An Insider's Guide to the
Perceptual Revolution

 
The Unconscious

   Sometimes, people find themselves on the tip of an idea or realization which seems so formidable, they cannot grasp it if they stay firmly lodged in their usual conscious parameters.  This happens when an idea is halfway between waking awareness and the unconscious mind.  These moments are windows of opportunity in which we can direct our focus into the unconscious.

   Introspection is a process of turning our attention inward to ideas, feelings, perceptions and memories that we want to explore in greater depth.  It engages the layer of the mind between waking awareness and the deeper layers of the psyche.  Seeking to nurture our own capacity for insight leads to multilinear thinking, which in turn prompts us to process thoughts and perceptions more rapidly.  The faster we think, the more attention we free up for new lines of introspection.  The more you accelerate your thought processes, the more of them will "fit" into the conscious mind’s attention span.  Allowing the internal dialogue to subside a little can allow you to direct your meditation to half-buried layers of memories and impressions--deep places, where your waking mind usually isn’t invited to the party.  In this context, the word unconscious comes to define a more ephemeral state--one that we can change, if we turn our attention inward and explore the nuances of what we do not understand.

Piercing the veil

   It is possible to expand the attention span of the core self until it includes much of what is currently unconscious in the psyche.  Doing so, however, requires that we overcome many fundamental preconceptions about the nature of our identity.  First and foremost, we must be prepared for what we will find.  Gaining a broader perspective on the self leads to other changes in how we live our lives.  Will you become happier as a result of exposing something buried? 

   Any attempt to question the self-image leads to a sacrifice in our accustomed comforts.  Learning more about ourselves challenges beliefs and routines that we rely on for a sense of security.  For example, delving into obscured layers of the psyche, we can reassess major sources of confidence.  This kind of self-reflection can be therapeutic, especially when paced over a series of introspective periods, but taking it too far at any one time has a destabilizing effect.

   The core self has a tendency to hoard the psyche’s vital energy, depriving deeper aspects of us of the energy that would allow them to learn.  This might not seem like such a problem at first glance, but unresolved issues in your unconscious can become dysfunctional if you neglect them for too long.  The natural progression in the psyche is for the unrecognized facets of our minds to slowly evolve, mirroring our daily insights and victories in the conscious realm, until we become aware of them and they merge with our existing self-reflection. 

   For unconscious facets to surface requires an effort from both sides of the psychic divide.  First, the aspects of ourselves that we do not readily perceive must yearn for the light of conscious knowledge.  At this point, it is up to you (e.g., your core self) to have the insight to sense their entreaty, the empathy to respond, and the wits to deal with them once you dredge them up. 

   Vital energy is not inherently bound to the conscious mind; with practice, we can learn to channel some of this life force into the unconscious, giving deeper layers of ourselves the strength and resolve to claw their way to the surface. 

   To hone in on the submerged expressions of your identity, you must extend the field of vitality which surrounds your usual self-image into the "darker" areas of your mind.  Picture your attention as a flashlight; the conscious mind is a familiar, well-lit world where you shine light into shadows and dim corners, whereas the unconscious is more like a vast underground cave.  Peering into the dark abyss of the unconscious brings to mind a score of fears that urge you to retreat back to the well-lit corners of your psyche.  What if there are things in the darkness and you don’t have enough light to see them sneaking up on you?  What if you venture too far and get stuck in the dark places, just waiting for the batteries to fade? 

   The very act of wanting to focus on a shrouded part of yourself disrupts the conscious mind’s preoccupation with the known, diverting vital energy from the core self to "dark" areas that had been deprived of its nourishing benefits.  Within these unconscious regions are thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that have been stuck in cyclical patterns, waiting for you to recognize them and move them along toward a more complete understanding. 

   Whenever you sense a pattern’s presence deeper in your mind and try to understand it, you shine the core self’s brilliant energy field into the darkness within, revitalizing the "stuck" facets of yourself.  Deeply buried ideals, behaviors, life goals, views of yourself and opinions of others begin once again to progress toward a more refined state.  Eventually, if these aspects of you come far enough, they will achieve a certain escape velocity and enter the sphere of the known.  At this point, you might have a sudden insight that feels as if it was hovering on the edge of awareness for months or even years.  On the other hand, you might find yourself thinking or reacting in a way that you thought you "got over" years ago.  The unconscious mind is, after all, a dumping ground for everything about ourselves that we tried to discard without first following it to its logical conclusion. 

Pitfalls in the inward journey

   In what appears to be introspection, our awareness can easily become ensnared by certain "dead end" lines of thinking.  One of the most common is defeatism. Everyone has a different pace for exploration.  The inward journey is not a contest to see who learns the fastest, but a process of reconciliation.  When people venture inward relentlessly, without taking time to process what they uncover along the way, the weight of what remains unresolved can become overwhelming. 

