Can We Consciously Change the Unconscious?

I just read a fascinating article by New York Times columnist David Brooks entitled “The Young and the Neuro.” The article is about research findings in the growing field of social cognitive neuroscience, which studies the relationship between biology (especially brain biology) and social behavior. The finding I want to focus on here is one that really made me sit up and take notice when I read it: While many of our reactions stem from our unconscious minds and happen almost instantaneously, we are not therefore slaves of our unconscious programming. On the contrary, by working with our conscious attitudes and decision making, we can actually retrain our unconscious minds. This finding is good news for A Course in Miracles students, for this process of consciously changing the unconscious mind is a major element in the Course’s program.

The research that illustrates this has to do with how we react to people perceived as “different” from us, such as different ethnic groups. Many studies have shown that we unconsciously react quite differently to those we regard as part of “our” group than we do to those we regard as outsiders. For instance, in a study cited in this article, American and Chinese subjects showed more activity in a particular part of their brains when they saw members of their own group suffer pain, and far less activity when people outside their group suffered. Unconscious reactions like this happen quite quickly: “in as little as 170 milliseconds.” Researchers speculate that these different levels of brain activity may play a role in prejudice.

I’ve always found studies like this depressing. I try not to be a prejudiced person, and on a conscious level I am definitely not a racist. But numerous studies (not just the ones cited here) confirm that we have these unconscious negative reactions to people of different races and cultures, and these reactions have an affect on our behavior toward these people. (Oddly enough, though, one study showed that Jewish people react more strongly to pain in non-Jews.) What can someone who wants to overcome prejudice do? If I’m having unconscious reactions to people “in as little as 170 milliseconds,” what on earth can I do to change that? It seems like I am the slave of my unconscious mind.

The good news according to this article is that while these unconscious reactions definitely happen, the research “also suggests that even though most of our reactions are fast and automatic, we still have free will and control.” For instance, one study “showed that if you give people a strategy, such as reminding them to be racially fair, it is possible to counteract those perceptions.” Another showed that while human beings feel disgust toward those they have dehumanized in their minds, “it is possible to lower disgust…through cognitive behavioral therapy” (a form of therapy which emphasizes the role of thinking in causing our behavior and emotions). Therefore, we have real reason to hope we can overcome our apparent bondage to things like unconscious racial prejudice: “Consciousness is too slow to see what happens inside, but it is possible to change the lenses through which we unconsciously construe the world.”

A Course in Miracles is all about changing those lenses, so this is good news indeed. And these findings help to address an issue that I’ve often thought about regarding the Course’s program: the seeming tension between a teaching which claims that the thoughts and emotions that really run our lives are buried very deep in our unconscious minds, and a practice which emphasizes using our conscious minds to change these thoughts and emotions and thus give us a new way to see ourselves and the world.

Let’s look at both sides of this seeming tension. First, the Course goes to great lengths to uncover the unconscious beliefs, motivations, and drives that it regards as the real engines that power our lives. For instance, it tells us that deep down, we feel horribly guilty because we separated from God and killed His Son. We push God away from us because we are mortally terrified that He will find us one day and give us the terrible punishment we so richly deserve. But on an even deeper level of the unconscious, we actually push God away not because He hates us but because He loves us and we love Him, and recognition of this would “destroy” the separate self we have chosen to identify with. We punish ourselves through sickness, suffering, and death in order to “prove” to ourselves that God really does hate us, so we’ll have a rationale never to return to the God Who actually loves us.

Pretty sick stuff, and almost totally unconscious. It would seem that to heal this, we would have to do some incredibly radical version of Freudian psychoanalysis, digging as deep as we can into our own minds (perhaps with expert help) to arrive at that unconscious metaphysical drama at the root of it all.

Yet this is not what we find in the Course. While the Course spends many pages uncovering our darkness on a theoretical level, and understanding this theory is a vital element of its program, its actual practices emphasize the conscious mind and generally work with material much closer to the surface. True, the Course does want us to apply to ourselves its metaphysical theories about our deeper motivations, as when it says to us, “In the calm light of truth, let us recognize that you believe you have crucified God’s Son” (T-13.II.5:1). It certainly wants us to face our darkness honestly. And in some practices (like Course-based meditation) we attempt to penetrate into very deep areas of our minds. But even when we go deep, it usually isn’t to dredge up the dark stuff within; in meditation, we are actually supposed to see that dark stuff as nothing but wispy clouds, and brush quickly by the clouds on the way to the Light at the heart of our being.

Instead, the bulk of the Course’s practices are ones in which we consciously affirm spiritual truths about ourselves, others, and the world, and apply them to people, events, and situations that are relatively current issues for us. Lesson 78, one of the Course’s forgiveness exercises, offers an example of what I mean. You would think a Course forgiveness exercise might focus on finding and forgiving the original thought of separation we had at the beginning of time, the thing that started this whole mess. Instead, Lesson 78 has you pick a person in your life (the first one that pops into your mind), visualize her standing before you, briefly bring to mind your grievances against her, and then say some words inviting the Holy Spirit to help you see the light in this person, who is really your savior.

