How not to be held captive by the conscious mind

Suppose that the ultimate effect of consciousness is actually to protect the mind against the irreducible complexity of the world, rather than to illuminate the world for the mind's eye.

Although the brain is aware of a vast amount of information generated by sense organs within the body, consciousness filters almost all of it out.

At some level, most of us tend to think of consciousness as if it were a beam of light that shines on the world, one spot at a time, from subject to subject, enlightening the mind about the content and significance of each piece of reality that the beam of light touches.


For a moment, let's contradict that frequently held tacit assumption about the nature of consciousness.

Rather than regarding consciousness as the target or observer of sensation, let's regard it as a filter against sensation that blocks out some or perhaps even most of what the brain is aware of.

We could say that consciousness works like an exclusive club, allowing only those sensations to join the club that conform to the patterns and connections formed by existing members. All sensations that belong to this consciousness club form a self-consistent whole.

Extraneous, outlying sensations are kept out of the club; they are ignored, unremembered, unobserved.

Using another metaphor, consciousness is a story, or grand novel, that unfolds continuously in the private depths of the mind. A "story", in this sense, is a pattern of connections with at least one path leading from a beginning to an end.

The brain writes its novel in order to create consistency and continuity out of the disparate occurrences in life's passing.

By manufacturing continuity between one sensation and another, and then by focusing and filtering sensory input based on the perceptions created by that continuity, consciousness enables the mind to prioritize sensations, bringing some to the foreground while ignoring others.

The result is the "flow" that makes up experience.

Despite the effect of consciousness as a limiter, it plays a crucial role in making coherent and effective behavior possible.

Without consciousness, all sensations would make equal demands upon the brain's perceptual resources, attention would shift randomly from sensation to sensation, the mind could not compare or contrast immediate sensations with those that had gone before, and the brain would dwell in an eternal undifferentiated "now".

Many philosophies emphasize paying attention to the "now" or present moment. In fact, if that psychological state ever truly could be achieved, it would be absolutely debilitating.

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Self is a construct of consciousness that ties together the long-term flow of sensations pertaining directly to the body in which the brain is housed.

The central character, or the all-connecting element, in the story of consciousness is exactly what the self is. Apart from that unfolding story, there is no self.

Self is a complex survival mechanism, no different in principle to any of the many physiological defense mechanisms that abound in the body, such as the immune system. Like the immune system, self is a very good thing.

Perhaps a more interesting proposal than to uproot the self would instead be to loosen the ligatures between the mind and self, reducing the overall demand that self places on mind's resources.

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The brain is an organ that "secretes" continuity, and consciousness is an important product of that secretion.

While consciousness is the unfolding story that the brain tells itself about its own existence, the brain is aware of much more sensation than what it weaves into the story of consciousness.

What happens when you make a deliberate choice to temporarily allow more awareness to come into consciousness?

In cases such as that, the story becomes momentarily about you being aware of those sensations.

To demonstrate this, focus for a moment on becoming aware of every sound in your environment: fans, traffic, distant voices, and so on. Also, feel any pressure against your body or any slight movement in your joints.

Notice the coloring, shading, texture, or edges of anything that happens to fall into your line of sight. Suddenly those sensations spring into consciousness.

The reason that they become part of consciousness is that for a moment the tale your brain tells itself is about you (the self) becoming aware of those sensations. There was no consciousness of the sensations until the unfolding story became momentarily about you being aware of them.

It is impossible not to pay attention to the present moment, in a certain sense.

The "now" for each person consists of the story of consciousness as it unfolds from moment to moment. That story may interweave with events that happened previously as well as events that might happen in the future, but the "now" is the story of consciousness at each moment, regardless of where in time its content happens to be set.

Every person is unremittingly tied to the moment-to-moment unfolding of the story.

The background mind is responsive to the flow of nervous-system sensation in an instantaneous, unconditioned, or "unprocessed" way.

Some types of meditation practice can alter the content of that story, restricting it to events occurring at the present time, eliminating reminiscing about the past or daydreaming about the future, but it would not eliminate each person's wholly perfect fusion with the story itself, unless consciousness were completely snuffed out.

When a person becomes conscious of being conscious, is that not simply the story being expanded to portray the main character in the story -- the self -- being thoughtful about the existence of the story itself?

That is not an escape from the story; it is a sequel or elaboration of the story, and the plot merely thickens.

The question then arises, how can a person be free from consciousness? Is that possible? Can a person be aware of sensations without being utterly spellbound by some sort of story that ties together those sensations with every grain of experience, as incorporated in the self?

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What follows is one view of what might be happening in the mind/brain. Some of these ideas are based on generally accessible results from cognitive psychology.

