Discovering Your Unconscious Mind

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” — Carl Jung

Right now, as you start reading this essay, there is a part of your mind operating completely outside of your awareness. It is processing information, making decisions, and guiding your thoughts. In a way, it seems to have a “mind of its own.”

Welcome to your unconscious mind.

Throughout my adult life, I have struggled to understand the unconscious. I’ve been unnerved and fascinated by its mystery. If psychoanalytic models are even vaguely correct, our lives are influenced by something outside of our control, though simultaneously part of us.

There is more than meets the eye when it comes to the mind. In order to gain a fuller understanding of our conscious selves, we must delve into our invisible terrain.

The psyche is a nebulous concept because it can’t be observed under a microscope or quantified in any meaningful way. The unconscious is a theoretical approximation for something that will never be fully understood.

I have obsessed for years over developing a better understanding of my own subconscious and unconscious mind. Based on all of this “research,” I have arrived at three fundamental conclusions:

1. The unconscious mind, though hidden, is accessible

2. The unconscious mind can be partly understood in concrete and well-defined terms

3. The rewards of diving into the unconscious mind are tremendous, including discovering new talents, gaining new perspectives on life, and finding greater happiness.

The unconscious mind is far vaster than anything we could ever know. There is no end. But we still should walk the path, even if we will never come close to arriving at a destination (whatever that even means)

If you take only one idea from this essay, it is the following: the journey of understanding your unconscious mind is about waking up to what is already present inside and outside of you.

Fear

Like many people, I used to fear my unconscious mind. I believed that if I were to uncover it, I would find something that would undermine my life. Perhaps I would discover “another me” that wanted something entirely contrary to my deepest hopes and dreams. Perhaps I would meet a nefarious tyrant within to whom I was psychologically enslaved.

I’m not the only one who felt this way. The entire modern Western world finds deep discomfort with the unconscious.

Freud, one of the founding fathers of 20th-century psychoanalysis, induced enormous paranoia and fear on this topic by suggesting that human behavior is primarily driven by brutish, violent and sexual instincts, and building his arguments around messy (and ultimately unlikely) Oedipal complexes. As a result, psychoanalysis as a whole carries a shadowy reputation.

But the theory of the unconscious also just runs against the cosmologies of the West. Our modern world is built on the rationality of the enlightenment, the materialism of scientific and industrial revolutions, the consumerism of 20th-century capitalism.

Western thinkers like to analyze, quantify, to demonstrate causality, to allow for repeatability and falsification. In other words, we seek greater objectivity. We prefer clinical neuroscientific research to expansive psychological theories.

The subjective darkness is repressed because it can’t be empirically measured. Interior worlds are reduced, devalued, or forgotten.

Regardless of how we treat the unconscious in this particular part of the world, it persists as an undeniable part of us. We have an individual unconscious, as well as the unconscious of the group and the broader population.

This is true because we know that a huge percentage of human behavior is driven by something other than conscious choice. We don’t act like our parents because we consciously decided to; it is driven deeper emotional processes. *

As Jung noted, if we ignore the hidden parts of ourselves, they will continue to play roles in our lives and influence our behavior. Until we take the time to self examine, our unconscious makes itself known in painful ways. Feelings of powerlessness ensue.

But the beauty of the unconscious is that it clearly can be known. Though unconscious content doesn’t immediately find its way in surface-level awareness, it is accessible in manifold ways. And when we walk through those doors, we find the opportunity to build a deeper relationship with ourselves and liberate ourselves from the challenges we have experienced for our entire lives.

Oceans

In 2005, David Foster Wallace, the late writer, gave a commencement speech to Kenyon College. In the beginning, he included a brief but powerful anecdote:

The fish have spent and will spend (forbidding an intervention by a fisherman), every minute of their entire lives in the ocean. It is omnipresent, everything around them, everything that they know. But because they are so completely immersed in it, they cannot see it. Water isn’t a “wet substance that can be felt and seen.” It is simply reality, isness, life.

This quote is the beginning of understanding the unconscious mind. Where in life are we utterly immersed in something that is completely invisible to us?

The primary example is culture. We were raised and live in a system of norms, beliefs, and values. All of this informed how life worked, taught us how to interact with other people, and gave us a sense of what behaviors are celebrated and punished. Culture is so omnipresent in our lives that it is often difficult to see how arbitrary it can be. We don’t realize how deeply it shapes us.

