The Subconscious and Meditation / Mindfulness

The words unconscious and subconscious are for the most part interchangeable. Sigmund Freud popularized the term unconscious the state that is automated referring to the activity of the mind that seemingly runs our instinct and intuition. In Freud’s work he often referred to the unconscious as the area of mind that could be disclosed through our dreams. The term subconscious mind was coined by the psychologist Pierre Janet, who argued that underneath the layers of critical thought functions of the conscious mind lay a powerful awareness that he called the subconscious mind. Even though Janet passed away in 1947, the subconscious is often considered a newer term and in fact a New Age term that generally describes and has the same meaning as unconscious mind. 

When looking at the area of communication between the conscious and the unconscious or subconscious area of mind, the term subconscious often makes much more sense to use as opposed to using the term unconscious in terms of one trying to communicate with a part of our consciousness that is unconscious in itself. So the term unconscious often relates to being unaware or un-knowing as opposed to subconscious referring simply as a deeper state of consciousness. A deeper or lower State of consciousness seems to be more in conjunction with the word slower, which could be more easily be related to the slower activity of the brain waves which also have their place in the understanding of the states of consciousness. In this document we will be using the term Subconscious. 

The words subconscious mind are not intended to signify anything mysterious or unusual or even new but are simply a part of your mind of which you are not conscious of at this moment. Your subconscious mind is a very important part of you in fact it is the part that runs your body; it makes your heart beat, causes every organ in your body to function, keeps the limbic system circulating, allows continual breathing, is in charge of your digestive system, blinking on the eyes as well as most of the other movements of your body and many other tasks that you have never ever considered.

One area that we will look at in appreciation is the fact that our subconscious mind is the source of all learning, all behavior, and all change. And as we will discover it is the fundamental component behind a meditation practice as well as mindfulness, talk therapies, cognitive, emotional therapies and, all of the other healing modalities particularly in the area of stress reduction and what we could call a heightened spiritual awareness.


For our discussion and to disclose the function of the subconscious in the areas mentioned we will be looking at the subconscious in the areas of: 

  • Learning 
  • Behavior 
  • Change


Learning: When we think of the things that we have learned in our life, we generally think in terms of the effort put forth to learn a task or to obtain knowledge. It is true that many of the things that we have learned first are learned consciously or we could say pass through the conscious mind although it is the subconscious mind that remembers everything. Everything that has been learned resides in the subconscious.  If we were to pull out everything that we have learned in our life put them to paper and placed these documents in a file cabinet, it would likely fill an entire library. All memories and knowledge are stored away within the subconscious very much like a computer downloaded and the files compacted. 

When we think of something or recall something in mind, it is pulled out from this storage unit of the subconscious. For example think of your address, before this question was asked where was this information? It had to be stored someplace. If all this information was within the conscious mind we likely would not be able to function. We would be walking within a world of confusion. This would be very similar to dumping out a file cabinet and throwing the files on the floor causing a disorganized and dysfunctional mess. When looked at in this context the subconscious mind could be regarded as our most useful companion, much the same way that many look at their personal computers, full of very useful and often critical information.

In regards to learning, or subconscious mind has likely gathered and organized about 95% of the knowledge that we have at this time. Not only has it gathered and arrange this knowledge but it is storing it as well.


Behavior: When we watch an animal such as a cat performing it's athletic abilities such as running and jumping it's an incredible site, seeing the movement of animals. When we watch an athlete or a dancer, or a contortionist or anybody that uses their body in an artistic or athletic way it can be an incredible and inspiring site. It's even more incredible and inspiring to realize that it is not the conscious mind that is doing any of this. It is not the conscious mind that is moving the body at the time of the performance. The same is true for a musician who has mastered their instrument. At the time of performance if they allow the conscious mind to interfere with what they've been practicing to do for so many years it's likely that they could run the risk of making a mistake in their performance, for example; when an athlete is in the zone the cognition or the conscious aspect of mind is turned off and they seemingly say that they are on auto pilot, in other words the subconscious mind is given full control. With the learned musician who has spent hours and days and years perfecting their talent. When it comes to the performance if they allow the conscious mind to, in anyway, bring about a nervousness such as with stage fright, they run the risk of blowing there performance that would typically flow flawlessly,  if that is, they completely turn over to the subconscious mind to do the performance.