   Another dead-end line of thinking is the insincere attempt: making a show of effort, when you really intended to give up on the whole endeavor all along.  Here, the conscious mind rationalizes "I'm just not smart enough," or "I don't have the will power," when the main problem is the expectation of failure, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

   One last pitfall is quitting while you're ahead.  In this pattern, we do a moderate amount of introspection, and then congratulate ourselves on a job well done.  "Wow," we say to ourselves, "that was quite a ride!  Now I’m so much better than before, I can put the whole thing to rest while it's still fun!"  This isn't a harmful pattern, per se—after all, we learn something in the process—but it can cut off some of the most insightful lines of self-analysis before they come to fruition.

The ego’s not all that bad
(once you get to know it)

   The ego has many virtues, but it also has a ton of baggage.  For one, it is typically blind to its own conditioning; it is only built to act on learned defense patterns.  Due to this innate lack of insight, the ego easily becomes set in defensive postures, and often holds onto those defenses even after we have realized that they don’t make us happier or more secure in the long run. 

   The fact that the ego has some considerable blind spots raises an interesting, if unsettling question: if the ego’s function is to reign in the id and superego, and it is blind to its own excesses, who is protecting us from our own egos?  The only one who can do that is you--the conscious self who is reading this book. Only your core identity--which transcends the distinctions of id, ego and superego--can summon the will to not just react, but to then analyze your behavior in order to determine why you reacted that way. 

   There are many layers to the psyche, and not all of them have our best interests in mind.  Some parts of the unconscious don’t want our conscious identity to achieve enough introspection that we become aware of their presence.  Certain of these have benign intentions, and believe that they are protecting our safety.  Others are more akin to corrupt politicians, who perhaps feel that their agendas and past misdeeds will be exposed and they will be "kicked out of office," forced to relinquish their hard-won influence and authority.  When one of these aspects is stuck in a pattern of self-denial, it may become threatened when we near certain insights about ourselves.  Deeper self-aspects have their own sense of continuity, and will sometimes protect this even if it obstructs the path to inner reconciliation.    

   The unconscious operates at a higher frequency of energy, a faster speed of thought, than the core self.  The more we rely exclusively on beta-level cognition, the more vulnerable we are to the agendas of unconscious aspects of ourselves, especially the ego.   Beta thought is very slow, and the ego operates at a higher speed of consciousness.  This has two important implications.  First, ego traits can operate with relative autonomy from the conscious mind when we are too distracted to notice them.  Second, the ego is closer to the level at which our cognitions originate, giving it a wider perspective than the core self at times.  These factors combine to give the ego its singular ability to manipulate our cognitions before we become fully aware of them.

   In some sense, it could be said that the ego perceives the psyche more accurately than our core identity.  What I mean by this is that, as long as people are thinking at a "low-frequency" level ruled by beta waves, they won’t be able to understand as much of their total consciousness as the ego will.  As Freud illustrated in his "iceberg" analogy, the vast majority of our thoughts lie beneath the surface of our awareness, in the unconscious mind.  These thoughts are unconscious largely because they happen at a level of thought much faster than the ones that we usually perceive. 

   The ego, being most centered in the unconscious mind, presides over many of the filters between preverbal cognition and conscious awareness.  In this role, it is not just a dictator; it has constructive agendas in directing our cognitive flow, as well as more regressive ideas about who we should be. 

Preverbal Cognition

   The psyche encompasses many possible cognitive states.  Each of them is ruled by specific technical parameters, such as the overall speed at which ideas are processed, roughly how many ideas can occur simultaneously, or how much novelty (change) normally occurs.  "Conscious," as it is normally defined, is a range of many cognitive states that we use to understand our world. 

Frequencies of thought

   Like the wings of a hummingbird in flight, our unconscious thoughts move too fast for us to see exactly what they're up to.  The irony of this is we're fully capable of making the unconscious conscious, but the parts of ourselves with the speed to perceive our cognitive filtering also below the surface, rendering them inaccessible until we find ways to dredge them up.

Cognitive filters happen so quickly as to seem almost instantaneous.  Because of this, people can act as though the beta-level state of awareness is the initial state of cognition.  Clearly, cognitions manifest at the conscious level, but not in their original  complexity.  The beta state is so narrow, and ruled by lower emotions such as anxiety, that it can’t accommodate the full extent of what we are thinking and feeling at all levels of our psyches.  To be more aligned with these original cognitions, we must break away from dependency on the beta state, and come to utilize higher amounts of alpha and theta brainwaves. 

