An Insider's Guide to the
Perceptual Revolution

 
Layers of Self

Awareness is one of the hardest things to pin down in words.  It is incredibly complex, and along with some common sense and well-grounded beliefs, it is host to a pantheon of raging emotions, self-delusions, and outmoded instincts. 

Talking about human awareness invites a discussion of “levels” within the psyche.  At any given time, we pay more attention to some things than others.  There are even thoughts and feelings that we don’t seem to recognize at all, until something triggers them and we suddenly notice that they were there all along.  So, does the word awareness deal only with the smattering of ideas, perceptions and feelings at the forefront of our minds, or does it encompass the entire gestalt of who we are? 

   Consider the following example: one night, you turn on the radio and begin reading a novel.  Fifteen minutes go by, and you gradually become more engrossed in the book, until you no longer notice the music at all.  Afterward, if someone asked you what was playing on the radio, you would not be able to answer.  Does this mean that you became totally unaware of the music?  Probably not: your ears were still dutifully picking up sound waves and relaying them to your brain, and you would certainly have noticed if the song abruptly stopped playing.  You just paid so much attention to the book that the music no longer registered at a conscious level.  And so we come back to “levels” of the psyche.

Defining terms

   One of my most difficult undertakings as an author has been to look for ways to describe consciousness.  The most commonly used words and phrases dealing with thought, perception and emotion aren’t objective things in themselves, but amorphous constructs whose meaning depends on context.  The word conscious, for example, carries a mind-boggling range of potential interpretations.  It can simply mean being awake (“In an instant, I went from dozing off to being fully conscious”) or a new way of being aware (“I used to know very little about the plight of American families living without health care, but now I am more conscious of the issue”).  The best I can do, gentle reader, is to create a working syntax that explains what I mean when I use certain terms.

   Words and phrases are slippery creatures, especially when we are speaking of something as remarkable as the psyche.  For my readers’ sake, I will provide thumbnail definitions for a few key terms right from the get-go (sort of like a misplaced glossary).  Rest assured that I will expound on these terms later in the chapter.

·       Consciousness is the continuum of all the inner processes in a person’s psyche, ranging from the conscious sphere (everything that you are directly aware of) to the preconscious (observations and ideas that you only partially glimpse, but do not fully acknowledge), and the unconscious (all of the inner processes that you do not directly perceive, yet which find outlets to play themselves out in your conscious thoughts and actions).  There is also the subconscious--the deepest, most mysterious layer of the unconscious, in which the mind’s most extraordinary untapped abilities reside.

·         Attention is the ability to self-reflect at multiple levels.  If not for attention, consciousness as we know it would not exist.  It enables us to compartmentalize our mental attention into many different “tracks.”  You divide your attention every time you have one perspective but consider another, identify with another person’s experiences, engage in internal “debates” over a difficult decision, walk and chew gum at the same time… you get the idea. 

·         Awareness is the process of focusing our consciousness on different objects, forming internal explanations of one’s reality from a stream of perceptual input. 

·       The word sentient denotes any living thing, or aspect thereof, which perceives itself as having a unique and autonomous identity.  What truly defines whether a living thing is sentient is the ability, and the drive, to reflect on one’s own existence from different perspectives.  Speaking to human awareness in particular, sentience is a self-reference process upheld by a deep conviction that one is a unique, individual being interacting with an outer universe. 

·       Logic is a form of thought in which the mind identifies something which is not understood, searches through our memories of past experiences for relevant information on the subject, and arrives at an explanation that fits into our basic framework of understanding.

·   Rationality is a complex form of awareness through which we form an understanding of things based on logical thought processes. 

On the fallibility of “levels”

Each person's identity exists throughout many layers of consciousness.  Most people, most of the time, are only aware of tiny fraction of this totality.  By this, I mean that the small part of you which is directly involved with the outside world does not notice a lot of the activity happening in the inner one. 

Mapping the psyche--or trying to assign any kind of structure to it, for that matter--is an imperfect science.  The true essence of a person’s self defies all narrow, clear-cut definitions, yet in spite of this, we keep looking for new ways to interpret our experiences.  This is one of the major dilemmas involved in trying to see life as a coherent narrative.