Much of the brain's activity does not become part of the web of perceptual connections and memories upon which the brain builds the self at the center of consciousness.

The reason is because that activity is itself the storyteller. It is actually the mental activity behind the story being told. It is located behind or in back of the "eyes" of consciousness itself.

The storyteller is the background mind, or "silent mind", separate from the flow of experience and separate from the story itself.

Much of what motivates human beings takes place in the silent, background mind, out of reach of the actively unfolding narrative of consciousness.

The background mind is pre-conscious. It operates just before the content of conscious experience emerges. It is the awareness or responsiveness out of which the brain puts together the private movie that unceasingly fills experience.

The background mind is continuously aware of sense input, and remembers it, even if that sense input never intrudes upon consciousness and its story.

Relatively little is known about unconscious mental activity, but apparently it shapes conscious thoughts, perceptions, and even volitions quite profoundly.

The term "unconscious" has been applied within many models of the mind, and has such a weight of historical meaning that it has become rather ambiguous. For that reason we refer here to the "background mind" instead.

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The pre-conscious background mind is inhabited by raw images that are often nonsensical to the conscious mind in the same way that dream imagery is.

Background images have their own self-consistency. They are like fragments of ice on the surface of the mental sea, in contrast to the thick sheet of polar ice that is consciousness itself.

Along with images, the pre-conscious background mind harbors sounds, fragments of speech, and tactile or kinesthetic impressions. Those rarely intrude into the consciousness of most individuals but the mind is continuously creating them in the background out of naked sensation, emerging from eyes, ears, skin, joints, as well as from the activity of the brain and nervous system itself.

Consciousness creates perceptual linearity and consistency by enabling the brain's resources to focus on a particular schema, or way of arranging sensations.

A schema is like a piece or cluster of pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

Many schemas (pace classicists, who prefer "schemata"), perhaps an unlimited number, are possible in a given situation, but if the brain is to function well, and if it is to build a functioning mind, all but one or at most a handful must be filtered away.

Consciousness is a stream of fixed, frozen stereotypes that provide anchor points for stabilizing the flux of sensation that would otherwise be an unmanageable torrent of awareness flooding the mind.

The background mind is apparently able to operate without any schema at all. Perhaps the background activity in the brain helps solidify the schemas that the conscious mind will adhere to.

The background mind helps build consciousness by providing a steady supply of perceptual fragments. Those fragments are most obvious at times when consciousness is shutting down, such as in the moments before falling asleep.

The pre-conscious, background mind is what sometimes creates the bizarre, spontaneous, unschematicized images, called hypnagogic images.

Pre-consciousness can also be observed fleetingly when the mind is presented by bewildering or unexpected sensations, especially if the person is tired.

What we experience in those situations is the pre-conscious, background mind acting to reconsolidate events that arise from the sense organs or nervous system into the continuously unfolding story of consciousness.

The background mind is the soil from which the schemas of consciousness spring. The conscious mind seizes the schemas that are most consistent with the rest of conscious experience.

Any sensations that cannot square up with the consensus of consciousness are either rejected from consciousness or become the kernel of new schemas.

Breaking the consensus of consciousness causes a feeling of surprise, humor, or discomfort, depending on the level of fearfulness associated with the context.

Consciousness is evidently quite expensive, demanding the brain's attention resources by locking those resources into a feedback loop that consumes a significant amount of resources in order to add new sensations and perceptions to the schematic tapestry.

As the schematic tapestry grows more intricate and extensive, the tapestry demands even more resources. The story is self-reinforcing, effortlessly drawing attention.

Certain focal points of attention become hurricanes of perception, sucking in an ever greater amount of mental resource.

Consciousness is a stream of fixed, frozen stereotypes that provide anchor points for stabilizing the flux of sensation that would otherwise be an unmanageable torrent of awareness flooding the mind.

An interesting property of the background mind is that it very often becomes aware of significant or critical factors in the environment earlier than the conscious mind does. The background mind is the "silent" mind, however, because its awareness is necessarily preconscious or outside of consciousness.

Clever psychological experiments can uncover the activity and influence of the preconscious, background mind. The silent mind does not communicate directly with the conscious mind. Instead, it subtly alters the flow and content of consciousness, affecting how consciousness schematicizes sensory input and the structure of perception.

Much of what happens to a person requires interpretation of some sort. The person's conscious mind has to fill in the blanks and missing context with assumptions and surmisals.

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Consciousness would be impossible without memory. Critical to conscious experience is the fact that newly arriving sensations are being integrated continuously with the remembered history that makes up the novel that we call consciousness.

The connecting of current patterns to those in memory is what creates consciousness. The brain is a continuity engine, and patterns are built out of continuities.