This is quite typical of the Course’s forgiveness practices, and of its practices in general. Even when the Course has us watch our minds and search them for thoughts it wants us to work with — the crucial practice of mental vigilance — we don’t go on archeological expeditions to get to those deep places in the unconscious. Instead, we generally work with thoughts that are either right at the surface or not too far below, thoughts we can readily discover simply by getting quiet and looking honestly. As one lesson tells us, “nothing should be ‘dug out’ with effort” (W-pI.35.8:3).

How does this work? How can those deep unconscious dynamics be changed by an activity that seems to barely scratch the surface? How can the iceberg be melted by practices that seem to dwell on the tip? I find the beginnings of an answer in the “Rules for Decision” section in the Text, which is all about how we can change the decisions that run our lives moment by moment:

Decisions are continuous. You do not always know when you are making them. But with a little practice with the ones you recognize, a set begins to form which sees you through the rest. (T-30.I.1:1-3)

Let’s look at this passage more closely. First, it tells us “decisions are continuous,” so continuous that we aren’t always aware that we’re making them. In other words, much of what we’re doing is unconscious. But second, if we “practice with the ones you recognize” — the decisions we are conscious of — we will develop a “set,” a mindset, which will impact those continuous unconscious decisions.

The section then takes us through a practice which is essentially a form of cognitive therapy, consciously adopting a new mindset and using conscious thoughts to hew to that mindset when we go astray. Notice how similar this is to the findings cited in Brooks’s article: Yes, we react unconsciously a great deal of the time, but by consciously changing our minds and choosing new ways of looking at things, we can alter those unconscious decisions.

It may still be hard to believe that this can actually work, but there are a number of ideas in the Course material that I think help to make this plausible. First, the Course material tells us that all the dark stuff in the unconscious mind actually began in the conscious mind. Jesus tells Helen and Bill in the Urtext, “The unwatched mind is responsible for the whole content of the unconscious” (Urtext). When the thoughts in our unconscious first arose they were conscious, but because we weren’t watching our minds carefully, they got buried and we forgot about them. It makes sense, then, that just as the conscious decisions of the unwatched mind became the unconscious, so can the conscious decisions of the watched mind become a new unconscious.

Indeed, the same process that produced the unconscious mind is still going on: We make conscious decisions, but if we don’t watch what we’re doing, they quickly get buried in the unconscious. This leads us directly to the Course’s radical theory that all decisions of the mind (which includes all reactions, all thoughts, all emotions, etc.) are actually conscious: “All choices are made consciously, with full awareness of their consequences” (M-12.6:4). The only reason so many of them seem unconscious is that we make them in “a second, even less” (W-pI.136.3:4) — I’m reminded again of those 170 milliseconds or less — and then instantly (and intentionally) forget them (see W-pI.136.3-5 for the entire discussion). So again, it makes sense that if all decisions are made with the conscious mind anyway, making new decisions with the conscious mind is the way to bring about real change.

Okay, but even if we make all decisions consciously, don’t we need to apply that conscious choice directly to those deep unconscious patterns? Don’t we need to go on that archeological expedition to bring about real healing? Not necessarily. While I think the Course would have no objection to us doing some deep uncovering therapy if we find it helpful, and no doubt all sorts of deep stuff will come up as we work with the Course (it certainly has for me), there is plenty to work on right at the surface. Why? Because what happens on the surface is a reflection of those unconscious patterns; that deep metaphysical drama is expressed and constantly repeated in what look like the most mundane events of our daily lives.

Indeed, there is a running theme in the Course that apparently small decisions, events, and interactions actually have huge cosmic import. For instance, on the negative side, simply getting angry at another person is a decision to condemn yourself to the “prison house of death” (W-pI.192.9:4). “Even a little sigh of weariness, a slight discomfort or the merest frown” (W-pI.167.2:6) represent the decision to renounce the true life of Heaven.

On the positive side, Helen and Bill’s joining to find a better way to deal with their colleagues at work was the beginning of the holy relationship in which A Course in Miracles itself was born. Simply smiling at someone in an elevator or befriending a fellow student or not scolding a child can lead to salvation from the human condition (see M-3.2). Therefore, from the Course’s standpoint, consciously working on the surface stuff in the way the Course directs is working on the deep stuff. Learning to make new decisions about the “little” things of our daily lives is the key to undoing all that garbage buried in the unconscious for eons.

The bottom line, I think, is that the conscious mind is really where the action is; in fact, it is “the state that induces action” (T-1.II.1:8), the place where, as Brooks says, “we still have free will and control.” We can consciously change the unconscious. Thank God! Through making new decisions in the here and now, according to the Course and this growing body of research, we really can change those deep unconscious patterns within us and thus “change the lenses through which we unconsciously construe the world.” This changing of the lenses can do a lot more than simply counteract unconscious racism; it is nothing less than the way home for us: “Heaven is chosen consciously” (W-pI.138.9:1). And A Course in Miracles gives us a great program to help us do this.

Source of material commented on: The Young and the Neuro by David Brooks

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
If you enjoyed this article, you might like this one!
To learn more about our community of A Course in Miracles students, visit Course Companions.