In this piece I am going to focus on the unconscious in general and in the next piece I am going to discuss it from a Yogacara Buddhist perspective. Many years ago my teacher, Suzuki Roshi, gave a talk at the college I was attending titled “Zen Beyond Self-Consciousness.” At that time I had also been doing independent study with a professor on the work of Carl Jung, who said, “My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious.” I immediately noticed the similarities.
Western psychologists and Buddhists (followers of Yogacara in particular), agree that our conscious mind is just an iceberg floating in an ocean of being. So much of our experience happens beyond the limitations of the conscious mind. We drive to work every morning, leaving home and arriving at work, but not paying attention to much of anything. Sometimes we don’t even pay attention to where we are parking. Furthermore, we all have thoughts that we aren’t conscious of, many of which may cause painful emotions. These generally come from statements that we heard as kids from a critical parent, teacher, or significant other. We have overlearned them, so they come up automatically in situations of stress. Both Western psychologists and Buddhist teachers commonly understand what I have pointed out so far.
Between the Buddhist tradition and the western psychological tradition, there are a fissures regarding understanding the unconscious, although there are many more commonalities. There are also fissures within the Western tradition itself. One of the main ones is disagreement about the degree to which automatic/unconscious processes are accessible and changeable. In Freud’s view, not only is the unconscious impossible to directly observe, we are generally at its mercy, which is why so much time needs to be spent with a therapist “on the couch” allowing unconscious material to rise spontaneously into conscious awareness.
In contrast to this, therapists from the Jungian tradition as well as modern psychodynamic practitioners believe the unconscious can be accessed in a variety of ways and we can develop insights into how negative material effects us so we aren’t plagued by it. Memories and emotions that we have repressed too often appear in the form of trauma, anger, sexual frustration, and other fears, including death. And they can spill out into our lives in all kinds of ways that inhibit our ability to be fully present in our lives.
When I was a young program director in a non-profit agency, we had an office manager, who would sometimes have angry outbursts that I found frightening. As my thoughts and feelings about her came up in my meditation, I realized that she had some similarities to my own mother. A simple grimace of hers put me on guard, ready to freeze or flee (fighting was too scary). Often it seems that we cannot control emotions that come from childhood projections, but if we see both where the projection comes from and what the trigger is, we can become free of them. Fortunately, I was able to do both of these things.
Modern psychodynamic therapists who have been influenced by people like Carl Jung and Milton Erikson believe that we can access the unconscious quite easily and simply without spending “days on the couch.” As we learn to open to it and draw from it, we become more authentic. Followers of Jung believe that there are two levels of the unconscious: the personal and the collective. This collective unconscious is common to all humanity. It is a shared storehouse holding latent memories from our ancestral and evolutionary past. For Jungians, therapy, dream interpretation, active imagination, and meditation can all be avenues for exploration. Others, like Milton Erikson, trauma therapists, and proponents of EMDR think that the best thing to do may be to bypass the conscious mind entirely. Only through directly accessing our unconscious thoughts, feelings, and sensations, we can experience some genuine liberation.
We can train ourselves to be more open to this deeper part of ourselves, allowing hidden thoughts and feelings to flow upward. Inventors do this, as well as explorers, artists and scholars. This is what creativity is all about. Many of us are familiar with the story about the famous Greek mathematician, engineer, and inventor, Archimedes. He had been struggling with a deep problem for some time and couldn’t seem to make any headway on it. So he gave up and relaxed into a bath. As he noticed the water level rise, he suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. He also 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, exclaiming “Eureka… I have found it!”
When we calm our conscious minds and internal chatter no longer impinges on us, deep insights may emerge at any moment. They are always near and available to us. All we need to do is notice them and take them in.
When we do this with meditation or some similar activity we are able to both bypass the left hemisphere of our brain, which is logical, analytic, mathematical, and tap into the right side, which is silent and yet is the seat of unconscious awareness.
Focusing attention in the present suspends left-brain executive functions so that the resources of the unconscious can be quite easily accessed. We develop capacity of the right hemisphere to “read” and delight in the textures and patterns of world beyond language:
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.”
This is, as my teacher said, when he gave a talk at my college many years ago, “Zen Beyond Self-consciousness.”
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher