The Subconscious Mind
Last week, we began to practice what it feels like to surrender and find a Higher Power at our center. We are Dropping the Story, shifting our focus from the content of our internal arguments to the felt-sense of our experience. We are Reaching In through journaling, self-reflection, conscious breathing, and meditation. We are Reaching Up through talking openly with our Higher Power. We are Reaching Out to others and witnessing how our thinking patterns and emotions change when we connect with safe people.
This week, let’s begin to explore our thinking patterns in greater depth by becoming more aware of our subconscious mind. We want to be careful to approach this exploration with the same open and loving awareness we have been practicing since Week One, creating space to allow all that we uncover. Even that which may appear dark or shameful at first glance can be welcomed into our journey as a stepping stone to a deeper, more awakened life.
Let’s begin to peel back the layers of unconscious thinking that make up 95% of our brain activity, according to cognitive neuroscientists. This statistic helps us understand what the yogis have known for centuries: we don’t always know what we’re really thinking or why. This unconscious haze can lead us into a state of self-deception, where our underlying motives are often hidden from us. How frequently do we pause to consider why we think the way we think or feel the way we feel? These aspects of self hide below the surface of our awareness, in the roots of our subconscious mind.
Our subconscious is shaped by our ego, personality, conditioning, and life experiences. All of these factors work together to create the paradigms through which we perceive life, like a massive pair of glasses that filters everything we see, hear, and experience. This filtering is a natural and unavoidable part of our human experience. However, the problem comes when we are totally unaware that we are wearing glasses! Without awareness, our perspective is skewed and limited. As Paul noted, “We see through a glass, darkly.”* When we awaken to and understand the lenses that impact our vision, we can open ourselves to entirely new ways of seeing the world.
Our program offers us a daily invitation to “check our glasses.” When we struggle to find center or make sense of our world, we need not see this as failure or disaster. Instead, this struggle can become our persistent reminder to look inward and upward, touch home, talk to God, and evaluate our perceptions. Instead of swimming in self-doubt, we can practice Reaching In, Up, and Out.
As we use mindfulness to identify, accept, and understand each thought, emotion, and narrative that surfaces, we become increasingly acquainted with our subconscious mind. We become acquainted with the seemingly endless stream of perceptions and sensations that make up our human experience. When we compare this incessant noise to the stillness we find at center, we can start to sense the many invisible layers between us and Truth. Presence clears the clutter and offers a direct portal to the Divine wisdom that exists in our unfiltered perception. This presence is a practice. As we work toward this ideal, we can bring an open mind to each situation we face, knowing we can safely question our perceptions. Awakening to our limits, although sometimes painful, is fertile ground for unprecedented growth. Coming to know our “glasses” helps keep our cup empty for a Higher Power to fill. We begin to approach life with unprecedented humility and curiosity.
Identifying the Subconscious Mind
In Week Five, we bring mindfulness to different aspects of our subconscious mind. Let’s use this model to consider new ways to understand our thoughts, feelings, and reactions. As we become aware of the glasses we wear, we increase our agency and gain the power to consciously choose.
This week, let’s explore the ego as taught by spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. Tolle defines the ego as a fundamental and universal mechanism of the human mind, different from the Western meaning of the word as arrogance or inflated self-esteem. We might connect the idea of this subconscious mechanism to the thoughts we observed in our Default Network during Week Two–protective, survival-minded, and sometimes irrational. Ego is born of separation, making it very “I”-centered and fear-driven. We might even think of it as the part of us that, at some point, woke up and realized we had been separated from God, from home. It feels alone and defensive, desperate to find a way to survive and matter.
The ego frames everything in terms of comparison (better-than, worse-than), always trying to prove our value. We might experience the ego as the driving urge to be special, different, unique, or exceptional. It can be the voice of the inner child that says, “But what about me?” when someone else succeeds or receives a compliment. It can be experienced as a sense of grasping or scarcity, the feeling of not enough: time, attention, love, or space. The ego finds security in being right, in control, and in labeling. The ego perceives criticism or questioning as a threat to its very existence. In fact, feeling threatened is one of its hallmark qualities. It is always trying to protect itself.
Discovering Tolle’s ego construct inside can serve us by awakening us to our dual nature: we are both humans and beings. As humans, we are temporary, storied, circumstantial, and limited. We have an identity, a culture, a family history, a background. We tend to grasp at pleasure, strive to matter, and define ourselves by our life situation. We appear as separate entities in separate bodies. Through the lens of ego, we are like solitary waves on the ocean, fearfully competing against all the other waves to be the highest, the strongest, the most majestic. We are alone and ungrounded in an endless sea of competitors, never escaping the inevitable fact that eventually, we will crash on the shore into oblivion.
