What’s the Problem with the “Unconscious?”


Unconscious, Subconscious

(This is a section from the text, “Words and Concepts That Are and Are Not Conducive to Enlightenment.”)

Since Freud, the unconscious or subconscious has often been understood to be the source of dreams, automatic thoughts, slips of the tongue and forgotten memories. Dreams are typically viewed by both depth and transpersonal psychologies as expressions of the unconscious mind. Freud not only believed there were such things as unconscious thoughts, but that sexuality was the source of them. The terms “unconscious” and “subconscious” also create the context for defense mechanisms, probably Freud’s greatest and most lasting contribution to the field of psychology. Concepts like “repression” and “suppression,” “projection, and “sublimation,” which are so useful that we can hardly imagine explaining life without them, scarcely make sense without implying the existence of something like the unconscious or subconscious as places where these defenses “live.”

Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, developed the concept of the unconscious further. He agreed with Freud that the unconscious is a determinant of personality, but he proposed that it was better devided into the personal and collective unconscious. For Jung, the unconscious contains both the subconscious mind, the personal unconscious and their various components, such as archetypes, impulses, and dream characters. The personal unconscious is for Jung a reservoir of material that was once conscious but has been forgotten or suppressed, much like Freud’s notion of the unconscious. The collective unconscious, however, is the deepest level of the psyche, containing the accumulation of inherited psychic structures and archetypal experiences. Archetypes are not memories but images with universal meanings that are apparent in the culture’s use of inherited symbols in the unconscious that show up both in dreams and are externalized in art, architecture, and relationships. The collective unconscious is therefore said to be inherited and contain material of an entire species rather than of an individual. Every person shares his or her collective unconscious with the entire human race, as Jung puts it: [the] “whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution, born anew in the brain structure of every individual.”

However, problems arise with the concept of the unconscious and therefore the various subdivisions within it. Erich Fromm, another psychiatrist who is best known for his best seller, The Art of Loving, thought that “…the term ‘the unconscious’ is actually a mystification…There is no such thing as the unconscious; there are only experiences of which we are aware, and others of which we are not aware, that is, of which we are unconscious. If I hate a man because I am afraid of him, and if I am aware of my hate but not of my fear, we may say that my hate is conscious and that my fear is unconscious; still my fear does not lie in that mysterious place: ‘the’ unconscious.” Fromm is pointing out that to locate such processes and experiences in the unconscious mind is to imply there is some one definite space or place where they occur, in the “mind.” But the mind is hardly unitary, nor does it occupy some definite space other than “the interior of consciousness.” When you give the location of the contents of your unawareness a name, you are turning a process, “unawareness,” into a stable, static, real thing, – the unconscious. What is process now possesses ontological reality for you, not because it is real, but because you have defined it as real. You now enter into a magical, and as Fromm says, “mystical” relationship with your own conceptual delusion. If it were a helpful delusion, like the word “rock,” that signifies an actually existing thing, then it might be worth keeping, however, while the unconscious, like all delusions, has its adaptive uses, in balance for some, including Fromm and myself, it does more harm than good, just like any other cognitive distortion.

John Searle has pointed out that the concept of the unconscious is incoherent, because thoughts, are by nature either thought or capable of being thought, while the concept of the unconscious posits thoughts that can never be thought. This is an example of how the concepts of the unconscious and subconscious can be understood as rational cognitive distortions in addition to perceptual ones.

The idea of an unconscious resembles in some respects the idea of a personal afterlife. Your thoughts and feelings are like ghosts or spirits, which do not just die. Instead, they continue to live, full form, and can either haunt you by incoherent urges and desires from “the other side” or “reincarnate” when they erupt anew, fully grown, into consciousness.

