What is It & How Does it Work?
Here we use the words “unconscious” and “subconscious” interchangeably (as in this dictionary entry here).
- When used as an adjective, “unconscious” means comatose or inert. e.g. “The patient is unconscious.”
- As a noun, “unconscious” refers to the part of the mind that is inaccessible to the conscious mind but that affects behavior and emotions. e.g. “She had been unaware of the reason for her aversion to people with those traits until she recovered the trauma memory that had been stored in her unconscious (subconscious mind).”
What is the Subconscious Mind?
The subconscious mind is the… mostly hidden mind that exists within you. It is like an immense memory bank with a virtually unlimited capacity that stores and retrieves information. The data stored in the subconscious mind can include beliefs, previous life experiences, memories, situations you have been through, skills and all images you have ever seen. It interprets, acts, and responds precisely the way you are programmed and attracts situations and circumstances that match the images within you… [It] has a significant effect on all actions. 95% of your brain activity happens beyond your conscious awareness… [When] you’re on autopilot mode… you’re acting unconsciously [with the subconscious programs running your thoughts and behaviors].– Gaia Meditation, The Power of the Subconscious Mind
The Subconscious Doesn’t Learn or Function Like the Conscious Mind
Memory and imagery are absolutely real to the subconscious mind.
The subconscious mind does not know the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Since the subconscious mind works through images and does not know if so something is actually happening or is just a memory, the body reacts to the mental or visual image ‘as if’ is actually happening in that moment. This is why when we are watching a movie or reminded of a traumatic event, we experience the same physical feelings and sensations in our bodies as if we were actually having the experience in that moment… You knew the movie was not real but your subconscious mind did not because your subconscious mind cannot distinguish reality from fantasy… Some beliefs are so deeply seated in the subconscious mind that, even against all logical evidence that the belief is false, it is hard to release the belief from our programming. Deeply held fears are an example of a belief that is so deeply held that we may be able to consciously recognize the belief as untrue and illogical but we are still unable to release the belief from our subconscious mind and eliminate the fear… When we think of something contrary to our belief the cognitive dissonance can produce both uncomfortable feelings emotionally and physically. If we believe something contrary to what we desire, our subconscious mind will actively work against our desire because our subconscious mind is focused on keeping our belief system intact.– Dawn Demers, Beliefnet.com, How to Reprogram Your Mind
The subconscious mind does not reason or think autonomously. Instead, it runs programs. So the question is, how do those programs get written?
Right now you’re primarily using your conscious mind to read these words and absorb their meaning, but beneath that mental focus, your subconscious mind is busily working behind the scenes, absorbing or rejecting information based on an existing perception you have of the world around you. This existing perception began forming when you were an infant. With every experience, your subconscious mind soaks in information like a sponge. It rejected nothing while you were young because you didn’t have any pre–existing beliefs to contradict what it perceived. It simply accepted that all of the information you received during your early childhood was true… By the time you were 7 or 8 years old, you already had a solid foundation of belief based on all that programming from people in your life, television shows you watched, and other environmental influence– Dirk Roman, Reprogramming Your Subconscious Mind: A Step-by-Step Guide
Bruce Lipton PhD, explains in this video that in the first seven years of life, the brain operates at a lower frequency, one that opens the gate to the subconscious mind. During this time, the subconscious is downloading what it observes and, thus, many subconscious programs are written during childhood.
- Lipton explains: Let’s say we read a book or watch a video and increase our knowledge. That is education of the conscious mind — but not the subconscious mind. Over time, we might “get really smart, but our life stays exactly the same.” Why? Because, as Lipton explains, the subconscious doesn’t learn in the way the conscious mind does. It doesn’t learn from talking, thinking, reading or learning in the typical sense but instead is programmed via hypnosis and via habit repetition (discussed more in the next lesson on programming the subconscious here).
- In addition, “every experience or emotion from the past that remains unacknowledged, unprocessed, or denied is stored in the realm of the unconscious, or shadow.” (Thomas Hubl)
Balance and homeostasis are of top priority to the subconscious mind.
- This is exemplified in maintaining bodily physiology, but it also affects behavior.
- “It ensures that you think and act in a manner consistent with what you have said or done in the past… It works night and day to ensure that your behavior matches a pattern consistent with your emotionalized hopes, thoughts, and desires… Through the memorization of all your comfort zones, the subconscious mind works to keep you in them… It goes against altering any established patterns of behavior, and you can always feel it pulling you back to the comfort zone every time you attempt something new.” (Gaia Meditation)
Your Subconscious Mind is Wildly Powerful
Just How Powerful is It?