   The psyche is so vast, and its capabilities so awesome, that trying to partition it into discrete "levels" is an exercise in futility.  Nonetheless, I am about to do just this by offering up my own metaphysics, in which I facetiously claim that the psyche is divided up into four layers.  I don't mean to imply that thoughts and feelings suddenly change their status as they move between the conscious, preconscious, unconscious and subconscious realms… and I definitely don’t want to portray the psyche as a drama consisting of a few predictable characters who endlessly compete amongst themselves, as in Freud’s theory of the id, ego and superego.  The “levels” of self described in this chapter are regions on a continuum of consciousness--a realm which has no clear dividing lines.

   A partitioned model of self can be useful, if you refer to it only as a matter of convenience.  Seeing ourselves as a bunch of transitory qualities in an uncharted landscape gives the conscious mind none of the black-and-white distinctions that it likes to latch onto.  Viewing your thought process in terms of levels can establish a comfort zone to work within (in my experience, few things in life are more comfortable than assigning labels).  The problems arise when people forget that they have arrived at an incomplete explanation, and begin to accept the facade as a reality.  If you lose sight of the fact that the structure is only a working model, you may inadvertently build more walls within yourself simply by believing that they exist.  If it is your intent to see yourself as a divided being, the psyche will respond by trying to create this illusion.  The same goes for thinking that you are a totally singular, totally conscious self.

   As for my own metaphysics of consciousness, I believe that the psyche is far too complex to be such a neatly partitioned thing.  I use the language of “levels” and “fragments” at some points in the text, but only as a convenience; beneath it all is a deep conviction that it is folly to imagine ourselves as concrete and knowable beings.  No part of any person’s inner world is totally isolated from the others, but we all have patterns of thought, emotion, and imagery which group together in recognizable ways.  We can mentally differentiate these patterns, placing them on a continuum, deeming them better or worse than one another, burying them in the unconscious or digging them up again.

   The four layers of the psyche are collectively host to all the facets of identity that make up your total being.  Those facets don’t always stay put; they drift back and forth among the layers when you consciously experience new insights or setbacks.  To make the picture even more confusing, facets often waver in between the conscious and unconscious realms of the psyche, so that they continue to elude our reason without sinking deep enough that they go off the radar completely.

Conscious

The psyche encompasses not only your everyday conception of who you really are, but all of the other processes which escape the notice of your conscious mind.  This book will examine the psyche in terms of layers of consciousness.  This does not mean that the inner world can be divided into distinct units; it is a smorgasbord of beliefs, traits, memories and so on, and they are constantly shifting “levels.”  Regardless, I am pretending that I can do exactly that, by rehashing a bunch of psychological terms and altering their meanings to fit into my metaphysics.  The basic lingo is as follows:

The conscious layer of the psyche encompasses everything that you are immediately aware of—each of the external and internal processes that make up your current narrative of the universe.  Everything that is within the scope of your attention right now--your thoughts, feelings, and perception of external events--make up the conscious world. 

The core self is the part of us which strives to assemble a “true” identity, a core set of patterns which are solid enough that they do not easily bend to other ways of thinking and behaving.  This is not quite the same thing as the conscious mind; we can be conscious of different perspectives or feelings within ourselves, but the core self always tries to identify with one side or the other.  Its job is to figure out who you are, and it does it very well (too well, sometimes).

The core self encompasses our orientation toward the world; however, we can further divide the picture according to the self/other schism.  Thus, a person’s worldview includes not just self and other, but "everything else:” all that one considers real yet foreign to the self. 

Unconscious

When something is unconscious, the core self is completely unaware of it—that is to say, the level of the psyche which carries on the main narrative of your experiences does not acknowledge that those qualities are part of your “real” self.  All of the inner workings that you know are down there in side you, tick-tocking away, yet are shrouded.  The unconscious mind is a vast territory in the psyche, which contains many layers, regions, and archetypal inhabitants (bear in mind, such things really are impossible to describe in words).  For instance, there is a grand historical archive, where your unconscious stores the memories of your entire life journey.  This region is host to a multitude of facets of you from earlier chapters of your life, which are still living through old emotions, worries, or convictions.  You might think “I am much better than I used to be,” and you would be correct--but it would only be true if by “I” you meant your conscious mind.  The changes you make to your self-image reverberate through the entire psyche, but they act most strongly on the conscious layer.  Sometimes people think that they have completely let go of an old pattern when there is an unconscious part of them holding on to it for reasons of its own.  