Is this myth realistic? When your thoughts or feelings “die,” that is, are forgotten, do they go into dark inner holes, niches, or compartments to sleep until resurrected, like Dracula? Buddhism points toward a far more reasonable and probable explanation. Its doctrine of skandhas, which addresses the creation and maintenance of our sense of self, has been applied to explain consciousness that is out of awareness without resorting to a concept like the “unconscious” for over two thousand years. Because all things arise interdependently, Buddhism refuses to talk about the existence of anything apart from the necessary conditions that lead to its expression. For example, the desire for a cup of coffee is not something somewhere inside you that is lying latent, like a seed in the winter, waiting for warmth, or a zombie in its crypt, waiting for darkness. Instead, the existence of your desire for a cup of coffee is potential, not actual, and that potential can emerge into consciousness when the proper confluence of conditions comes into being.

An analogy can be made to snowflakes. Each one is not a reincarnated memory of a past life as a previous snowflake. When appropriate atmospheric conditions arise, unique but highly structured forms called snowflakes appear. The same point can be made using chaos theory and the concept of chaotic attractors. “Attractor basins” is a concept from chaos theory which has been adapted to the exploration of consciousness by Allan Combs. Think of attractors as a pattern of activity toward which a system tends to slide of its own accord. They are probably best visualized as warped or twisted tornadoes composed of probabilities rather than of objects and concrete forms such as trees, road signs, or entities. See The Radiance of Being, for example, pp. 16-20 & 218-226. Skandhas, natural phenomena like snowflakes and chaos theory provide models that account for the arising of thoughts, feelings, preferences and intentions without recourse to an unconscious or subconscious.

Thoughts and feelings are composed of multiple parts or “subroutines” that themselves do not rise to the coherence of thoughts or feelings. These components include prehension and simple reactivity. As soon as you move beneath waking identity you begin to disassemble consciousness. Wilber describes this in terms of the four fundamental attributes of any holon remaining dissociated. Instead of looking at one, unitary “unconscious” or subconscious,” if you could look into the “afterlife” of your memories, thoughts, and feelings, you would be examining components which, when looked at individually, have the same relationship to a thought that a piece of wood, brick, or a window frame does to a house. At this level of analysis, you no longer have a house; you only have the components of a house. This is also the point that Buddhism makes with the concept of skandhas. Why this is important is that an understanding such as skandhas or natural processes such as the creation of snowflakes or chaos theory describe processes rather than posit ontological realities. Consequently, with Buddhism you do not derive an immortal soul, self or Self while with depth psychology you derive entities, in this case psychic structures, called the unconscious and the subconscious.

Here is another example. When you look at a solar system are you looking at consciousness aware of itself or at emerging potentials for consciousness to become aware of itself?  We know that all the atoms that make up our bodies have their origin in the sun and its surrounding nebula.


We also know that holons have consciousness, or experience, all the way up and all the way down to sub-atomic particles, but we do not therefore claim that quarks have an unconscious or subconscious. Why not? If humans are holons and they have an unconscious and subconscious, then does it not follow that all other holons do as well? Is not to assume otherwise a form of exceptionalism and psychological geocentrism?

This is not to deny that most of the operations of consciousness occur out of our awareness and that there are many physiological and psychological sub-routines or building blocks of consciousness which constantly go on out of our awareness. This is beyond doubt. These include thought processes, memory, affect, and motivation. Unconscious phenomena also include the locus of implicit knowledge, that is, the things that you have learned so well that you do them without thinking, repressed feelings, automatic skills, subliminal perceptions, thoughts, habits, and automatic reactions. Marin Minsky, who takes a reductionistic and materialistic approach, wrote an interesting book about this, called The Society of Mind.

The term “subconscious” is similar to “unconscious” and, while useul within certain contexts, just like the unconscious, is not conducive to enlightenment for similar reasons. The concept of the subconscious is commonly used to refer to our inner storehouse for conflictual and disowned parts of ourselves. It may also be assumed to be the repository for our unused and unrecognized potentials.