A person may be under the influence of the subconscious mind as much as 95% of the time.
The reason you play subconscious programs is because the conscious mind is engaged in thinking 95% of the time or more. That means 95% of your behavior is invisible to you…. You’re not operating from your conscious mind except maybe 5% of the time and so your life is really a reflection of your subconscious program… look at your life… what comes to you that you want easily, you’ve got programs that allow that to happen, but what you struggle with… you have an invisible program that is sabotaging you on that point… so look at your life and tell me what you’re having trouble with. That’s the direct expression of a program that’s not supporting you.– Bruce Lipton PhD
We are taught to focus on our conscious mind and believe it to be our most powerful asset. And yet, in this series of lessons we are learning about its limitations and at the same time, the power of the subconscious mind. Let’s entertain these perspectives and see what happens when we test them out:
The conscious mind tends to limit our thinking because of its tendency to focus on past experiences. However, the subconscious is limitless in its ability to see the big picture without being held back by past events. The subconscious mind is exponentially more powerful. Your subconscious mind controls your autonomic nervous system. This system is responsible for your breathing, heartbeat, temperature, and a whole host of other bodily functions. This is all being done without you even being aware of it and with no effort on your part. – Ruth Ronan, Clear Your Mind 111, Reprogram the Subconscious Mind link
From what you eat to how much you earn, the subconscious mind has incredible power over the decisions you make… Effectively, it operates as your guidance system monitoring the information your conscious mind receives. You experience communication with the subconscious mind when you have an idea, remember something or experience emotion.– Lottie Miles, Lottie, Learning Mind, How to Reprogram Your Subconscious Mind with These 6 Practices
Physiology, Including Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) governs the typically automatic (unconscious) functions, including breathing, heart rate and the endocrine (hormone) system. In other words, the ANS is run by the subconscious mind (except when we consciously breathe, for example).
The subconscious mind is the operating system of the body. It controls heart rate, digestion, blood sugar levels, body temperature, hormonal secretions, temperature regulation, and more. Thus, if we can consciously tap into the autonomic nervous system, we can begin to influence the way our body functions physiologically.– Dr. Joe Dispenza, The Role of Brainwaves in Meditation Part I
Habits Including Posture
Another consideration is understanding how habits that are repeated over time will become automatic in nature. Repeatedly performing a conscious habit “writes a program” that the subconscious then executes. One example is having driven a car while distracted by an emotional event and realizing later that you can’t remember parts of the drive; the subconscious had taken full control of performing the actions of driving.
Developing muscle memory and posture are further examples of how the subconscious works for you (or against you, depending upon how intentional the posture habits have been).
Another vitally important reason to learn about the subconscious is because this is where many core beliefs live, including those that limit our progress, success and happiness.
With knowledge, we then can employ specific techniques to uncover and transform beliefs currently hidden from our conscious mind.
There is a far-reaching body of work devoted to studying and working with the subconscious, but here we hope to lay out a map of the terrain and to make it practical.
Surrealism is not a style. It is the cry of a mind turning back on itself.– Antonin Artaud
The shadow is also known as the well from which creativity springs.
Based on Freud’s therapeutic techniques, Andre Breton attempted to heal soldiers from trauma and the findings from his work prompted him to create an art movement. The surrealist art movement reflected the belief that all artistic truth is drawn from the unconscious mind. The art world, as a result, has been forever changed.
Learning to channel your thinking — both conscious and subconscious — creates the conditions that make achieving your goals inevitable.– Benjamin Hardy PhD, Inc, How This 10-Minute Routine Will Increase Your Creativity
Shadow Work / Exploring the Subconscious
How the Shadow Functions
The shadow is another name for the subconscious, but may refer more specifically to an individual’s unacknowledged experiences and emotions or to collective, transpersonal energies that have been denied expression.
According to Jungian analyst Aniela Jaffe, the shadow is the “sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life.”– Stephen A. Diamond PhD, Psychology Today, What Is the “Shadow”?