Continuity created between the immediate present and the storified past is what causes the sensation of flowing conscious experience. A person who had only instantaneous awareness, and no recollection even of immediate prior moments, would not have what we instinctively feel to be consciousness.

The background mind actively commits raw impressions to memory, without needing to relate them to patterns and even if those impressions have not contributed patently to the brain's conscious story. Conscious memory, in contrast, prefers to store only schemas that have been useful.

Background impressions probably always have at least in indirect effect on consciousness, if only to cast a mood or psychological aroma over an experience or situation.

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Consciousness differs from awareness. The background mind is aware of much more of the constant buzz of events that take place in the nervous system than consciousness contains.

In a deeper sense, the background mind is actually never aware of the environment; it is only aware of changes in the nervous system produced by changes suffered by sense organs when they are affected by the environment, such as by sounds, light, heat, or pressure.

The background mind is responsive to the flow of nervous-system sensation in an instantaneous, unconditioned, or "unprocessed" way.

The view of mind described here distinguishes between perception and sensation.

Sensation refers to the most elementary substance of awareness, uncategorized and unincorporated.

The brain is aware of much more sensation than consciousness admits into its lattice of perception. Consciousness and awareness overlap when objects of awareness become incorporated into the schematic tapestry.

We are similarly mesmerized by our consciousness, completely unable to "wake up" to the activity of the background mind. Wherever we go, whatever we do, the conscious mind is there, unrelentingly spinning its tale. Consciousness is remarkably similar to dreaming.

Consciousness may transitionally include aspects of the field of awareness that do not directly contribute to the schematic tapestry nor necessarily detract from it, although this usually requires deliberate effort and is difficult to sustain.

Autistic people have brains that seem to overwhelm their conscious minds with sensation. Their breadth of awareness evidently saturates their consciousness until they become lost in sensation and fail to "see the forest for trees".

That may make it difficult or impossible to recognize the self in another person. Incidentally, one operational definition of autism is "mind blindness".

Autism lies at one end of a spectrum that contrasts awareness to consciousness. At the other end lies a kind of obsessive consciousness where a person is so focused on the story of self that he or she becomes oblivious to most arbitrary events in his or her surroundings.

Perception, in contrast to awareness, is the process of integrating sensations into consciousness by constructing new schemas or extending existing ones to be consistent with the new sensations.

Consciousness influences perception because the brain evidently prefers to create perceptions that are consistent with the rest of the story of consciousness than perceptions that are merely self-consistent.

The profound effects that memory and expectation have on perception are well documented. To a surprising extent people only see what they expect to see and only remember what they believe happened.

Experience stored in the background mind normally lies inert and obscured from consciousness. Images, smells, strong emotions, and poignant sensations can dislodge experience frozen in the background mind and hoist it to the surface.

When that happens, the submerged experience colors conscious perception. Even when submerged, background experience persistently exerts an influence on how consciousness assembles sensations into perceptions that are systematically consistent with a person's accumulated experience.

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Several disciplines serve to keep the conscious mind limber. Below are a few. Think of them as calisthenics for consciousness.

Mark all thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, and opinions as tentative.   While manipulating or using thoughts or perceptions, treat them transitional. Assert that no thought is accurate. Set aside time to identify and probe every assumption, diligently and systematically questioning even established notions.

That practice requires deliberate attention and discipline, especially in the case of deeply cherished beliefs or of beliefs that pertain to one's self-image.

When you decide to make tentative a thought or perception and seek another in its place, your conscious mind is instantly entreated to relinquish pieces of the puzzle that have fit comfortably together until that moment.

Doing so causes consciousness to call upon the background mind to supply fresh patterns out of which consciousness can reconstruct a new whole.

The bridge between consciousness and the background mind can be strengthened through deliberate and consistent exercise.

Persistently abandon schemas and force the conscious mind to turn to the background mind for new schemas.   This is similar to periodically taking down and rebuilding miniature world view tableaux on a scheduled basis.

In that way, the special role of the silent, background mind can be deliberately exploited to break out of a linear frame of consciousness.

Sometimes a schema becomes too deeply rooted or entrenched in the psyche to be easily overturned.

Those are keystone schemas, integral to schematic "archways", which cannot be removed without disturbing large regions of structure in consciousness.

Deliberately rescinding a schema causes the conscious mind to reorganize schemas that depend on that schema.

A useful exercise is to work diligently to identify habitual schemas; that is, to discover global, embedded, or submerged continuities.

Submerged continuities can link perceptions to stored emotional cues. Those cues are segments of fossilized experience, generally in the form of vivid imagery, speech fragments, or tactile sensations.

The background mind is richly furnished with such fragments of experience, which can also include imprints recorded in the amygdala of the brain by terrifying or traumatic personal events.