We have a heightened sense of individualism in American culture. People find their primary sense of identity in themselves, as opposed to with the family, or a larger community. This leads to greater risk-taking and heightened creativity, spiritual journeys where people find themselves, existential crises, or perhaps narcissism. It liberates individual souls, but also leads others to intense loneliness.

Asian cultures, by contrast, are oriented around the collective and the family. They emphasize conformity, dedication, and correct behavior — influenced by Confucianist roots. Though Asian social structures are very rigid, the communal nature of these societies means that people deal less with the pressure of navigating life alone.

Only when we encounter another culture do we start to gain a basic awareness of the realities of our own. We see vast differences in gender roles and dynamics. We experience rituals and routines foreign to anything we’ve known before. We note the limitations of our own culture, which only recently was the only thing we ever knew.

We are always immersed in some kind of cultural ocean, whether our own or another’s. Wherever we are, we naturally absorb the local way of life. Without knowing, we begin to adjust our behavior to align with what is around us.

The more that we become aware of the water, we can improve our ability to swim. All cultures, after all, are oppressive in their own ways. We are held back by ideas that run contrary to our truest nature. We feel shame when our lives don’t align with society’s ideals.

Then we begin to realize — there are different ways of living. We can depart from unconscious behaviors that aren’t serving us. We can renegotiate the way we navigate social and romantic relationships, and reconsider our ideas about career and family life.

The strength of identity comes from our ability to celebrate the great things about our own culture while letting go of the garbage that inevitability has shaped our lives.

Authors

I recently read Writing a Novel, a book about creative writing by Dorothy Bryant. Bryant makes the point that though you can spend two years writing a novel, which may be a grueling, intensive, and personal process, you don’t actually know what the book is about until well after you have completed the story. It may take someone else’s critical reading to give you an idea of what the work is actually about.

This is a radical idea. An author is literally in complete control of the story. She makes all of the decisions and guides the narrative along. And yet, according to this theory, there are other forces at play.

This is because the characters and thematic depth of the novel take lives of their own. An author who writes a story about soldiers going off to war doesn’t realize until later that “choosing between Justice vs. forgiveness” was a universal theme among all of the characters. A novelist writing about midlife crises might discover later that the book was actually about the idealization of childhood.

The works take on lives of their own. More importantly, it is not so crazy to suggest that these themes were present from the very beginning. The depth of the book, even when it was mostly unwritten, was already intrinsically there in some sense.

And so a novel becomes an excellent metaphor for the way that the conscious and unconscious mind works. We are authors of our own lives. We dictate the narrative at the surface, making decisions and refining our “work”. In this sense, at the surface, we are in control. But as we reflect on our “writing”, arriving at the completion of a phase of our lives, we may come to realize that the deeper meaning, the thematic material, was very different than we thought.

A period of deep struggle was a transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly, breaking out of a cocoon. A breakup or divorce was the inevitable explosion after a long period of denying feelings of dissatisfaction. A period of accelerated professional success was when you finally, after all of these years, found your stride (or allowed yourself to let go).

We can connect the dots and uncover insights that we couldn’t see while we were immersed in what we were doing. Distance gives us the ability to see clearly.

At the end of the day, our lives are stories, and so it is our job to see the narratives that are already at play in our lives.

Shadows

A bright light casts a dark shadow

All of us have a dark side. It is an unavoidable part of being human.

We experience periods of sadness, anger, or guilt. We repeat behaviors that we know are totally counterproductive to our wellbeing. We mistreat people when they deserve better.

It’s not so fun to look honestly at these things because it doesn’t feel good. It forces us to acknowledge weaknesses or recognize that we are different from the perfect images of ourselves that we tend to hold in our mind's eye.

And so inevitably, we push it away. We bury these parts of ourselves and pretend they don’t exist. And for a while, it might feel like we succeeded.

Which brings us to the shadow.

The shadow is the part of our minds that contains all of the psychological material that we don’t like about ourselves (or perhaps are socially unacceptable). It contains suppressed emotions, traumas, instincts and drives, and a lot more. In short — anything that we’d rather that other people not know about us.

It is hidden from view, deep in the recesses of our mind, but it is still present.

The shadow is driven by emotions, so it tends to drive our emotional dynamics in life without us knowing. In our immediate experience, we deal with persistent bad moods, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, sleepless nights, and negative coping mechanisms. In our relationships, we tend to attract the same types of people again and again. We fall into the same patterns of conflict or make bad decisions that drive people away.

