How many times have we heard this or a similar statement? With the progressive advance of psychotherapy and analysis becoming part of our ordinary culture we have been given a convenient excuse for not being responsible for our actions. Or have we? Are we really not responsible for what our subconscious urges us to do or are we just acquiescing to the assertions of modern psychology that we may ease our conscience? There are many conflicting viewpoints but perhaps in order to have a clearer understanding we need to take a fresh look at the workings of our mind and it’s potential from a different perspective.
When we look at the origins of the word subconscious it is quoted as being a mental state that exists without consciousness. Since consciousness is defined as a state of being aware and sub means under, it would make sense to assert that the subconscious means the mental workings of the mind that are below our threshold of awareness. I think that most of us can agree on this. But wouldn’t it also be logical to assume that the experiences and incidents that exist in our subconscious were at one time conscious? That at some point we had an awareness of them? If that is so, then why would they be now unconscious or below our threshold of awareness? I think the scope of what the mind is able to focus on at any one time would be a deciding factor as to what is consciously available to us. Let me explain what I mean.
If I asked you to close your eyes and hold a number of pictures in your consciousness, you would probably be able to hold a small number of them until you reached a number of pictures beyond your capability. The mind has limits and can only hold focus on a certain number of things at the same time. Some of us may have better concentrative abilities than others and be able to hold more but we would all eventually reach a saturation point where it grew past our personal limits. In this way our mind and brain operate very much like a computer. The total of what we can hold in focus at any one time can be compared to computer RAM (Random Access Memory). RAM is like a workbench that is immediately accessible and workable. Most everything else would be in drawers or cabinets (memory) until something else was needed. Our mind is just like that workbench. Once we’ve reached capacity, the workbench becomes full and it becomes necessary to eliminate some items from the bench to make room for what else we’d like to include in our immediate work area or focus. So, there would be objects and tools (past experiences and emotions) that would be out of sight or below the threshold of our awareness until we were made aware of their need and then brought them into the light on the workbench switching them with something we’re finished with. In an even simpler comparison, if we were eating a pizza, we could only eat one slice at a time unless we switched bites between slices and then the rest of the pizza would remain on the table. Yet, we’d still smell it.
Although our previous experiences, emotions and judgments would remain below our threshold of awareness, they would still be triggered by environmental and personal stimuli, but be unable to surface into our awareness if our workbench (immediate awareness) was full with other issues. Even if we multi-task like a computer, which many of us have learned to do, we would all still have to reach a saturation point where new stimuli would be unable to be perceived.
So how does this relate to our subconscious and the perception that the result of our reactions are caused by a part of us that is perceived as unavailable and not attributable to us? Here, the old statement out of sight out of mind is eminently attributable. In other words, if we can’t see or sense it, it isn’t real for us. Basically, many of us never even acknowledge something that’s beyond our immediate awareness. This being the case, anything that triggers a reaction from our subconscious will be seen as not related to us and therefore, having no culpability for us. In other words, we believe that we’re not accountable for the reaction to it that we produce. Based on this, many of us claim that we “didn’t know” or “we were unaware” thereby justifying our lack of accountability where, in reality, it was our own minds that we overloaded with so many other issues that we never even sensed that there was something else going on outside of our focus.
Our subconscious works with or without our acknowledgement. This being the case, how do we prevent such actions and reactions from taking place without our conscious approval and accountability? The problem lies with us always keeping our mind full. The solution rests in our ability to regularly clear the mind of as many concerns as we are able as often as we are able. But with our fast pace and demanding culture, this seems almost impossible to accomplish at any given point let alone to keep space open for the arrival of any unexpected triggers and influences. If we look at our prior computer example, if our RAM is full (the work bench) and we don’t make room for the pending data, our computer will give us a message saying “not enough memory.” Older computers without safe guards will often crash before such a message is broadcast. This is also the point where humans mentally “crash” and, in extreme cases, encounter a nervous breakdown. Institutions are full of people whose subconscious has overwhelmed their conscious ability to handle an overloading saturation of influences. This is, also, one of the factors that have contributed to dementia and Alzheimer’s. For many, our energy seems to diminish with age and we lose the ability to keep control of all the things that we have held together for so many years and our mental faculties’ crash under the lack.
Generally, when we’ve completed a task, it is usually easy to drop our focus on it. But when we have many tasks which all seem to be irresolvable and/or are attended by a feeling of overwhelming, we tend to be unable to let go even when we know that it would be in our best interest to do so. Our culture has very effectively trained us into being obsessive with the need for control coupled with the instilled belief that if we give up on anything, we will be viewed as lazy or cowardly. This is tremendously compounded when our self-judgment is coupled with our social and familially expected responsibilities and required accomplishments. Multi-tasking may extend our ability but ultimately crashes even if just a little further down the road.
So, back to “my subconscious did it.” Did I really do it? Yes. Am I just unaware that I did something without cognizance. Yes. Am I still accountable for my actions? Yes, even if I claim that I didn’t know or were unaware. Why? Because I didn’t clear my mind properly in order to stay open and ready for new life experiences, especially when they trigger old and inappropriate responses. I didn’t allow the new experience to come to my awareness because I was tunnel focusing and obsessing over other issues keeping my workbench full. Remember, they are still my reactions. Of course I’m responsible for them. We all need to remember this the next time we think “my subconscious did it” and we have the urge to use unawareness as an excuse for not being accountable. Even man-made law says ignorance is no excuse for transgressions. We don't live in a bubble...although we might wish to...