The idea of “subconscious” is reminiscent of Plato’s famous concept of anamnesis, which contends that learning is a process of rediscovering knowledge that already exists within us, which implies pre-existence and reincarnation, a belief that Plato also appeared to embrace. Anamnesis is essentially a romantic idea, in harmony with the inclinations of Lessing, Rousseau, Grof, Washburn and neo-shamanists that holds that all that is good, true, and beautiful pre-exists in perfection and that it only needs to be rediscovered. Everything is always already there, like the goods in a darkened warehouse; you only need to turn the spotlight of your “conscious” or “awareness” on to light it up. The advantage of this view is that it says what you need already exists, including your ability to be aware of those things you need to know in order to be happy. The disadvantage of this view is that it doesn’t fit reality. Did scuba gear exist in the warehouse of consciousness twenty thousand years ago, just waiting for us to shine the light of consciousness on it? How about the internet and drone warfare? While anything is possible, this is hardly the most parsimonious explanation for both creativity and evolution. Isn’t it more likely that emerging potentials did not pre-exist, that they are possibilities that may or may not emerge into consciousness, just like we know snowflakes will be created but we cannot predict the specific and unique form of any particular one? Typically, we either throw the light of awareness on things and misinterpret them, such as the intentions of others or our own motivations when we were three, or we are unable to find and illuminate things we want or need, such as how to lucid dream or keep our minds quiet when we meditate. Is it in any way necessary to assume that what we need pre-exists in some subterranean memory or some collective akasha for us to throw light upon?

If all this is reasonable, then perhaps the subconscious exists not in actual experience but as an interpretive afterthought. For example, as Fromm was pointing out, when you are aware of something, like your anger, it is conscious; it is not unconscious. When you think, “I could get angry,” anger exists as an unexpressed potential only, it does not reside some place, that is, in your “subconscious.”

To repeat and summarize: You are full and overflowing with potentials of all sorts. Some are positive, some are conflictual, some are deadly. To allocate them to a place, the subconscious,” creates a “thing,” a “subconscious,” where only a process exists. That process is one of being aware of a potential and not expressing it, or being aware of a potential and expressing it. Or, you can be unaware of a potential and have no capability of expressing it, or the potential may not exist. However, you cannot speak of a process of not being aware of a specific potential and not expressing it, because you can not speak or think of something you are not aware of. However, we often read the pre-existence of an idea or feeling into the actions of others, in an act of interpretive projection: “Ha! He said “lover” when he was really thinking about his “mother!” We do not know if this is true, but because we have read up on Freud’s defense mechanisms, we attribute motivating reality to a potential feeling and thought that may or may not have existed.

Dreams, for example, are commonly assumed, particularly by depth psychology, to reside in your subconscious. Do they? When you have a dream, you are conscious of it; if you do not remember a dream, is it hanging out somewhere, waiting for you to remember it? If you access the correct combination of stimuli, you may indeed access that potential, but to do so you do not need to posit the existence of a subconscious. Again, think of dream creation as similar to that of snow. Snowflakes are not lurking in some heavenly unconscious, waiting to be created. They are generated when the right combination of temperature and moisture come together.  Similarly, are your dreams hanging out in the catacombs of your mind, awaiting to be unearthed, or are they emerging potentials consisting of thoughts, feelings and intentions that collectively arise spontaneously given the appropriate psychic weather conditions?

IDL does not rule out the existence of collective “thought form” phenomena, such as implied by the concept of the collective unconscious. It is too difficult to dismiss out of hand the testimony of thousands at Fatima who saw the sun move up and down in the sky or, as Jung noted himself, the many recurring sitings of unexplained UFOs. Do we require the concept of archetypes to explain what is going on with waking collective “dreams” such as these? Are these externalized realities so different from our own, individual, night time assumptions, that two-headed dragons are real while we are dreaming about them? Cannot Fatima-like experiences or UFOs be called “thought forms” or “realities,” as the perceivers of these experiences consider them, without postulating a collective unconscious? Can we not have collective, dream-like waking experiences without positing an “unconscious” in which they reside? Once we posit the existence of a “something,” a “subconscious,” we risk hobbling our growth by tying it to a conceptual fixation, something that is not necessary, nor the simplest or most adequate explanation available.

