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The Unconscious

As dreams apparently emerge from what has been named the unconscious, it is helpful to understand ideas regarding it and something of its nature.

In ancient cultures we occasionally find hints regarding the unconscious, but no definite statements as were presented by Freud. In the dream theories worked out by the Iroquois Amerindians, they believed that through dreams the hidden or unconscious area of psyche makes its desires known. See Iroquoian dream cult. The Greek stories of the Underworld also clearly depict common unconscious activities.

In general however, many ancient peoples developed concepts of exterior agents such as devils, angels, spirits and God, to account for phenomena which today we connect with the unconscious. The first philosopher to clearly talk of an aspect of the mind being unconscious was Leibniz – 1646/1716. He observed that one often recalled at a later date some detail of experience which at the time one was unaware of. One must therefore have observed it unconsciously. So in general the word means anything we are not generally aware of in our being.

Freuds concept of an unconscious element of human nature which influenced conscious behaviour was strongly resisted. It was disturbing to many people and questioned the idea of humans being the captain of their soul. The Freudian slip has become one of the popular examples of the influence of the unconscious. Saying to guests arriving at our house, I’m so sorry – I mean glad – you could come suggests ones real feeling was sorrow at their arrival, not gladness. There is a story of a faculty member of Oxford University who asked the guests at a function to toast the queen, his actual words were Let us toast our queer dean.

Jung saw Freud’s view of unconscious the unconscious as a mere appendix of consciousness (or, more picturesquely, as a trash can that collects all the refuse of the conscious mind).

Taking into account not only Freudian and Jungian approaches to the unconscious, but something of more recent research, the term unconscious must be taken to represent many functions and aspects of self, rather than something we can neatly define. Therefore, we might think of the term as being like the word BODY, which means a whole spectrum of organs, functions, chemical processes, neurological events, systems, cell activities, as well as ones experience of these.

In general a helpful way of thinking about the unconscious is to realise its function in memory and skills. For instance a mass of your experience is presently not in your conscious awareness. It is therefore unconscious. But if I pose the question – What is your present home address? – what was unconscious a moment ago becomes known and communicable. Millions of bits of other information lies unconscious in you at any one moment, along with skills not being accessed, and other functions not used. So in this sense your conscious self is a tiny part of your total potential.

There is also an action of the unconscious level of mind that scans our life experience, that attempts a healing process in the psyche, and through these urges us toward actions or experience that is more expressive of our total self rather than the one-sidedness of conscious viewpoints. Dreams not only reflect this drive arising from wholeness, but also present potentials we have which we ignore because they lie outside our daily experience.

memory Penfields experiments with memory, along with the experiential side of Humanistic psychology, suggest that most if not all of our experiences are retained in a level of memory we seldom have access to. Our everyday experience of accessing parts of our memory, and only occasionally touching other parts, is an example of this. Even prenatal life has been shown to leave memory, although it is not verbal. The word unconscious can refer to the memories which we have little access to, or have not been able to recall since their inception, but which can be recalled under special circumstances.

communication Careful research into speech shows that we constantly use a miracle of mental functioning in communicating with each other. Each sentence we hear spoken undergoes enormous forms of analysis. Each word is taken and a meaning sought. This is compared with other meanings depending on context in sentence, conversational direction, speaker and speakers tone. At unbelievably speed, we formulate our response, with similar search and comparisons, as well as filters controlling social situation, mood, status of person being addressed, and so on. All this takes place with almost no awareness, so we can think of it as a process of the unconscious. Factors which govern subjects spoken of and choice of words are also largely unconscious.

information processing According to modern theory, the amount of information the human brain can hold is more than is held in all the books in the Library of the British Museum. Gradually, it is becoming recognised that information gathered is not simply what we learn from vocal communication, or read, or set out to learn. In fact an unimaginable amount of information gathering has gone on prior to speech, and goes on at an unimaginable speed prior to school years.

Consider a small pre-school child walking into the garden. It has learned gradually to relate to muscular movement, balance, and its own motivations and feeling reactions in a way enabling it to walk. It has already grasped thousands of bits of information about such things as plants in the garden, the neighbours cat, the road outside, possible dangers, safe areas. Stupendous amounts have already been absorbed about interrelationships. An idea of reality in the sense of what is probable, and what would be dangerously out of norm, has been formed.

We gather information in ways little recognised. How our parents relate to environment and people is all recorded and learned from, bringing about enormous programming regarding how we later act in similar circumstances. As explained in the entry on spiritual life in dreams , we have great ability in reading symbols, ritual, art, music, body language, architecture, drama, and extracting meaning from them. So we have immense stores of information from these sources.

Work done with people exploring their dreams over a long period, suggests that some of these information resources are never focused on enough to make conscious what we have actually learned. Sometimes, it is enough simply to ask oneself a question to begin to focus some of these resources. Such questions as – What social attitude and response to authority did I learn at school? What feeling reaction do I get when I am in the presence of – someone you know well? – may help to bring to awareness aspects of information gathered but remaining unconscious. These unfocused, or unconscious, areas of information can explain why we have apparently irrational feeling responses to some people or situations.

the body A lot of what we call the unconscious are basic physiological and psychological functions. For instance, in a modern house, when we flush the toilet, we do not have to bring a bucket of water and fill the cistern again. A self regulating mechanism allows water to flow in and switches it off when full. This is a clever built-in function that had to be done manually at one time. Nowadays we have built into some dwellings fire sprinklers or burglar alarms. Through repeated actions over thousands or millions of years, many basic functions, or functions only switched on in emergencies, have been built into our being. We do not need to think about them, just as we do not have to give awareness to the fire sprinkling system or toilet each time we walk through a room or flush the toilet. They are therefore unconscious.

