Synopsis: Our actions and words are caused by our thoughts. Neurological researchers have noticed that our thoughts are not necessarily the product of our conscious mind. Most of the times, our conscious mind is not even aware that the thoughts we think are “supplied” to our conscious mind from our subconscious mind. Our conscious mind does not know what thoughts we are going to think at the next moment, for instance. Often, our conscious mind receives the supplied thoughts and remains under the belief that it is thinking it’s own thoughts. Both scientific studies and examples from our daily experiences are quoted to illustrate that our conscious mind is largely unaware of what is happening in and around us.
We can argue that if our thoughts are not really our thoughts, there is no question of freewill and consequently; there is no question of responsibility for our actions. This argument is, however, not true. On the contrary, the fact is that, our life is all about keeping one hundred percent responsibility for our conscious living. Although our default unconscious thought patterns and compulsive thinking is not our fault, it is our responsibility to correct that state.
Who is calling the shots in your life ?
Who is really in charge of your decisions in life ? Who controls your experiences in life ? Where are your thoughts originating from? Since our thoughts are the precursors to our words and deeds, do you know where from is the ultimate originating of our thoughts? In short, who is truly in charge of your life now?
We believe we are fully awake during the time we are not sleeping and our conscious mind is totally engaged in conscious activities like thinking, analyzing, planning, etc. However, do you know that the thoughts that we think are NOT “our” conscious thoughts, per se? We identify our thoughts as the activities of our conscious mind and that is why we refer to the thoughts that occur in our mind as “ my” thoughts or we say “I” think, so on and so forth.
Researchers have realized that thoughts are given to us.They are, in one sense, bubbling up from the depths of our subconscious mind and our conscious mind is only merely capturing these thoughts and boastfully owning it up by saying “ my thoughts” or “ I think” .
Benjamin Libet1 (1916-2007) was a neurophysiologist, who made far reaching contributions to our understanding on how human mind is thinking it’s thoughts. His findings were widely accepted and equally debated too. In 2004, he published his book “ Mind Time ”, summarizing his research findings.
Through experimental evidence Benjamin Libet established that our brain activities start some 550 milliseconds before we initiate a physical action triggered by a conscious decision. (1 second = 1000 milliseconds). Meaning, if I stop this typing and get up from the chair to go to the kitchen to take a bar of chocolate, a “ readiness potential” is first formed in my brain some 550 milliseconds before the actual time I got up from the chair. Some 200 milliseconds before I get up from my chair, my conscious mind “decides” to eat chocolate. Actually, 350 milliseconds before this desire is captured by my ‘poor’ conscious mind, my brain has already decided and initiated the process to execute the desire. “I” (meaning, my conscious mind) am not even aware that the decision is already taken. We feel everything is happening instantaneously and remain under the illusion that we have decided and acted on our decision.
|Continuum of Our Action Process ( Benjamin Libet’s Studies )|
So where has the desire to have the chocolate originated from? From my free willed conscious mind ? No, according to the research evidence! It could have bubbled up from somewhere else unknown and got registered in my brain, by evoking a “ readiness potential “ detectable in ECG or fMRI, much before my conscious mind became aware of my desire for chocolate bar. It is only after 350 milliseconds later, that my conscious mind captured the thought ‘ bubble ’ ; yet another 200 milliseconds later, my neurons fired commands , my muscles moved and consequently I got up from the chair!!!. My conscious mind is under the mistaken notion that it took the decision to eat the chocolate, totally unaware of the drama staged in the background.
Several others, repeated Libet’s experiments using even more advanced instruments such as MRI and fine-tuned Libet’s results. Marcel Brass2 not only confirmed Libet’s findings but also proved that he can even predict the Yes or No of the decisions we are going to make, upto ten seconds before these decisions are actually made! He used functional magnetic resonance imagery technique for doing this. Hot debate on Free Will is raging amongst subject experts in the field of Science, Philosophy and Theosophy, since absence of Free Will have implicit implications for our morality and behavioural responsibility3.
Stirring a hornet’s nest.
“If my thoughts are not mine, I am not responsible for my actions”. “Well, where is the concept of freewill then?” – one might think. This indeed, stirred a hornet’s nest.
