There is a famous quote by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that has stuck with me from the moment I read it:
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
Did you know that human beings have over 6,200 thoughts per day, and that most of these thoughts are automatic? That is to say that most of the thoughts we have are not chosen consciously but forced upon us by the subconscious.
As you’re probably already aware, human consciousness is split into two distinct parts. The conscious mind is, for all intents and purposes, the captain of the ship that is our lives. It’s where we learn new information, make the decisions, where we feel and wish and dream. Essentially, it is us: a magnificent, incorporeal machine through which we process, filter, and experience the amazing world around us. But here’s the rub. The conscious mind only makes up 5 percent of the cognitive experience. There is another mind, however, which is infinitely more powerful and sits beneath the conscious mind: the subconscious.
The subconscious is responsible for 95 percent of all thought. And it’s essentially a computer. Here is where all of our unconscious programming resides. For example, do you need to think about walking? No, of course not. It’s automatic. The act of walking was made subconscious through repetition as children, and since then, it’s something that happens automatically when the conscious mind decides it needs to go somewhere.
This illustrates the relationship between the conscious and subconscious mind perfectly. The conscious mind makes a decision, the subconscious fires up the automatic programmes needed to accomplish said decision and we’re away. We consciously want a brew; the subconscious does pretty much all of the legwork. Hey presto, we have a brew in our hands and we barely remember making it. This is why I’ve heard the subconscious referred to as the “perfect servant.” It operates entirely in service to our conscious mind; we turn the rudder, the ship automatically follows.
Sounds like a perfect system, right? And it is, if used correctly. The problem is, the subconscious also houses our beliefs. Not the conscious ones that we tell ourselves we hold, but the deep-seated beliefs that were given to us without our knowledge or consent. The ones we didn’t choose but were programmed with as children.
It’s well-documented that before the age of eight, children’s minds are like sponges. Absorbing information from all angles: parents, friends, school, the society we were raised in, church…there’s no end to the information that we’re bathed in as children. And because our conscious minds are still in development, we don’t have the ability to discern which is right and which is wrong. In fact, we’re still not really sure what right and wrong even are.
For example, if I told you the earth was flat, you’d likely look at me like I was one of “those” people and disregard me immediately. But if I was your father and you were six and I told you the same thing, likely you’d believe it and take that forward with you until your conscious mind had developed enough to understand the science behind why this information is erroneous. And even faced with the proof, you’d still likely fight against it because by this point, the fact that the earth is flat has become a subconscious belief.
The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” An anxiety-inducing statement for any parent out there, I’m sure. What he meant was this: the subconscious is at its most programmable up until the age of seven or eight. And beyond that it becomes less and less malleable, more and more set in its ways.
Now that is a terrifying prospect to me, and it should be for you. Because we can have conscious beliefs, sure, but they make up 5 percent of our belief system. It is the subconscious that wins out every time, given that it rules 95 percent of the roost. So, for example, you may consciously believe and know that racism is wrong, that we are all equal on this planet, and that no one human life has value over another. But if you were repeatedly told as a child by your father that Asians are lesser than white people, likely you have been given a subconscious belief that this is the case, and likely, when you see an Asian person, you subconsciously judge yourself as worth more. Of course, you would never admit this, even to yourself, because consciously, you know it’s wrong. But the subconscious believes it, and as such so do you.
Likely, this dichotomy of beliefs will make you uncomfortable. That’s for one simple reason. When the conscious and the unconscious minds argue, when they don’t reconcile, when one believes something the other does not, it creates what I call “cognitive friction.” The two beliefs clash and it creates an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of the stomach. Usually, this goes away—out of sight out of mind and all that—but it happens more than people even realise.
The real problem is that these beliefs and processes were given to us. We didn’t choose them. But they’re all-consuming. So what happens when the automatic programmes given to us as children are damaging us, even killing us?
I am, and have been for many years, a cocaine addict. I can trace back to the moment I was introduced to the idea that a substance can solve your problems. My father was a chronic alcoholic and almost drank himself to death until various medical crises dictated that he couldn’t physically drink anymore. He even admits to this day that unless those crises had occurred, he would have carried on drinking.
I watched him as a child. And I learned from him. It was conscious at first, but through repetition, this idea that we consume a substance to solve our problems began to form a subconscious belief. That’s not to say I blame my father for my affliction later in life—he was merely acting on his own subconscious programming—but, as a child, with the mind of a sponge and no fully-formed conscious mind of my own to discern the facts of what was occurring, the notion took hold.
But for something to become a subconscious belief requires a little more than just exposure to an idea. There has to be evidence. The first real pieces of evidence have to be conscious too, I believe. When I picked up weed in college, I loved the way it made me feel. It changed everything. My anxiety faded away, replaced with a goofy outlook on life that I loved. Things were funny. Food tasted better. Sex felt better. Everything was better. Those were my conscious thought processes. But my subconscious was listening. And it started gathering evidence.
