The Tether Theory and the Concrete, Subtle and Causal tiers

Epistemic status:  A bunch of meditation and meditation theory.  A previously undocumented theory of this corner of consciousness.

The book The Science of Pranayama offers that the thought stream is tethered to the breath via the prana, “Just as the bird that is tied to a post by a string”.  Meditation theory often uses animal analogies like the Ox Herder pictures.  Pointing out the great way describes, “It requires some effort to tie up a wild camel, and it takes some skill to untie the camel and have it stay”.  Other wild animals are also common to describe the untamed mind.

I put a lot of thought into this concept and applying it further than it was originally suggested.  I meditated while trying to observe for myself what was going on and why. There’s something subtle about the way a deep breath out will interact with the thought stream.  Feels like a sigh of letting go. I watch “emotional content” conversations and when I feel the need to take a deep breath, I notice when I don’t and when I should.

The Tiers of subjective experience

(Side note: Concrete is sometimes called “gross” and causal is sometimes called “very subtle” in different maps)

Concrete: This is the physical, physiological.  The beating heart, the breath.

A concrete tier injury looks like a broken leg.  Or a scratch wound. It takes time to heal.  Feeling hungry is not on the concrete level, we don’t die from feeling hungry (we die from starvation).  Feeling cold usually starts on the subtle level but there is a life threatening feeling of cold.

There is a bridge between Concrete and subtle tiers through experiences like “goosebumps” where they register as a physical state and as a subtle feeling, or some mix of the two.

Subtle: This is an aptly named tier because – it’s subtle.  An experience of the emotional subjective happens here.  I feel happy, I feel guilty. A few “weird” feelings and hunches like “gut instinct” that seem guiding but without being as easy to describe as the concrete tier.

A subtle injury is a panic attack or being distraught.  It is possible to be in an extended state of injury to this level but it’s not possible to “break a happy” or break a miserable in a way that it becomes permanently injured and requires time to heal like a broken bone or a scratch.  It is possible to set up a happy so that it leads straight to fear, i.e. “I’m not allowed to be happy because that’s when bad things happen”. In this sense, “Happy” and “Fear” are not broken themselves but they are routed through each other.

Causal: On this level are impersonal ideological drives.  This level is where meaning and purpose registers. When someone feels like “making a difference in the world” or “being part of something greater”, these register on the causal level, not quite a feeling but sometimes a drive.  The causal level is occasionally described as a void or various spirit-y phenomena.

A Causal injury might take days, months to become clear, it might take days, months or years to heal.  An example here is tricky to pinpoint but a loss of purpose or a disconnection from meaning might land here.  As a teenager, going through a break up hits the causal tier particularly strongly. As an adult (a divorce or) a break up does the same.  Relationships often register on the meaning level (for the kegan stage 3 particularly). Where it doesn’t just feel bad, it feels “dooming”.

About break ups – the interesting thing to note is that I could “break up” every day. It would be emotionally hard, but it would not cause death to me, there’s no “physical injury” to a “break up” despite it probably feeling worse than a broken bone.  For something with “break” in the name, something physical did not break.  With the open question of, “what took injury in a break up?” (some clues: expectations, intentions, plans, hope).  Note: a break up every day would probably start feeling like a heart attack, or conversely – complete numbness.

Not wanting to downplay the significance of the causal tier with a soft example like a break up, there are more ideological concepts than break ups on causal tier.  Imagine being subscribed to communism and the realisation that a lifetime of effort in that movement was ineffective towards it’s goals. Not a physical injury, likely some aspect of “feels bad” but there’s also a “aaaah noooo” experience that goes with this shift of understanding.

Where does mental illness fit?

The whole model relies on a re-conceptualisation of mental health as being a different kind of information.