Consequently, IDL views the unconscious, subconscious, and derivative concepts as helpful for beginning students of psychology who are studying models for the working of the mind and the creation of personality, but becoming less necessary and more misleading the more our need for permanence, the reality of “things,” and identity thins. From such perspectives, “unconscious” and “subconscious” complicate the much simpler process of awakening to incarnating potentials of all sorts.

Because these two concepts acts as perceptual cognitive distortions while creating a place where only the potential for awareness exists, and because the idea of an unconscious or subconscious is not used by interviewed emerging potentials, who rarely find it necessary to explain their world, IDL has found that both parsimony and clarity generate a simpler world view. To assume that interviewed emerging potentials are elements of an unconscious, whether individual or collective, sub- or super-, is a projection onto them of waking assumptions. The phenomenalism of IDL asks, “What happens when we temporarily suspend such assumptions?” “Are they necessary? Are they helpful?”

IDL invites you to experiment with suspending your assumptions about the unconscious, subconscious, superconscious, personal unconscious, and collective unconscious in order to simply look at your waking, dream and mystical experiences from the cognitive framework of this or that interviewed emerging potential. While some that are interviewed may use these terms because, after all, their perspectives reflect your language and conceptual context and they want to communicate with you in a way you can understand and appreciate, others will not use these terms because their perceptual context transcends both your language and conceptual context and they believe you are capable of a broader, freer way of approaching consciousness. Listen, learn, and draw your own conclusions.

Here is a whimsical interview with the unconscious. You are encouraged to create your own, which will speak uniquely to your own evolutionary development.


An Interview with the Unconscious

“Unconscious, because you are a word that designates a place and a thing, I am imagining you to be a vast domed structure, a combination of The Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter and the Pantheon in Rome. I look up into you and all sorts of bird-like papers, representing thoughts, and objects, representing feelings and experiences, are flying about within you. There are home niches everywhere along your massive domed walls, in which millions of thoughts, feelings, and experiences are nesting. Light shines in through skylights here and there, but essentially you are dark and gloomy in your vastness, but the air is abuzz with all sorts of flying notices, imaginings, and stimuli.”

“As you know, Unconscious, I believe you are a helpful, adaptive figment of my imagination, devised to help people make sense of their experience. You also know that I believe you are most useful for people who are stuck at pre-personal levels of experience to make sense of their own impulses and motivations. However, you also know that IDL teaches that such assumptions need to first be surfaced and then parked, so that we can respectfully and deeply listen to what you have to say, without our biases and interpretations getting in the way so much. However, I know that despite our best efforts, there are layers of bias and interpretation, and I know that I will contaminate and distort whatever you say because of them. While I apologize for that, I also am aware that the most we can do is to be aware of that and attempt to own up to our biases and projections as we become aware of them.”

So Unconscious, from your perspective, what are you like and what is important about you?”

Unconscious: “I am a vast storehouse. I hold your memories and your potentials, your physiological processes and mental-emotional sub-routines. Who you think you are is created out of my contents. What I do not possess you cannot become; however, because I possess so many memories and potentials, you could have become someone very different from whom you are, and you could become in the future someone very different from who you are today.”

“What do you like best about yourself, Unconscious?”

Unconscious: “I like the abundance of possibilities I provide. I am not limitless, but I might as well be. I don’t direct or predestine anything; I simply am a depository, like a magical library.”

“What do you like least about yourself?”

Unconscious: “I don’t like that I am cut off from the greater world and that I am gloomy inside.”

“Do you want to add anything else about what aspects of me you might most closely represent or personify?”

Unconscious: “Yes; your self-definitions that cut you off from the rest of the world artificially.”