An Exquisite Articulation of the Shadow
From a mystic’s (or Jungian’s) perspective, every experience or emotion from the past that remains unacknowledged, unprocessed, or denied is stored in the realm of the unconscious, or shadow. These experiences have not been integrated by the psyche or spirit, and so they will — indeed, they must — surface again and again in new but familiar forms. What we think of as destiny is in fact the unintegrated past. And the fragmented, unintegrated past appears always as a false future of repetition, a preprogrammed path along which every individual and every culture sets out until the contents of that past have been brought into the light of consciousness, reconciled and healed… We may choose to understand these repetitions of shadow content as karma, a Sanskrit word originally meaning “effect” or “fate” (i.e., destiny). Or we may recognize them in light of our contemporary understanding as trauma — specifically as retraumatization, the unconscious act of repeating the conditions of earlier traumas upon self and others…
While our will is our own, our choices are inevitably bound and restricted by karma, by trauma, by what we conceive of as “the past” — all that we have denied, disowned, dissociated, and suppressed. The unconscious denial of any experience freezes some portion of our available energy in shadow, thereby restricting our freedom and movement. With every denial or suppression of the past, we create our destiny, which is the repetition of suffering. Still, as the great spiritual myths reveal, the hero discovers that by acknowledging and repairing the folly of his past, by integrating all he has been, he may become truly free — and more of what he truly is.– Thomas Hübl & Julie Jordan Avritt, Healing Collective Trauma
It Has a Vast Impact
The shadow includes everything that is not conscious — or anything obscure or unenlightened.
- The facet of a person’s personality which has been rejected over time is within the shadow. From this perspective, whatever is denied expression is thereby relegated to living in the shadow.
- This is often be related to the blocking of emotional energy. See much more in the emotions lesson regarding the importance and process for allowing this energy to move through.
- The shadow is developed in the individual mind in addition to the inherited collective consciousness (the conscious and unconscious material of society as a whole).
- Shadow material may appear in dreams or visions and may be represented by symbols drawn from the collective unconscious.
- In psychotherapy terms, that which is hidden in the shadow and continually repressed is ripe for becoming the source of projection and personality disorders.
Carl Jung on the Shadow
Jung differentiated between the personal shadow and the impersonal or archetypal shadow… The shadow was originally Jung’s poetic term for the totality of the unconscious, a notion he took from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. But foremost for Jung was the task of further illuminating the shadowy problem of human evil and the prodigious dangers of excessive unconsciousness.– Stephen A. Diamond PhD, Psychology Today, Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy: What Is the “Shadow”?
An Example of How Unprocessed Events & Emotions Become Part of Our Shadow
We could say that this process [of unprocessed experiences being relegated to the shadow] is similar to computer fragmentation: when a cycle can’t complete itself, the system becomes hampered by fragmented files or disintegration. Let’s say that I find myself in a difficult conversation with a colleague at midday and become irritated and defensive or anxious. For the rest of the day, I find myself thinking back on the conversation, replaying it in my mind. Each time I do this, I reexperience the irritation and anxiety I felt when the conversation first occurred so that these feelings persist, even after I’ve stopped thinking of my colleague. That evening, I meet a friend for dinner. If I still haven’t resolved the day’s experience, I may as well set an extra place at the table for my energetic baggage. Even if I don’t explain how I’m feeling or why, my friend will likely feel its residual presence. And should something come up over dinner that touches further irritation inside me, I will leave carrying still more baggage or fragmentation. The unresolved energy that I carry weighs me down and colors my experiences, preventing me from showing up fully in the present moment. This baggage or fragmentation is karmic; it is the energy of the unmet past. Because it hinders precise alignment to the present moment, it creates a distortion not only in my perspective but also in my experience of space-time itself. In the mystical traditions, fragmentation, stagnation, and isolation are observed as areas of weakness, illness, or disease. When organs, structures, systems, or people become shut down, closed off, isolated, or unfulfilled, their internal and external ability to communicate and receive information has been stunted or lost, and the health of the organism may be at risk… When we do healing work, we safely unpack the unconscious luggage we carry. We “defrag” in an effort to bring about greater integration. Healing permits us to travel lighter and brighter, to be more fully and deeply present to the moment, as less of the past splits our energy and attention and weighs us down. We begin to feel a sense of deeper presence, of “here-ness,” and to see and sense our world with greater clarity and precision.– Thomas Hübl & Julie Jordan Avritt, Healing Collective Trauma
The Consequences of Dissociation of the Shadow
The shadow is a primordial part of our human inheritance, which, try as we might, can never be eluded. The pervasive Freudian defense mechanism known as projection is how most people deny their shadow, unconsciously casting it onto others so as to avoid confronting it in oneself… The shadow is most destructive, insidious and dangerous when habitually repressed and projected… Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can be taken as a cautionary tale par excellence: dissociation of the shadow results in a perilously lopsided development of the conscious personality and renders us susceptible to destructive possession by the disowned shadow.– Stephen A. Diamond PhD, Psychology Today, Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy: What Is the “Shadow”?