Inspite of his findings indicating the presence of a persuasive power triggering our mental activities, Libet himself did not interpret his experiment as evidence of the inefficacy of conscious free will. Even though a readiness potential is created in the brain to do a particular action for 550 milliseconds, Libet pointed out that the conscious WILL retains a right to veto any action at the last 200 milliseconds. Libet said, “My conclusion about free will, one genuinely free in the non-determined sense, is then that its existence is at least as good, if not a better, scientific option than is its denial by determinist theory. Given the speculative nature of both determinist and non-determinist theories, why not adopt the view that we do have free will (until some real contradictory evidence may appear, if it ever does). Such a view would at least allow us to proceed in a way that accepts and accommodates our own deep feeling that we do have free will. We would not need to view ourselves as machines that act in a manner completely controlled by the known physical laws” (see Doty, 19984)
In summary, there is enough empirical evidence to suspect strongly that our conscious mind is not aware of the “nudgings” it receives from the subconscious mind to think in one particular manner. Unless our conscious mind is alert and guardful, there is an extremely high probability that our unsuspecting conscious mind would automatically obey those nudgings, regardless of whether such nudgings are of an ethical nature or not. The window of opportunity to available to our conscious mind to veto those nudging is merely 200 milliseconds only!! We will not grab this opportunity unless we are alert and remain watchful. Whether we have a “free will” or or not, therefore, depends on the extent of “alertness” we practice in our day-to-day life. This is a significant aspect for us to appreciate.
More about our Conscious mind!
Tor Nørretranders is a popular Danish Journalist who writes extensively on scientific studies. He has compiled wonderful facts about human mind and consciousness in his book titled “The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size”5. Quoting scientific studies, he has reported that our conscious mind can only handle some 15 – 20 bits of information per second, whereas there are at least 10 – 12 billion bits of information available to us every second. Some 10 billion bits of pixels are brought in by our eyes every second. Another 1 billion bits of information is brought in by our touch every second! All the rest of our sense organs bring about another one billion bits! Out of this, our conscious mind takes only 15 – 20 bits per second, at best. Is our conscious mind a terrible under performer? Yet, we believe we are “consciously” taking decisions and run our show of life.
So, who in reality, runs the show of our life? Not our conscious mind! For a majority of humanity, the conscious mind is underperforming and is largely asleep for most part.
Our daily experiences.
While the brain-scientists generally agree in unison that our conscious mind is a terrible underperformer, let us examine, whether our day-to-day experiences too agree with their findings.
While setting out on a journey, how many times have have you wondered whether or not you have locked up the house ? Invariably, if you go back and check you find that you have indeed locked up the house. Your conscious mind has not even taken note of the physical action you did. That is the reason why you had to return back home to check out. In reality, your body acted. Your conscious mind did not take note of it! It is true that only 15 – 20 bits of information is filtered by our conscious mind! It is true that many actions are still done automatically by “instincts” much like how it happens in the animal kingdom. Instincts are pre-programmed files kept waiting to be executed. It is these files from our subconscious mind that trigger the Libet’s readiness potential in the brain.
How many times, you have driven your car from your home to office and from office to home, like an automaton ? Your mind will be thinking hundred thoughts, while your body is driving your car, automatically stopping at every red signal, taking the right turns at the exact places.
If we examine our responses and our retorts while we are engaged in heated arguments, it is all too clear that words just came out of our mouths, without any conscious thinking .They just come out of us, much like a tape recorder blurting out, without any conscious considerations accompanied by intellect.
What does it tell you? More often than not, we are automatons, going through the motions of life, without the application of our conscious mind to the words we speak or to the actions we do.
When we drive on the roads, we only see things that fall within a certain angle of our vision. We do not bring the capabilities of our eyes for lateral vision. We only see what we want to see! Our conscious mind filters and operates with the minimum required input.
While reading what we wrote ourselves, most of us do not often spot the spelling mistakes and disjointed sentences. This is not because we are inherently incapable of spotting them; it is only because our conscious mind is not “applied” consciously and does the job unconsciously.
Human Mind – Limited Modern and Vast Ancient Views.
We have seen that our conscious mind, which is the anchoring point for our waking life, is at a disadvantage both in terms of registering what is available to our sense organs and in terms of choosing what we should think and how we should response to situations. Our choices of responses to life situations are influenced by the suggestions given to our conscious mind. But, where are these suggestions coming from? It cannot come from anywhere else other than our mind itself. In order to understand the details of this process, we need to understand the way our mind is structured and the way mind functions. Let us now review as to how much do we know about our mind.
Modern psychology has broadly classified human mind mainly into two segments, namely, (1) Conscious Mind and (2) Sub Conscious (or Unconscious) mind. In addition to these two main aspects of mind, modern psychology has vaguely identified the existence of the principle of mental energy. Although modern psychology has used terminologies like ‘ego’/’conscience’, such terms are loosely used and lacked detailed clarity.
