The beginner’s guide to working with the unconscious mind

Definition of the unconscious mind

In NLP we define the unconscious mind as representing those physiological and cognitive processes that occur outside of conscious awareness. Physiological processes include respiration, hormonal response, etc. Some examples of unconscious cognitive processes include dreaming, ideomotor responses, and learned unconscious competences such as letter recognition, word recognition and grammar processing involved in the skill of reading. Much of our perceptual processing is unconscious; there is an incredible amount of sensory processing that precedes conscious awareness.

Unconscious mind: those physiological and cognitive processes that occur outside of conscious awareness. Click To Tweet

Creating change through NLP

Arrangements can be made with the unconscious mind to create changes in behaviour and states (including our emotions). These include such things as reviewing and sorting of patterns of experience that can be used to reduce pain, integrate new skills and develop new understandings; a few examples from a very rich set of possibilities. The processes developed in NLP for making these arrangements are, in my view, some of the most liberating applications yet developed.

Personal change takes place in a particular context. Context is when, where, with whom, and the overall conditions within which you have a problem or an outcome. It’s the context within which behaviour occurs that gives the behaviour meaning.

Using our conscious attention to define the context and the parameters in which we are considering having a change is a process called ‘framing’. This is a necessary prerequisite to involving the unconscious mind in accessing or developing resources for change.

John Grinder, in Whispering in the Wind, states that ‘… the unconscious is capable of enormously complex and creative acts when the proper framing and context have been established and the lead is released to the unconscious …This statement also applies to the contexts of personal change and performance, which can be construed as complex and creative acts.

Working with the unconscious – preparing the ground

There are additional patterns identified through NLP that can assist in negotiating between conscious and unconscious minds. One such pattern is arranging a formal involuntary signal system with the unconscious.

Our unconscious communicates, that is, gives us signals, in a variety of different ways. For many people these naturally occurring signals are framed as intuition, a loose term from our perspective. Sometimes the unconscious will communicate a pattern or learning for our conscious minds to attend to through a dream. A signal from the unconscious may be in the form of an image, a sound, a sensation or even a smell or a taste.

A signal from the unconscious may be in the form of an image, a sound, a sensation or even a smell or a taste. Click To Tweet

The most reliable signals from our unconscious are involuntary responses. A thought may just pop into awareness out of the blue. A person may have an involuntary movement or other sensory response. Having a response that you can’t replicate consciously, supports an integrity in the system of conscious/unconscious communication. If your conscious attention knows when you get a signal from the unconscious, then by implication, it can attend to the communication.

The most reliable signals from our unconscious are involuntary responses. Click To Tweet

It is useful to have an involuntary response for yes, an involuntary response for no and, for the more advanced student or client, an involuntary response for I don’t have enough information yet.

Having a formal signal system with the unconscious mind is just one example of a signal system. We have multiple signal systems with the unconscious mind already. An example is a class of experience that we have all had: knowing that something was ‘right’ for us, or conversely we just knew that something was definitely ‘not right’ for us. This type of signal, often felt somewhere in the mid-line of the body, is called a congruency signal in NLP. In a context with a proposed outcome you are either congruent or not, about the outcome. If a proposal seems and sounds fine on a conscious level, yet you are incongruent about it, I suggest that your unconscious mind is giving you a signal for you to attend to.

Our emotions are forms of communication from the unconscious mind. Exploring and working with the unconscious intent for a particular emotional response can lead to the development of new responses for that context.

Our emotions are forms of communication from the unconscious mind. Click To Tweet

For some people, simply learning to use their conscious attention to be sensitive and responsive to the communication of their unconscious mind can make a world of difference. It is the first step to being able to engage the unconscious in promoting high performance, developing greater emotional choice, enhancing learning and other projects that you may create.

The roles of the conscious and unconscious minds

The unconscious mind has access to representations of experience that are often outside conscious awareness, yet the unconscious is relatively unorganised. The conscious mind is superb at organising informationthough poor, in comparison with the unconscious, in finding and accessing resources. When working with the unconscious mind to create change and the development of improved performance, or to propose projects in other contexts such as business, learning or family, we perform different tasks with the conscious and unconscious minds. The role of considering context, possible outcomes and framing is assigned to the conscious mind while the role of identifying resources to support the outcome is assigned to the unconscious mind.

Preparing the conscious mind for working with the unconscious

Before working with the unconscious mind, we begin by considering both the context within which we want a change , and the outcome and intentions we have for creating change. What is the intended result that we want to propose to the unconscious mind?

For the context under consideration, what do I want? How would I know if I had that result? What would I see, hear and feel as evidence of a desired change? What do I want that change for? What is my intention for having this change? If I had this change, what would be the flow-on consequences in my life?

Next, it is useful to have arranged some form of signal system with the unconscious mind, some involuntary response for yes and another involuntary response for no.

Now we are ready to make a proposal to the unconscious. In a comfortable relaxed state, having reviewed the prepared outcome and the context within which that outcome is desired, simply ask your unconscious mind: ‘Is this proposed outcome acceptable to you, my unconscious?’ If you get a yes response, simply invite your unconscious to begin the process of searching and sorting for ‘… all suitable resources to be applied in support of the outcome in that context’. If you get a no response, thank your unconscious and request that your unconscious please communicate the nature of the objection to that outcome, and/or propose back to conscious attention an alternative outcome for that context.

This is the beginning of a dialogue between conscious and unconscious minds in which a suitable outcome is selected, resources are arranged and a negotiation made.

That is the general framework for working in partnership with the unconscious mind to create change and healing. Within this specific application of NLP there are many strategies and refinements that can be used to facilitate communication and the development of an excellent relationship between conscious and unconscious minds.

(Note: If you would like to learn more about the New Code of NLP you can get a copy of  our latest Kindle book ‘AEGIS: Patterns for extending your reach in life, work & leisure’ by Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For only $4.99 here).

By Chris Collingwood, NLP Trainer at INSPIRITIVE

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Chris Collingwood

Chris Collingwood

Christopher Collingwood, BA (Psych)., MAppSci Social Ecology, a director of Inspiritive Pty Ltd., has over 21 years experience in coaching, consulting and leading seminars in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. He holds the Graduate Certificate in NLP, is an NLP Trainer Assessor, and has undertaken extensive training with the major developers of NLP, including Dr. John Grinder, co-originator of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

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