A Field Guide to Life – The Power of Thought

by Brad on September 11, 2012


The Power of Thought

At a simple level, we have “two minds;” the conscious and the unconscious. If we were to become aware of the existence of two minds and of how each works, we could tap into the power each holds to help us create lives we love. 

The conscious mind is the rational or thinking mind. It’s available whenever we want; it’s the source of creative genius with which we make the most of life. Without the choice to use it, however, the conscious mind is just “potential energy,” waiting to be invoked for its creative possibilities. Most of the time, we don’t know we’re not using it because we mistake the incessant busyness of the unconscious mind as thinking.

As a biological adaptation, the unconscious mind programs, or habituates, life’s recurring phenomena so we can respond to them automatically and instantly, so as to keep the conscious mind available for the big stuff. In prehistoric times, this included sensing danger, knowing where to find food, and reading signals in the environment. In today’s world, habits still have value. It would be awkward to consult a manual whenever you started your computer, or to look at a map to find your way to work, or to ask for help brushing your teeth each morning. Unlike the conscious mind, which is used when invoked, the unconscious is operating 24/7, upholding its role to protect you from danger, which it does by comparing life to its experience of the past. 

As creatures of habit, we like making things easy; if we don’t have to think about something, we don’t. Whenever unconscious responses are available, we tend to accept them without thinking, presumably saving our thinking for bigger things. Yet we rarely think about bigger things, because big thoughts take us out of our comfort zone. We choose habit over discomfort. The net effect is that we leave the unconscious in charge of our lives, unconsciously, of course.

The unconscious is unique in two ways that are significant for our purposes. First, it’s there to protect you from the past. It knows nothing about future, because no lessons about the future were ever programmed into it. To the unconscious, the future is the unknown – the thing it’s guarding you against. Second, it doesn’t make distinctions about right/wrong or good/bad; it just programs repeated lessons as habit. Every time you heard, “why didn’t you get an ‘A’ on your test,” the pain you felt unconsciously reinforced the belief that mistakes need to be avoided, thereby “wiring” you to fear new things.

In the present, if you try to change these habitual responses by thinking your way through them, you most certainly revert to the old habit. Why? You’re using the same “thinking” that created a bad habit to try to change the habit. As a former coach of mine said, “it’s like trying to wash off paint with paint.” But by coming to understand the roles and workings of the conscious and unconscious, you can begin to change the relationship that exists between the two, and thereby make bold new choices. 

Over the course of our lives, we’ve adopted a “false self,” the person we had to be to either gain approval or avoid pain. We now believe this is who we really are; we experience this self as so real that we can’t imagine it’s an artifact of the mind. So we keep trying harder in the external world, all the while ignoring, or even denying, our own internal world and its truth. 

This unconscious process creates the incessant stream of voices always going on in your head. If you believe you’re thinking consciously, or that my views on the unconscious make no sense, then try right now using your conscious mind to stop the voices of your unconscious mind. The futility of this exercise, for even one minute, say nothing of a lifetime, is evidence of how little willpower the “will” offers, and how we need something dramatically different if we are to learn to live more fully from the conscious mind.  

As the unconscious continues its work, it “listens” for how it can reinforce what it already knows. You may now see that the only way you can transform your life is to interrupt this incessant flow of “thought.” You do this through your awareness, and the practice that gets you there is noticing. By learning to simply recognize unconscious thinking, you break the chain. You’ve always had this “pattern recognition” skill, although you may not have used it to your benefit.  

A simple analogy may help. When you enter a crowded, noisy room, you can easily recognize the voice of a loved one despite the din of voices. You built this capability through repetitive noticing. Recognition allows you to choose to move toward, or away from, the voice. Similarly, by learning to recognize the voices of your unconscious, you gain the power to ignore them. That, in itself, is a conscious act, so you’re then free to make new choices. Without recognition, however, they continue to ‘run their story’ on you. A life consciously lived is a constant process of awareness that allows you to choose every thought and action, on purpose. The size and shape of your life, as defined by the context you choose, reflects your growing level of awareness.

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