   Since cognitive filters work over our thoughts at an extremely high frequency of thought, any techniques intended to identify and confront them should first focus on changing the speed at which we process information from within ourselves.  If you plan on visiting a foreign country, it is a good idea to know enough of the language to communicate with the people you encounter.  High-frequency cognitions are the language of the unconscious, so the most direct way to understand them is to speed your thoughts up.  It is possible to incrementally accelerate the speed of our thoughts beyond their normal level, by identifying times when you rely on an internal narrative even though you could compose your thoughts just as well without it.  Once you have recognized these little day-to-day habits, you can train yourself to focus more closely on the thoughts that come before the words. 

   Trying to keep ourselves centered in one level of cognition is like keeping an FM radio dial between 89 and 92 because you have heard that there aren't any stations broadcasting at other frequencies.  Beta-level thought has many purposes in all areas of our evolution, but it isn't all that we have to work with.  We have whole other levels of thinking available to us, and we use them all the time, but most of this potential manifests in regions of the psyche at that we barely know exist.  Learning to think in terms of internally vocalized language is a major cause of this lag in cognition.  Internal narratives are an incredibly slow medium for thought, when compared to the preverbal form of cognition. 

   Freud used the analogy of the iceberg to describe the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind.  At the risk of expanding on this, when people's conscious awareness exists mostly in a beta state, they have no choice but to perceive only the "tip of the iceberg—" the minute area of the psyche which exists in that frequency range.  In order to expand our awareness inward and discover what lies in the unconscious, we need to accelerate the speed of our thoughts and extend our attention to the broader range of cognitions that this shift entails.  The more we do this, the more we reveal undercurrents in our awareness which we never noticed before—entire realms of our own awareness which have existed, unnoticed, while we went about our everyday lives.  As we come to become more familiar and understanding of these other levels of our awareness, we assimilate them into the sphere of what we are consciously perceive as "I," the core identity.  The unconscious has become conscious.

The cognition factory

   Discussing the unconscious as an idea, or trying to backwards-engineer a description based on their conscious actions, is fun, but it is also pure folly.  Any approach that further separates "it" from "you" will only increase the self-deception that makes us see ourselves as much smaller than we actually are.  Everything your mind produces is a living part of you, some parts are just functioning at a different cognitive frequency than the "self" that normally gets the spotlight. 

   We constantly interact with the unconscious layers of ourselves—an unrelenting commerce in which some impressions move closer to the center of our attention while others drift out of sight and mind.  Cognitions do not originate in the conscious mind, but at a level of awareness in which thoughts and emotions are more expansive, complex, and rapid.  The massive cognitive amalgamations that bubble up from the unconscious remain largely outside the sphere of our core awareness, which is a natural safeguard against becoming so overloaded by internal stimuli that we cannot address pressing concerns in the outer world.  It is a functional pattern, but only when the unconscious and conscious have many points of interface.  Whenever we cut ourselves off from processes occurring deeper in our minds that have too much content to deal with in the present moment, we generate buffers that keep the full part of the cognition in a preconscious "holding pattern."  Cognitive buffers limit and "streamline" the content so that we can examine individual parts of get an overview.

   In industrialized cultures, society functions partly by framing the idea of enrichment as a function of external qualifiers.  In such a social environment, it is easy for people to justify setting the unconscious aside because they are too busy with other things.  The danger of this kind of thinking is that cognitive filters, when left for too long, tend to become habit forming.  When we are no longer aware that certain though processes are in holding patterns, the buffers between the conscious and unconscious become barriers.

   When cognitions are formed, their richness and complexity far exceeds the conscious mind’s carrying capacity.  The entire gestalt of preverbal cognitions going in your mind cannot "fit" into the conscious sphere all at the same time; you might as well try to paint a mural on a post-it note.  We function in life only because of our superb ability to "whittle down" these massive cognitive amalgams until we can process them with the conscious mind’s limited resources.  Cognitive filters are internal "programs" which supervise the translation of larger cognitions into more palatable quantities.  Our thoughts and feelings pass through a great number of such filters before we know that they (or what's left of them) have occurred.  By the time most cognitions have reached the surface of our awareness, they only represent a fraction of their original insight and complexity.

   From moment to moment, what you experience yourself as thinking and feeling is not the full picture of what is happening in your consciousness.  Some content has invariably been altered with your conscious self none the wiser.

