“Inception” and the Evolution of Consciousness

by Mark Allan Kaplan

“Inception” and the Evolution of Consciousness

Most people understand how media can induce states of consciousness like joy, sadness, and various altered states. But what most people don’t realize is that all these fluctuating states manifest differently in each person depending on their level of development. Every parent understands that children evolve through various stages of development, but many of us don’t realize this developmental process continues into adulthood. These stages of development we evolve through are referred to as structures of consciousness. These are well-defined and can be thought of as our center of gravity, or our perceptual operating system. Unlike emotions and other states of consciousness, our structure of consciousness is relatively stable, though it can evolve over time.

The structures and their evolutionary processes can be represented cinematically in a number of ways. Inception (2010), which is this month’s Conscious Movie-of-the-Month, depicts them in the multiple levels of the dreamworld. After you read this article, watch the movie again to see if you can pick up on how director Christopher Nolan concretized these structures.

At the end of this article, we have a viewing practice you can use to help use Inception as a conscious media yoga practice for transformation and embodied learning of the structures of consciousness.

Know Your Structures of Consciousness

The major structures of consciousness are Archaic, Magic, Mythic, Rational, Pluralistic, Integral and Transpersonal. As we evolve upwards through these structures we transcend and include the previous structures. Often, a structure becomes pathological before it transcends to the next structure.

Here’s a brief look at each structure, with examples from movies you might have seen. As you may notice, the structures of consciousness are not only found in individuals. They’re also seen in culture, technology and society.

The Archaic structure is pre-egoic and is usually associated with newborns who have not yet developed any awareness of themselves as separate. Archaic is also associated with hunter-gatherer social systems and a survival-oriented worldview. In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the hunter-gatherer human-ape ancestors in the first section of the film are a representation of the Archaic structure.

2001: A Space Odyssey and the Archaic structure

The Magic structure is characterized by a magical worldview encompassing many gods and the enchantment of nature. It is associated with tribal culture and the formation of a separate self as part of a family or tribe. The tribes in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and the suggestion that one of the soldier has regressed to a tribal state through his face paint, are a depiction of the Magic  structure.

Apocalypse Now (1979) and the Magic structure

The Mythic structure is where kingdoms and big religions emerge. It’s associated with values like duty, honor and loyalty, but it’s also characterized by a Black & White worldview. A tendency to see the world in terms of Us versus Them is also where the Mythic structure can become pathological. Films like Fred Zinneman’s classic Western High Noon (1952) depict a very clear distinction between black and white, between right and wrong. Similarly, the TV series Game of Thrones (2011-2019) originates in the Mythic structure, with its knights and kings, duty and honor, but as the show progressed it began to move toward the Rational structure and transcend these dynamics.

Game of Thrones (2011-2019) and the Mythic structure

The Rational structure is where science and industrial technology emerge, where objective thinking begins to supersede inherited systems of belief. The deductive reasoning that characterizes Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes films emerges from the Rational structure. Systems that privilege financial gain over environmental and societal health, like that seen in Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street (2013), are an example of where the Rational structure can become pathological.

Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and the Rational structure

The Pluralistic structure is the first one in which we can feel the essential interconnectedness of all of humanity. The pluralistic worldview sees truth as relative and a function of culture and society. The amusing scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) in which Allen and Diane Keaton are each speaking with their respective therapists in split screen (“Do you have sex often?” Allen: “Not much, maybe 3 times a week.” Keaton: “Constantly. I’d say 3 times a week!”) is a good example of the Pluralistic worldview in which everyone’s perception can be different but no less valid. In its pathological form, pluralism’s “all-sides” approach can lose the ability to discern between truth and fiction. For instance, in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) one character is so excited to greet the alien invaders (who she mistakenly believes are coming to save humanity) she is incapable of realizing they are about to incinerate her and the entire building she’s in.

Annie Hall (1977)  and the Pluralistic structure

The Integral structure is the first one that can recognize the previous structures and their value in the full evolutionary arc of consciousness. The Integral structure tries to understand all the moving parts of a situation and integrate them into a meaningful whole. In Luc Besson’s Lucy (2014), for instance, the lead character begins to evolve her consciousness to the point where she is able to wander freely through space and time. The Integral structure is also concerned with understanding all the various domains of human experience, and how they all co-evolve. Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), for instance, unpacks the civil rights movement from the personal, relational, cultural and systemic points of view, and depicts how Martin Luther King deliberately worked to evolve the consciousness of white America around racial issues. At the same time, the film manages to tie its story and themes to the present day, giving us a big picture of the structural patterns of white supremacy in America.

