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Understand the Conscious and Subconscious Minds

In this article you’ll learn about the conscious and subconscious minds, how they relate to one another, and how they operate.

It’s crucial you know that the conscious and subconscious minds have an enormous influence on your levels of fulfilment and success.

Think of the conscious mind as all the inner material you’re aware of, like emotions, thoughts, and mental and emotional habits. The subconscious is all the inner stuff you aren’t aware of, and in some ways it underlies the conscious mind.

Let’s look in depth at the subconscious.

What Is The Subconscious?

Let’s start out by clarifying what we mean by the subconscious. There are several ways to look at the subconscious, and all of them are useful for our purposes.

What is the subconscious really?

Overall, we can consider the subconscious to be all of the YOU that is hidden from your first-person experience of you.

You see, being human is a complicated affair. Biologically and psychologically we’re unimaginably complex, so complex that the majority of our workings are hidden from our conscious mind. You must remember this as you read on.

Let’s now tease apart various points of view on the subconscious.

Conscious and Subconscious Mind: The Subconscious as a Set of Unconscious Drives

First, the concept of the subconscious is often used to refer to the aspects of our psychology that operate behind the scenes, below the level of awareness. In this sense, it consists of all the beliefs, attitudes, opinions and models we hold without knowing it.

This includes the shadow – all of our darker desires that we’ve attempted to shunt from our personality. These vary from from repressed anger and aggression, to denied sexual desires, to unacknowledged feminine or masculine traits.

As Freud and Jung exquisitely explained in their work, this part of our mind constantly sends us signals so that we can embrace it and become wholler human beings. It’s up to us to learn the language of this mind and befriend it, thus befriending our hidden selves.

This is usually all hidden from you, hence it is part of the subconscious.

Conscious and Subconscious Mind: The Subconscious as Habits

It’s also used to describe instinctual movements and habituated actions, like typing or driving or pouring. When learning to perform an action, our conscious mind registers successful trials, and we correct our behaviour before repeating.

Past a critical tipping point, the new behaviour becomes programmed and operates without our being aware of it. We’re on autopilot. Seriously – when was the last time you thought about how to walk?

From this point of view, it’s the puppet master pulling us – the unassuming puppets – as it pleases. Some say it’s responsible for 95% of everything we do and for the phenomenon of homeostasis in our mind and body.

Conscious and Subconscious Mind: The Subconscious as a Storage Unit

Another perspective is that it’s a ginormous storage unit. And unlike the conscious mind, which only registers a small fraction of all sensory input, the subconscious mind registers all of it. It does so with no filter – that is, it doesn’t distinguish positive and pleasant phenomena from negative and unpleasant ones.

As Brian Tracy tells us in this article, by the time we reach the age of 21, we’ve already permanently stored more than one hundred times the contents of the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

It’s like a giant, impersonal register of everything we’ve ever experienced, including our own thoughts. Everything goes in there – good, bad, ugly and beautiful. This is one reason why childhood trauma and parental influence determine our behaviour so strongly. Early experiences are etched into the subconscious and remain there for years and decades, constantly influencing us.

Because of its enormous storage power, it drives much of our personality, reactions, patterns of behaviour and emotional life. Though this operates without our knowing it, Gil Mayer reminds us that our subconscious communicates in the form of memories, impulses and emotions. For example, we access our subconscious every night in the dream state, where it transmits wisdom and messages through elaborate metaphors and symbolic images.

Conscious and Subconscious Mind: Freud’s Three-Level Model

Sigmund Freud’s three-level model of the mind further divides the mind, distinguishing between the conscious and subconscious and unconscious levels.

Level 1 – Conscious

The conscious level of the mind includes all sensory information – we can directly access this from moment to moment. Sounds, sights, emotions and thoughts are all artifacts of the conscious mind. This is a key vehicle for self-understanding, and often the deeper levels send up material to our interior life as signposts to our subconscious content.

Level 2 – Subconscious

This encompasses all the automatic behaviours that we can become cogniscent of. Classic examples include the ability to walk, drive a car, or play a musical instrument. Through our practice and repetition, the individual components of those actions have blended into a seamless, effortless whole. But if we retrace our steps, chopping the movements into pieces, we realise what was required to perform them.

I’d extend this to include thoughts and emotions that are habitual but remain semi-conscious – with some self-reflection and awareness of our inner world, we can identify the patterns that govern us.

Level 3 – Unconscious

Freud’s idea of the unconscious covers all those thoughts, emotions, behaviours, memories and events that we can’t access with the conscious mind. They’re buried, out of reach of our waking awareness.

The Subconscious As An Interceptor Missile

In self-help circles, the subconscious is framed as the entity responsible for our results and accomplishments – or lack thereof. There’s much talk of manifesting, positive vibrations, and energy. But let’s get serious. When it comes to success, goals and personality change, what role does the subconscious play?

Here’s what surgeon-turned-therapist Maxwell Maltz said about the subconscious mind:

the so-called “subconscious mind” is not a “mind” at all, but a mechanism—a “servo-mechanism” consisting of the brain and nervous system, which is used by, and directed by mind.

Maxwell Maltz

When it comes to achieving goals, the subconscious acts like a heat-seeking missile. Once programmed with a target, it goes in search of it. On its journey, it autocorrects and adjusts to pursue its objective, using the information and feedback it receives. This is how cybernetics system function, and the human brain is one of the most complex cybernetic systems yet discovered.

This points to a crucial aspect of goal-setting: we must focus on the goal, not the obstacles, the “how-to”, or any other mental blocks or sources of doubt. We must allow the subconscious mind to take over.

In fact, by focusing on all the reasons why our chosen vision can’t come to fruition, we merely programme this powerful goal-seeking mechanism with a negative target, and you’ll be amazed to see how quickly you nose dive towards it. Instead, choose to have defiant faith in the power of this dynamic and burn compelling goals into your mind.

the subconscious mind will translate into reality a thought driven by fear just as readily as a thought driven by courage, or faith.

Napoleon Hill

I hope this has helped you grasp the subconscious mind in relation to the conscious mind. Check out my article on how to programme the subconscious to learn how to deliberately influence it.