For people to be able to consciously use auto-suggestion
to good effect, they should be taught it as
they are taught to read and write.
Female Logic that Men Share
- Troubles with the subconscious
- The successes and failures of self-prediction
- A paradoxical state of mind: the curse of the century
- The Sphere of Absolute Faith
The Unwilling Automaton
Imagine a millionaire with a chain of supermarkets. There are plenty of managers to run everything and all the boss has to do is sit back and enjoy life: everything ticks over smoothly. If something happens to upset the balance then considerable disruption could ensue. If you can picture this then you will have some idea of where we stand in relation to our bodies.
Our body biochemistry keeps us alive and allows us to be conscious of the fact. Trillions of body cells digest, excrete and metabolise without our even noticing. Our kidneys, liver and spleen function, our bone marrow silently renews our blood and our heart beats automatically. Every cell has its own particular role quite independent from our will. Just imagine what it would entail if we had to control the function of our sweat glands, lungs, liver, all our internal organs. It would be intolerable as anyone who is ill knows only too well. The fact that our bodies function involunarily is indeed a great blessing and it is impressive that, apart from when we are ill or in extreme conditions, all this generally takes place so inconspiciously.
But what about our mental processes? They are made up of an incalculable number of impressions (of the people we meet, things we see, conversations, ideas) which produce the thoughts, judgements, decisions and actions we think of as our own. It is even questionable whether there is anything exclusively ours since we are constantly recombining our previous experience.
This does not seem so bad if we remember that even the most original book is made up of words and phrases that have been used countless times before. The important thing to remember, however, is that once an automaton has become aware of itself it ceases to be an automaton. Self-awareness gives us the opportunity to recreate ouselves: a new and invaluable freedom in stark opposition to our automatic physiological programming. Although our bodies may resist change they can easily be brought into line and can even support such change.
Life keeps forcing us to replace automatic self-regulation with a conscious control which will inevitably become automatic in turn, thereby adding to our independence.
The Stranger We Know
‘I’m just about home now. I’ve keyed in the code for the flats, have gone up in the lift and am on the landing. Suddenly I realise I’ve got my key in my hand although I don’t recall taking it out of my pocket: it happened of its own accord and I only became consciously aware of it when I observed the accomplished fact. If I’m really engrossed I can quite easily open the door, go into the hall, put on the light and take off my coat without noticing what I’m doing. I light up a cigarette and come to with a start, remembering that I gave up smoking several months ago.’
For some reason or other she decided to check. Quite right, the key was missing. She felt around gingerly in the grass, and, with a triumphant, «Here it is!», held up the key. It must have slipped out of her pocket without her noticing it. Her friend said he vaguely remembered that, about an hour ago, he’d heard something clink but hadn’t paid any attention to it then. She’d obviously heard it, too, but had been too preoccupied at the time to give it a second thought. Since then her brain had been trying to work out what it could have been and had finally come up with the correct answer, perhaps not too directly, but on cue.
N insulted his friend, M, quite out of the blue and apparently without provocation. N told himself he just could not take any more of M’s intolerable arrogance although, in fact, M had behaved perfectly reasonably all day. The truth of the matter was simply that N had been dogged by ill-luck and, quite unconsciously, had been envious of M’s success for some years and jealous because his own wife always spoke so approvingly of M. He had sought an excuse for a quarrel without realising it himself and had found one.
A friend asks for your help in dealing with a personal problem. You give your assent readily enough but, as is often the case, you keep postponing giving the matter serious thought, almost as if you had forgotten about it. Some time later, the problem suddenly springs to mind of its own accord along with a perfect solution. You have managed to keep your word without appearing to try since your subconscious mind had been working for you the whole time.
You are probably quite familiar with incidents of this kind and have examples of your own subconscious working in similar ways. I would, however, be quite sceptical if you said that you can actually understand how your subconscious works.
Our Screen of Awareness
The twentieth century has already been called a lot of things: the age of the subconscious is, I think, a definition that can justifiably be added to the list. After Freud, the conscious has become rather unfashionable: what can it achieve, after all, outside the sphere of the rational? The subconscious is quite another matter: the power-house of the libido, for example, and the part of us that, among other things, enables us to leap around in time to music. Most people are aware of its existence, even if they deny having one themselves. One well-informed lad told me that he was different from everyone else because he did not have a subconscious. When I asked what had happened to it he answered proudly, with just a hint of regret, that he had never had one: he had always been fully conscious of what he was doing. «Even when you’re asleep?» I asked. «Especially when I’m asleep», he replied. «That’s the whole trouble: I’m a wunderkind».
(He was indeed an extremely gifted lad with a sleep-walking and bed-wetting problem; hypnosis helped him considerably).