Selma (2014) and the Integral structure

In general, the Integral worldview is concerned with expanded perspectives (as in the Wachovski’s The Matrix (1999), when Neo “wakes up” and sees an entire system of enslavement previously unperceived) and the evolution of consciousness itself as seen throughout Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Finally, the Transpersonal structure is where you leave all maps behind. Dualities and boundaries are transcended. The Transpersonal viewpoint is associated with mystical and spiritual experience, enlightenment, and the experience of union with all that is. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) is an example of this kind of transcendental cinema.

Tree of Life (2011) and the Transpersonal structure

If you’re reading this, your center of gravity is probably somewhere in the spectrum from Mythic to Integral. The structure of consciousness of every creator is embedded in his or her works, and that embedded consciousness then interacts with the audience based on their particular structures of consciousness.

How we feel and interpret our state experiences is a product of the structure of consciousness that forms our center of gravity. During the Conscious Movie of the Month discussion we will analyze the groundbreaking way the structures of consciousness are embedded within Inception. For now, it’s enough to say that we can begin to identify the nature of our own consciousness and that of the works we consume.

The exercise below can help train your mind to perceive the evolutionary patterns in a work, and even your own life and the world around you. Be aware, however, that as you undertake this work you’ll never be able to look at any piece of media the same again.

Viewing Practice: Structures of Consciousness

Prior to viewing the film Inception (or any moving image work) you can perform the following exercise to deepen your capacity to perceive structures of consciousness. You may find it helpful to read through the practice first, imagining performing it as you read it, to become familiar with it. You may also find it helpful to record the practice in your own voice and play it back for your practice.

  • Prepare your viewing space, cue up the movie so it is easy to start, and get in a comfortable position.

  • Close your eyes and focus on your breathing for a moment;

  • Imagine a space inside your mind between your awareness and your thoughts and that within this space is your archaic pre-conscious beingness, the beingness that exists before thought or the idea of a self enters your awareness;

  • Now imagine this space of beingness expanding into a circular energy field surrounding you and that within this field is your conscious subjective self and your circle of care and concern for your own self, where the truth is what you believe to be true and where your own needs and wants are the driving force of fulfillment;

  • Imagine this circular energy field expanding to envelop all your friends, family members, and other groups of people that you feel a part of, and feel your care and concern extend to include all these people, and bring your awareness to the pull of this space toward agreed upon absolute truths of what is right and wrong, and the dynamic dance between the needs and wants of yourself and others, and the striving toward a purpose outside yourself;

  • Envision the circular energy field expanding even further to envelop your entire country and society, and feel your care and concern extend to include all individuals and groups within your country and society, and bring your awareness to the pull of this space toward the socially agreed upon rational and objective truths of what is real and unreal, and the dynamic dance between the needs and wants of the self, others and society, and the striving toward a common good;

  • Imagine the energy circle expanding beyond your country and society to include the entire world, and extend your circle of care and concern to all human beings and all life on the planet, and bring your awareness to the pull of this space toward a plurality of relative truths of awareness and unawareness, and the dynamic dance between the needs, wants, and perceptions of the self, others, society, and all life on the planet, and the striving toward an honoring of the collective and separate but equal realities;

  • Now feel the energy circle expand beyond the world itself and imagine it embracing the entire universe, and feel your circle of care and concern envelop all sentient life forms in all of creation, and bring your awareness to the pull of this space toward becoming aware of and integrating perspectives and truths of greater and lesser depth and span, and the striving toward opening to and moving with the evolutionary impulse within all dimensions of being and becoming;

  • Now imagine the energy circle expanding beyond all dimensions and forms, and feel a boundless caring, a transcendent awareness of pure suchness and a non-dual beingness.

  • After a moment return your awareness to your breath and slowly open your eyes.

Keeping your eyes open, take a slow few breaths and start the viewing assignment, and as it is starting:

  • Briefly bring your awareness to the film frame

  • Then to the images and movements within the frame, both within individual shots and between them

  • Then to the sounds and the movements of the sounds arising from and surrounding the images and image movements

  • Then to the meaning patterns arising from the visual and auditory streams

  • Then let yourself surrender into those streams…and watch the movie.


And don’t forget to join us on December 21st for our virtual discussion of Inception and the groundbreaking ways it embeds the evolution of consciousness.

To find out more about this event visit: https://conscious-good.mn.co/events/inception-conscious-movie-of-the-month-virtual-discussion

Mark Allan Kaplan, Ph.D. is a Transdisciplinary Artist, Filmmaker, Researcher, Consultant, Educator and Media Psychologist focusing on Integral, Transpersonal, and Transformative approaches to Art, Media, and Spirituality. Mark has advanced degrees and certifications in the fields of Cinematic Media, Transpersonal Psychology, Integral Theory, Creative Expression, Spiritual Guidance, and Hypnotherapy. He has also studied and worked extensively in the Fine Arts, Architectural Design, Photography, and Poetics. Mark has worked professionally in the entertainment industry as a Motion Picture Producer, Writer, Director, Editor, Researcher, and Consultant.