   Cognitive filters determine what we consciously understand about ourselves and our world, by selecting which elements of our unconscious thought processes will be allowed to surface.  We could think of our cognitive filters as workers in a big "cognition factory."  Our cognitions are formed deep in the heart of the factory, at which point they pop out onto a conveyor belt.  Standing alongside this conveyor belt are hundreds of trained professionals, who inspect each cognition as it moves down the line.  These inspectors have been told to not allow certain kinds of items to get through.  Those cognitions that are allowed to stay on the belt are subjected to extensive "repairs," which is supposed to make them more suitable for "the consumer" (our conscious identity).  Once all of the inspectors have done their assigned jobs, the finished product comes to the end of the line and we become aware of it.  The entire process happens almost instantaneously.

   The ego is like the supervisor at the plant, making sure that our cognitive filters are doing their job. Of all the archetypal constituents from which we draw our identity, the ego is most responsible for keeping our conscious awareness fixated on the last stage of the "conveyor belt."  As a cognition passes through the veil, the ego identifies some content contained therein as dangerous.  The ego has an extensive repertoire of potential responses to said "threats."  In the short term, it can activate lower-emotional states such as panic or rage to distract us from the cognitive flow.  The ego also takes long-term actions, however, such as modifying previous filters or engineering new ones to address the content in question.  Its objective is to prepare us for the threat if it should ever resurface.  The ego is not concerned with whether certain cognitions could expand our awareness; a survivalistic value system has no room for such fine distinctions.

   The ego uses cognitive filters as a tool to block off all avenues through which our awareness could explore beyond the known self.  The end product of these filters is the familiar arrangement of traits that make up our usual self-image.  Submitting to these definitions validates our isolation from the unconscious, by giving the ego the message that we are satisfied with the bed that it has made for us.  Questioning the known has the opposite effect, telling the ego that perhaps something is wrong in the way that things are run, and that our security would be best served by lessening the level of structure and consistency.  Thus, turning away from our habitual ways of thinking and feeling is another key ingredient in piercing the veil.

   Cognitive filters could also be likened to bouncers at a bar who makes sure that no unsuitable thoughts from outside our conscious awareness come in.  These bouncers have good intentions, and they would actually be very helpful if they had only been given better instructions.  Unfortunately, many of these filters’ underlying programs reflect dualistic assumptions and goals that correspond to the ego aspects of the psyche.  The ego’s rationale is often benign, though misguided: it believes that any patterns of thinking which would significantly change the usual parameters of the conscious self are dangerous to our safety, so it sets up internal safeguards—cognitive filters—to keep those thoughts out.  It's motivations aren't always so simple or noble, however; it is influenced by many other qualities, among which are basic fears, unresolved conflicts from the past, and perverse tendencies such as laziness.

   In the great cognition factory of the psyche, the ego is like the on-site supervisor.  It checks out different aspects of our cognitions as they arise, and either gives the "OK" or tells our cognitive filters to adjust them.  However, filtering cognitions isn’t just a matter of unconscious forces that we can’t control.  There is also a distinctly conscious element to these self-imposed limitations.  This aspect of cognition filtering is somewhat different from the ego's unconscious agendas, though it reflects some of the same patterns: we deliberately adjust and filter our cognitions according to what we believe the truth to be and what we want the truth to be.

   Cognitive filters are bolstered by a sense of righteousness or pride about one's knowledge, power, and ability.  The more righteous we feel, the more we filter out thoughts or perceptions that would cause our images of things to change.  The need for external validation creates a vicious circle in which we learn to resist change when we are faced with something that challenges our preconceptions.  When we seek validation outside of ourselves, our sense of truth becomes less focused on our own knowledge and integrity.

Beta-wave predominance

   Most people experience conscious awareness at the beta, and to a small extent, alpha level of awareness.  Beta is a term used to describe a certain frequency of electromagnetic impulses in the brain, or brainwaves.  There are four main groups of brainwave frequencies which the human brain can produce; beta, alpha, theta, and delta brainwaves. 

   Brainwaves mirror our awareness.  Each successive brainwave state corresponds to a deeper level of consciousness.  Alpha brainwaves correspond to physical relaxation, intensified emotions, multilinear thinking, a more vivid sense of imagination, and an accelerated thought process.  All of this makes it the ideal launching pad for profound introspection; the trick is to get there.  Alpha waves have been shown to increase dramatically during meditation, regardless of the religious or secular philosophy which dictates that person’s particular style of meditating. 