In stark contrast, the ancient understanding of human mind is significantly deep and vast. Ancient Hawaiian Psychology and ancient Indian yogic science had known much more than what modern psychology knows today; they had also effectively used that knowledge for psychological and physiological healing. They had very well understood the conscious and sub conscious aspects of minds and had also known the existence of mental energies and consciousness. Given below is a brief overview of both modern and ancient views of human mind.
Modern Understanding of Mind
6According to Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), human mind has three aspects (1) “Id”is Freud’s concept of Sub conscious mind, which is animalistic, primitive, passion driven, and is the hidden seat of unresolved conflicts. He considered it inherently bad and and needing it to be controlled (2) “Ego” is Freud’s concept of Conscious Mind (3) “Super Ego” is his idea of Conscience, which is an intuitive sense of right and wrong. He theorized a psychic energy called “Libido” which is genital in nature, and can be positive or negative. For Freud, “libido” was more like a working concept only and is not a real, tangible energy.
According to Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961), Human mind has three aspects (1)” Persona” is his concept of Conscious mind (2) “Anima” is his concept of Sub conscious mind (3) “Ego” is a combined concept of Conscious & Sub conscious minds which is more like collective unconsciousness. There is “libido” too in his concepts; but it is something like a lifeforce energy. It is neutral in nature and not specifically genital. But it is not real or tangible, and we will have no control over it.
Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was an Austrian doctor of medicine and psychoanalyst, whose significant contribution was the demonstration of “libido”, the lifeforce energy, which Freud only theorized as a working concept connected to genital. But Jung explained “libido” as a neutral, lifeforce energy which is still not tangible and not controllable. Reich could demonstrate that “libido” was real, tangible and controllable. He had also discovered that the flow of this life force energy ‘libido’ is restricted when the muscles are tensed up. When the muscles are eased up, the flow of energy is more and resultantly his patients experienced cathartic emotional release.
Ancient Understanding of Mind
According to Ancient Hawaiian Huna Psychology6 of Huna Culture (believed to be 35,000 years old), Human mind has three aspects (1) “Ku”, the hidden, Subconscious Mind, inherently good and can be taught and trained and is the seat of learnt habits (2)”Lono”, the Conscious Mind (3) “Amakua”, the Superconscious Mind. According to ancient Hawaiian understanding, emotional disturbances are due to the conflict between “lono” and “ku”- i.e. due to the conflict between sub conscious and conscious mind. Hawaiian psychology also recognized a life force energy which they called “Mana”, and is tangible and manageable (Ancient Hawaiians knew how to manage it)
7According to the ancient Indian Yogic Psychology (At least 6000 years old), mind is called “Anthakarana”, meaning, an inner instrument. We are not our body; we are not our mind; we are a unit of Consciousness – a unit of awareness and self-aware. That means, we are this feeling of awareness (SELF). Body and Mind are two instruments the SELF uses. Mind is the link-instrument that the non-physical SELF and physical body connects in between.
In Yogic psychology, human mind has four aspects (1) “Manas”, the Lower Mind, which is the importer and exporter of feelings and sensations from the external world through the intellect to the SELF (2) “Ahamkara”, is the ego which is the feeling of a separate “I”, identifying with the objects of the world and developing attachment or aversion to it. Ego interacts with the world dualistically. (3)”Chittha”, is the mind-stuff which is a faculty for storing all memories. Everything that passes through the lower mind, ego and intellect will be stored in chitha. These stored memories are recalled to the surface of the lower mind from time to time. (4) “Buddhi” is the Intellect which is the discriminative faculty of the mind. This faculty is staying closest to the SELF and therefore it imbibes its brightness and light.
Lower mind, Ego and intellect are the aspects of Conscious mind. Chittha or Mind-stuff is the sub conscious mind. There is a life force energy called “Prana”, which is very real, tangible and manageable. Yogis knew how to manage Prana.
The ways of the mind
From the above discussions, it can be seen that the ancient Indian Yogic Science gives the most comprehensive understanding of our mind. It can also be seen that western understanding of mind also agrees with the ancient Indian understanding to the extend they have so far reached.
Our Dysfunction and Dilemma
Most of the driving of our life is done with our subconscious mind in the driver’s seat, even though we – conscious mind – think that we are driving our life. How do we walk ? It is the work of our subconscious mind. Our conscious mind does not take conscious decisions as to which muscle to flex first or which leg to put forward first, etc. It is an automated process, driven by the ‘data’ present within us, in the depths of our subconscious mind.
