What is Subconscious?
The subconscious is a psychological term that means “below the threshold of one’s conscious mind”. It refers to a domain of life that is not accessible to cognitive reflection but nonetheless impacts our behavior by manifesting as habits, dispositions, trigger points, as well as modes of reactivity, attachment and addiction.
Subconscious is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “unconscious”, a concept popularized (though not invented) by Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology. In Freud’s theory, the unconscious is a kind of storehouse of instincts, urges, desires, and memories that are beyond the reach of our waking awareness. It is common to liken the unconscious to the submerged portion of an iceberg. That which we can see of the iceberg is that aspect of our personality that is present to our waking life. Like the iceberg, however, so much exists below the surface that informs the character of what appears above it; so much of what remains hidden from the light of our awareness influences our character and personality.
Freud was the first to deeply investigate how the subconscious takes shape. He observed that the early years of life are particularly important to the development of one’s subconscious, especially when it comes to sexuality. Freud referred to that aspect of the individual that instinctively seeks pleasure the “id”. The id is an intrinsically untamed part of ourselves and seeks only the satiation of its most fundamental urges. In New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud characterizes the id as the “dark, inaccessible part of our personality.” it is itself an unconscious drive, pushing us to drink when we’re thirsty, eat when we’re hungry, and to satisfy our sexual desires when they arise.
However, there are inevitable obstacles to the unfettered satisfaction of our most primal urges. As a young child becomes socialized, she experiences a disjunction between her fundamental urges and the expectations and norms of society. She discovers that she can’t simply bite her friend when she wants to. She shouldn’t touch herself in certain places publicly. There are certain modes of expression that are not appropriate. She may eventually learn to curb her desires, but the desires still remain; and depending on how much society disapproves, these desires may become the source of shame and pushed far below the surface of awareness. Many people cannot remember this early period of their lives, but traces of it remain in our “unconscious” and then manifest in our awareness as perhaps shame or guilt, but also sexual preferences, aversions, likes, and dislikes.
This is why the unconscious is also sometimes referred to as one’s “shadow” – a term developed by Carl Jung, one of Freud’s proteges–, because it is characterized by feelings and desires that one cannot consolidate with one’s identity. These urges become disavowed in the process of ego-construction, because they don’t fit the picture we project of ourselves. As a result, they become repressed and fated to reside in the hidden world of the unconscious, where they are largely unknown to us unless we take the time to investigate them through some contemplative or therapeutic means.
Jung expanded Freud’s theory of the unconscious into what he called the “collective unconscious”, which emphasizes the dispositions, instincts and behaviors that are shared and, in a sense, downloaded by all human beings – patterns, beliefs and modes of experience found across various cultures and time periods. Disagreement about the nature of the unconscious clearly separates Freud’s and Jung’s theories. For Freud, the unconscious is a product of individual experiences, a result of individuation. For Jung, the unconscious is the product of collective experience, which then gets passed on through genetic transmission.
An early critique of the notion of the unconscious comes from materialists, who object to the term on the basis that there is no physical evidence for anything like an unconscious domain. Some psychologists, therefore, will prefer to talk about “automatic and implicit functions”, or the brain, and suggest that the unconscious is a provincial and outdated term.
The unconscious, however, is not a “place”, nor can it be definitively localized to any specific physical location, in the brain or otherwise. However, while having no “home base”, the subconscious can be understood in relation to the body. Nowhere is this more evident than in more recent somatic theories and therapeutic practices, which acknowledge how traces of emotion and past experience can be “stored” in particular areas of the body as a result of trauma or injury. Here, the subconscious is a way of highlighting the consciousness of the body, which is not cognitive but nonetheless will color cognitive awareness to varying degrees.
Another student of Freud’s, Willhelm Reich, established the field of “bioenergetics”, one of the first psychological approaches that embraces the body as a site of therapeutic inquiry. Reich employed the concept of “armoring” to describe the individual’s physicality as it was formed and informed by one’s developmental process. What one experiences in life will start to show up in the body in the form of chronic tension, dis-ease, and imbalance. The body becomes a kind of physical reflection of the mind, with posture, gait and muscularity becoming a kind of manifestation of our unconscious tendencies.
Contemplative practice and somatic approaches to therapy have a direct impact on the various “sites” of subconscious accumulation. When we meditate, we create the conditions for certain healing processes to arise, which can unravel or resolve certain emotional or physical expressions of repressed experiences. When we engage in a somatic practice like breathing, we are connecting to that part of the iceberg that lives below the surface. Stephen Porges calls this “bottom-up processing”, which contrasts with the “top-down processing” of more cognitive approaches to therapy.
Instead of trying to change the way we feel by manipulating the furniture of our minds – instead of trying to affect the subconscious by way of our conscious awareness, we employ contemplative and somatic methods to attune to the subtler layers of our experience, layers that are more aligned with the non-linear world of subconscious forces.