The great difficulty in personal development is that we shift from conscious to unconscious mental control without being aware of it. In How to develop your ‘inner observer’ I wrote how one of the keys to change is developing the ability to observe our own repressed, self-defeating and destructive actions:
Our Observer is that part of ourselves that stands aside from the tide of thoughts, feelings and sensations that swirls through us in every moment and observes them from a place of neutral detachment.
These actions—whether thoughts, feelings or actual behaviour—are normally invisible to us because they come from our unconscious. What that means is, quite literally, that control passes from our conscious to our unconscious mind just as seamlessly as an airline pilot hands control to his co-pilot and back again while the passengers are completely unaware.
By developing our inner Observer we gradually learn to spot these transitions, which in turn allows us to do something about them.
“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.”
— Carl Jung
Surf the wave
The easiest way to develop our inner Observer is to practice noticing the moment when we shift from conscious to unconscious control. I call this ‘surfing the wave’.
We’re happily surfing along with our conscious mind in control of our life… then—somehow—our unconscious took over. We’re caught in the tribal thrill of the sports game, trading blows in a potentially relationship-wrecking argument, or immersed in another guilt- and shame-inducing porn binge.
“The unconscious… can be reached only through… manifestations that are already conscious.”
— Wilhelm Reich
That moment—that shift from conscious to unconscious control—is the doorway to your unconscious.
How? Let’s use a porn binge as an example.
You can feel the urge coming on. Perhaps you’ve had a bad day at work. The stress of life is getting to you. You’re feeling anxious, and porn is your go-to stress release.
As the urge to surf for porn increases, you have the choice of two emotional responses:
- “Oh no, I’m having a relapse, I’m bad” (polarised)
- “Oh look, I’m going down the funnel” (neutral)
One of these choices leads down the funnel of negative behaviour with destructive feelings and nothing learned. The other begins to develop your capacity to observe your own unconscious at work.
Option 1 is your default choice. You must override it—consciously, forcefully, repeatedly—until option 2 sticks.
So accept you’re going down the funnel and focus on how it feels from a neutral, accepting perspective. Surf the wave to the point where you lose track and your unconscious takes over.
This takes practice. You will fall off the surfboard.
As Laura Knight-Jadczyk observes, you have no choice other than to be uncompromising.
“When you are between a rock and a hard place, the only way out is up.”
— Laura Knight-Jadczyk
Persevere. Over time you will notice your ability to observe starting to grow until you get real time feedback from your Observer self, giving you precise insights into your unconscious behaviour. As I wrote in How to develop your ‘inner Observer’, this is rarely pretty:
But be warned: your Observer will generally show you things about yourself that you don’t want to see. Psychologist R.D. Laing notes that as we gain perception of our inner landscape we find nothing less than a “shambles”—the result of 6,000 years of patriarchy.
Like any skill, surfing the wave between conscious and unconscious behaviour is a muscle. Yet the reward—the ability to shift major life blocks—is worth getting dunked a few times.