Pre-conscious background mental activity tracks sensations in a tentative, experimental way, without admitting those sensations into the schematic roof that consciousness has constructed. Consciousness prefers to include only sensations or perceptions that can fit under the schematic roof.

Avoid thinking precisely the same thought twice.   Of course, thoughts happen as an autonomic component of consciousness and cannot generally be explicitly controlled (try to keep yourself from thinking of what day of the week today is, for example).

Not only does this technique help keep you from falling into a rut, it systematically stretches the mind's ability to dip into the reservoir of awareness in the pre-conscious background mind in order to refresh schemas in consciousness.

Pay attention to micro-sensations in the body.   While the silent mind cannot communicate directly with consciousness, the conscious mind can glean information from the silent, background mind by tuning into subtle sensations or changes in body, such as in posture, muscle tension, moisture in certain areas of the skin, or feelings of pressure in the gut.

Many people find it surprising that the brain and body are as closely interconnected as what modern science and ancient intellectual or spiritual traditions hold them to be. That may be because for many people the story of consciousness effectively excludes clues offered up by bodily sensations.

However, the brain and the body are locked in countless feedback loops by which the body affects the mind and vice versa. The silent mind is much more tightly bound to the physical than the conscious mind is, since the background mind has not filtered out physical sensations in favor of thematically significant factors as consciousness has done.

For that reason, physical micro-sensations serve as a useful conduit of signals between the preconscious mind and consciousness.

Those micro-sensations can inform the conscious mind about otherwise forgotten bits of context or aspects of the situation at hand that the conscious mind might be overlooking because it is intensely focused on some piece of the conscious story.

Make a deliberate choice to regularly see or hear what is outside the usual zone of interest.   This technique essentially requires methodically de-focusing away from the priorities and preferences that consciousness has carefully built up and integrated into the character know as the self, until the habitual lock on priorities begins to soften.

Most sink points for attention are so deeply engrained that the first step is simply to make them a part of consciousness, so that the story of consciousness broadens to include a picture of the self with those particular preferences.

Until that happens the deliberate choice to step outside of those preferences will not be possible.

Here the self-referentiality of conscious will is evident. For the choice to be truly deliberate, the story of consciousness has to grow to accommodate the situation where the character called self makes the deliberate decision to focus on a low-preference aspect of the environment.

This technique can help unfreeze attention from its habitual concentration upon only what is interesting, allowing the conscious mind to accept otherwise silent or overshadowed input from background mind.

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One of the problems with any intention that involves changing how the mind habitually works, such as dieting or behaving differently in certain challenging situations, is that the conscious mind is almost completely occupied with piecing together its story as events unfold. This is especially true if the events have a dramatic impact on the story.

The mind becomes so thoroughly engaged in weaving the story of consciousness that alternative schemas have little chance of bubbling up from the background mind.

The story of consciousness seizes and clings to the mind's attention as tightly as though the story were a dream.

No matter how absurd a dream might be, most people while asleep do not normally step away from the drama and intensity of the dream to realize that it is in fact only a dream.

We are similarly mesmerized, or hypnotized (from the Greek hypnos for "sleep"), by our consciousness, completely unable to "wake up" to the activity of the background mind.

Wherever we go, whatever we do, the conscious mind is there, unrelentingly spinning its tale.

Consciousness is remarkably similar to dreaming. Both involve sink points or anchor points around which attention becomes stuck.

The challenge in learning to remember to "awaken" from consciousness is fairly similar to learning lucid dreaming.

Lucid dreaming refers to the practice of waking up within a dream and taking control of it. The difficult part of lucid dreaming is to realize that you're asleep.

Lucid dreamers use various techniques during their waking life to train themselves to be able to wake up in the midst of a dream.

One technique involves constantly wearing something during waking life, such as a ring, and paying attention to it at regular intervals throughout the day.

The important point is that whenever the lucid dream pracitioner pays attention to the ring during waking life, the practitioner also takes a moment to pay attention to the surroundings and to verify whether or not the current setting is consistent with the practitioner's conscious notions of the real, waking world.

The practitioner deliberately decides whether the experience is a dream or not.

Eventually, the habit of periodically paying attention to the ring, or whatever the chosen reminder happens to be, spreads into the practitioner's dream life.

When the dreamer notices the ring, the dreamer goes through the same process of examining the current contents of consciousness as the dreamer customarily practices while awake.

What does it mean to awaken from the lucid dream that we know of as consciousness?

Because consciousness is inherently and irresistibly self-referential, it cannot escape from itself. Still, the mental activity of the brain as a whole can be graciously invited to enter consciousness as though it were a welcome visitor influencing from outside.

In doing so, we befriend the silent mind within.

Michael Webb, March, 2005

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