People say, “Cheer up!” or “Go to sleep!” as though it were something under your control. They say to kids, “pay attention!” If the kids don’t comply, they give them drugs. The assumption is that either they are balking or they have a medical problem (AKA marketing opportunity) that prevents them from complying. How much of our consciousness can we really control with our intentions, our “trying?” (By consciousness I mean something like “attitude,” or “mood.” Not quite emotion.)
Many persons are in occupations that ask them to control the consciousnesses of others, teachers being obvious, but also actors -- any kind of artists. Recently I watched a little video about a torturer explaining how he gets people to talk by persuading their consciousness. He says it’s not a matter of force, which can be resisted mentally or can cause faked compliance. Rather, it’s a strategy of knowing things and using them as triggers. For instance, with one big tough terrorist, he used the man’s childhood pet name, the one used by his mother. He says it was a lot more work to know things about the man, how he saw the world, but a far more effective way to lead his mind than to drown or electrocute him.
Our culture is too dependent on threats, force, and penalties -- all of which tend to arouse resistance and anger. But we are also dependent on social controls like peer pressure which is where all this furor about bullying comes in. The adults have left the tasks of persuasion and explanation. Maybe they’re exhausted or just not up to because no one is persuading or informing them either. So the kids take over, even bullying their parents into conformity. My last experience with teaching was a disaster because the students were determined to be in control. This was not the male athletes, who had the whole town under their overdeveloped thumbs, and were therefore relaxed in class, ready for fun. It was the girls with the cheap movie starlet appearance and fear of individuality. Not all of them. The ones who were “different” suffered.
Once I took a graduate psych class in “motivation”, thinking it would be about how to be courageous, get tasks done, try for one’s best. Instead it was about the physiology of rats, why they get thirsty or sleepy or sexy. Not even about people. But the point was tracing out the self-regulating mechanisms of the body which are normally BENEATH consciousness so you don’t have to keep reminding yourself to breathe or tell your heart to beat. When you finally realize you’re hungry or thirsty, then your body has done all it can and wants your brain to initiate something voluntary.
So we’ve got three levels of managing consciousness. The unconscious, by definition, is outside your control or maybe even your awareness unless you’ve had special training or are hooked up to a monitoring machine of some kind. I suspect that many doctors would say that people push stuff back down into the un- or sub- conscious because they don’t want to deal with it. Realizing you are tired, stressed, heart out of rhythm, have aching joints or muscles gets in the way of doing things. Sometimes I find that for a while, hardly noticing, I have what I call the “subconscious flu,” a sort of shadow that needs to be addressed. Sometimes emotional, sometimes a bug.
Controlling one’s own consciousness is part of the work of being a writer. On one level it’s what gets you to the keyboard in the morning. The uses of habit really count. I tried blogging every other day and found that my hands itched for the keyboard. A pianist told me he was the same. Repetition over time is the key to many habits. Long ago I had a grade school teacher who would say that when you have a thought or do an action, it makes a little messenger’s path through your brain cells. As you follow that same path repeatedly, it gets clearer, deeper and easier to follow. That could be positive or negative.
Sometimes a situation pushes a person into a habit and then when the situation changes, the habit is inconvenient, maybe pushed up to consciousness, and needs to be replaced. Now that I need to eat in a certain way, I find myself having to resist social templates like sweet food meant as signs of hospitality. But there’s no use getting upset about such peer pressures. The answer has got to be strategy until the whole culture comes around to a new consciousness. (Think we could persuade people to do back rubs as a sign of hospitality? Oh, wait, some people would be all too eager!)
So self-management is in parts: awareness of what consciousness is present in the body, knowing how to change that consciousness -- maybe by figuring out where it’s coming from (memory, habit, fear?) -- and having a reason to change, finding the rewards in it. But the task of a larger community is to guide people by supplying spaces and time-allotments and chances to interact in ways that will support good consciousness. Eight hour workdays, weekly day of rest, places to eat, parks, and so on. We’ve been eroding them. There is always negotiation between one’s inner consciousness and the patterning of the cultural environment. Flung on a sofa, too tired to interpret what one is seeing on the television screen, is not negotiating. The television industry likes that. They want addiction.
Flying into a rage is a use of force that we see a lot in high density environments. I felt myself slipping into it in the city. Once I dodged into a little coffee shop where customers went to the counter, which was shoulder-high like a barricade and crowded because too many people were being waited on by too few barristas. They were young and pretty girls and they were ignoring the take-a-number system in order to wait on all the handsome young men. I don’t think they could see anyone else. After twenty minutes of being pushed aside, I blew my top.
Strategy would work better. My niece, who is almost my age, had fallen down steep stairs when debarking from an airplane and had broken her shoulder. Later, in the jostling of unloading, she looked for a handsome young man and asked him, “Would you let me take your arm? I’m afraid of falling.” Triggered into protectiveness, the man carefully helped her down the stairs. She thanked him, he felt like a hero, and everyone was pleased, even the people who had merely watched.
An even more dramatic story (I’m told it’s true -- why would I argue?) was a soldier chasing a woman. Her shoe came off. He stopped to pick it up. When he finally cornered her, he handed her the shoe, with a courtly little bow as he had been patterned to do in a different life. “Thank you,” she panted, resting her hand briefly on his shoulder to steady herself while she put it on. Then she walked off, while the soldier stood there trying to remember why he was chasing her. Would that we could all be so disarming!