By Ken Ward
The king of the Ancient Greek Gods, Zeus gave Pandora a box, with instructions never to open it. She was also given the gift of curiosity, which made her unable to resist opening the box and releasing the miseries and perils of Mankind. This story is told in many forms in many cultures, including the story of Eve and the Serpent in Genesis. The common denominator of these stories may be the universal unconscious mind. In some way we keep our miseries trapped in a box so they cannot hurt us. And we try to push any negative thoughts and experiences into this box so they cannot affect us.
This is a negative view of the unconscious mind, typical of the Ancient Greeks, but even here, we are told that opening the box also released hope, suggesting the box also contained items of great value to humanity.
The Ancient Greeks seemed to be somewhat ignorant about the mind, as we think of it. For instance, in writing about thinking, they would refer to it as a conversation with the Gods. In the Iliad, Homer never refers to the heroes actually thinking. In every case he speaks of them conversing with a God. Even in Plato's Socratic Dialogues, Plato does not speak, as we would, of Socrates thinking, but says he has a demon with which he converses. The Greeks seemed to believe, like us, that thinking and intuitions came from somewhere other than the conscious mind. Because these mental phenomena did not come from the visible world, the Greeks considered them to come from the invisible world, populated by Gods and Demons. Referring to the same phenomenon, we would say they originate in the unconscious mind.
Traumatic Memories Become Unconscious
The Greeks also had a way of handling traumatic incidents which was similar to that used in the West after the Second World War. At the Oracle in Delphi, the priestesses would find traumatic memories and induce an emotional reaction in an attempt to cure the sufferer.
According to Freud and others, the unconscious mind contains these traumatic memories and other 'unthinkable' memories - memories that have never really been consciously experienced and therefore available to recall - which are not easily available to the conscious mind. While the conscious mind is unaware of them, they nevertheless affect it and are considered the source of many human woes including mental disorders and psychosomatic diseases. Hypnotic regression therapy is one psychological approach to traumatic memories and Mind Development Courses also necessarily take account of them.
Certainly some processes and memories cause problems and their elimination seems desirable. For instance, after the First World War, some soldiers returned with a mental condition, which was referred to as 'shell shocked.' In one case, an ex-soldier was mocked by children who would sneak up behind him and then shout "Bang!" He would fall to the ground. The children would laugh and run away. While dropping to the ground was inappropriate in the normal world, in the War it was quite rational. Without this process of falling to the ground, soldiers would be more likely to be killed or injured by exploding shells.
Is it possible that the same unconscious processes that create worries and phobias might be similar to the processes that stimulate works of art and invention? Could the unconscious mind be an asset to the culture of humanity?
The Creative Unconscious
The Greeks also had a positive notion of the unconscious mind. Artists and players were said to have a muse, which would guide them in their art. (The muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, and were protectors of the arts and sciences). Like their view of the source of negative influences, the Greeks appeared to view the source of artistic or scientific inspiration and intuition as coming from somewhere outside the conscious mind -- in the invisible world. They referred to these sources as goddesses. While Pandora's box, as the unconscious mind, can be thought of as the source of woe, we can expand our view of it to include within it an incredible source of artistic and scientific knowledge and inspiration. An artist who is temporarily short of ideas might say, "My muse has deserted me," indicating that the process of creation is an unconscious process. In recent times, this unconscious mind has been called the cognitive unconscious.
Sometimes we can clearly show that the mind is affected by unconscious processes, and that these effects are both novel and verifiable. A creative idea in art could be viewed as a random variation in a pattern. But when these 'muses' provide guidance that improves our understanding of science or mathematics, we may detect clear intelligence in these unconscious processes.
The Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920), claimed that the Hindu Goddess Namagiri whispered his famous formulae to him. These formulae came to him complete. He was, however, left with the task of proving them. His colleagues in Cambridge never actually believed he would die so young and so never really got round to exploring the source of his amazing equations. To be realistic about this 'magical' ability, it is worth noting: some of his equations were wrong; others were already known -- but a vast majority were amazing and innovative.
While we might say that Ramanujan received his intuitions from the unconscious mind, it is astonishing and very difficult to explain how this could be. However, it is true and there are many other examples of this happening.