People had begun to suspect the existence of the huge and nebulous sphere of the subconscious long before Freud. With the appearance of psychoanalysis, it dominated the scene for those of a philosophical turn of mind and was a profitable commodity for some. This boom to some extent overshadowed the very valuable discoveries made by Freud and the school of psychoanalysis he inspired. (Their contribution is indisputable, even though most of the «discoveries» were simply a rephrasing of what writers of the calibre of Dostoevsky had described years earlier). However, even after sophisticated psychological research and sensational popularisation, for most people the subconscious probably still remains mysterious and intangible, not something you can actually come to grips with. A fairly typical attitude might be that «Everyone else has a subconscious and if it ever looks as though I’m going to get one too, then it is high time to think about going to the doctor».
So let us try to establish what exactly the subconscious does.
Without our being aware of it:
our spleen, liver, other internal organs, bone marrow, white blood corpuscles and most of our brain cells carry out their particular functions.
we turn over in our sleep, cry out in pain, rub our arm or leg when we hurt them, imitate others, seek connection with other people, strive to reproduce and fight for our share of pleasure and pain.
we experience as yet apparently unfounded apprehensions about the future, sense temptation, strive to show ourselves in the best light possible, even when it is not necessary and are perfectly aware of the truth; we notice a mass of things, feel suspicious, dream up both impossible and perfectly reasonable plans, are often envious and sometimes solve problems and compose.
we open a savings account, book a plane ticket, pay someone a compliment, dress warmly when it is cold, take medicine, give up smoking, and also imitate others, feel suspicious and compose...
This is an approximate categorisation of our actions ranging from absolute unconsciousness to full consciousness. Even if you are new to these ideas it is easy to see how indistinct the dividing lines are: there is a constant overlapping between the top levels of unconscious actions and the deep levels of conscious ones, and it is sometimes impossible to say whether actions are conscious or subconscious.
On the underground in the morning you often see commuters totally engrossed in their book or paper. Their eyes fixed on the print, they nevertheless manage to manoeuvre themselves out of the carriage with a fairly assured step and nimbly thread through the crowds still reading, determined to finish the article. Evidently they are still aware of something out of the corner of their eyes.
There are countless semi-conscious or semi-subconscious actions of the kind. A goalkeeper’s save can be both calculated or purely instinctive. However alert and aware a driver at the wheel may be, he or she nevertheless reacts automatically to avert an accident.
A young man is standing outside a cinema. He had consciously decided to join the queue even though it looked fairly long. The decision to take his girlfriend to the pictures in the first place was calculated to make her like him, to impress her and show her that he wanted her to enjoy herself. But why he had fallen in love in the first place clearly belongs to the sphere of the unconscious. Later on, when he has already stopped loving her, he may be able to examine his emotions.
Sometimes, like the mathematician Poincare, we may feel that we can perceive our own subconscious. This happens at moments of inspiration and in some psychiatric disorders. However, the sensation of seeing into our subconscious mind is deceptive: once we perceive something consciously it has become part of our conscious and has therefore ceased to be in our subconscious, and vice versa. Hoping to catch your subconscious in action is a bit like trying to grab hold of yourself from behind if you are chasing round the flowerbed. Nevertheless, indirectly and retrospectively it is possible to learn a great deal about our subconscious: we can deduce what must have been there and can also predict to some extent what is likely to appear in the future. Some observers are inclined to think that our conscious mind is only «the tip of the iceberg» of the subconscious.
However, it is possible for everything in our subconscious to find conscious expression sooner or later, whilst anything from our conscious mind can at any time slip into the subconscious. Thus everything on the screen of our awareness is mobile in either direction. If there exists an inner reality outside of this screen then it is something which is in any case impossible to formulate verbally.
The Cocooned Universe
Although I said that the subconscious can become conscious and vice versa I did not say it was easy: it can happen potentially. A lifetime is too short for us to get to know the limits of our own personality. Dreams, like meteors entering our conscious mind from worlds which die with us, provide little information about the fantastic depths of our subconscious. We have no idea how many feelings, conjectures and ideas are born, slumber and fade away, cocooned there. Although it is not difficult to ascertain the lifespan of impressions and thoughts in our conscious mind, it is quite a different matter once we turn to the undefined sphere of the subconscious. Here echoes of the past and vague projections of the future ebb and flow independently so we that can never be completely sure what exactly is there.
