U is for the unconscious

Surely there is some irony in this situation: writing consciously about the unconscious. But even though I decided some time ago that this was going to be my U post, my own unconscious hasn’t shown much interest in it—no nifty sentences have popped into my mind, guaranteed to explain it all to you—so my conscious mind must make do.

Your basic iceberg metaphor. But it works.
Your basic iceberg metaphor. But it works.

Most of my various Pagan and alternative interests deal with the unconscious, although it’s often not called that. When I was taking my first Pagan baby steps, I read The Spiral Dance. This was my introduction to the idea of the unconscious mind’s role in ritual and magic. I remember (accurately or not) Starhawk’s naming the unconscious “Younger Self,” and her explanation that ritual needed to involve all our senses because that’s what interested Younger Self, not wordy speeches. Presumably it’s the conscious mind—Starhawk’s “Middle Self”—that prefers the latter. The contrast between Pagan ritual and the low church Protestant services I was familiar with—complete with 20-minute sermons—could hardly be higher.

The unconscious showed up in my astrological studies in a different manner. I’ve been intrigued reading transcripts of seminars in which Howard Sasportas and Liz Greene discussed subpersonalities. As the name suggests, these are multiple selves within oneself, many of which seem alien and “other” to the ego/conscious mind (surprise!). I’m sure other people came up with the original idea; Greene and Sasportas’ work stuck with me because they suggested that the natal chart could be used to identify the subpersonalities, which sounded a lot more efficient than trying to work out from scratch what they might be.

Practicing tarot and other forms of divination was another way to access the unconscious mind. I figured that that flash of intuition that let me make sense of a reading was the unconscious at work. It took me a while longer than that to realize that beyond just having a reading, this might be a way to deliberately communicate with the unconscious. Since I was already leaning towards seeing the gods as archetypes, after a while, divination became like prayer. The way to communicate with the gods and the way to communicate with the unconscious were the same.

The unconscious mind is constantly influencing the conscious mind, which scientists are just now really researching. Reading Free Will (Sam Harris), Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Leonard Mlodinow), and other books along those lines has taught me various fascinating things about how the brain works and wondering how much independence the conscious mind really has. If your unconscious mind is truly in the driver’s seat and it’s part of you even if it’s, well, unconscious, do you have free will?

Although I’ve found all these viewpoints on the unconscious to be fascinating to think about, more than once I’ve hit an attitude I can best describe as “unconscious good, conscious bad.” The dichotomy seemed a mite harsh. So I was relieved and supported to run into this in Inner Work (Robert A. Johnson): “Just as the ego needs to balance its viewpoints by going to the unconscious, so also does the unconscious need to be balanced by the attitudes of the conscious mind.” I thought this makes sense, since my unconscious mind is the same age as my conscious mind, and surely it hasn’t attained perfection yet any more than my conscious mind has. I (whoever “I” is in this case) continue to try to keep my two minds (several subpersonalities?) communicating as well as possible in the hopes that this will lead to growth, learning, and/or really keen divination skills someday.