There are many behaviors that are done at the subconscious level, consider walking for example. When walking, we simply put one foot in front of the other and we don't consider what is happening, it is a completely subconscious activity unless there is something that causes a unique situation for us such as a small pebble in the shoe. In fact we don't even think about most of the movements that we do including driving. Think of the last time you drove to work or to the store, how much thought was actually behind getting in the car, turning on the engine, putting it in gear and driving off. We likely turned this over to the subconscious in such a way that we felt that the conscious activity should be doing something else such as talking on the phone, fixing a problem that might happen in the future, checking our grocery list, listening to music etc.

How much of our behavior is conscious? When we really investigate this we will see that it's a very small percentage. Even the behavior that has brought us to the moment we are at in our lives at this time. We must also consider the behavior from those that have brought us into this world such as our parents. It's astonishing to think that nearly all of the behavior of all of the people before us that formed our world was performed on a subconscious level, unconsciously.


Change: Understanding habits and learned behaviors are an important part of our lives. If we think of the last time that we changed a bad habit we would likely remember that it was very difficult. Learned behaviors, particularly when negative or causing health problems, can cause some bumps if not huge peaks and valleys in our flow with life. 

When we recall a learned behavior such as a bad habit and tell ourselves, "I'm not going to do this anymore" and find that five minutes later we are doing that same bad habit this is an example of the conscious mind affirming something and subconscious having its own agenda. In some situations the conscious mind seemingly has a direct communication with the subconscious and these commands can take hold and be followed through flawlessly by the subconscious. We have likely heard of the hypnotherapy client that had one session and quit his 30 year smoking habit in an instant. Maybe we have heard story’s similar to the alcoholic that harmed somebody in their drunkenness and vowed never to drink again and followed through with it. And there are the reports from those that claim they had a spiritual awakening and instantly stopped all of their negative habits. In each of these situations when reviewed we see that there was some type of intervention with the subconscious mind, at some level the conscious mind either made an agreement or stepped out of the way and allowed the subconscious mind to gather this command and follow through with it without sending the cravings or impulses to the person that would normally encourage them to get back to their negative habit or behavior. 

If change was easy we could direct our lives flawlessly and be able to place ourselves in any situation at any capacity that we desired or felt the need to be in. We could learn whatever skill necessary to meet any challenge in life, and we could drop any negative behavior and replace it with a positive one.

The subconscious mind follows orders to a T. It's like a younger brother or sister that looks up to the older brother. The younger brother or sister is the subconscious mind and wants direction and support and would like to do what it's asked to do if only it knew how. In another simile, imagine a waiter giving the wrong orders to the cook in a restaurant, the cook follows through with what he receives as orders whether or not it is what the customer wants. In this simile you represent the waiter, the cook, and the customer. The waiter, the conscious mind, the cook, the subconscious mind, and the customer being what you feel is needed at any particular time. If the order is not correct and the cook unknowingly fulfills the wrong order, the customer does not get what they want unless the entire process is done again. Which is what we do until we get what we want or give up?

It's very easy to give confusing messages to the subconscious mind. If we wake in the morning and think, “this is going to be a difficult day" based on a memory of a situation that we have to face that afternoon. The subconscious will do whatever I can to follow through with that order and do whatever it can to deliver the order of making this a difficult day. on the other hand if we wake in the morning and are consciously grateful for our opportunity to carry-on our duties throughout the afternoon with and abundance of cheerfulness, acceptance and compassion toward all and an ability to receive the same from others, our subconscious will do everything in his power to fulfill this order as well. The thing is, we must be mindful enough to remember to do this.

In the areas of meditation and mindfulness, the subconscious plays a major role if not the role. The subconscious can provide aid in the key functions of the mind and body. When we address the primary tasks that the subconscious does we see a noticeable link between working with the subconscious and the practices of meditation and mindfulness. 

Meditation works by stilling the mind. We focus on an object and as the mind wanders we note this and then bring it back to that object of concentration and focus. When this practice is repeated and continued eventually the conscious mind or the cognitive thinking of the conscious mind, begins to slow down to the extent that it is no longer paid attention to and, in some cases, seems to subside completely. When this happens the subconscious is what is noticed if anything is noticed at all and often times the noticing comes after the meditation practice through recalling what took place. In some traditions this is seen as the arising of insight. Other words to describe it have been ati, mushu, no mind, tapas, Jhana, dhyana and self-realization. Every tradition has its own labels for the state of mind in which consciousness fades away and the subconscious is the primary level of consciousness that is noticed.