   Beta brainwaves entrain our minds in a dense, narrowly focused state of chronic over activity, accompanied by agitated emotions such as fear and guilt.  In light of this, it is interesting to note that most people’s EEG readings show a preponderance of beta frequencies; in other words, this state is what people experience most of the time in waking awareness.  Compared to a healthy balance of alpha, beta theta and delta waves, the social definition of "normal" is characterized by constant worry and egoistic fixations

   There is a much vaster area available to our awareness, which most people think of as the unconscious mind.  In our culture, it is often assumed that the unconscious is off-limits to human beings, that what most people think of as "conscious" awareness is the extent of our potential to be aware, but this is not so.  We all have the potential to directly understand the levels of the mind which are currently not conscious for most of us, but in order to do so, we must expand our conscious awareness into those levels.  This inward expansion requires a dramatic change in our paradigms about human identity.

   The realm of human perception is not inherently limited to the narrow confines of beta-level awareness; rather, we impose these limitations on ourselves with our habitual ways of thinking.  We all have the capacity to integrate alpha, theta, and delta frequencies into our brainwave patterns, but in order to so, we must be willing to change the framework for our awareness.

   Many people unfortunately assume that the beta, (and a small amount of the alpha) frequency is the extent of their potential to be "conscious" and that the deeper levels such as the theta and delta are forever restricted to the mysterious unconscious mind.  However, a great deal of evidence challenges this assumption; for instance, Americans who meditate regularly have been shown to produce more alpha waves than average.

   One underpinning of the beta-dominance paradigm is a Darwinian notion that screening out most of the alpha-level cognitions gives us a competitive edge--that it allows us to think in a more concrete, pragmatic, and tightly focused way which is more conducive to survival.  Supposedly, evolution intended that everything be this way.  The hitch in the theory is that it assumes that the brain observes a three-dimensional model of the distribution of energy.  The tautology is thinking "If there are more alpha frequencies in the brain, of course the beta range of frequencies will die down to a low ebb, causing a person to lose concrete focus." 

The filter of language

   One of the major reasons that people in our society tend to operate from a beta state of awareness is that they depend on a language-based mode of comprehension.  This does not mean that people actually think in complete sentences, or that people form thoughts at the same pace as they would speak in a normal conversation.  In reality, human thought processes contain many abstract elements of cognition, which defy words due to their depth and complexity.  However, some prevalent societal paradigms give people the idea that words are our most necessary medium for comprehension. 

   The Western World is highly language-oriented.  We are taught to translate everything we think and do into an internal dialogue in which everything is well defined and taken for granted.  It often seems that if we don’t internally verbalize something that we think or feel, our understanding of the subject has less validity. 

   From the first moments of learning to speak, most members of our society are implicitly taught to believe that if they do not interpret their experience as part of an internal dialogue, they won’t be able to meet the demands of modern life.  It is as if things are only real within the syntax of language, and without it we cannot understand anything—least of all, our own identities. 

   Children in our culture learn that in order to feel secure about their own thoughts, they must constantly translate them into definitions which fit their social models of what is real and important.  Being conditioned to translate cognitions into words can limit children’s understanding to many restrictive definitions of reality and personal identity.  As s/he learns to depend on filtering their perceptions through language-based explanations, a child loses touch with many facets of awareness that s/he once understood.

   Thoughts don’t begin in the form of words.  They are rough translations of the true language of the psyche—pure cognition.  Logical concepts, of course are the elements of pure cognition most comparable to language.  Feelings and images come through from the unconscious more directly, and are generally harder to describe because they are neither linear nor concrete. 

   Translating our thoughts into language uses a great deal of the mind’s energy and attention.  It reduces the scope of what we immediately perceive, and leaves us with even more thoroughly doctored memories that pale in comparison with the original events.  Imagine writing an essay in which you describe one of your favorite novels, and then finding that you had forgotten almost everything about the book; all that you remember are the main ideas of the essay.  The filter of language acts in a similar fashion.  In the process of translating actual experience into our description of the experience, we can inadvertently filter out a great deal of what has occurred.  Perceptions which do not fit into the dialogue are "deleted," relegated to unconsciousness, before they can reach the surface of the psyche.  Thinking in an overly language-based frame of mind dilutes the direct experience of life, by imposing summaries and definitions on it unnecessarily.  If we get too used to thinking that these concrete definitions are the most important aspects of what is happening, we gain a false sense of certainty but lose our grasp of the deeper essence.

   Words never capture the full experience of being human.  Relying on an internal dialogue leads people to lose sight of much of the truth and beauty in what occurs.  Language can evoke a greater awareness of truth, but this awareness is not a result of the language itself; it arises from an inner knowledge that one has cultivated over time. That said, translating cognitions into words is only limiting as a habitual way of interpreting our experiences.  The capacity to communicate through language is vital to human beings' survival and happiness.  One of the benefits of learning a second language (to say nothing of learning a third or fourth), is that when people get to a point at which they can actually think in another language, they won’t be so prone to assuming that their first language represents their "true" source of thought. 


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