My brief answer is, “Not as it seems”. Most mental health problems are not states of constant emotional pain, i.e. depression is not an equivalent “constantly broken” experience like a bone or scratch. It’s a mostly calm mind with small nudges towards less than amazing decisions for a very long time. (I can’t say too much in this spot around that – other than, “huh that’s weird, watch this space”).  Psychosis and mania seems like extended subtle tier experiences and I’m still trying to understand that.


The levels are connected with a tether (metaphorically a string that tugs on them to line up).  In various circumstances or people, the tether changes length or has freedom depending on all kinds of factors.  For example in summer I have more energy. I can take on more social adventures and play around more without feeling bad.  (Linking concept SAD)  

When I visit a foreign culture, my tether for “getting offended” (Feeling offended) is longer because on a causal level I recognise there is going to be parts of this culture where I don’t understand how it works.  

It may help to think of boats floating on a river, tied to each other.  Wherever any boat floats, the other boats will begin to follow. The river is the subjective experience of the external world, like summer, living in a warzone, being stressed at work, getting lots of sleep, etc.  There are plenty of examples of different river events that can direct the boats to travel around.

Example: Concrete to Subtle Tether

I exercise.  and I exercise routinely for a month.  At some point along the way, my depression lifts and my quality of life increases.  Further exercise will help to maintain my quality of life but it’s not a guarantee.

I stop exercising.  I spend a lot of time on the couch and TV-watching.  I do this for a few weeks and my desire to go out and do interesting activities diminishes.  I feel lethargic. I lose motivation and I wonder why. I feel like, “I should really exercise” but I don’t necessarily act.

In summer, my physical body is warmer.  I don’t feel hungry as often, and I stay awake longer without feeling tired.  I can exercise so hard that I injure myself and it can take days of pretending I am okay in order to seek help.  My subtle is strongly anchored in the present state of the concrete tier (I still move around fine despite injury) and my subtle takes time to catch up to the reality of physical injury.  Eventually I wake up with difficulty moving and my subtle tier catches up to feeling bad about this.

These tiers are tethered.

Example: Subtle to causal tier

I’m happy, curious and excited.  It doesn’t matter what I put my time towards, I enjoy the activity that I am doing.  Wherever I choose to engage my energy, feels like the thing that I most enjoy. I start new projects with this energy.  Explore fun ideas, and seem to have enough spare time to do anything I like.

I meet someone who is kind and generous.  They are involved in a church group. I feel good around them because I recognise them as being a great person despite having different beliefs about which groups to be invested in.  Eventually I follow them to church because it seems to have been good for them.

These tiers are tethered.

Example: Causal to subtle tier

I am working on my favourite hobby.  Someone whose opinion I care about makes a sly comment to invalidate my interest.  I laugh a little. Days later I am frustrated and annoyed at reality. With good meditation practices I could trace the problem back to the comment.  Without it I would just feel uncomfortable and confused as to why. I spend several days wondering why everything is shit. Sitting on the couch maybe, trying desperately to distract myself.  With more ADHD I forget and am doing 101 other projects. With less ADHD I have listless misery.

Without meditation – eventually I take a shower and have shower-thoughts time to make a little progress on the problem.  It either stays forever, or goes away by me working it out. Or I quit the project.

Example: Subtle to concrete tier.

I’m miserable.  I just went through a break up.  I don’t want to move my body. I want to stay in bed.  I haven’t showered in a few days. I’m eating ice-cream and chocolate but it’s really not helping.  Somehow this feels like I am honouring my emotional pain, in another way it feels pointless, but everything feels pointless right now.

When I get stressed at work, I eat more.  I get home after work and I am starving. I eat chocolate and snacks and I can’t seem to diet.  My friends encourage me to switch to fruit and I do that, I eat the fruit as well. Life is just too hard right now.

Example: Subtle to other tiers

I experienced the death of my grandfather.  I have an image in my mind of the temporary nature of life.  It’s left me a little shaken for days. I look at all the things he cared about and how some of them never got completed.  I wonder about what I’m working towards. I don’t rush to work today. I’m delicate to myself for a week or two and I find myself gradually floating back to where I was in life.