The following is a list that structures the uses of the subconscious and helps to provide an understanding of the correlations between the subconscious and meditation and mindfulness based practices.


1) The Subconscious Stores Memories: In 1957 Nero physicists postulated that everything that happens to us is stored in the brain in full detail. In 1960, Carl Pribram won the Nobel prize for his theory that expanded the place of storage of memories from the brain to the entire body. He postulated that memories were stored holographically in the nervous system. It is the subconscious mind that is responsible for the coordination of the storage of and for access to these memories. When the cognition of the mind is set aside in the practice of meditation, what arise are memories that are held within and organized by the subconscious mind. When these memories are freed up through the subconscious, what we see as arising from the stillness of mind,  is what we refer to as insight, hence the name insight meditation or vipassana. This is oftentimes referred to as what arises in-between the thoughts. 


2) The Subconscious Organizes all of the Memories: Subconscious mind organizes all of the memories which are stored within the nervous system, within the body. Possibly you have witnessed yourself or another having a deep emotional release by doing something such as yoga, or doing a particular exercise, or posture. When we make love to our partner for example, this activity can bring up many different emotions. In mindfulness one of the key practices is to be non-judgmental. Throughout our day we come across triggers that bring up many emotions. If we are not mindful of these triggers we will allow these pleasant or unpleasant feelings to arise from the subconscious and React right along with them. This in itself is neither good nor bad, the act of mindfulness is seeing and noticing and being with this process within the present moment.


3) Our Emotions are Stored within the Subconscious: Even though our emotions can be noticed on a conscious level, our emotions are not stored within the conscious mind. Our emotions are generated and maintained by the subconscious. To be mindful of our emotions, our moods, and the many states that we continually have is a byproduct of a sound and consistent meditation practice. As emotions arise from the subconscious if we react in such a way that these may be negative or we respond to them in the wrong way they can feed the subconscious the wrong information and arise again as alternate emotions. Emotions are learned responses that can come again and again particularly if we are not mindful of this activity. 


4) The Subconscious Can Hide Memories as Unresolved Negative Emotions: Often times and emotion or state will arise and the situation will remain unsolved. The memory or the trigger of the emotion will remain repressed allowing the emotion to come up again and again resulting in the idea that we feel this is simply a part of our nature. With mindfulness these emotions and the reason for their arising can be resolved. The repressed negative emotions can remain trapped within the body, and in many cases can cause a blockage of the flow of information through the neural pathways of the body resulting in many physical ailments including pain, stiffness and inflammation. The insight that can arise from stilling the mind or allowing the mental cognition to be set aside can allow enough clarity for one to recognize these unresolved negative emotions even before they arise. 


5) The Subconscious Mind Represses Emotions for Protection: The subconscious mind has a built-in mechanism to protect the conscious mind from overload. This is a short-term function that is noticed when the subconscious mind continues to present memories so that they can be released. This is done because repressed emotions are not good for the body. Being mindful and doing practices in meditation such as body scanning and sweeping can help detect areas of the body that are holding onto repressed emotions, these areas can be seen as problem areas such as shoulders, the lower back etc.


7) The Subconscious Runs the Body: The subconscious sometimes referred to as the mind-body is actually part of the body that moves all the parts, chews the food, blinks the eyes, moves the limbs, and gives us balance when we walk. A periodic and daily introspective, mindful look at the body points this fact out to us. Being mindful of  the function of the body, our activities in the area of exercise, as well being mindful of the overall treatment of the body is essential.


8) The Subconscious has the Job of Preserving and Protecting the Body: The subconscious works like peripheral vision. If we see something in the corner of our eye we have the instinct to flinch or move away to in order to be safe. In times of need where we need more strength or in times of extreme danger, people can notice that the subconscious mind completely takes over. This instinct and intuition can be finally tuned and allowed more to respond even more fluidly through meditative practices and allowing the understanding, that the cognitive or conscious mind can be put aside momentarily and that this in fact can be very beneficial for us particularly when the thinking mind gets in the way.


