I recently had the opportunity to attend a three day conference on “Science and Spirituality” – featuring authors such as Bruce Lipton, Joe Dispenza and Gregg Braden.

One of the concepts emerging from the weekend was the idea that we rely on our subconscious programming most of the time in our lives.  One figure was that we are operating using our conscious mind only around 5 to 10% of the time and are operating with our subconscious mind anywhere from 90 to 95% of the time.

As I thought about that more, I couldn’t quite fathom how that can be. It doesn’t seem to me that I am aware and conscious only 5% of my waking life!  So, I set about to understand more about the distinction between the conscious and unconscious (or subconscious) minds.

What became evident quite quickly is that there are a lot of different definitions of what it means to operate from one’s subconscious or unconscious and some of the differences depend on your philosophical orientation.  Are you a Jungian or a Freudian in your understanding of these concepts, for example?

One glimpse I did get into the supremacy of the subconscious mind has to do with how much we have learned in our lives that add up to what we are doing in any given moment.

Here’s an example from this very moment:

  • In this very moment, I am sitting as I type this. We learn how to sit in our first year of life. We would have attempted to sit up, then fall down, then sit up again, multiple times until we got it right.We don’t need to think about how to sit; we just “do it automatically.”That is an example of some of our present moment being occupied by unconscious behavior.I know that in no way did I think about how I was sitting, until this moment when I turned my conscious mind to the activity.I imagine it was the same for you (unless you have something like a sore back drawing your conscious attention to that part of your sitting).
  • In this very moment, I am also typing. When did you learn how to type? I learned in high school through conscious learning, repetition, trial and error.In this moment, I was not consciously feeling my fingers on the keypad or noticing where I should put my fingers to type, until, once again, I drew my attention there.So, here is another way I am operating in an unconscious way in this very moment.I had no awareness that this unconscious behavior was being used, until I drew my conscious attention to it.
  • In this very moment, I am also reading.When did you learn, consciously, how to read?Again, this activity for many of us, was practiced into habit early in our lives.For many, it took years of conscious attention until, one day, we were reading without thinking about it.The words and comprehension flowed easily from one to the next.We were carrying out the activity of reading unconsciously.

These three examples of one present moment, are only examples of the physical activities carried out in an unconscious way.  In addition, we are a collection of mental belief patterns, also learned early on in life.  These are more difficult to identify, as they are invisible and not physical.

I am not consciously thinking about any of my unconscious beliefs as I sit here and type and read. Although I can’t see them, there are habits of mind and body that were learned in those impressionable early years at play.  And, we use these unconscious beliefs to interpret our present moment experiences.

How does this apply to this present moment experience as I write this newsletter?

Well, what I know for sure about my early programming is that education was very important in my family of origin. There were teachers on both my mother and my father’s side and I grew up hearing about the value of education.  So it is no surprise that I have beliefs around the value of teaching and learning and education.  Also, many of my closest friends are either teachers of some sort, or come from families of teachers.

How does that ancestral inheritance impact this present moment?

A series of choices have led to me writing this newsletter.  I love to learn and to share my learning (one aspect of teaching).  Having an opportunity once a month to learn and to share my learning is a perfect expression and fit for my inherited subconscious beliefs about how to use my time.

My choice to write for you reflects my subconscious belief filter around the value of education.

That subconscious belief was not something I was aware of, at all, until this present moment when I stopped to reflect on what is influencing my here and now experience.  This one subconscious belief about education has resulted, in a circuitous way, in the behavior of producing this newsletter.

Behind all our behaviours are, undoubtably, these kind of subconscious beliefs that we make decisions and base choices on.  These beliefs are incredibly hidden; of course they are – they are subconscious – below our conscious awareness.

All that adds up to not a lot of time in conscious, present moment awareness.

These ideas seem similar to the work outlined in Nobel prize winning author Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Kahneman describes “Systems 1” thinking – fast, not noticeable, automatic thinking driven by prior learning.  Sounds like the subconscious.  “Systems 2” thinking is more deliberate, is where reason dominates and is slower and more analytical.  In fact, Kahneman challenges the common misconception that our decisions are deliberate and rational (read “conscious”). Kahneman tells us even when we believe we are making decisions based on rational considerations, our System 1 beliefs, biases, and intuition drive many of our choices.

Advertisers have figured this out a long time ago, and use our subconscious (or Systems 1 thinking) to influence our buying choices, often without even knowing that this is happening.

Kahneman’s thesis supports the idea that if we want to make robust decisions, we need to go slowly and deliberately.  We need to bring ourselves back to the present, conscious moment and pay attention.  This is effortful as self-control uses up our stores of mental energy and is therefore tiring.

Here is the clincher:  Kahneman’s research points to the conclusion that we are using Systems 1 thinking 90% of the time and therefore Systems 2 thinking only 10% of the time. This sounds a lot like using our subconscious minds for that amount of time.

These ideas are summed up nicely in the metaphor of the Elephant and the rider.  The tiny rider is our conscious, rational, aware or Systems 2 mind: we have the appearance of the rider being in control.  But really, the powerhouse is the elephant we are riding on.  The elephant represents our subconscious, emotional, automatic or Systems 1 mind.  The Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.

Ultimately, if we can accept that there is an elephant in our lives, we can strive to harmonize the actions of our rider (the part of ourselves that wants to plan, has goals and ambition) with our elephant (the part of ourselves that is unconscious, emotional and loves instant action and gratification).

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
… Will Durant