Freud suggested the subconscious is filled, above all, with repressed sexual desires and fantasies, and aggressive and self-destructive impulses. He was correct in part, his observations being most true for the majority of his patients, that is, predominantly genteel ladies from the European middle-class at the beginning of the twentieth century. As it has been subsequently shown, however, the domain of the subconscious is far wider and can embrace the whole universe. As Freud discovered, the first things which slip off into the subconscious are naturally those which are uncomfortable, painful or terrifying to live with (forbidden desires, envy, self-hatred and the fear of death, for example). There is, however, a lot there which could improve life (altruism, love of truth) but which for some reason or other is not put to practical use. Today, with liberal attitudes and pornography widely available in the West, it is scarcely necessary for sex to hide away in the subconscious; aggressive tendencies are a different matter: they, on the whole, are still taboo, although many, from terrorists to hooligans, scarcely seem worried by this. In our subconscious there are fears, hopes, truth, falsehood, and good and bad intentions; there are dark animal instincts and noble impulses which rarely find expression. Social trends and referent group ties, which hold people in emotional interdependence, work mainly at a subconscious level. Hidden information about ourselves and others which, as a rule, is rarely expressed openly sometimes appears as a form of clairvoyance or telepathy. It is amazing how little most of us know about ourselves. We would, I suspect, be much more balanced and happy if, over the centuries, we had learnt to be less frightened of who we really are.
The Sphere of the Absolute
This is not going to be anything new; it is simply a straightforward diagram which is useful for taking a look at a few things we are all familiar with.
Our brain categorises information in approximately the following way: at the centre is the region we shall arbitrarily call the Sphere without Doubts, or the Sphere of Absolute Faith. Encircling this are the Spheres of the Trustworthy, the Doubtful, the Scarcely Likely and the Improbable.
The Sphere of Absolute Faith is tremendously powerful, containing, for example, miraculous cures, hypnosis, great works of art, and scenes of mass hysteria.
It is everything we believe at an emotional as well as at a rational level, and sometimes at an exclusively emotional level; it includes all the impressions, thoughts and ideas which we understand, with which we can identify fully and which become our physical state.
Diagram 1. The Sphere of the Absolute
Psychologists call this sphere «the nucleus of personality», the focal point of the principles which govern our life, our most important inner values (this will be discussed later) and the major motives for our behaviour.
The sphere is protected by a number of barriers and filters, the outer rings (see Diagram 1). It possesses a very powerful defence mechanism which rejects anything alien that could pose a threat to its structure, selectively admitting only that which will support and protect it. It is the «brain of the soul» and can be compared with the government in a totalitarian state.
In an average adult, the Sphere of the Absolute is dark and cramped and both the exit and the entrance are obscured. It is not, however, closed entirely: if it were, it would be impossible to influence other people and develop our own personality in any way at all. The Sphere is more receptive to influence in childhood (hence education is possible) and also, potentially at least, in people responsive to deep hypnosis. The suggestions in hypnosis are addressed directly to this sphere. It is the target for all forms of communication in which one party is trying to influence another: for example, in propaganda, advertising, sermons and art. (This book could, of course, be added to the list, perhaps the one difference being that it explains just what it is aiming at).
The Sphere of the Absolute is as mobile as anything else on the screen of our awareness: some inner absolutes are recognised consciously, others only partly so, and some not at all. Everything here can, of course, change its position, although less readily than elements in the outer spheres. There is, however, a tendency for absolutes to slip into the subconscious mind and to act in secret there to greater effect. (See the conflict between value and significance in the next chapter).
This is the shady abode of egoism, love and religious belief. As might be expected, there are bound to be struggles for domination, and particularly bitter ones, in the brain of the soul. At the very heart of the Sphere of Absolute Faith there seems to be a mysterious link with the Absolute of Existence; but this is another topic entirely. For us it is important to realise that this Sphere is the main target for Auto-Suggestion and Auto-Training: «According to your faith be it unto you».
The Yes-No Mechanism
Suppose you are at a friend’s for dinner and you are offered some apple pie. You can either accept it with thanks or refuse politely. You are not too sure whether you want any or not and while you are making up your mind your face assumes an expression of concentration: your brain, meanwhile, is carrying out a calculation which makes a computer look simple.
It could go something like this:
1. Do I really want anything else to eat?
(yes, I’m starving; I’d certainly not say no; might as well, I suppose, I’d really better not have any more; I’d be sick if I ate another morsel. Underline as appropriate.)
2. I’d like something else but do I want apple pie?
(I’m not fussy, anything; everything looks so nice but that’s probably the nicest; I don’t really like anything else that’s there; that’ll do nicely; I’d prefer something else but it doesn’t look as if there is anything else, so I’d better say yes; why have people this mania for making apple pies, if there’s one thing I can’t stand... Delete as appropriate).
All this is resolved in the conscious mind by a single signal «Yes please», or «No, I’m all right thank you». But that is not all. Before you state your decision you often need to qualify your purely digestive considerations a little: for example, although you may still be hungry, etiquette or your health may make it impossible for you to accept, or, on the contrary, good manners may force you to eat more than you really want or something you do not like.
It has taken me approximately ten minutes to describe only very superficially what takes place in the brain in a fraction of a second. We do not after all, usually hesitate for long when offered something to eat or drink and I purposely chose this exchange for its simplicity. The fact is that the mechanism which decides «yes» or «no», «to be» or «not to be», etc. , functions in basically the same way whatever the question: if we are wondering whether to take another piece of cake, to jump over a ditch, or to write an article. It is the work of our subconscious mind to constantly consider possible alternatives and to predict the future.
