Updated: Oct 16
In this post, I’ll be exploring what it means to make conscious decisions and whether we’re really just sleepily acting out programmed behaviour with little genuine choice in the matter.
Freud postulated there are 3 levels of consciousness – The Conscious Mind, the Sub/Pre-conscious Mind, and the Unconscious Mind. This can be summed up in the following way: Everything you are currently experiencing, perceiving, sensing, or thinking, which I’ll refer to as events, constitutes the Conscious Mind. Prior events, which can be recalled at will, make up the Subconscious Mind; these are events now below the level of active awareness. The Unconscious Mind is the realm of past events which cannot be recalled, which nevertheless influence our Subconscious and Conscious Minds.
Gnostics claim we are, on average, only 3% conscious, with some masters and mystics perhaps operating nearer 10%. This is reminiscent of the now debunked myth regarding humans only using 10% of our brains; however, there may have been a kernel of truth to this all along. It may also go some way to explain why you’ll hear the term ‘awakening’ in spiritual circles, and what this really means. For example, if one were to be 100% conscious, one would remain awake (conscious) even during periods of sleep.
What does this mean for Free Will, and where does responsibility lie for our thoughts and actions? If we are merely 3% conscious, are we really making any decisions at all, or are they predetermined by prior programming? So many of us have fears and regrets, we live in sadness and remorse; if we were fully conscious and capable of choice, would we choose to feel and live this way? I doubt many would argue their Subconscious and Unconscious Minds influence their conscious actions, but are they aware of just how little control of their choices they truly have?
Religions refer to Free Will, Destiny, and Divine Fate. Gods are simultaneously purported to be omnipotent and omniscient, whilst bestowing us with the ability to determine our own fate; however, this seemingly paradoxical position appears to be a false representation. The Bible states no man "is free for obedience and faith till he is freed from sin's dominion”, suggesting we are ultimately responsible for acquiring Free Will. The Qur’an states, “God charges no soul save to its capacity; standing to its account is what it has earned, and against its account what it has merited.”
In spirituality, I often come across the same but in different terminology, such as fate, karmic lives, and soul paths. In spirituality, as in most of the major religions, ‘everything happens for a reason’. Instead of God’s Plan, we might have the Universe’s Plan, or perhaps merely the statement that all is as it’s meant to be and will be. How then does Free Will and choice enter into this situation? The answer, at least to me, is one must become aware, or awake, to the point at which one can begin making choices.
If you have certain lessons you must learn in this life, you can either continue to act out your part, making unconscious decisions to keep yourself in a certain situation or environment, or you can learn the lesson being offered and choose to move on. Free Will may be merely what allows us to continue to suffer in ignorance or to free ourselves through enlightenment. Unfortunately, we're very good at playing out roles in stories we create for ourselves, thus trapping ourselves in repeating cycles. One way to view this could be the ego (Devil) keeping us in an eternal struggle (Hell), not learning lessons and thus not becoming enlightened (God), and freeing ourselves from this cycle (Heaven).
Aside from religion and spirituality, are we ultimately responsible for all of our actions or are we slaves to our unconscious programming? Can one blame others for their behaviour if it’s the result of events outside their control? Those committing reprehensible acts often have trauma-filled childhoods; are they consciously choosing their actions or are they unconsciously acting out what they have been programmed to?
We are often told to forgive our past selves for mistakes we have made and actions we have taken, that we may overcome guilt, remorse, and grief for particular events in our lives. This assumes responsibility of our past selves for the events in question, something we now know may not be entirely correct. It also not only appoints responsibility, but judges the actions taken and the person taking them. Who are we now, to sit in such a position of judgement?
Do we end up absolving ourselves of responsibility or do we justify feeling the way we do about them?
I have tried to improve this aspect of my own views on my past. Where I have previously felt shame and regret, I now employ the attitude of, “there’s no regret when the best decision was made with the resources available at the time”. As E.T. Bell famously said. “Time makes fools of us all”, and it’s certainly foolish to judge past actions on information which only subsequently comes to light.
Now I have a further amendment to how I view my past - how consciously I made my decisions.
Perhaps it is best not to forgive our past selves for our actions, but to acknowledge our lack of conscious choice. There is no blame to be laid at the feet of the animal acting out of instinct, and do we blame the dog or the dog’s trainer for its poor behaviour? We make our decisions with the best intentions; no evil man ever thought what he was doing was evil, though we have certainly seen their repentance upon becoming ‘aware’ of what they have done. It is almost as if the ego lets go and the individual finally awakes only to cry, “what have I done?”.
It is only in the now, that we may strive to act consciously, to improve our awareness, to pay attention to all that is around us, and to awaken in the greatest sense of the word. There are many things working to keep us asleep, from the benign to the malicious, and merely becoming aware of these is among the first steps of improvement. We distract ourselves with TV and gossip, browse the internet and take drugs, sleep poorly and ignore nutrition.
Let us make the conscious choice to make better decisions in our daily lives.
It does no good to get caught up in the time it takes you to begin making conscious decisions. The vast majority of people are living their current lives without ever knowing they are but acting unconsciously. Be happy you have found your moment, that it is not too soon or too late; you have woken to this opportunity to move forward with more conscious choices. It arrived when it did, and it could not have been any sooner or later.
The choice of what to do about it, is now yours to make.