Without awareness of shadow dynamics, the world is to blame for all of this suffering. We are victims of biology or of circumstance. Our problems are someone else’s fault. The world is a chaotic place that continuously throws our lives through the wringer. This spirals into powerlessness and hopelessness.

The shadow, in suppressed or disassociated form, can inflict a painful toll on our lives. However, the insights of depth psychology reveal that there is plenty that can be done. Emotions can be owned and processed. Traumas can be revealed and brought into the light. Our patterns can be observed and understood. We can begin to take responsibility for why life has gone this way, and recognize the possibilities of charting a new course.

Even more so, we find that the shadow can be of immense use. As Carl Jung proclaimed, “the shadow is 90% gold.” This is because when negative emotions are processed, they are transmuted into their positive form. Anger becomes a creative fire. Sadness becomes intimacy. Powerlessness becomes activation. And so on.

We dive into our darkness to make our problems go away, but we begin to realize that the problems are the seeds of greater things. The shadow is the contrast against the light that burns so brightly.

As I’ve come to more deeply understand this topic, I’ve learned that shadows are not limited to individuals. Families have shadows, ethnic groups have shadows, entire towns, cities, countries have shadows. Even the Philz Coffee I’m sitting in as I write this essay has a shadow (noting the workers striking outside).

As a global society, we learn that the shadow of our vast economic growth over the past centuries includes the vast environmental destruction that has permeated the globe.

We can treat this as an “externality,” an unfortunate byproduct of improving standards of living, or we can take responsibility for our limited ability to empathize with the natural world, and adjust our course. Perhaps an integrated eco-capitalism will create a level of vibrancy and health never seen before.

As individuals, our willingness to admit our darkness is the first step in the healing journey.

Self Discovery

As more and more people fall away from institutional religious life, they learn that they no longer need to conform to the structures of meaning laid out by the faith. They realize they have a greater ability to create their own meaning in life and make sense of things in their own way.

Taken in its extreme, people start to see life as one grand blur of equally-weighted subjectivities. Life has “no meaning in and of itself,” only what an individual assigns to it. Ah, postmodernism. This is what Nietzche was talking about when he proclaimed: “God is dead.”

This is an attractive line of reasoning for many people because it gives them a sense of greater control. They don’t feel chained by the words of ancient religious text; they get to do (or be) whatever they want.

But it is ultimately a futile way of looking at the world. The wisdom of the unconscious reveals that meaning is hardwired into the human experience; it is present whether we like it or not.

If I argue that I’m exclusively in charge of the meaning in my life, it inevitably becomes an ego trip; a resistance against deeper personal truths. It blocks the opportunity for transcendence beyond the self.

The universal and the eternal themes of life lie within. It is our job to create meaning in our lives as much as it is to discover the significance that is already present.

Co-creation is a buzzword, and yet it precisely describes the imperative of the human experience. We take conscious agency over the direction of our lives and yet work in tandem with deeper forces inside ourselves.

It is a profoundly relaxing idea to realize that you aren’t burdened with the goal of developing a self from scratch. It is liberating to let go of the idea that we construct microscopic bubbles of meaning in an otherwise dead Universe.

Nihilism is a terrible way of life for just about every reason in the book. It is incredibly depressing; it leaves us directionless, demotivated, lost; it absolves us of moral responsibility.

I want to re-emphasize moral responsibility. The climate is warming, species are dying, the US education and mental health systems are strained, the opioid crisis is raging, billions of people around the world are suffering in poverty. And somehow that doesn’t matter? All of this subjective? Excuse my language, but that is philosophically-laced Bullshit, with a capital B.

We don’t have time for nihilistic charades and sob stories about the meaningless of life.

When we discover our true selves — when we make the unconscious conscious — we find ourselves as part of the greater whole and gifted with deeper powers to contribute to it.

We realize the ability to take action and understand how much it matters.

Start Where You Are

Self-understanding is the journey of a lifetime, requiring decades of introspection and experience. But even small increases in self-awareness can lead to enormous progress. Taking the time to understand your unconscious mind can lead to enormous fulfillment.

Now is the best time to start digging, no matter your circumstances.

Finally, there is nothing to be afraid of in your unconscious mind. Trust that you can embark and you will only become stronger and more resilient.

*A scientific materialist would argue that this is also biology, siding nature in “the nature vs. nurture debate.” Realistically, it is both a biological and interior/emotional process, indicating that biology and the subjective unconscious are correlates.

Co-founder, Streetlight.