The Tattvas: A Map of the Spiritual Journey by Namdev Jordan Bakker

The Tattvas: A Map of the Spiritual Journey

by Namdev Jordan Bakker, February 2021

Regular maps chart geographic realities, helping us navigate the outer world.


Kashmir Shaivism offers a different kind of map. It charts the realms of thought and feeling, helping us navigate our inner world. That’s why Swamiji describes the texts of Shaivism as the ‘philosophy of Consciousness.’

If we want to climb a mountain, we should use a geographic map; if we want to be happy and fulfilled the Shaivite map is a great help!

According to the Shaivite map, the inner world is composed of tattvas – levels of Consciousness that exist in a natural hierarchy, from most expansive and unitive, to most contracted and separative. *

For each of us, certain experiences will trigger higher levels of Consciousness each day – maybe we have a nice conversation with somebody, or we get a promotion. We know we’ve touched a higher level because we experience joy, happiness, love or peace. This is called an “upward shift” – we have moved to a higher tattva.

Each day certain other experiences will trigger lower levels – maybe we have a fight with somebody, or there is a problem at work. We know we’ve touched a lower level because we experience fear, sadness, anger or self-hatred. This is called a “downward shift” – we have moved to a lower level of Consciousness.

Seen with the subtle eye, life is a little like a game of snakes and ladders – sometimes we slide down to lower levels of Consciousness, whereas other times we climb to higher altitudes. In fact, sometimes even a single day will involve a great number of both upward and downward shifts!

It’s worth noting that the higher levels of Consciousness are depicted centrally, whereas the lower levels are depicted peripherally (See figure 1). This reflects the felt sense we have that the higher tattvas are closer to our core and our essence. It is demonstrated in the language we use when describing our inner state. When someone experiences a higher tattva they might exclaim: “I feel like I am in touch with my true Self again!”. When they experience a lower tattva they might say: “I just haven’t felt like myself lately”. 

Figure 1) Map of the hierarchical nature of the tattvas

With this context, we could say that spirituality is the art of learning how to move to higher levels of Consciousness and shift out of lower levels. This is important because life goes really well when we are in the higher levels – we feel good, we make good decisions and our relationships flourish. On the other hand, life goes really badly when we are in the lower levels – we feel bad, we make poor decisions, and our relationships suffer.

At The Ashram, we use a spiritual method called Shiva Process, which was created by Swamiji. It is a particularly direct and powerful way of moving out of lower levels of Consciousness toward higher levels. It relies on a couple of key insights about the tattvas.

The first key insight is that different levels of Consciousness are associated with different kinds of thoughts. The lower levels are associated with negative thoughts like self-criticism, distraction, or avoidance – “I’m no good”. We call these tearing thoughts. The middle levels are associated with accurate thoughts – we see reality as it is, both inner realities and outer realities – “I feel sad”, “I feel happy”. We call these A-statements or accurate statements. The higher levels are associated with positive thoughts – “I accept myself”. We call these B-statements or beneficial statements. Even higher levels are associated with spiritual thoughts – “I am Shiva”. We call these G-statements or great statements.

This insight is super helpful for us as practitioners. When there is a downward shift in feeling and we are stuck in a lower level of Consciousness we can ask ourselves: “what thoughts are creating this feeling?”. In doing so, we can make conscious the thought forms that are binding us to a lower level. We can then work with our thoughts, introducing A-, B- and G-statements until we have an upward shift to a higher level of Consciousness.

A second key insight is that different parts of the body tune into different aspects of the tattvas. The navel seems to tune into empowerment and surrender at the higher levels, and weakness and frustration at the lower levels. The heart seems to tune into frequencies of love and joy at the higher levels, and negative emotions at the lower levels. The brow seems to tune into frequencies of wisdom and inspiration at the higher levels and worry and confusion at the lower levels.

The practitioner knows this and combines the feedback of their body with their work with thoughts. They continually monitor states of contraction and expansion within each body centre and use this as feedback about their thought process. They work with A- B- and G-Statements until each centre of the body is in an expansive mode.

When we are working with the upward and downward shifts of everyday life, we are at the cutting edge of our spiritual process. This is where the rubber meets the road. The tattvas describe the levels of elevation that we can either soar up to or plummet down to. Shiva Process is one practice that gives us a particularly rich vocabulary and skillset for working with these levels of Consciousness. With the map of the tattvas, and the tool of Shiva Process, we are well-equipped to embark on the journey to the summit of Consciousness.

* Note that the traditional map of the tattvas involves 36 levels which describe not just the inner world, but the whole universe – both inner and outer. However, the broader aspects of the map, along with the specific 36 levels are beyond the scope of this piece.

Namdev on pilgrimage with Swami Shankarananda in Ganeshpuri, India. Namdev is a devoted disciple of Swamiji’s, and spent two years living in The Ashram in Mount Eliza.

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