There are many pathways to the unconscious.  Meditation is my favorite, but you could just as well use lucid dreaming, intoning vowels or mantras, artistic expression, or whatever works best.  I call the deeper layers of the psyche “shrouded” partly because they can be spooky places to explore.  The unconscious is not just the idealized self that some authors have written about--a magical inner realm of all of your unimagined capabilities, where yin and yang are perfectly balanced and all is joy.  It is just as much a dive bar for all of the banished facets of yourself that you have not fully reconciled with your current self-image. 

When people dislike or disapprove of a certain way of being, they mentally push those qualities away from their conscious identity.  They do not want to identify themselves with those qualities, so they label the good qualities “me” and the bad “not-me.”  This is commonly known as compartmentalization.  Sometimes, however, people do not want to deal with a thought, emotion, memory or impulse at all, and instead of pushing it out of your mind for the time being, you push it deep down into the recesses of the psyche.  Burying part of your conscious awareness is repression.  Repression has many causes

   In my experience, hiding things from yourself is the most dangerous kind of deception.  Thoughts naturally drift deeper when we do not continue to reinforce them, but trying to force the process and consciously repress information or ideas is counterintuitive.  Most of the time, repression just means that you were not completely honest with yourself.  We have all “fudged” the details of a sad, embarrassing or traumatic experience, creating a falsified version of events that we find more satisfying at the time.  Repression often begins with a lie that we tell to someone, then repeat until we actually begin to accept it.

Granted, people often have good reasons for trying to repress something.  Many people have endured abuse or torture that was so distressing that they locked those memories away, somewhere far beyond conscious recollection.  The same goes for personality traits that people decide to “get rid of” before they have worked through the underlying issues.  Some traits that people try to “banish” in themselves are not a pretty sight: they may be arrogant, or lost in self-pity; selfish, or “generous” to the point of masochism; a cruel power monger or a simpering victim.  Repression is only a temporary respite from difficult facets of ourselves; honest self-examination can lead to a deeper kind of resolution, but repressing takes less time and effort. 

Preconscious

Each of us has certain limits of awareness, but we can extend this territory by exploring along the periphery of the conscious mind.  There will be times when you are partially aware of an internal process, but not quite enough that it registers on your conscious mind’s radar.  For instance, you might be thinking or acting in a way that is slightly unusual, and realize that something deep in your mind is nagging at you, but not know exactly what it is.  These cognitions hearken from the strange realm of the preconscious: the holding pen for everything that is “at the back of your mind.” 

Where should we draw the line in deciding whether a thought process is “unconscious” or not?  Your preconscious mind is the grey zone between these two states.  At any given moment, many ideas, emotions and memories are drifting deeper into your psyche, while deeper aspects of you are floating upward.  Unconscious aspects of your psyche--inner forces like Freud’s id, ego, and superego--routinely drift upward, put their two cents in the pot, then fade back into the shadows.  Whatever fully “surfaces” becomes a part of your conscious awareness.  Thought processes that hover on the edge of awareness make up the preconscious mind—everything about you that is neither here nor there. 

   To recap, the core self is the psyche’s envoy to the outer universe—the part of you that is directly involved with everything, and everyone, in your external reality.  By contrast, the preconscious is the level at which we do most of our multitasking, even though we don’t fully realize the scope of its mental activity.  Its processing ability is higher (more tracks at a faster rate) but it has little volition, so it exists in a symbiotic relationship with the core self.  As you go through life, the preciousness is always analyzing your situation, considering different courses of action and taking in millions of nuances that your senses pick up.  It uses this broad perception to plan the next thing that you are going to say or do.  Your conscious mind appears to effortlessly carry out a single, coordinated action, but there is a lot more going on just below the surface.


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© 1999, 2003 by Lucius R.  Ringwald.  All rights reserved.