Who’s Minding the Mind?

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]

A Course in Miracles claims that underneath our surface beliefs and motivations, we have a deep pit of dark, unconscious beliefs, motivations, and drives that are the real engines running our lives. We believe we murdered the Son of God in ourselves, and that we are so vile we would kill ourselves if our true nature were revealed to us. An underlying motivation in our love relationships is to take vengeance on past partners by extracting “love” from our current ones, who inevitably become targets of vengeance themselves. We have a relentless unconscious drive to accumulate guilt and punish ourselves with pain and death, all to serve the insane goal of keeping God’s Love away from us. How can such dark drives be running our lives without our knowing it? It’s difficult to imagine. Yet recent scientific studies leave the door open for the Course’s account of our lives, for “the new studies reveal a subconscious…that is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known.”

The article I’m drawing from in this commentary is one by Benedict Carey in the New York Times entitled “Who’s Minding the Mind?” It summarizes research that shows just how much the unconscious mind drives our conscious activities. Its specific focus is on how cues from our external environment “prime” unconscious motivations, drives, and goals, “triggering” them to become active without our conscious awareness. Carey stresses the point that “‘priming’ people in this way is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.” The unconscious drives are already there, just waiting for the proper trigger to set them in motion. In the words of John A. Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale, “We’re finding that we have these unconscious behavioral guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness.”

The findings Carey reports fit the same basic pattern: an external trigger that the subject is not consciously aware of sets into motion an unconscious mental process that leads to a particular behavior. The reports are both fascinating and spooky. Students who had briefly been handed a cup of iced coffee described a person they later read about as “colder, less social and more selfish” than did students who had been handed a cup of hot coffee. Students who played an investment game in a room with a briefcase and leather portfolio on the table (placed by the experimenters) were more competitive and less generous than students who played the same game with a backpack on the table. Students who took a questionnaire and then ate a crumbly snack in a room primed with the scent of cleaning fluid were much more likely to clean up their mess than students who did the same activities in a room without that scent. Study participants who were subtly exposed to words like “dependable” and “support” were more cooperative than those who had not seen those words. In an especially disturbing finding, white people in a room where the lights had been turned down (which unconsciously activates self-protection instincts) became more likely to unconsciously see hostility in the faces of black men who actually had neutral expressions.

I found one experiment especially fascinating. First, students were asked to bring to mind either a shameful thing from their past (like betraying someone) or a virtuous thing from their past (like a good deed). Later, they were offered their choice of a gift: either an antiseptic wipe or a pencil. The researchers found that the students who recalled a shameful deed were twice as likely to take the wipe instead of the pencil. Moreover, once they had wiped their hands, these same students became less likely to volunteer to help with a graduate school project. The researchers concluded that these students’ recollection of shameful deeds unconsciously primed them to want to “cleanse” their consciences, which is why they chose the wipe. But once they ritualistically wiped their hands, their consciences were “clean,” so they no longer felt the need to atone for their misdeeds—an atonement that might have been achieved by volunteering for the project.

This dynamic of an external trigger setting into motion an unconscious mental process that leads to a particular behavior is certainly in accord with A Course in Miracles. In fact, the Course claims that the unconscious motives that drive our actions are far deeper (and darker) than anything this research has revealed. And in the Course’s view, we not only unconsciously react to various triggers in our environment, but we put those triggers there ourselves and seek them out for the very purpose of provoking this reaction. This is the essence of the Course’s teaching that “projection makes perception” (T-21.In.1:1): We see what we want to see, in order to serve our unconscious goals.

In the first paragraph of this piece, I listed some of the unconscious beliefs, motivations, and drives that the Course says are behind our actions. Here, I’ll give two Course examples of everyday events that are actually driven by unconscious dynamics.

The first is the Manual discussion of the teacher of God’s reaction to pupils’ magic thoughts. On the surface, the situation described is essentially this: A pupil shares with his teacher a thought that is out of accord with the holy goal the two of them had set for their relationship (a “magic thought”), and the teacher gets angry. The question is, why does she get angry? On the surface, it seems easy enough to explain: The teacher is angry because the pupil is dropping the ball. But according to the Manual (see M-17.5-7), what’s really happening is that the pupil’s sharing activates a massive unconscious conflict that goes something like the following:

The teacher thinks she has separated from God, that therefore she is horribly guilty, and that therefore God is out to kill her for her transgression against Him. This whole scenario is a magic thought for it is impossible, but the teacher really believes it. This situation is so terrifying that the teacher attempts to “resolve” it by resorting to another magic thought: to forget about the whole terrifying situation by burying it deep in the unconscious. This solution works well enough most of the time, but then along comes this pupil with his magic thought. The pupil’s magic thought triggers the teacher’s remembrance of the whole fearful scenario that she has kept out of mind with her magic thoughts. This is what really drives the teacher’s angry reaction: “I got that whole thing safely out of mind, but here you are stirring it up again, you jerk!” Who would have ever guessed that anything like this was going on?

The second example relates to the experiment with the antiseptic wipes. I said above that we have an unconscious drive to accumulate guilt, but along with that is a drive to keep that guilt out of awareness, as we saw in the last example. One of the ways we do this is by “atoning” for it through good deeds: Each of us “counts the ‘good’ to pardon…the ‘bad'” (T-31.VII.1:6). There are some illuminating instances of this in a long discussion by Jesus of one of Helen and Bill’s days, recorded in Ken Wapnick’s Absence from Felicity (pp. 253-258). The whole discussion is long and complicated, but a theme that constantly crops up is unconscious attempts to atone for bad thoughts and behavior through good deeds. Bill tried to atone for his irritation at someone (which led him to not share a cab with her) by offering someone else a cab later. Bill also tried to atone for his misdeeds by Xeroxing copies of Jesus’ notes. He tried to atone for his ungracious response to a lunch invitation by going to the lunch and acting outwardly gracious. Helen did no better. She was angry throughout the day for various reasons, and did her own version of atoning. She tried to atone for her unkind act of writing Jesus’ notes in front of her husband by changing his name in the notes, a magical attempt to keep her attack thoughts from “finding” him. She tried to atone for her anger at Bill by praying for him with Jesus, but her prayer “ended badly” because it was tinged with her earlier errors.

The irony was that all of these attempts at atoning (with the exception of Helen’s praying, which would have been helpful with the right attitude) were actually counterproductive. They went against Jesus’ guidance and were really just different forms of attack, which had the actual effect of increasing Helen and Bill’s guilt, even as they seemed to alleviate it. They were about as effective as using an antiseptic wipe to cleanse your conscience.

This all sounds very depressing, and begs the question: Is there any way out? Will we be forever enslaved by this dark unconscious mind, or can we use our conscious minds to find a way out? The scientists who do this kind of research are hopeful. Roy Baumeister of Florida State University says that this research “doesn’t prove that consciousness never does anything.” Bargh points out that the “priming” effect of external events doesn’t work if you’re aware of it. And it’s clear that people really can change deeply rooted habit patterns through conscious mind training. The success of everything from methods of quitting smoking to the world’s spiritual disciplines attests to that.

This conscious mind training is what A Course in Miracles gives us. It enables us to “dispel illusions…by looking at them directly, without protecting them” (T-11.V.2:2). Through working with the Course, we can bring the darkness of our unconscious beliefs and motivations to the light that shines them away. In the end, the One Who’s really minding the mind is God. And if we open our minds to Him, He will cleanse our unconscious darkness and lift us into the eternal and fully conscious light of His Love.


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