I would like to write about the unconscious, since working with and befriending the unconscious is a key feature of living a deeply satisfying life. The psychotherapist Carl Jung said, “My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious” and the title of a talk Suzuki Roshi gave at Stanford University years ago was, “Zen Beyond Self-consciousness.”
One fascinating parallel between western psychology and Buddhist psychology is the belief that our conscious mind is just the tip of an iceberg, the rest of which we are generally not conscious.
We drive to work every morning, leaving home and arriving at work, but not recalling much about the drive or even paying attention to where and how we park. And we often move through each of our activities, habitually doing things with little or no awareness of our unconscious thoughts or feelings, even though these thoughts may cause painful emotions. These may include statements that we heard many times from a critical parent, teacher, or significant. They became over-learned and lodged deeply in our psyches so they affect our everyday lives without our even knowing it.
There’s a division within Western psychology about the degree to which these unconscious processes are accessible and changeable. In Freud’s view, not only is the unconscious impossible to directly observe, we are utterly at its mercy. However, we can access it by visiting a therapist a couple of times a week or more and relaxing enough to allow our chattering mind to slow down so these deep memories can be elicited. Insight into them frees us from being at their mercy.
Practitioners of modern psychodynamic psychology have maintained one key point of Freud’s in particular. They believe that we can all develop insights into how stored memories from our childhood affect us so they don’t plague us. We can release repressed traumas, anger, sexual frustration, the fear of death, which are lodged in our unconscious. Here’s an example from my own life:
About 30 years ago I was seeing a therapist to help me deal with a work difficulty, a fear I was having of an older woman at work who unpredictably erupted in anger. Kay served in an administrative capacity, but technically had no power over me. As I looked into this with the support of my therapist, I realized that my fear was a projection of fear I felt in my childhood about my own mother’s angry outbursts. I had over-learned the need to flee from my own mother’s anger to such a degree that I was projecting this feeling on another older woman.
Our experience is not only something we cannot control because of the power of projections like these, generally we are not even aware of them. For some time I had wondered why was I afraid of Kay. With the support of my therapist, I learned to see the projections from my mother and little by little free myself of them.
Most modern psychodynamic therapists, influenced by both Carl Jung and Milton Erikson, believe that the unconscious has a positive side which Freud did not see, a side which we can draw on to become more authentic.
Jung is especially close to Buddhist teachers in positing a collective unconscious, which is common to all humanity. This is a shared storehouse holding latent memories from our ancestral and evolutionary past, which Jung believed we can access through therapy, dream interpretation, active imagination, and even meditation.
Both many Western thinkers and Buddhists believe that we can train ourselves to be more open to this deeper part, allowing hidden thoughts and hints to flow upward. Inventors do this, as well as explorers and artists and scholars, creativity in any walk of life requires it. Many of us know about Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, engineer, and inventor. He had been putting tremendous effort into thinking about a seemingly unsolvable problem, which he stopped thinking about and lowered himself into a hot bath. As he was relaxing in the tub, he noticed that the water level rose and suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. He then realized that the volume of irregular objects could be measured with precision, leapt out of his bathtub and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse, shouting EUREKA (I have found it)!
Through meditation or some other form of mind quieting, each of us can calm our conscious minds. When internal chatter is no longer impinging, deeper insights which are always near us, may arise, and we can live our lives with more moment to moment clarity and fewer projections.
At the end of his life, Jung suggested that human nature resembled the twin sons of Zeus and Leda: “We are that pair, one of whom is mortal and the other immortal, and who, though always together, can never be made completely one” (i.e. the conscious and the unconscious).
Some interesting neurological studies have been done that give some support to Jung’s insight—research on the left hemisphere and right hemisphere of the brain. The left is the logical, analytic, mathematical side. It is the seat of linguistic consciousness, which enables us to describe and think about the world. The right hemisphere, in contrast, is responsible for our orientation in space, our body image, our ability recognition faces, and various artistic efforts. But it’s completely silent. It’s the seat of unconscious awareness that cannot be coded in language. The process of meditation enables us to activate awareness within the right side. Focusing attention in the present suspends left brain executive functions so that the resources of the unconscious can be available to us.
It seems that our well being depends on the capacity of the right hemisphere to “read” and delight in the textures and patterns of world beyond language.
Here’s an interchange from Chinese Zen in about 900 CE:
When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked,
“What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”
Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”
The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”
Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”
We have a deep power beneath the clutter and distractions of normal thought, which our right hemisphere allows us to tune into. Even though modern research in brain science occurred after my teacher’s death, I am quite sure that this is what he was referring to when he talked about Zen beyond self-consciousness.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher