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Calm • Perspective

The Limits of the Conscious Mind

We are large-brained creatures with strong tendencies to assume that most of our problems have been caused by our minds and must therefore, through intense focus, be fixed by our minds. When feelings of sadness or confusion descend, we typically try to fire up our frontal lobes and address our pains by heroically striving to think ourselves out of them. We draw up lists, we write a journal, we seek out a friend or a therapist, we might look up a book of psychology or philosophy.

There may be much benefit, but there is also – occasionally – more wisdom still in realising the limits of reason. Not every problem that manifests in the mind was created in the mind – or can for that matter be solved by the mind, however assiduously and energetically it proceeds. Parents of young children come to know this lesson particularly well. There can be moments when a small person’s mood sinks dramatically and constellations of negative ideas start to grip themselves very tightly around the juvenile mind: another child has a better toy and it’s outrageous, it’s a tragedy that a favourite film isn’t on television, the dinner is completely disgusting, the button on a beloved jacket is coming off and will never be fixed… The temptation can be to try to reason with the young person, to dig them out of their perplexed state through the use of ideas (the button can be mended perhaps, the film that’s on now – while not perhaps as exciting as the one last week, nevertheless…). But an experienced parent suspects that the real cause of the distemper may lie elsewhere entirely: the child is just exhausted and needs to go to bed fast. These catastrophic forebodings aren’t conclusions carefully reached through reason; they’re emanations of an affliction which only a nap can answer.

Abstract composition of coloured shapes by Kazimir Malevich.
Kazimir Malevich, Supremacist Composition, 1915

For all our later sophistication, adults too frequently wind up in the same position. We too might decide that life has no inherent purpose, that our friends are profoundly ungrateful, that our work has no sense and that everyone is out to get us, but if we knew ourselves better, we would perceive that, like frantic toddlers, we simply need to get to bed quickly or should urgently pour ourselves a large glass of orange juice. Existential anxiety may, in the end, be mostly a matter of low blood sugar. To know ourselves properly is to learn to separate out a problem that manifests in the mind from one that is caused by the mind. 

Even in cases where a problem truly does seem a mental one, it isn’t always by sitting down and attempting to reason our way out of it via a frontal cognitive assault that we can come to the best results. There are knots in thinking that are best unravelled by ceasing to think entirely, by pushing our chair aside and taking off for a walk around the block, listening to a song or taking in an undemanding film. 

The mind may be doing its best work precisely when we don’t ask too much of it too urgently. It may be when we are ostensibly not doing anything much, gazing out of the window studying the way that a branch tapers down to the earth or that a squirrel is making its way impishly up the trunk, that important ideas can loosen themselves from the grip of our agitated, over-hasty enquiries and flower properly. We may be doing some of our best thinking while following the horizon on a long train journey or watching our toes in the course of a long hot bath. We may need to reduce an inhibiting sense of the importance of what we’re doing in order to do it properly – and so might need to take ourselves out to a forest that was already mature before Columbus set sail or admiring Polaris, 430 light years away, on a clear moonlit walk. We can return to ourselves readier to contribute when we have been reminded of our negligible place in the greater whole.

We have no sensible option but to work in synch with the unconscious, ceding to it when we have done our best in the rational cockpit, gracefully giving way to its more mysterious, slow-moving and elusive workings. Just as someone inside us decides how to digest lunch or put one foot in front of the other without the conscious self ever being consulted, so too ideas may be forming without us needing to be ‘there’ to deliver them. Indeed, they may gestate in far more original and beautiful ways if we take our leave for a time, spend an hour gardening or entertaining a dog, instead of forcing them obey a timetable set by an office or a teacher. We must, like skilful sailors, adjust our sails to mysterious prevailing inner winds. 

There is naturally something humiliating in how little control we can exert: our sense of who we are and what we want may be absurdly affected by what we had for dinner or how much oxygen there is in a room. But we should not compound our subjection by imagining that we can ever escape it. To think well is to respect all that thinking alone cannot directly achieve. 

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