Research with animals done in connection with rewards and conditioned reflex, have shown that by gradually leading an animal toward a certain performance by rewarding it each time it gets nearer to the goal, it can do the most amazing things. It can increase the circulation of blood to its ear, slow its heart, and in fact influence body functions which were thought to be completely involuntary. Where human beings have learned to use some of these techniques – such as raising the temperature of an arm at will, helping to increase the efficiency of the immune system – the actual processes still remain unconscious. In general however, the functions of the body are thought to be outside of our awareness, and so are one of the areas of the unconscious.

species behaviour and habits As a species, humans have certain norms of behaviour, many of which we share with other animals. We tend to find a partner of the opposite sex and produce children. We care for our children. We have strong feelings about territory. In groups this becomes nationalism, and like ants or some group animals, we fight to defend our territory. We elect leaders, and have complicated rituals regarding group status or personal face. We seek outward signs of our status, and wherever possible show them.

Many individuals barely recognise these drives. Yet they are powerful enough when manipulated to gather huge armies of people who then march to their death. They are behind enormous hostility between neighbours and nations. Although irrational, and not in our best interest to be influenced by, millions of us are moved by them as if we had little will of our own. The feelings behind them, although seldom acknowledged directly by our conscious self, are often raised to religious status. The procreative drive, the election of leaders, the parental and child raising urges, are all to be seen in the Christian religion as the bones behind the robes and rituals. Why does Catholicism ban the condom and divorce; make a giant figure out of the Pope; worship a woman with a baby in her arms – if it is not based on these mighty urges and biological drives?

Dreams reveal that much of human life arises out of these patterns. The patterns are in us unconsciously. We often venerate the norm of these patterns and raise them, religiously or politically, to a level of tremendous importance. The problem is that many of these patterns are no longer serving us well. They are habits developed through thousands or millions of years of repetition. While they remain unconscious we find it difficult to redirect them or even admit to their influence in our life.

There are, of course, many other aspects of the unconscious, such as memories of childhood trauma, the dream process, the image formation process and sensory apparatus. It is enough to begin with if we recognise that a lot of ourselves and our potential remains unknown to us because it remains unconscious, or a part of our unconscious processes. Then perhaps we can move on to recognising that beyond the boundary of what we know of ourself is an immense territory where our awareness touches and is part of all life.

If you take time to watch where any type of memory arises from, you will perhaps realise that it arises from what you experience as a dark place in yourself. Then it is known and is held in the light of awareness. that dark place I link with the core of your existence – the great mystery of the unknown, the mystery of Life. If you care to walk into and explore that dark place you will find wonders.

If we realise that Life existed quite capably for millions of years before the self-aware human personality came on the scene. In all that time the ancestors of the modern human being survived without having a rational mind to reason with, or self consciousness to ask such questions as ‘What do I do about this?’ Nevertheless survival strategies were still developed in their unconscious intelligence. Dreams express this unconscious wisdom that was developed in humans and animals through millennia.

Life’s age old unconscious processes are still the major part of our being, yet we seldom consciously meet them – except in dreams. As our physical and psychological health depend upon a reasonable co-operation between the spontaneous processes of life and our conscious decisions and actions, the encounter in dreams is vital.

Example of meeting the unconscious:

What happened was that I seemed to go through the ground to what lies underneath. I don’t literally mean under the earth, but underneath people, underneath the events in life, what is usually hidden; only I felt it as like going into a vast place underneath everything. I understood that this was what is usually called the unconscious, or in past ages the underworld. In it I felt at the roots of all living things.

The first thing I saw was my youngest son. He was crouched just below the surface, unable to break through to the outside – what we call everyday life. This was a revelation because it explained so much about his behaviour. It showed me exactly what difficulties he was facing. Lots of people never get to even glimpse this hidden world of beings and energies, but my son had always known it and been held by it, almost like he had never been born from it. Seeing him at first deeply concerned me. But I understood that this was his life. Although it was difficult he would learn things denied to most people. He would know them instinctively because he was a native to this underneath world, the place inside us. So I stored the memory and moved on.

I found that I could think of anyone I knew and gain insights into what they were like inside. This was because this place, or condition I was in was like a space underneath a town. From here you could get into anyone’s house. You could touch the roots of trees and all living things, because they all emerged from here. My own sense of myself was different too. I knew without doubt that I had existed throughout all time. If I asked a question about the past, I knew just what had happened then, the whole struggle of humanity to grow, to meet itself. I knew because my central self had been a part of it all.

Then I came to what I called the Temple of The Animals. Again I have to describe it as a picture, a scene, but it was more like a direct knowing or experience. Here all that lived was gathered together. Not only as rank upon rank of animals in a great amphitheatre, but gathered in being linked as one mind, one spirit, knowing each other. So that when I walked into the temple I met this vast spirit which was as ancient as life, and had experienced all that life had done on this planet, and knew all the wisdom of its immense experience. And this Great Spirit looked upon me and knew me. It entered my own spirit looking to see if I knew how to love my mate and care for my children. It did this, as I understood it, because central to all that life had done in its many forms, was this great theme of self giving in caring for offspring and mate. It had learned how to love, and if I had not learned that lesson, I couldn’t receive the blessing it could give. As it was, it judged I had sufficiently learned the lesson of giving myself. Then I received the blessing of sharing a small part of its wisdom and ancient love.

For more information see What we Need to Remember About Us

Copyright © 1999-2010 Tony Crisp | All rights reserved