Understanding the Unconscious
Your Key to Fulfillment
The human mind can be compared to an island in the ocean. The visible part, ie above the surface, is our consciousness – what we are aware of at any given time. But beneath the surface the island is really a mountain, the vast bulk of which is submerged. This hidden part is our unconscious, that huge mass of content of which we are unaware but which can, and frequently does, have a significant effect on our lives.
Unconscious or Subconscious – Terminology
The terms unconscious and subconscious are often used synonymously, however Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis preferred the use of “unconscious”, saying: “the only trustworthy antithesis is between conscious and unconscious.” [Sigmund Freud, The Question of Lay Analysis (Vienna 1926; English translation 1927)]
The term unconscious may be used to describe the entire content of the mind that is not conscious, whereas subconscious may describe that part of the unconscious that is closest to, or most easily brought into, consciousness. But this usage is far from universal.
The Nature of the Unconscious
The unconscious has numerous depths, reflecting how easily the contained material may be brought to consciousness. Eg the memory of what you had for dinner last Tuesday may be retrieved with little effort, but what happened on the 16th Tuesday afternoon of 4th grade may be almost impossible to recall. Paradoxically some of the experiences that exert a significant influence may be the hardest to recall, particularly if they were painful, since the mind may have chosen to repress them.
The renowned psychologist C G Jung postulated the existence of a collective unconscious consisting of common symbols (archetypes) shared by all mankind.
The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious by C G Jung
Spiritual philosophy goes further in suggesting some mechanism by which an individual mind may access some shared (spiritual) realm, and in so doing be able to communicate with other minds (that also access this realm) by non-physical means. Thus describing a possible mechanism for telepathy and other forms of psychic phenomena.
At any time consciousness consists of i) the manifest part of the unconscious, which varies but most usually is that nearest the surface; ii) the part of sensory input that is given attention. During sleep i) control/inhibition is reduced and deeper parts of the unconscious may come to awareness; ii) sensory input is diminished (but still present).
There are two specific ways in which the unconscious may be considered the key to fulfillment.
- By better understanding our unconscious we better understand our self and are thus able to align our actions in accordance with our true purpose.
- We can, to some extent, “re-program” the unconscious to make its immense hidden powers become more aligned to our conscious goals.
The Unconscious – Key to Understanding the Self
The importance of self-knowledge (including, of course, the unconscious part) has long been recognized:
- “Know thyself”, was inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
- In 1734 Alexander Pope wrote: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is Man.”
- And in 1750 Benjamin Franklin acknowledged the difficulty of obtaining true self-knowledge: “There are three things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and to know one’s self.”
Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery by Don Richard Riso
However, there are certain techniques for revealing one’s inner drives, eg those arising from psychoanalysis, ie:
- Dream interpretation
- Free association
The Significance of Dreams
Dreams are the most commonly experienced window to the subconscious. It’s said we all have several dreams every night although most go un-recalled.
To help remember dreams keep a pencil and paper by your bedside and write down your dream as soon as you awake, even if you awake after a dream in the middle of the night. Before sleeping tell yourself you will remember your dreams. The more you do this, the easier it becomes.
One school of thought says that dreams are a mere by-product of the brain “doing its housekeeping” during the conscious quiet time of sleep. But even if this speculation is so dreams still reveal a) content within the subconscious, and b) content sufficiently prominent to be activated during the “housekeeping” process.
One-off dreams are less significant, and more likely the result of mere housekeeping, than repeated themes. Keeping a dream diary over a period of time will allow you to identify and work with common themes.
The unconscious attempts to bury things it finds disturbing, thus dreams often use symbolism to allude to their true meaning. As such popular dream “dictionaries” are of little value and only the dreamer him/herself is fully qualified to determine the true meaning of dreams, although a good psychotherapist can assist with the process.
Since only disturbing content need by disguised in symbols the first attempt at dream interpretation should be the literal, ie frequently the experiences of the day are re-visited with little masking.
If a literal interpretation is not forthcoming, be pleased, for the dream is revealing something of your hidden self. Take the major features and overall theme of the dream and consider what they may represent to you. Note particularly how you felt upon waking, positive, negative, confident, afraid…
The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
The Undiscovered Self: With Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams by C G Jung
The Dream Book: Symbols for Self Understanding
Hypnosis – Revealing the Unconscious
Hypnosis is the process of entering an altered state of consciousness in which it is possible to access material that is usually unconscious. Although self-hypnosis is possible, hypnosis to discover more about one’s unconscious is probably best performed by a skilled, and trusted, hypnotherapist because unconscious content retrieved under self-hypnosis would likely be lost again on return to normal consciousness (though such discoveries could be written down or recorded on tape).