In 1665, the young Isaac Newton wrote down the binomial formula (he is credited with its discovery) -- but he left no indication how he discovered it! It seems it just popped into his head! While artistic intuition can be described as amazing, scientific intuition (wherein the actual result can be tested) is incredible. The unconscious mind, the muses, or Pandora's box, can be considered startling, as when the five-year-old Mozart composes music, and it can be considered incredible when mathematicians, like Ramenujan, receive complete formula, seemingly from nowhere, which are, previously quite unknown. We can imagine that the unconscious mind works and computes these ideas in the background. But what can we say when the unconscious mind reveals knowledge about the real world that was previously unknown.
In 1865, the chemist Frederich August Kekulé was struggling to understand how the atoms in the molecule benzene were arranged. Having fallen asleep he had a dream of a snake biting its own tail and conceived the benzene ring. This innovative discovery revolutionised organic chemistry, enabling chemists to write out their formulae. Kekulé believed that his idea was merely a convenience, yet after the discovery of x-ray crystallography, chemists could view the molecules of benzene and verify directly that they were exactly as Kekulé had imagined. The unconscious mind had not merely invented something new, it had given a revelation about reality, which could not be verified for decades after!
The examples above are merely a few of many illustrating how the unconscious mind can deliver works of beauty, innovation and even discovery -- complete and fully formed -- as an act of revelation or intuition.
The most famous example of intuition, sudden insight or revelation is that of the Ancient Greek Archimedes who was taking a bath and pondering on the problem of how to check whether the king's gold had been diluted with lead. He had a sudden insight of the answer, leapt out of the bath, and (oblivious to his nakedness) ran through the streets of Syracuse, crying "Eureka!"
In the above, we have referred to phenomena that arise neither from the conscious mind, nor from the external real world, but as arising from the unconscious mind. Nowadays, people often wrongly assume that negative aspects of behavior come from the unconscious mind and the positive ones from the conscious mind. Something similar was believed in older times when the mind as a whole (as we conceive it now) was viewed as containing the devil, man and god - and the unconscious parts were viewed as something external to the self. The evil parts of humans were relegated to the devil (sinful drives and impulses), the faithful human was the conscious mind, and the holy aspects of a person were attributed to God (the "super-consciousness"). Both in the cases of the good and the bad, the experiences and influences were considered to be outside the person - the unconscious and Superconscious.
Freud's understanding of the Unconscious
Sigmund Freud divided the mind into layers. He called our normal awareness “the I”, but it is translated into English as the Ego. According to Freud, most of our inner life goes on outside awareness. Part of this is the subconscious, which contains material just outside our awareness that we can fairly easily recall. The deep part of the unconscious mind, which Freud called “it” was translated into English as “the id”. The Id is our Pandora's box, which we fear to look inside.
The “box” that holds the hidden memories is really defense mechanisms, including suppression, invalidation and failure to acknowledge what seems too awful for us even to be aware of.
Over human history there has been an evolving understanding and application of the unconscious mind, both in understanding human woes and in understanding our genius. In the near future we may observe new discoveries and new opportunities made available through this greater understanding.
Now and in the past, in the tradition of the mystic or the psychologist, the aim was to extend the awareness of the conscious mind (the Ego or the human personality) to experience the unconscious mind and even the super-consciousness, so that relationships between ideas could be accessed, with the idea of discovering universal truths. In many mystical, magical and psychological processes, the aim was to eliminate the unconscious mind, like draining a polluted lake. One reason this might not be wise is that the same unconscious processes might be used to produce either the good or the bad depending on the circumstances.
As Freud writes in An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940)...
It can easily be imagined, too, that certain practices of mystics may succeed in upsetting the normal relations between the different regions of the mind, so that, for example, the perceptual system becomes able to grasp relations in the deeper layers of the Ego and in the Id which would otherwise be inaccessible to it. Whether such a procedure can put one in possession of ultimate truths, from which all good will flow, may be safely doubted. All the same, we must admit that the therapeutic efforts of psycho-analysis have chosen much the same method of approach. For their object is to strengthen the Ego, to make it more independent of the Superego, to widen its field of vision, and so to extend its organization that it can take over new portions of the Id. Where Id was, there shall Ego be.
It is reclamation work, like the draining of the Zuyder Zee. However, without any method of reality checking, the finding of truths from within the unconscious is optimistic. The therapeutic efforts of psycho-analysis, with in-depth introspection guided by the analyst, have little means to distinguish genuine insight from the analyst's dogma nor the patient's delusions. The process of incremental introspection adopted in Mind Development and especially in The Insight Project, taking advantage of the objective guidance provided by biofeedback, erases the influence of dogma and delusion, stripping them off layer by layer, gradually revealing meaningful truth.