How do we breathe ? It is in the same manner! Imagine, if we have to breathe with conscious involvement! Life would have been miserable then. So, at subconscious level, there is a large repository of data, which drives our life – much like the data forming the operating system of a personal computer. Many of these are extremely useful in animating our body. But in our conscious state too, we continue that habit of passivity and allow the past data stored there to drive our all decision making processes.
In a way we are sleepwalking! We think we are awake when we get up in the morning from a good night’s sleep. We are not! We continue to be driven by data. And what is a data? Our old hardened thoughts are our data. Our memories are our data. They are hidden in our subconscious mind and drive our lives.
Have you noticed how the animals in a circus are trained to do many acts for the spectators? They are merely data driven. They are not doing any conscious acts in the circus. Training is nothing but planting the data in them. The only difference there is that humans are planting the data in animals.
In our case, most of our day-to-day functions are the effect of self-training. What is self-training? It is depositing new data within us and allowing that data to run us.
Many of our supposedly conscious acts ( like driving a car, locking the house before going out, reading a passage , our conversations in daily life etc ) are done by data in the subconscious mind as proxy. We are as much asleep as an animal in the circus ring. We need to wake up! If we are not alertful, we become more or less like data-driven biological machines!
Solutions from the old world
It is amazing that this great knowledge was available to humanity , across many cultures, for millennia.
In ancient India, thousands of years ago, there existed a system of healing and mental purification which is used even today in meditational practices such as Sahaj Marg. ( http://www.sahajmarg.org ) . The basics of this practice is the fundamental understanding that the reason for disease and suffering are due to the samskaras or impressions ( data ) present in us. When these samskaras or impressions are erased and removed , our life and experiences change. They advocate a correction procedure of meditation and cleaning . The procedures have been simplified by Sage Ramchandra Maharaj of Fategarh, U.P, India ( 1873 – 1931) and made them befitting the modern times.
The great teachers of advaita( non-duality )in India, had said this long before — “ we are not the doers” – they said. “ We think we are the doers. But , know that we are not the doers” , they explained. These words are pregnant with deeper meanings at different levels of understanding.
In ancient Hawaii, millenniums ago, they were aware that humans are driven by ‘ memories ‘ ( data ) and that it was a fault in our system, causing pain and suffering. They devised a very efficient practice called in Hawaiian language ‘ ho oponopono ‘ ( meaning “ making perfect” or “correcting” ) (http://www.self-i-dentity-through-hooponopono.com/whos-in-charge.htm) . The procedures have been greatly simplified subsequently by Sage MorrnahNalamakuSimeona ( 1913 – 1992 ) and made them suitable for the modern times.
Solutions from the New World
Eckhart Tolle ( Born in 1948) is a German-born Canadian spiritual teacher and a bestselling author. He is the author of “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose” – two wonderful books proposing solutions for awakening in our conscious life, by living in the power of this moment. “ A new Earth “ easy to read and assimilate.
There is ample evidence from neuroscience as well as from our daily experiences and from the old world teachings that humans are still driven by data or memory which is responsible for our experiences in life. This data is responsible for all human sufferings. We need to delete these data and prevent new data from forming.
Our present condition is our responsibility. It is not our fault, because our operating system is designed as such by the grand designer . Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to find a solution and move forward.
We do have the freewill to override these data and create a brand new future. It is a possibility gifted to us by the grand designer of life. The way forward is to delete the data and prevent new data from forming and to live in the power of now.
We can choose to meditate and carry out cleaning as in Sahaj Marg or we can practice the cleansing methods as in ho oponopono practice or simply begin to live in the power of now as advocated by Eckhart Tolle. Choose what is best suited for you and make the difference to yourself and to the world.
- Libet, B. (2004). Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness (Perspectives in Cognitive Neuroscience).Harvard University Press.
- Muehlhauser, M interviewing with Brass, M. (2011). Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot. Retrieved from http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=12153
- Kuhn R.L, Getzels P. Closer to Truth- – Big Questions in Free Will Documentary (2016).Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uRTjfhIf4M
- Doty, R.W. (1998) Five Mysteries of the mind, and their consequences. Neuropsychologia 36, (10), 1069-1076
- Nørretranders, T. (1999). The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. Penguin Books.
- King, S.K. (1985) Mastering Your Hidden Self, Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, USA
- Tigunait, R. (1983) Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy, Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, Honesdale, PA, USA.