On the Nature of the Unconscious

By Matthieu Ricard on November 07, 2017

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What is the unconscious? For the Buddhist, the most profound aspect of consciousness is alert presence. For him, what psychoanalysis calls the unconscious only represents the random mists of mental fabrications. For the neuroscientist, precise criteria distinguish between conscious and unconscious processes, and it is important to identify everything that happens in the mind as it prepares for conscious cognitive processes. Then comes the question of emotions. How to neutralize conflicting situations? How does altruistic love differ from passionate love? Is love the highest emotion? Points of view coincide concerning the effectiveness of cognitive therapy.

Let’s explore for a bit the notion of the unconscious, from neuroscientific and contemplative perspectives. Usually when people speak about the unconscious, they refer to something deep in our psyche that we cannot access with our ordinary consciousness. We certainly have the concept, in Buddhism, of habitual tendencies that are opaque to our awareness. These tendencies initiate various thought patterns that can either occur spontaneously or be triggered by some kind of external circumstance. Sometimes you are just sitting there, thinking of nothing in particular, and suddenly the thought of someone or a particular event or situation pops up in the mind, seemingly out of nowhere. From there, a whole chain of thoughts begins to unfold, and if you are not mindful, you can easily get lost in it.

The general public, psychologists, and neuroscientists surely have varying views about what the unconscious is. As for psychoanalysis, what it calls the depths of the unconscious are, from a contemplative perspective, the outer layers of clouds formed by mental confusion that temporarily prevent one from experiencing the most fundamental nature of mind. How can there be something unconscious in a state of pure awareness, devoid of mental construct? No darkness exists in the middle of the sun. For Buddhism, the deepest, most fundamental aspect of consciousness is this sun-like awareness, not the murky unconscious. Of course, this is all expressed from the first-person perspective, and I am sure that a neuroscientist approaching this issue from the third-person perspective will have a different view of the unconscious.

Excerpt from Beyond the Self, Conversations between Buddhism and Neuroscience. Wolf Singer and Matthieu Ricard. Published by MIT Press.