The Anatomy of Consciousness | Walking in Flow


The only way we will be able to master our minds is if we understand the way subjective states are shaped, so let’s start by understanding how consciousness works and how it is controlled. Every single emotion we experience from love to hate, curiosity to boredom-- initially comes into the mind as information only. This information represents what is happening outside and inside the body and is presented to us in such a way that it can be analyzed and acted upon. We use attention to select the relevant information from the potential millions of bits available. Attention is what helps us retrieve the appropriate references from our memories in order to evaluate an event and then choose how to handle it. Despite its great powers, attention cannot observe or hold in focus more information than can be processed simultaneously. “Because attention determines what will or will not appear in consciousness, and because it is also required to make any other mental events. . . happen there, it is useful to think of it as psychic energy. Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. Entirely different realities will emerge depending on how it is invested. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.” (33)

Therefore, consciousness is essentially a sorting station that sets priorities among all of our sensations, perceptions, feelings, and ideas. Consciousness is what makes us different from wild animals. It allows us to deliberately weigh what the senses tell us and respond accordingly. Without it, we would still “know” what is going on, but we would act on reflex and instinct instead. Another reason consciousness is so fascinating is because it is not entirely controlled by its biological programming--meaning it is self-directed. Throughout centuries of evolution, the human nervous system has become so complex that it is now able to affect its own states. Consciousness has developed the ability to override its genetic instructions and set its own independent course of action regardless of its genetic blueprint and its objective environment. It can straight up INVENT information that did not exist before! It is the reason we can create stories, make up lies, daydream, contemplate the universe, be in denial, and invent scientific theories, among other amazing feats.

This is why people have the ability to make themselves happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening around them, just by changing the contents of their consciousness. We all know people who can turn impossible circumstances into a fun challenge to overcome, just through the force of their personalities. On the flip side, we all know someone who can turn the best situation into a nightmare with their negativity. And there’s a good chance that every one of you reading this has been on both sides of the coin at some point in your lives. Deep down, I’d say most of us KNOW what we have to do to change a dire or boring situation into something we can enjoy. What it comes down to is whether or not we want to keep feeling sorry for ourselves and expend the energy to do so.

Once we know and understand how consciousness works, we start to realize that happiness is not something that just happens. It is not the result of good luck or being born to a rich family. It is not something we can buy or demand or require. It is not a result of outside events, but, rather, how we interpret them. There are many states of the mind, and happiness is simply one of them. It “is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy. Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. . . . It is a circuitous path that begins with achieving control over the contents of our consciousness.” (2)

So what does it mean to be conscious?

“It simply means that certain specific conscious events (sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions) are occurring, and that we are able to direct their course. . . . The events that constitute consciousness--the things we see, feel, think, and desire--are information that we can manipulate and use. Thus we might think of consciousness as intentionally ordered information. . . . Since for us outside events do not exist unless we are aware of them, consciousness corresponds to subjectively experienced reality. While everything we feel, smell, hear, or remember is potentially a candidate for entering consciousness, the experiences that actually do become part of it are much fewer than those left out. Thus, while consciousness is a mirror that reflects what our senses tell us about what happens both outside our bodies and within the nervous system, it reflects those changes selectively, actively shaping events, imposing on them a reality of its own. The reflection consciousness provides is what we call our life: the sum of all we have heard, seen, felt, hoped, and suffered from birth to death. Although we believe that there are ‘things’ outside consciousness, we have direct evidence only of those that find a place in it. . . . consciousness can contain a famine in Africa, the smell of a rose, the performance of the Dow Jones, and a plan to stop at the store to buy some bread all at the same time. But that does not mean that its content is a shapeless jumble.

We may call intentions the force that keeps information in consciousness ordered. Intentions arise in consciousness whenever a person is aware of desiring something or wanting to accomplish something. Intentions are also bits of information, shaped either by biological needs or by internalized social goals. They act as magnetic fields, moving attention toward some objects and away from others, keeping our mind focused on some stimuli in preference to others. We often call the manifestation of intentionality by other names, such as instinct, need, drive, or desire. But these are all explanatory terms, telling us why people behave in certain ways. Intention is a more neutral and descriptive term; it doesn’t say why a person whats to do a certain thing, but simply states that he does.

For instance, whenever blood sugar level drops below a critical point, we start feeling uneasy . . . Because of genetically programmed instructions to restore the level of sugar in the blood, we might start thinking about food. We will look for food until we eat and are no longer hungry. In this instance we could say that it was the hunger drive that organized the content of consciousness, forcing us to focus attention on food. But this is already an interpretation of the facts--no doubt chemically accurate, but phenomenologically irrelevant. The hungry person is not aware of the level of sugar in his bloodstream; he knows only that there is a bit of information in his consciousness that he has learned to identify as ‘hunger.’