Shadow Work & The Vital Importance of Exploring the Subconscious
The purpose in understanding the nature of the subconscious mind is to:
- Become motivated to make the unconscious conscious.
- Identify programming that is disempowering or otherwise contrary to our conscious desires.
- Replace existing subconscious programming with empowering and supportive programming
Also called “shadow work,” the value in exploring the subconscious mind is that we gain awareness and control over the mindbody, which leads directly to having more control over our very lives.
Until we are prepared to truly examine those things we don’t like to look at — the uncomfortable feelings, childhood wounding, humiliating vulnerabilities and avaricious desires — we are still packing the suitcase, and the unconscious will secretly run our lives.– Source unknown
By making ourselves aware of our shadow and attempting to assimilate it into the conscious mind, we gain access to the creative and life-giving possibilities hidden in the shadow.
Working with dreams is a vast field explored by yogis, Tibetan monks, psychoanalysts and more.
The first step in dream practice is quite simple: one must recognize the great potential that dream holds for the spiritual journey. Normally the dream is thought to be ‘unreal’, as opposed to ‘real’ waking life. But there is nothing more real than a dream.– Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep: Practices for Awakening
Psychoanalysis attempts to unearth the unconscious mind and bring its messages into the realm of awareness.
The unconscious mind of man sees correctly even when conscious reason is blind and impotent.– Carl Jung
In sleep, fantasy takes the form of dreams. But in waking life, too, we continue to dream beneath the threshold of consciousness, especially when under the influence of repressed or other unconscious complexes.– Carl Jung
Sigmund Freud has been called the father of psychology. He developed an organizational model of the mind which conceptualizes mental functions into symbolic concepts: the Id (instincts), Ego (perceived reality), and Superego (morality).
Freud attested that because we live in a civilized society based on collective beliefs, we all think we must hold back some of our impulses and desires for the greater good of society. He began to study dreams as a way to understand aspects of personality and belief. He believed nothing happens by chance but is motivated by the unconscious. (source) He taught that the unconscious expresses itself in symbols and images and that this material comes to the surface of consciousness in disguise in order to be released, usually in dreams.
The following 11-minute video summarizes many key points in a practical and accessible way.
Uncovering Limiting Beliefs
The first step in dismantling negative inner programming is to become aware of it. (In the allegory of the cave, this is turning to see the fire light.)
- Like a fish asked to find water, we can be overwhelmed or confused when trying to tease apart beliefs since they can be we what we’ve always “known” to be “true” or represent “the way I am” or “how things are.”
- While this can be a difficult or frightening process, it leads to empowerment. Once we identify detrimental core beliefs, it’s possible to change them.
- Common limiting beliefs include: I don’t have time. I’ll never have enough money. I don’t deserve love. I don’t have what it takes. Other people are luckier than me.
- Once you have identified your limiting beliefs, write them down, and describe their development and your opinions about them. Example: Money is the root of all evil because rich people are mean and pious people are those without money. I came to believe this from my grandmother’s stories and behaviors.
- Following are some techniques that can help to uncover limiting beliefs.
Habits & Behaviors We Can’t Stop Engaging In, No Mater How Hard We Try
The habits and behaviors we can’t stop engaging in, no matter how hard we try and how destructive or limiting they may be, are meeting a need… [The way to] approach this is to understand why they exist in the first place and help that part of ourselves feel loved and safe. No matter how many affirmations we say or how much mindset work we do, our survival mechanisms and vows are more powerful, so a part of us will resist change even if it’s healthy.
Often, when I’m working with a client who struggles with addiction, anxiety, depression, and/or loving themselves and allowing themselves to have fun, when we go inside and find the root cause, it’s because of a vow they made when they were little, when they were either being screamed at, teased, left alone, or punished… They learned that having needs and acting naturally wasn’t okay, so they started suppressing that energy, which created their symptoms as adults. When trauma gets stored in our body, we feel unsafe. Until we resolve it and reconnect with a feeling of safety in the area(s) where we were traumatized, we’ll remain in a constant state of fight/flight/freeze, be hypersensitive and overreactive [and more].– Debra Mittler, Tiny Buddha, The Unconscious Vows We Make to Ourselves So the World Can’t Hurt Us
Pay Attention to Thoughts
- Repetitive Thoughts — Identify repetitive thoughts such as: I am not lovable. I’ll never have enough time. The only way to get things done is to do them myself. Life is always easier for so and so.