However, as we shall now see, efficient though this mechanism is, it is still very far from perfect.
A Paradoxical State
Suppose that, lying on the ground in front of you, there is a fairly wide beam and that you have to walk across it. You do so without any qualms and even walk up and down a few extra times for good measure. If the beam is then raised so it is about five feet off the ground you still walk across, but with noticeably less confidence, swaying a little here and there. If the beam is raised again, this time by ten feet, you refuse point blank to even attempt walking across. When it was still on the ground just a few minutes ago you walked across it without any hesitation whatsoever, but it is frightening when it is high up. It is no narrower, of course, and you know perfectly well that you could make it to the end, but knowing is not enough. You do not believe any more that you can do it. You have stopped believing that you can do it. You do not believe because you are afraid; and you are afraid because you do not believe. If you did make an attempt in this state of mind you would most probably fall.
In this case you’ would probably put it down to the fact that your head started spinning or that you suddenly lost your footing. Physiologically it can be explained by the involuntary contraction of your muscles which caused you to lose your balance. But why, you may wonder, did not the same thing happen when the beam was on the ground?
This is explained by the fact that the subconscious mind has its own logic, which is not subject to our control, for dealing with how we perceive and react to things. In the given case, the reasoning could have been something like this:
1. «The beam’s wide enough for me to walk across and it is on the ground anyway, so if I did fall I wouldn’t hurt myself. I couldn’t really do any harm. It doesn’t matter in the least if I fall... I needn’t even think about it and can just go ahead and walk across».
2. «The beam’s just as wide but there’s a big drop now. So it is not just the beam, but the beam and the height. It could be serious if I fell this time. I mustn’t fall. I mustn’t fall. I must be extra careful... I mustn’t fall!... But I could quite easily....»
Your muscles will immediately tense to help you hold on better and your inner ear will be put on the alert, almost as if you had already slipped. By expecting to fall and by being frightened of doing so you anticipate and even induce the event: you are the victim of an involuntary flood of super-caution.
The position is a paradoxical one: the very fact that you «must not fall» increases the likelihood of your falling! A subjective fear can have very objective results! Your conscious mind urges you that, «You won’t fall because you shouldn’t», to which the subconscious replies, «you shouldn’t fall, therefore you might».
It is an interesting quirk of the subconscious mind that it increases or decreases the subjective likelihood of an event depending on its relative significance. The opposite also happens as part of a defence mechanism every time a particular piece of knowledge is dismissed from the mind: in some incomprehensible way you can totally ignore something unpleasant you know about and cannot avoid.
By now you will not be surprised to learn that people often stutter because they are trying too hard not to; that insomniacs cannot sleep because it is too important that they drop off immediately; and that men can be temporarily impotent for the simple reason that they are too worried about being on top form. Lots of the paralysing attacks of nerves suffered by athletes, actors and students can be explained by this little «I mustn’t»... Why is it always so difficult not to let out a secret which must be kept? Why do we invariably knock over a whole glass of wine if we are told we must try to keep the tablecloth clean? Why does a learner cyclist ride straight for a lamppost or a brick wall? The harder he or she tries, the stronger the attraction: it is like a powerful magnet. This is all thanks to the subconscious mind’s own logic, the logic which, inversed, makes forbidden fruit taste so sweet.
Some people, however, can walk across the beam even when it is high up. A trained acrobat, for example, has no trouble in doing so and walks across juggling the whole time. This in fact helps him or her. Tight-rope walkers maintain that you are okay as long as you manage to think about anything other than the height.
If people are hypnotised to believe either that the beam is not very high up or else that they are experienced and fearless acrobats, then they, too, will make it across the beam. (On one occasion I hypnotised a teenager into believing he was a tight-rope walker and he had no difficulty in walking along the crossbar of a football goal).
People will walk (or even run) across a beam however high up if it is a question of saving their lives. There have even been cases when, to save themselves or someone else, people have taken tremendous risks at great heights, since the fear of falling has then been the lesser of two evils.
Someone who has a good grounding in Auto-Training will also be able to walk across the high beam.
You are very fortunate indeed if you have never experienced any «beams» at an incredible height from the ground. Anyone can find themselves in a paradoxical state of mind and it is all the more likely to happen the more importance we attach to whatever it is, be it a particular time, a piece of work, a person, and so on.
We shall now consider some techniques which make it possible to control ourselves at times like this, if not completely, then at least in part (enough to make all the difference); techniques for controlling the Sphere of Absolute Faith, our belief in ourselves.
Illustrations and good advice alone are not enough. The important thing is to understand what is really happening and to have an open mind.