Once the person is aware that he is hungry, he might very well form the intention of obtaining some food. . . . alternatively, he could disregard the pangs of hunger entirely. He might have some stronger and opposite intentions, such as losing weight, or wanting to save money, or fasting for religious reasons. Sometimes, as in the case of political protesters who wish to starve themselves to death, the intention of making an ideological statement might override genetic instructions, resulting in voluntary death. . . . there are enough exceptions in every culture to show that goals are quite flexible. . . The existence of people like these shows that consciousness can be ordered in terms of different goals and intentions. Each of us has the freedom to control our subjective reality.” (26-28)

Despite all the incredible feats the conscious mind is able to accomplish, there are many forces that constantly attempt to work against it. One of the main forces that affects consciousness negatively is psychic disorder. Psychic disorder is information that conflicts with existing intentions and distracts us from carrying them out (i.e. pain, fear, rage, anxiety, jealousy, etc.), which in turn causes a condition called psychic entropy within the self. All of the aforementioned feelings render our attention ineffective. Instead of choosing what to focus on, our attention is forced onto undesirable objects. How this happens is always the same: “some information that conflicts with an individual's goals appears in consciousness. Depending on how central that goal is to the self and on how severe the threat to it is, some amount of attention will have to be mobilized to eliminate the danger, leaving less attention free to deal with other matters. . . . Prolonged experiences of this kind can weaken the self to the point that it is no longer able to invest attention and pursue its goals.” (37)

Yet these outside events that cause so much strife, initially only appear in your consciousness as information. The event is not necessarily negative or positive until the self interprets that raw information in the context of its own interests and determines whether or not it is harmful. Meaning you, and only you, have the power to decide to let that negativity into the equation.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from psychic entropy is the optimal experience we all know and love: flow! In other words, the optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. In flow state, there is no disorder to straighten out, no threat for the self to defend against. “When the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly. There is no need to worry, no reason to question one’s adequacy. But whenever one does stop to think about oneself, the evidence is encouraging: “You are doing all right.” The positive feedback strengthens the self, and more attention is freed to deal with the outer and the inner environment.” (39)

“When a person is able to organize his or her consciousness so as to experience flow as often as possible, the quality of life is inevitably going to improve because even the usually boring routines of work become purposeful and enjoyable. In flow we are in control of our psychic energy, and everything we do adds order to consciousness. One of our respondents, a well-known West Coast rock climber, explains concisely the tie between the avocation that gives him a profound sense of flow and the rest of his life: ‘It’s exhilarating to come closer and closer to self-discipline. You make your body go and everything hurts; then you look back in awe at the self, at what you’ve done, it just blows your mind. It leads to ecstasy, to self-fulfillment. If you win these battles enough, that battle against yourself, at least for a moment, it becomes easier to win the battles in the world.’

The ‘battle’ is not really against the self, but against the entropy that brings disorder to consciousness. It is really a battle for the self; it is a struggle for establishing control over attention. The struggle does not necessarily have to be physical, as in the case of the climber. But anyone who has experienced flow knows that the deep enjoyment it provides requires an equal degree of disciplined concentration.” (40-41)

“Following a flow experience, the organization of the self is more complex than it had been before. It is by becoming increasingly complex that the self might be said to grow. Complexity is the result of two broad psychological processes: differentiation and integration. Differentiation implies a movement toward uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration refers to its opposite’: a union with other people, with ideas and entities beyond the self. A complex self is one that succeeds in combining these opposite tendencies. The self becomes more differentiated as a result of flow because overcoming a challenge inevitably leaves a person feeling more capable, more skilled…. After each episode of flow a person becomes more of a unique individual, less predictable, possessed of rarer skills. Complexity is often thought to have a negative meaning, synonymous with difficulty and confusion. That may be true, but only if we equate it with differentiation alone. … Flow helps to integrate the self because in that state of deep concentration consciousness is unusually well ordered. Thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all the senses are focused on the same goal. Experience is in harmony. And when the flow episode is over, one feels more “together” than before, not only internally but also with respect to other people and to the world in general.

A self that is only differentiated--not integrated--may attain great individual accomplishments, but risks being mired in self-centered egotism. By the same token, a person whose self is based exclusively on integration will be connected and secure, but lack autonomous individuality. Only when a person invests equal amounts of psychic energy in these two processes and avoids both selfishness and conformity is the self likely to reflect complexity.” (41-42)


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