- Polarity & Extremes — Identify polarity thinking or anytime you see things in extremes.
- Listen for the Voice — Can you identify the voice behind the thoughts? Who is it that is judging you? A parent? A partner? A teacher? Someone else who holds meaning for you? Might your internal monologue be connected to your prior or current relationship with this person?
- Keep Digging — Use meditation, automatic writing, journaling and contemplation to further investigate any underlying beliefs.
Notice Emotions & Gut Feelings
Like an inner compass of deep knowing, our innate cellular intelligence informs us constantly. It is a hunch that something is off in a relationship or a sense of rightness about a project that makes no sense logically yet makes our heart sing. It might be a direction we somehow know we need to take, or it might be someone we instinctively know we should avoid at all costs.– Suzanne Scurlock-Durana, Healing from the Core
The body is our constant frequency and attunement monitor, but we may not understand its language.
The task is to learn to recognize emotional reactions and gut feelings through mindfulness and other practices that help us to notice bodily sensation. The following example explains this eloquently.
Being with the Parts of Ourselves that Are Afraid
We can notice our unconscious vows by being with the parts of ourselves that are afraid. They often come as feelings or symptoms in the body. For instance, I would panic, sweat, and shake if I couldn’t exercise, especially after I ate. When I sat with this part of myself with unconditional love and acceptance and a desire to understand where it originated, instead of using exercise to run away, it communicated to me why it was afraid. It brought me back to where it all began and said, “If I’m fat I’ll be teased, abandoned, and rejected, and I want to be loved and accepted.”
Healing is about releasing that pent up energy that’s stored in the body and making peace with ourselves and our traumas. Healing is about reminding our bodies that the painful/traumatic event(s) are no longer happening; it’s learning how to comfort ourselves when we’re afraid and learning emotional regulation. Healing is about getting clear about where the hurt is coming from; otherwise, we’ll spend our time going over the details and continuously get triggered because we never get to the real source.
Healing is not about forcing; it’s about accepting what’s happening. It’s a kind, gentle, and loving approach. We’re working with tender parts that have been traumatized and hurt. These parts don’t need to be pushed or told how to be. They need compassion; they need to be seen, heard, loved, and accepted; they need our loving attention so they can feel safe and at ease.– Debra Mittler, Tiny Buddha, The Unconscious Vows We Make to Ourselves So the World Can’t Hurt Us
Identify Resistance (including Distraction)
Psychologically speaking, resistance and resolution are at opposite poles.– Leon F. Seltzer PhD
To move beyond something requires us to face “what is” and take action to change it.
- Resistance, on the other hand, refers to ways that we may be avoiding an experience rather than resolving it.
- The resistance may manifest as complaining or as strong feelings of resentment or protest. It may result in turning to distractions, addictions or compulsions.
- It usually includes avoidance of the disturbing aspects of the situation and it doesn’t include a focus for moving beyond it.
- Paying attention to where we feel or exhibit resistance can be a clue to a stifled trauma or an emotion, and may indicate that an unconscious process is running our behavior.
What You Resist Persists
What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.– Carl Jung
Don’t End Up Resisting Yourself
It’s wise to accept what is, if only to put yourself in the best possible position to change it — or to achieve the freedom to move past it, and on to something else… I’m in no way intimating that you adopt a defeatist attitude in the face of what you deem inequitable or unjust, just that your resistance doesn’t end up taking the form of resisting yourself… The pain you may have worked so hard to stifle — but which nonetheless has “prevailed” within you — will eventually make itself known physically, in the form of symptoms you can no longer avoid.– Leon F. Seltzer PhD, Psychology Today, You Only Get More of What You Resist — Why?
Sometimes the mere awareness of something previously unconscious will be enough for shifts to happen. We often see this when, for example, we make breathing conscious.
Additionally, we may need to implement specific techniques to get further benefit.
- In the breathing example, we may feel slightly better once we become aware of the breath but still somewhat anxious until there is a gentle effort to draw the belly in at the end of the exhalation to completely empty the lungs before beginning the inhalation.
- Similarly, in working with the subconscious, becoming aware of emotionally charged experiences that hadn’t been previously felt may bring some relief but in order to completely shift behavioral patterns, more action may be necessary.
Sources & Resources
See here for a list of sources and resources for the entire Beliefs section.