But we are also Beings. The Being part of our nature is like the ocean itself: both timeless and limitless. Our Being is the Deep I we can find beneath our incessant stream of thoughts and emotions. We can find this Divine connection in meditation and stillness, stretching like an endless blue horizon at our very center. This stillness has the power to drive out egoic fear as it reconnects us to Divine Love. Instead of seeing in terms of fearful comparisons, our Being views others in terms of what connects us. Me too, it says, with a compassionate, open heart. Our Being sees beyond all the superficial dividers: it looks at the other waves and senses the essence of itself. Through the lens of Being, we are all the ocean, made up of the same Divine stuff. This Deep I is where we ground ourselves through our Daily Practice of movement and meditation.
Both aspects of our human nature work together to serve our life purpose, so let’s be careful not to judge our ego as bad. Like our brain’s Default Network, let’s remember that our ego is trying to protect us the best way it knows how. Its limitations can actually facilitate our greater purpose. When we blindly serve the ego, we suffer–sooner or later. This inevitable suffering encourages and compels us to turn to God. In this way, our ego can keep us close to the Divine, learning to rely on a Higher Power. And with practice, we can learn to wake ourselves up without such suffering. In fact, the moment we recognize and name the ego’s voice in our head, we have, in some measure, freed ourselves. In that moment of awakening, we have the awareness to make a conscious choice that better serves our more profound purpose. This awareness is the essence of our practice. It keeps us coming back, again and again, to our spiritual center.
This week, let’s practice identifying our egoic narratives and defensive urges. When we catch ourselves feeling comparison, fear, victim mentality, or defensiveness, we can pause. First, we can acknowledge and allow our narrative. We might even watch it move through us and notice the emotions that ride along with it. Then we can use our tools to surrender and put God at our center. We might say: “Oh! This is my ego trying to protect me! Hello, old friend. Permission to let go. I am putting my trust in something Higher.” In this place, we can lose the urge to self-protect, no longer concerned with making ourselves right, wrong, or special.
Rules & Beliefs
At LBS, our model of the subconscious mind also includes the rules and beliefs we have knowingly or unknowingly adopted. As we explore this part of ourselves, we may be surprised to realize how full it is of such subconscious constructs. So this week, let’s pause for opportunities to consider: Why might I be thinking or feeling this way? Is there an unwritten rule or belief this points to? Do I accept, reject, or remain undecided on this today?
It can be both scary and liberating to give ourselves permission to ask these types of questions. Rules and beliefs can play a positive role in our lives: providing structure, a sense of safety and identity, and helping us know our place in the world. But our vision can benefit greatly as we willingly hold these often-unquestioned filters up to the Light. We will find that some of our rules and beliefs serve us well, while others have been faulty from the start.
How can we tell the difference? We can use the light of our own experience and consider the fruits and felt-sense of each one. Generally speaking, rules that lead us to judge ourselves or others, or to believe that we can control people or situations, are unhelpful. Such rules set us up for what Buddhist psychology calls unhealthy mental states: grasping, aversion, and delusion. These can manifest in us through feelings of fear, anxiety, competition, hate, not-enoughness, closed-mindedness, and rigidity. Perhaps we can make a connection here back to the resistance we observed in Week One. A general sense of tightening and constriction in body, mind, and spirit can help us discern when a rule or belief may be putting us into resistance with what is: closing us off from love, from Light, from others, from God. Let’s bring mindfulness to such sensations and lean into our own discernment.
Conversely, helpful rules that foster acceptance, connection, and open-mindedness create what Buddhists call the healthy mental states of wisdom, love, and generosity. These give rise to mindfulness, confidence, graciousness, modesty, joy, insight, flexibility, clarity, equanimity, and kindness. We might connect these Buddhist ideals with Christianity’s gifts of the Spirit and appreciate the universal qualities of discernment that cut through culture and creed, manifesting in and through the body. We can trust the openness and peace we feel in body, mind, and spirit to help us discern when we are closer to Truth and healthier ways of thinking. As we consider our rules, we can be mindful of the fruits and felt-sense of each one, and consciously choose to move closer to healthier mindsets.
Many of us have endured painful experiences which have given rise to unhealthy and unhelpful subconscious narratives: perhaps “I must be perfect to be loved,” “I am fundamentally flawed,” or “I am unwanted.” These toxic beliefs are so common in Western cultures that entire books have been written about them, from Brene Brown’s “I Thought it Was Just Me (but it isn’t)” to “Healing the Core Wound of Unworthiness” by spiritual teacher Adyashanti. As we grow in our awareness, we can sense the egoic nature of these culturally influenced narratives: pointing us back to the “I” as a separate, limited, and fearful entity. As we bring awareness to the fearful ego, we can find freedom from such thoughts by reconnecting to our Deep I with God at our center.