The Cognitive Unconscious
Freud studied the affective unconscious; however, there is another unconscious which is labelled the cognitive unconscious. Here is a full article about the Cognitive Unconscious. Over the past two decades, a new picture of the cognitive unconscious has emerged from a variety of disciplines that are broadly part of cognitive science. According to this picture, unconscious processes seem to be capable of doing many things that were thought to require intention, deliberation, and conscious awareness. Moreover, they accomplish these things without the conflict and drama of the affective unconscious. These processes range from complex information processing, through goal pursuit and emotions, to cognitive control and self-regulation. It may be that this cognitive unconscious is the source of the many remarkable scientific discoveries that appeared to come from nowhere (such as those mentioned above, including Kekulé's discovery).
The unconscious mind is involved in the normal running of the body both in health and disease, such as healing wounds. If we cut ourselves, we do not know how to heal the wound or to prevent infections and diseases entering the body, but 'the body' knows how to do this. Small injuries are healed naturally and with little bother, but if a wound does not heal, it may be that it cannot be made to do so. This process of healing can be thought of as another aspect of the unconscious mind.
For a long time, perhaps many centuries, the mainstream Western world believed that thinking could not affect the body and illness. The reason was that there were no known links between the central nervous system and the immune system. However, in recent years more careful anatomical studies have shown that there is a close and intimate connection between the central nervous system and the immune system. In the last 30 years a new science of neuroimmunology has developed, studying the relationship between the brain, immune system and emotions and thinking.
These processes are not conscious, but are to some degree under conscious control, or can be mediated through thinking and through behaviour. This has led various mainstream practitioners to assert that by changing our thinking and our habitual affective responses, we can change our health.
We can therefore consider another role to the unconscious mind, perhaps by suggesting a 'body mind' that is concerned with normal body functions and with handling illness. This can be thought of as a mind because it is influenced by thinking, emotion and behaviour. This is not a new idea because, for example, qi gong is a form of treatment that claims to affect the immune system, laughter has long been considered a way to improve not only well being, but also general health. And certain psychological techniques (such as psychotherapy) are known to affect the body's capacity to fight or recover from disease.
The automated processes and habitual behavior patterns that run the body are the result of genetically installed or learned behaviors. They are of course vital unconscious functions that take up much of the brain's processing power. Freud calls this part of the mind the 'structural unconscious.' Some aspects of this structure are inaccessible to conscious change but others may be accessed with extreme concentration (such as the Buddhist monks who learn to raise their body temperature when exposed to freezing conditions) or with the help of biofeedback techniques. Learned habits such as ways of sitting or walking, or riding a bicycle, may be adjusted by the extensive conscious practice of new methods, overlearning the behavior until it has been permanently installed.
From another tradition, the Kahuna, the unconscious mind or low self is viewed as a communicator between the conscious mind and the super conscious or higher self. In this example, the unconscious mind is not viewed as any sort of devil but as an important mechanism to be used wisely.
It seems then, from our enquiry, that in ancient times these invisible, non-conscious influences were thought of as gods, angels or demons, but today we are more likely to think of these unconscious processes -- that produce human needs and drives, that create human woes, that stimulate the ideas that produce new art and science, and that affect our health -- as part of the unconscious mind.
The unconscious is also perceived as including our spiritual nature, the Superconscious, which may at times of clarity and insight meld into consciousness. Within the system of Mind Development, this expansion of our spiritual awareness is taught and facilitated by The Insight Project.
Instead of blaming a god or demon for our misfortunes and similarly for our acts of brilliance and good fortune, we are now more likely to accept that these are the result of our inner nature, for which we need to take responsibility.
About Ken Ward...
Ken started the original version of the trans4mind.com site with Peter Shepherd back in 1996 when it was at four-d.u-net.co.uk, and then on the trans4mind.com domain itself in 1998. At that time, Ken and Peter (who had both been Mind Development students) had co-written the New Life Course Course, as an introductory setup for The Insight Project, an advanced spiritual development course that Peter was already running in UK independent from the Internet. On this new site, Ken was writing prolifically and created a huge site of his own within trans4mind at Freeing Your Mind - take a look, you'll see he has an amazing mind.