The subconscious. It’s not something I think we, “modern” man, really know much about. Sure, there are books. But in our social life and in our institutions? Think about it. How would you describe the subconscious if you weren’t allowed to use the word itself? Would you come up with an apologetic “the opposite of consciousness”? If so, this would perhaps explain why the word we used for it in earlier times, unconscious, changed. The word ‘unconscious’ now refers to a state where “nobody’s home”. A state where the person can neither perceive nor interact with the world or himself.
Subconscious is not that. The subconscious definitely interacts with the world or with the person himself, just like the conscious does. You may remember a moment when it was your subconscious that did something, even though you may not admit this to yourself. It’s the moment where you catch yourself doing, thinking or feeling before you’ve had a chance to think. It surprises you – the conscious you. A slip of the tongue, a thought you didn’t consider very “you” or an outburst of emotional energy you can’t explain.
It seems to me that some of the great authors (of which I have admittedly barely read anything) express that it is important to understand, inspect and integrate your subconscious life.
The unexamined life is not worth livingSocrates
Socrates emphasized the importance of getting to know and understand yourself. Socrates indicated that he was guided by a divine inner voice that warned him against missteps.
Marcus Aurelius speaks of introspection and the soul. The one work I have recently read is Modern Man in Search for a Soul, a book of compiled essays and lectures from Carl Jung’s hand. He points out that anything in the unconscious (the word then for what we now call subconscious) affects the conscious and vice versa. Carl Jung speaks of the importance of dreams and how the subconscious holds knowledge we are not immediately aware (conscious) of. He speaks of repression and neuroses and how the subconscious mind can come to the foreground at times. In fact, if I read it correctly he says that if you try to push things back into your subconscious, a counter-response may take place, for example in the form of a neurosis.
Delving into the subconscious to figure out what is (really) bothering us is not something we, modern man, are very good at. In fact, we seem hell-bent on ignoring the subconscious to the point we don’t even know we have one. Sure, we have a word for it. But I’ve experienced first hand how people can use words without really having an understanding of what the meaning is.
Hardly anybody pays attention to their dreams. I had recurring violent dreams in my twenties, no therapist asked so I didn’t tell. I didn’t know how much those dreams mattered. The subconscious has only indirect means of communication at its disposal. It uses metaphor and images. We’re not told to pay attention to it. Only that which can be judged quickly and without much effort – grades, pretty clothes, easy to understand words – is treated as important. What is invisible, uncomfortable or hard to grasp is reduced to something easy to understand and therefore often wrong. With the subconscious content, of our own and certainly of others, the first explanation is more often than not the wrong one.
When we realize that the subconscious desire matters, we may attempt to address it. We try to make the invisible visible. I think it might be a normal phase to start to work too hard at it. To act out what we consciously thought up, rather than what we felt to be congruent with our deepest selves. I think often, we misinterpret and if we’re not careful we may travel to Samarra.
“The Appointment in Samarra”
(as retold by W Somerset Maugham )
The speaker is Death
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
Diving into the inner ocean
There is a phase in childhood development where you discover that other people can infer your approximate mental state (if the adults around you are capable of this, that is). Adults can predict when you’re going for the cookie jar just when you decided to go for it. This has its limits of course, your conscious and subconscious desires and intents can not be read off you like a book. But from the outside as well as inside, the conscious is straightforward to interpret. What’s going on in the subconscious must however be inferred from vague, ambiguous signals. A song stuck in your head. A feeling of discomfort.
The conscious is explicit, structured, the birthplace of productivity. The subconscious is implicit and chaotic, the birthplace of inspiration.
I feel the subconscious is much larger than the conscious, I don’t know why. It seems to me that it’s similar to how the shallow waters at the beach contain barely anything, compared to the deep ocean. At the beach, things wash ashore that can only hint at what’s going on at sea. A heavy storm at sea can be detected at the beach, but its true intensity is not directly felt but rather seen from a distance or inferred from the shipwreck, until the storm reaches land that is.
Like ebb and flood, that which lies in your subconscious will come to the fore in how you interact with yourself and others. I think most people underestimate how much more important the former is than the latter. Interact with yourself poorly and every aspect of your life will suffer the consequences. If you interact with yourself in a way that puts your conscious mind at odds with the subconscious part of you that is always watching, I’ve experienced how that will add suffering to your life, no matter how badly you want things to be good and right. Avoid listening to that inner voice and you may one day find it screaming at you.
