Posts Tagged ‘unconscious’

I suppose that, like most people, I grew up largely in a state of wonder.  I wondered constantly at the way the world is and how it came to be and how it might come to be.  Of course, a child does not articulate this wonder consistently, accurately and persistently ; it consists mainly in fleeting, silent questions which seem to come from nowhere and are soon gone, to be replaced by other thoughts.

But a few of these questions pop up often enough to become habits ; they are always there and, at first we are conscious of them.  But, as the habit entrenches itself, the questions become unconscious and, as such, simply form an influence on our character.  The point about unconscious thinking is that it shapes our character without our being aware that we are even doing it, and so we are largely unaware of why we are the way we are.

So it is, too, that while one person might feel attracted to being a mechanic (say) another is attracted to being a writer.  It is easy enough to infer that one has had some early encouragement towards mechanics, while the other has not.  But it also happens that some people develop interests which have been actively discouraged in early life.   And, in either case, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly what early thinking was going on.

For most of us, we are reasonably satisfied with our personality or character.  After all, it has ‘worked’ for us, hasn’t it?  We have largely enjoyed our lives.  But it happens that we do become aware of certain dis-satisfactions also ; in which case, we might feel inclined to take an interest in our character-formation.  Indeed, we might feel a need to undertake a little character-reformation.  And our starting point might well be with our unconscious thinking.

I remember from long ago  wondering why it is that some people tend to see ultimate reasons for things, while others see ultimate causes.  There is certainly a fundamental difference in the kind of thinking going on here, and many people take these things very seriously ; some even devote their lives to the study of ultimate things.  I guess that a person of a theological persuasion will be interested in ultimate reasons, while an astronomer (for example) will be more interested in ultimate causes.

It seems that a certain tradition has grown up within each way of thinking about the world.  The person in search of ultimate reasons looks mostly inward, while the one in search of causes looks outward.  Thus it is, perhaps, that the theological type sees evidence of his Ultimate Reason for things wherever he looks within his own mind and in its rational functioning.  On the other hand, the astronomer sees evidence of his Ultimate Cause wherever he looks outward into in the sky ; everywhere he sees evidence of the big bang, whether it be in the orderly arrangements of the stars or in the ‘debris’ from the great primal event itself.

Saint Francis was an inwardly-looking man:

God be in my head
And in my understanding

God be in my eyes
And in my looking

God be in my mouth
And in my speaking

God be in my heart
And in my thinking

God be at my end
And at my departing.

St Francis

Taken, I am told, from a Book of Hours – a 1514 service book used in Clare College, Cambridge

After Psalm 121:8 : May the Lord keep our going out and our coming in from this time on and for evermore.


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As far as I am aware, the first mention of the unconscious mind came from St Augustine of Hippo, whom I think of as the first modern psychologist.  That is, he was the first to venture away from the classical (mainly Greek) concept of mind or psyche.  The now notorious saying, “There are things you know that you don’t know that you know,” came from him.  He was a man well ahead of his time.

What can possibly lead to such an idea?  How can we know something, yet not know it?

An example might help.  As you read these notes of mine, you can be sure that your heart is beating.  Some part of you has a memory for knowing how to make it beat, just as you have a memory for knowing how to raise your arm or to walk across the room or to utter the word, “Rain”.  You can give a fairly good account of how you raise your arm or walk somewhere ; you can say how you do it.  But can you say how you make your heart beat?  You can think about how to raise your arm, and you can thereby raise it different ways.  But can you think about how to make your heart beat?  Can you, just by thinking, make it beat in different ways?

Your memories for making your heart beat are quite unconscious.  So, in one sense, you know how to do it but, in another sense, you don’t know how to do it.  You know, yet you don’t know.  And you were born with those memories ; you inherited them from your parents and, through them, from your first ancestors.

It is not only interesting, but romantic too (even mystical) to reflect on those same memories that Adam and Eve bequeathed us.  And fascinating to think that those same memories will still be in the hearts of men and women even at the end of time.

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Life’s twists and turns have always been there, as anyone who has made even a casual study of history knows.  Indeed, as anyone who has taken an interest in people knows.  And yet, they still have the power to give us a little surprise when we examine our own lives and see the changes.  We can see for ourselves how a chance meeting, perhaps, or an overheard conversation, definitely altered the course of our progress through life.

I remember an occasion of being in trouble at school.  I had come to an arrangement with the French Master to skip metalwork lessons and do French instead ; the two masters had agreed I could do this.  But there was a problem ; I would also have to skip a physics lesson later in the week, and I knew that the Physics Master would never agree.  So, in a rare act of rebellion, I decided to skip it anyway.

The arrangement worked well for the first half of the term ; Charlie Chaplin, the Physics Master made no complaint.  But then, although I did rather well in the French prog test, I had slipped my ranking in the physics.  I was on the carpet, and Jock Rankin, my Form Master became involved.  Surprisingly to me, (but obviously not to him) he was displeased at these arrangements being made behind his back.

The two of us had a rather heavy meeting which had a momentous conclusion.  “Weel, MacNab,” he said, “And what do ye intend doing when you leave school?”

“I’d like to be a newspaper reporter, Sir,”  I replied with all the dignity I could summon under the circumstances.

“Aye, weel, ye’ve a rocky road ahead of ye MacNab.”

And that was it.  Condemned in ten words.  No more French lessons (which I relished) and back to metalwork (which I choked on) and physics (which I found merely unappetising).  The upshot of this brief and painful meeting was that I eventually made a career in engineering which was to consume half my working life.

But were those ten words really a condemnation?  For what happened at that half-way point was another meeting ; but a meeting that was the culmination of many others that had been unconsciously altering my course over the years.  And the decisive meeting was between an author, in his book, and my own breezy introspections.  And the upshot of this encounter was to set a fair wind for the remainder of my life so far.

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