Example: Concrete to causal

I make friends with a dodgy crowd.  They drink heavily and they eat unhealthy foods.  This is great because drinking heavily helps me avoid the problems caused by heavy drinking.  I make this my lifestyle and I regularly drink to avoid connecting with my problems around avoiding purpose in life.  Social life is fun and I always laugh with my mates. Maybe that’s all there is to life?

Example: Causal to concrete

I believe in being part of something greater.  I give coins to homeless people and I always smile at strangers.  I want to make the world a better place and in these small ways I am connecting with a higher purpose.  I know it’s important because I regularly get comments about it and encouragement. I start to see people copying me and I watch a smile spread through a crowd as I pass.  I post happy things on social media and I watch as I brighten up people’s days. I live in a world which I choose to see as happy.

Working with the tiers

The, So you feel like shit guide starts with the concrete tier.  Have I had a glass of water today? Have I eaten recently?  Taken medication? Have I exercised today?

This is an excellent strategy.  The benefit of starting with the ground is that it’s easy to fix being uncomfortable and needing a toilet.  Many practices describe themselves as “grounding”. For me, I can check in with my body with a handful of probing questions that I make up myself.

  • Am I breathing? (duh!)  Take a deep breath.
  • Am I injured?
  • Am I sore?  Where?
  • How is my posture?  
  • Am I sweating or thirsty?
  • Am I hungry?  Do I need food?
  • Have I exercised?  Can I go for a walk?
  • Am I currently in physical danger?

There is a benefit to grounding checks for taking the mind out of past/present rumination and into the present moment, as well as the opportunity to solve these problems if relevant.

Following concrete checks, move on to subtle checks.

  • Am I currently distraught?  
  • Is there something that happened that keeps making me feel bad?
  • Do I need to complete the thoughts about that?
  • What’s the overall feeling quality of the whole saga?
  • Is there some trigger that keeps dragging me back to emotional pain?
  • Can I bring myself to a calm/neutral space emotionally?

Once I’m in a calm place on my concrete and my subtle, I can watch to see what’s happening.  This will usually mean physically being still (sitting), emptying out the current thought stream, and watching what happens next.  The next place my attention goes towards is likely to be a causal event.

For example:  If I am looking at some birds while I wait (a stimuli).  My mind sees one bird go to bite another bird. I kinda smile and think about how they remind me of little kids bickering.  Suddenly I recall a fight I had with a childhood friend and how upset I was. And how people seem to misunderstand me. And PAUSE.  Wow. That’s what’s bothering me on the causal level. The other day I tried to help someone and they got offended. For all my efforts to help and all my intentions, I am mad at myself for failing.

“Mad at myself for failing”.  Clarity around what I’m upset about can allow me to be compassionate to the part of myself that wants to do better.  I’m only mad because I want the world to be a better place, and yeah, I see that. Realising my drive on a causal level to make the world a better place helps me see how that tether is linked to my subtle emotions and how that’s linked to my procrastination on the physical level.

I think of my “realising” in the paragraph above as a movement on the causal level to loosen the tether between my other causal drive and my subtle emotional states.

No post of mine is ever complete without at least one picture, so here it is.  An idea (causal level entity) that can change the nature of tethers between the concrete (social situation) and the subtle (emotion – excitement/anxious) tiers.

Tiers are from integral theory, StAGES model, Buddhism several other theories that try to amalgamate the different subjective experiences of consciousness.  Mine are not full definitions of the tiers, especially causal (or “very subtle”) tier, which I find hard to describe.  For the purpose of further discussion it may be helpful to treat this as a rough map to someone else’s concept.

Thanks to my draft readers.  

Meta: I’ve been sitting on this post for a few months. Not sure how long it took to write.

word count: 2488

cross posted to lesswrong:

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