What is the Unconscious?

Trying to define the unconscious is difficult because it’s another one of those terms that’s been used in so many ways. It’s also hard to pin down because the unconscious really isn’t a ‘thing,’ but rather a collection of processes, sometimes quite frozen, that exist outside of our awareness. So, hoping not to be held too rigidly to any fixed notion, in these writings the term will be used to refer primarily to those thoughts, feelings, and impulses that have been pushed out of our awareness because they are too painful, threatening, or contradictory. Included in this definition are all the caring and compassionate feelings, and the deeply affirming and creative forces, that become lost-from-sight, or buried, because we feel they are in some way undeserved.

Operationally we might define the unconscious as being about those ‘awarenesses’ that lead to some form of anxiety or depression as they begin moving into consciousness. Sometimes we don’t have a clue about what’s there; at others, our awareness can be iceberg-like in that we think we know what’s there, but actually most of it lies beneath the surface; or veiled and hazy, somehow inchoate. As unconscious material moves towards consciousness, anxiety increases.

Feelings that are defended against in the present are usually connected with a series of earlier repressions linking them to the past – a bit like a string of pearls, but more difficult. Experiencing one layer can lead to other, more forbidden layers; and through this stripping away process the unconscious becomes conscious. As all this unfolds we free ourselves from the self-limiting and toxic nature of each layer, and from the pain-producing defenses that lead to self-isolation and self-defeat.

A significant part of the dynamic here is that unconscious impulses function in our lives as if they were real, as if we had actually acted on them, so a key feature of allowing the unconscious into consciousness is that we finally recognize that we’re only dealing with feelings, thoughts and impulses — not actuality. We may dream endlessly of being totally lost, but we wake up in our own bed. Likewise, if we do something hurtful in a dream the guilt can be intense, but when we open our eyes, as the saying goes, “there’s no blood on our hands.” While dreaming, or when these kinds of feelings/thoughts/impulses have become activated, the corresponding guilt arises along with them. The point here, as with Dharma practice, is that in order to free ourselves, we have to wake up out of the dream.