“Unconscious, do you want to change? If so, how would you like to change?”

Unconscious: “Why separate me from the rest of life? Why not simply let my roof be the sky and let my contents nest where they will?”

OK…Let’s see what happens…OK…Some are nesting in the branches of trees; some are flying among the clouds: some are lying on the ground; some are riding on the backs of birds: some are flying unexpectedly up under birds and scaring them; some are watching TV; some are snoring and appear to be asleep…So where and how are you now, Unconscious?”

Unconscious: “I am no longer a “thing” or a “place” separated from the “thingness” of your entire experience or the “location” of your life. Also, I no longer possess anything, so I do not limit or control what you can become.

How do you score yourself in each of the six core qualities, and why?

Unconscious: “I score myself a ten in confidence because I have no fear. I contain everything and everything contains me, because we are co-extensive. What can hurt me? What can affect me? There is no duality; there is no “other.” I don’t know how to score myself in compassion. I could say that I am very compassionate because I provide the context for any and all potentials to arise, but these may be desired or undesirable; none of that is my concern. So I don’t think of myself in those terms, but I am not so sure I am amoral, like nature, either. Regarding wisdom, I am a ten. Regarding acceptance, it is also a ten. What is there not to accept? I contain all things, and I have no preferences. I don’t know if “bad” stuff is going to turn out to be just what is needed to stimulate breakthroughs, or whether “good” stuff is going to impede growth. Regarding inner peace, I am totally at peace as the context for all this activity, so I am a ten. Regarding witnessing, I am also a ten, because I watch it all with humor and amazement.”

Unconscious, do you still view yourself as I called you, as “the Unconscious?”

Unconscious: “No. I am life. Earlier you wrote that there is life that one is aware of and life that one is unaware of. While I am a context that is aware of both, I do not view potentials as dormant ‘things,’ but more like seeds that could not grow, or water vapor that may or may not turn into rain or snow or create a rainbow. So no, the name ‘unconscious’ no longer fits me. Just call me ‘life.’”

Aha! So you are the Akashic Records!

Did you not listen to what I just said? The Akashic Records is a mythological superconscious unconscious. It is just me, a combination of the Pantheon and the Ministry of Magic, transposed onto the “skein of space and time, with maybe bearded masters shuffling through my stacks like some enlightened librarians.

So Life, if I lived my life from your perspective, would it be different, and if so, how? 

Life: “It would be open and relatively unstructured, yet structured with an essential framework, like a trellis for climbing roses. No structure means chaos and overwhelm; too much structure means stagnation and fossilization. You require a balance between the two. However, I have that balance, and the more that you become me, the more you will, too.”

Do you have recommendations for me?

Life: “You have been preferring to be aware of the spaces between your thoughts in your everyday life. These spaces keep opening up. The more that happens, the more you live in me, the more you become me. So I suggest you keep doing that.”

“Life, if I change my understanding of the unconscious and subconscious to reflect who and what you are and what you have said, what will that do to my understanding of defense mechanisms?”

Life: “You can continue to use whatever concepts you want if you find them helpful; I don’t care. From my perspective they aren’t real, nor are they important. But then, I’m not you, and perhaps if I were, I would find them important.”

“Are there particular times when it would be most advantageous for me to look at life from your perspective?”

Life: “Yes. Whenever you get stuck in drama or the need to say, feel, or think something. Becoming me will not move you into a state of passive detachment, but rather into a space of creative potential, of context, where your actions will not be driven by a cut-off, separated, sense of self.”


If these comments from “the unconscious” and “Life” were a wake-up call from my life compass, it would be telling me to continue my practice of exploring the spaces between my thoughts and feelings. Also, that becoming life expressing itself in this way feels beneficial and therapeutic to me on some deep level.

How attached to the concepts of unconscious and subconscious are you? What function do they play in your life? How would you explain life if you didn’t use them? What would it take for you to outgrow them?

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