragmented, conflicted, disharmonious breakdown across the layers and domains of the psyche is at the very core of psychopathology. In the next blog, I will share an integrative approach to psychological mindfulness that can be used to guide folks in the processes of moving toward a more functional coherent integration across the vertical layers of body, heart, mind, and spirit.

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