Free association involves starting with an idea or word and recording the stream of thoughts that enter one’s consciousness as a result. This is also normally conducted by a trained therapist, although it is possible to note down one’s flow of consciousness and computer technology can make the process easier, eg by displaying trigger words on screen. It’s not just the responses given that are significant but also the response times. If a subject takes significantly longer to respond to a particular word that word may hold some significance for them.
Gain insight into your unconscious with this free Word Association test.
Changing the Unconscious
Attempts to change the unconscious generally follow the acquisition of (a degree of) self-understanding, ie in order to change something you first need to know how you want to change it. It’s helpful to adopt the principles of design and produce a “blueprint” (or detailed plan of what you wish to become/achieve).
Inconsistencies can sometimes develop in the vast powerhouse of the unconscious, perhaps some small part, eg due to a long-forgotten experience, tends to pull you in direction A while the great mass of your inner essence is trying to drive you in direction B. Two examples, of many possible, may be a desire to maintain good health but a compulsion to eat junk food, or a desire to start your own business but fear of taking the first steps.
Efforts to “re-program” your unconscious should be directed towards making the best of what you are, ie making your true self better. Attempts to become what you are not are likely destined to fail and even if they “succeed” can lead to a sense of lost identity.
Changing your unconscious is difficult. The process can be likened to turning around a huge ocean liner. But, with perseverance, repeatedly exposing the unconscious to positive suggestions can diminish the powerful of undesirable influences and strengthen one’s true drives.
Hypnosis as a Means of Change
As well providing a window into the unconscious, hypnosis can also be used to change it, ie by implanting suggestions that are subsequently acted upon. This application of hypnosis is probably more suited to self-hypnotism since it’s about inputting to rather than retrieving from the unconscious.
Richard Bandler’s Guide to Trance-formation
Reprogram Your Subconscious – How to Use Hypnosis to Get What You Really Want by Gale Glassner Twersky
Autosuggestion basically means repeating a positive message (affirmation) to yourself over and over until it becomes accepted by the unconscious as truth, which then acts to realize it. The technique was discovered by apothecary Émile Coué at the beginning of the 20th century, Coué created the famous mantra: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”.
After deciding what you want, write your affirmations on a card and repeat them to yourself several times a day, eg: “I wish to have inner peace, good health, business success, financial security, happiness with my partner, family and friends” etc, or whatever your desired self/situation may be. Note that the unconscious is a powerful entity and once directed can work to bring about desired (and realistically attainable) outcomes in life, so these can and should form part of your affirmations.
The technique is enhanced by constantly visualizing yourself as you wish to be and in the position you wish to be in (and avoiding visualizing yourself as anything but); and by acting as if you already are what you wish to become and have what you wish to attain until a habit is formed so strongly that these things are realized. This invokes the so-called law of attraction (or “like attracts like”). Of course you must do this while resisting the urge to follow existing negative habits, which makes it a non-trivial challenge.
Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion by Emile Coué
What to Say When you Talk To Yourself by Shad Helmstetter
There is some evidence that Subliminal stimuli, ie messages presented to a subject below their conscious awareness (eg images being flashed rapidly onto a screen they are watching, or sounds being played at a very low level) are registered by the unconscious mind and can impact the subjects later behavior. A related phenomenon is the mere-exposure effect, widely exploited by the advertising industry that things we have previously perceived before, however briefly and in whatever form, are likely to be more prominent in our brain than those we haven’t.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Another method for changing one’s self is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is an approach to self-modification/improvement that focuses on changing the subject’s behavior rather than seeking to understand/modify any unconscious causes.
CBT is often used to aid conditions including mood, anxiety, personality, eating, substance abuse disorders and may be used alone or alongside medication.
CBT is often guided by a psychotherapist, however computerized cognitive behavioral therapy systems are becoming increasingly available and are proving to be effective.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy For Dummies
The Everything Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Our unconscious is a powerful entity that is the hidden driver behind our every choice and action. By understanding our unconscious we can make better and more fulfilling choices. By influencing our unconscious in the direction(s) we desire we unleash an enormously potent force that will help us fulfill our potential and achieve our desires.