Unconsciously Rushing To Be Unconscious

When you do something unconsciously, that is mastery; but it has disadvantages.

Posted Jul 21, 2013

Photo Credit Alexi Berry
Photo Credit Alexi Berry

The majority of what we consider conscious is actually the adaptive unconscious. Estimates put the adaptive unconscious in control up to 95% of our waking hours. Cruising on the highway, negotiating a turn, doing the dishes, walking through the door, all can be done without conscious thought. In fact, it is considered a skill to make things unconscious reactions: consider the martial arts, professional sports, and any real skill one possesses. When you do it unconsciously, that is mastery. This is evidenced in the saying “I can do that in my sleep.”

It is argued that evolution has brought about the amazing feats of the adaptive unconscious. The less we have to pay direct attention to a task, the more mental energy we have for other activities. As we master more tasks, doing them at a less than conscious level, the more we can process other information. The conscious mind can then remain in the future, figuring out the next best move, where to go from here, what can be done next. This reliance on the unconscious makes us more efficient.

The way in which humans can participate in one activity while considering the next is nothing short of amazing. In all likelihood it has allowed everything from our ancestors escaping being eaten to allowing geniuses to mull over in their heads the most complex thoughts, all while doing mundane tasks. Perhaps all of our leaps in technology and advancements are owed to this ability. The more automatic something is, the more mental energy available for other tasks.

So how can this be bad? (I had to ask, because after all I’m not writing this to laud how unconscious we all are). This evolutionary marvel has a few drawbacks. First, we aren’t nearly as likely to be eaten anymore. In fact, it is often when doing things semiconsciously we run the most risk of injury. Driving is an example. You’ve seen the signs: “An alert driver can avoid an accident”. Accident and injury is often due to being too into whatever is going on inside our head, and not focused enough on the task at hand.

Another drawback is that a great deal of the mental energy conserved is wasted. How many times have you planned out a dialogue to be had in the near future, only to have it disarmed at the beginning? Or have you ruminated about a worry or stressor only to have it work itself out without any necessary action? How often are you even aware of where your mind was while you were unconsciously performing a mundane task? This is all evidence of wasted energy.

The biggest drawback however, is the loss of the present moment. Because people have become so accustomed to using their mental energy for the future, they often aren’t even present in the moment. The present can be a beautiful experience. There is a saying about stopping to smell the roses. People know the saying, yet they are too caught up in their next move to do so. And rarely is the planning in their head how to be more present. (This post came to me in a meditation, while I was trying to focus on the present though. Ironic, huh?)

The drawback that inspired me to write this post is how quick we are to make things unconscious. We may love a new experience. Perhaps it is a new hobby or activity, or even a new person. Our drive to master anything, to free up mental energy, however, leads us to work at making this new experience predictable and controllable. Despite our enjoyment of this freshness of experience, we unconsciously work to make it mundane. Human nature drives us to prefer predictability. It provides a sense of security that, despite a relatively safe and secure existence for most, we still crave.

Abraham Maslow, when describing a self-actualized person, identified a quality of freshness of appreciation. Self-actualized individuals are able to enjoy even what would have become mundane. They repeatedly experience inspiration, wonder, and pleasure even in simple everyday life. To some extent, self-actualizing people ward off the drive to master experiences, and instead experience them as new and exciting. This is the most beneficial aspect of being more conscious, less future focused, and more present.

This is not to say presence is without its drawbacks. First, it is difficult to accomplish. Our natural tendency is to master and conserve mental energy and to predict our future for a sense of security. Second, many of life’s tasks are mundane. In one of my psychology classes I ask the students to do one typical activity mindfully. Though some report experiencing a positive shift, others describe it as if they were tortured. One example was a student who mindfully ran. She described it as arduous. Another mindfully drove and found herself experiencing more road rage than ever.

Despite the drawbacks, being more present in your life has tremendous advantages. As I have written previously (Using Mortality to Become More Conscious, That’s Just How I Am, Authentic Personal Growth) it offers more control of who you are. Rather than automatic responses, you choose who you will be. Julian Baggini did an excellent TED talk on letting go of whom you think you are and choosing in every moment who you will be. Another benefit is less time is spent preparing, often unnecessarily, for a future that might not even occur. As Maslow points out, being present allows freshness in experience, which leads to more joy. 

William Berry, Copyright 2013 

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