How the subconscious influences us is not always obvious, even if we do see that we sometimes act in strange or incomprehensible ways. But you can’t avoid it. You can’t push it down (for long). You can’t stop the tide, even if you placed a concrete wall a meter out to sea. The noise of the water will still be heard. The smell of salt will reach you. Even if you moved, if you left the ocean miles behind you, if you dissociated to the point of deadening yourself emotionally, the tide will never stop. That concrete wall will break someday. You’ll wake up at the waters edge, the tide at your lips.
Are we, as human beings, so terrified of what would happen if we started searching for our souls, that we prefer to blind ourselves to the ocean? The mantra seems to be: Don’t think too much. Just focus on happy things. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts. Nothing too difficult. That has never worked for me. The dark side of your soul has to be unveiled to yourself if you want to become a healthy, well-adjusted person. In the past I had therapists who mistakenly thought it was their job to pull me out of the ocean onto dry land. They were mistaken. Their job was to be a buoy for me while I dove. To inspect everything I fished out of the ocean and to bring it to the beach for inspection. To encourage me to dive and help me find the next spot. To build a narrative of what was going on in the ocean. I wanted to dive into the chaos, because I knew there was at least one shipwreck there that I had to see, to describe to myself. I think this is misunderstood by many and I misunderstood too for a long time: The goal is not to make the tide stop. The goal is to integrate the subconscious into your life, to see the tides, storms, the life and debris, to listen to it and act accordingly. To stop when the weather is unfavorable and to go fishing some other time. It’s the ability to know when the tide has swept you away. The patience to inspect the shells that wash ashore to determine what lives in the ocean. The stamina to hold your breath and dive. To sit still and listen to the song in your head, the tension in your body or the (seemingly) random thoughts that pop up.
If you don’t figure this out for yourself, you won’t know what really goes on inside you. You won’t understand why someone’s words piss you off and create a small storm cloud. You won’t know where your responses came from. You won’t be able to hold a coherent conversation with anyone (including yourself) if you don’t know where your ideas were born. The subconscious takes in everything you see and do, everything you have ever seen and done, returns that to you and adds insights of its own as well. Make no effort to understand the ineffable part of yourself and you’ll become an amorphous blob of a person, no matter how hard you try to establish an identity for yourself in work, family, community.
Most importantly, if you’re not aware of what lurks beneath the surface, if you’re not even aware that there is an ocean, you’ll have only two options when anything washes up on your shore: repress or project. You either violently deny what goes on inside you and give no expression to it. You throw it all back into the ocean. This will cause other things to arise in compensation (anxiety, for example). Repression is temporary and cannot prevent things from washing back to shore. Even if you manage for years on end to avoid paying the piper, it will all come back with the tide. Eventually, you may then let off some steam by attributing the thoughts, feelings and emotions to someone else. Someone else made you feel this way. Make them stop! Make them carry your feelings! Make them fix it! Or, if someone truly did cause you harm intentionally, you may lash out at someone else instead of taking the issue to the person where it belongs.
Part of this is normal and can’t be helped. Everyone has a shitty day sometimes and takes it out on their spouse. Everyone holds their tongue sometimes and decides to let something slide that bothered them, to find out later they should have spoken up. I don’t think it’s always 100% possible to know what’s on our minds. Maybe 10% isn’t even possible. You’ll misinterpret often. However the alternative, repressing and projecting, is worse because then you cannot learn and your interactions with others will be unproductive or harmful.
Mental health is not bestowed on you by others, it’s hard earned, it’s inner work. It’s far from easy to improve your mental wellbeing.
We need to pick up the shells and put them to our ear. We need to examine our memories, thoughts, feelings, behavior and words, diligently. It will hurt, because you must open your eyes to the shipwrecks and debris that litter your beach. From observing ourselves we figure out what’s going on that needs addressing in ourselves or in our relationships. Then, we start cleaning up. We don’t choose what is right before we act. We act from habit and then we explain our behavior after the fact. If the explanation you give for your feelings, behavior and words is wrong (or if you accept others’ wrong explanation for you rather than find your inner truth for yourself) you stand no chance at improving your life. None whatsoever.
So get good at figuring out why you behave the way you do. Don’t accept the first explanation you give yourself, change your mind often, whenever and every single time a better insight comes along. Getting good at this, figuring out where the shells on your shore keep coming from requires diving deep into your ocean. It is not a pleasant endeavor, but it is certainly a rewarding undertaking, regardless of what you discover.