Sometimes we arrive at these beliefs through simple thinking errors. Our well-intended efforts to make meaning of certain events can lead us to make assumptions about ourselves and others: this happens, and we mistakenly conclude it means that. For example, Mom pays more attention to my older sibling, and I mistakenly conclude it means that I am not loveable. We can think of such assumptions as grass seed scattered across our subconscious mind. The healing work we do here aims to help us identify where each seedling occurred and allow us to dig them up over time. As we discover these now-almost-invisible plants across the landscape of our mind, we can hold them up to the Light and watch how they naturally heal and mend under the illumination of a Higher Power.
It can be painful to face the fundamental beliefs that feed our fears, coping strategies, bad habits, and darkest selves. It can be especially unsettling to realize that some of the beliefs we cling to as good may actually be causing harm to us and others. But it is liberating to realize that we have the choice to believe something different. With every rule or belief we uncover, we can try to find the empty cup to ask, “Do I accept, reject, or remain undecided on this today? What does my heart and my Higher Power tell me?”
At LBS, our subconscious mind also includes our values. We might think that values are something we consciously define for ourselves. But this week, let’s consider the 95% of our brain that is hidden from view and allow ourselves to get curious about what we truly value. We can do this by paying particular attention to our feelings: our emotions can show us a lot about our subconscious. When we feel a strong emotion arise inside of us, we might practice a mindful pause and a kind curiosity, asking:
“What is this emotion showing me about what I value?”
Instead of getting hooked into the emotion itself, or the story that goes with it, we can allow the felt-sense to inform us of what our heart holds dear. Suffocating sadness can show us how deeply we have loved. Rage, anxiety, or fear might show us that we sense a threat to something we desperately value. Such a reframe can help us detach from strong, disturbing emotional reactions and instead wisely honor, appreciate, and respond to the information our body is sharing through our emotions. Even amidst painful feelings, we can celebrate the integrity and courage it takes to care.
Sometimes, as emotions arise, we may find that we overvalue or undervalue certain aspects of our lives. For example, suppose we feel great anxiety when we skip a workout, fight with our closet, eat something indulgent, go without makeup, etc. In that case, we might consider what is motivating the emotion: perhaps we are overly concerned with self-control, other people’s approval, or outward appearance? Bringing consciousness to our emotions allows us to identify, examine, and intentionally shift our values. This process can be constructive when we feel a dissonance with our conscious ideals but aren’t sure where it’s coming from. We can investigate:
“How does this value align with the person I want to be? Is there something I need to let go of? How can I create space to process this emotion in a healthy way and honor that which I value?”
When our conscious thoughts and emotions don’t line up, it is our emotions that we can trust. Our emotions do not lie: they tell the true story of where we are in each moment. In contrast, our logical mind can play all sorts of tricky games with us: it may tell us we value something because it matches the story we want to believe about ourselves or because we were told to value it as a child. Listening to our emotions can help us know ourselves better and discover the flaws in our glasses. However, listening to our emotions does not mean that they are True or that we should always act on them. Instead, our emotions offer an open invitation to reflect on our “Real but not true” mantra. We can honor and hold all that we feel as real, even as we mindfully investigate the truth of the underlying thoughts and beliefs creating the emotions.
Emotions rise and fall according to the narratives and belief systems that make up our glasses in each moment. They just are, almost as automatic as our heartbeat and natural breath. As we take time to allow our emotions, to sit with them and hold them up to the Light, we can trace them back to the deep, sometimes hidden narratives or past traumas that trigger them. In our safe space of allowing and acceptance, we can become aware of the glasses we didn’t know we were wearing, beliefs we didn’t know we held. We can see more clearly where we still need healing. Over time and through the Light of a Higher Power, we can choose to replace each limiting belief, unhelpful thinking pattern, or misplaced value with Truth.
This week, as we become more acquainted with our subconscious mind, let’s remember to Reach In, Reach Up, and Reach Out. With God at our center, we can find the space to allow all that we uncover. Let’s remember to journal and note how we see our glasses materialize as we observe, allow, drop the story, and explore the felt-sense of each thought, feeling, or belief we can catch. Let’s not worry about trying to catch them all or feed into a sense of overwhelm. We can trust that our Higher Power can make “all things right” within us. Our job is to just take our next right step and surrender to His will.