9) The Subconscious Mind Takes Directions and Follows Orders: If we had a partner or somebody in our life that did exactly everything we asked and we said "I'm sick and tired of this machine breaking".  And our partner or friend did everything they could to make us sick and tired we would begin to rethink our statements before they were expressed. In the same way if we make a mistake and said to ourselves, "I am so stupid". And our  partner or friend followed through with what you said and began to believe you were indeed stupid this would be a problem as well. These are analogies of how the subconscious mind follows through with the directions and wishes that it receives. It is important thing that there is a good clear line of communication between the conscious and the subconscious. This is best done through the practice of mindfulness and meditation. We must be clearheaded and mindfully leave behind any judgment, and any inner dialogue that is not clear positive and precise and the only way this can be done consistently is through mindfulness.


10) The Subconscious Maintains and Filters all Sensory Perceptions: As our sensory information is taken in from outside the body the information is first pass through the subconscious mind before becoming available to the conscious mind. This information is made available and understandable by the subconscious. We are presented millions of bits of information through our senses every moment and the subconscious filters these down to more manageable smaller chucks of information. The result is our perception of the world. In its simplest form our sensory perception is seen as pleasant unpleasant and neutral Although it takes a great deal of mindfulness to notice this and in doing so we start to gain control over our sensory pleasures and the things that can lead us astray allowing us to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch everything through the experience of contacting it for what it is, rather than creating something extravagant out of it.


11) The Subconscious Mind Generates, Stores and Distributes Energy: The subconscious is the manager of the body, it is also in charge of the energy displacement and the overall energy of the body. And since the unconscious mind is in charge, it can be asked to increase or decrease the energy level. Although,  if this information is handled inappropriately there could be additional bodily weight loss or weight gain as well as fatigue or sleep depravation and difficulties in healing. A healthy subconscious allows us to sleep more easily and also gives us the energy we need to have throughout the day to get the things done that we wish to get done. The opposite is the sluggish mind and bodily fatigue as well as being generally unhealthy and out of shape. Being mindful of our energy levels in meditation is the key and noticing how our meditation practice increases our energy level is a substantial part of the practice itself and helps feed the subconscious the correct information.


12) The Subconscious Allows us to Respond to Instinct and Intuition: Some instincts are built-in at birth such as the fear of falling and the fight or flight response. The subconscious mind is responsible for gathering, maintaining and following through with our instincts and intuitions. An allowing of this can teach the meditator and help them understand the absence of a self behind their thoughts and actions. In Buddhist beliefs there is the teaching that everything is fluid like and impermanent, and that lasting happiness can't be found within an impermanent object. And within this impermanence, is the fact that there is no lasting self as well. This provides a great deal of information as well as liberation from the idea that there is a true form of permanent happiness that can be found in the world. This resolves the stress of constant seeking for our happiness. With the ending of this seeking is relief from this type of stress and freedom.


13) The Subconscious Works in Metaphors and is Symbolic: Instead of using words the subconscious mind creates by using  and responding to symbols. When we think of metaphors and stories sometimes we can notice that we easily relate to these things not knowing why. If we are very visual we seem to have a better connection or can take more meaning behind subconscious mind and how it speaks to us through the use of symbols and metaphors. Symbols are interpreted and generally prove to have significant meaning and we can look for within our dreams as well as in our meditation practices. When symbols arise within our meditation and then how we relate to these symbols can be very profound and interesting. Native Americans and indigenous people of the world have realized and utilized these symbols for thousands of years. Hypnotherapy utilizes metaphors and symbols to a great extent. Think of a symbol that has great meaning to you and ask yourself why this is. Perhaps the answer is within the subconscious.


14) The Subconscious Takes Everything Personally: As far as the subconscious is concerned everything is a reflection on to your self.  For example when you see what you like about your friend or partner, this is what ypu like about you. The bad news is that what you dislike about your friend or partner is you as you see your self as well. What you see and what you experience is a reflection coming back and pointing to you. another way of putting it is that when you point at somebody or something with one finger there's three fingers pointing back at you, what you see is who you are. When working with somebody if you believe that they cannot do something such as make a transition in there life, it's very likely that you will not be able to help them do so. If on the other hand, you believe that they can achieve something it is very likely that they will. The same is true for you if you think you can do something you can do it, if you feel like you're definitely going to fail at something this doubt can derail you and chances are you will fail. Mindfulness allows us to see this, it allows us to understand this process and know when it's happening so that I can be stopped or better yet so that it doesn't happen in the first place. If you can remember your magnificence you will be magnificent.