The idea of the unconscious – unintended motivations out of our awareness and control — is often associated with Sigmund Freud, who famously identified dreams and their revealing symbolic imagery as the “royal road” to the unconscious. C. G. Jung, Pierre Janet, Jean-Martin Charcot, and other psychological theorists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, also saw our symbolic, imaginal worlds — especially our daytime fantasies and nighttime dreams — as ways to glimpse the substratum of the psyche.
In the twenty-first century, however, psyche’s underbelly is generally envisioned as wet, gelatinous grey matter, a medium for the electrical currents jumping across synaptic gaps, firing off neural networks, and in turn, cognitive schemas that predispose us to one set of responses over others. When we talk about the unconscious these days, the amygdala is often mentioned, and how it can be activated by imperceptible reminders of past traumas, mobilizing the body and mind for defense regardless of best intentions. Nonreflective procedural learning also gets a lot of attention and association with the unconscious, such as typing on a keyboard or any other activity that after enough repetitions becomes like the proverbial bike you never forget how to ride.
Yet if the unconscious becomes reduced solely to unintended biological impulses, procedural learning, and other brain-based responses to environmental cues, we risk losing the significance of symbolic material for making meaning of our lives.
Integration is at the heart of well-being. The behaviors and attitudes that contribute to a well-integrated life have as both precursor and outcome a sense of life as meaningful. Yet meaning is not gained simply through actions or reflective awareness. Meaningfulness is also a felt sense and a way of being in the world, often revealed through the symbolic content of our psyches, including the uncontrolled imaginal reveries that push forth without our bidding.
There are several aspects of experience that naturally flow together, and without their integration, us humans are more likely to become rigid or chaotic, depending on one’s habit for getting stuck in certain experiences instead of living integrated, fluid lives. The experiences I envision as fundamental to an integrated life include:
- embodied awareness as the capacity to mindfully observe and feel sensations and movements of the body;
- a coherent mind, where there is no need to obsessively grasp thoughts, images, feelings, and memories or push them away;
- empathic relating to self and others, especially being able to witness others’ similarities and differences in comparison to oneself, as well as imagine how others witness similarity and difference; and,
- the ability to not only interpret the images and fantasies that sometimes float about (while other times seizing the mental landscape) but also tend to these images and the possibilities for deeper awareness that they hold.
With these aspects of experience vying for both singular attention along with connection, the unconscious is much like the body’s proprioception, which without our awareness or intent, coordinates otherwise staccato responses to environmental stimuli into fluid movement. Similarly, the unfettered imaginal aspects of psyche integrate human experience, making sense of what came before even while imagining future possibilities, regardless of our conscious intentions (and sometimes best laid plans).