Subconscious programmes don’t think or feel; they’re not aware of the people, places, and things around us. They’re not aware of the damage they may be causing us in the long term. They’re just that: programmes. Think about the “x” button on your browser window. What happens when you click it? The browser window shuts down. Why? Because it’s programmed to do so. The “x” button cannot do anything other than close the browser window because that is all it is programmed to do. Its one mission is to close our browser window, and in that respect, it serves us perfectly.
So by the time I realised that I had programmed my subconscious mind to believe that only through consuming drugs could I feel happy, free, and peaceful, it was already too late. The final nail in the coffin came when I sniffed that first line of cocaine. I had never felt so alive. The crucial piece of evidence had been provided to my subconscious, and I was a fully-fledged addict from that moment on.
It didn’t become chronic for many years, but from that moment, my subconscious demanded cocaine; it constantly pulled me toward it, and it pervaded my every waking moment with “where’s the cocaine?” It has been a perfect servant to me ever since, driving my thoughts and actions in the pursuit of the drug because just like that “x” button on your browser that is what it has been programmed to do.
I’ve been to rehab twice. The first time I studied the 12 steps. Controversially, I don’t believe the 12 steps work for one fundamental reason. It replaces addiction to a substance with addiction to a programme. They themselves will admit that they are still addicts and alcoholics, even with 25 years of sobriety behind them. But in order for the 12 steps to work, it has to become an obsessive way of life. You go to a meeting every day, you get a sponsor, you do the steps over and over again, you live and breathe it. As soon as you stop doing so, generally, you relapse. That’s because you’re still an addict. You’re just addicted to something other than your substance. Take the programme away, what are you left with?
I’ve done various other treatments—choice theory to name another. Choice theory was much more my speed. It was evidenced-based CBT treatment, but for me, it didn’t go in depth enough. My core belief—which is to say my subconscious drive—was identified as “I’m not good enough,” which, for me, was so oversimplified that I could have told you that the second I walked in the door but was made to wait six months before I arrived there.
Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. Books on neuroscience, biology, spirituality, and human cognition have been my daily bread. And why? Because, my friends, I believe the answer is not out there, but in here. Within us. Not just for the problem of addiction, but for any damaging or limiting behaviour that has found its way into our subconscious programming. All of these drug and alcohol programmes and treatments sort of look at the problem (and they do make a lot of sense in what they’re saying), but they’re not looking at the whole picture, just whatever small piece of the puzzle that each concerns themselves with. As a result, I feel like each of them is a salve for the problem, but not a cure. And, ladies and gentlemen, here’s the controversial statement.
I believe there is a cure for addiction. And it’s more simple than you might think.
Reprogramming the subconscious. That’s it. It’s as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. But it is my genuine belief that the cure for addiction is in changing the subconscious programming that makes you use. Seems obvious now I’m writing it down like this, but let me tell you a tale:
I’m fresh off the back of a massive relapse, after a six-month stint in rehab. I have seven credit cards, nearly all maxed out. I have begged, borrowed, and stolen, and I’ve nearly gotten myself in trouble with drug dealers more times than I’d care to remember. Consciously, I was desperate to stop. But, subconsciously, the programme that I myself had created was so strong that I simply couldn’t. I had done the reading. I knew what was happening. I am gifted with a strong sense of self-awareness, but to my dismay, I could not outthink this problem. That’s because the conscious mind cannot interact with the unconscious—at least not in the traditional sense of the word. I had done the reading. I understood that my subconscious programming was overpowering my conscious mind, but still there was nothing I could do about it.
Then I discovered something called the Mind Feedback Loop. It wasn’t a methodology but a system for reprogramming the subconscious beliefs that are damaging to us. The system works like this: first, you create the character you want to become. In my case, that is a person who is not an addict. Secondly, you meditate, and you imagine you are that person already. Of course, all the affirmations in the world can’t suddenly change your subconscious programming—that’s like throwing stones at the wall of the fortress. You need to make your thoughts the Trojan horse so to speak so that your subconscious will let them in.
You do this by feeling. You try to feel the feelings that this new character might feel ahead of actually feeling them—and this is crucial. You believe those feelings and your subconscious becomes bamboozled because you’ve started gathering evidence of a new personality behind its back. Then you further cement this process by consciously seeking evidence of this new personality. (In my case, it was the six months I was happily abstinent in rehab, the two months during my previous rehab, the eight days here, the two years there, even all those times in my youth when I was happy without the use of drugs.)
And within a week, my urge to use has suddenly dried up and vanished. It’s a tentative peace, sure, after a long war of attrition against myself. But this week has been the most peaceful week I can remember. The using thoughts have subsided. No longer am I scrabbling around, begging for just £100 so I can get my next fix. I feel comfortable just being. My motivation is returning. F*ck, look at me, I’m writing again. And I believe that is a direct result of my attempts to rewire my subconscious programming.
It’s not rocket science. It’s so simple. Yet, I am sympathetic to those who may see it as an insurmountable task. Because riding a bike is an insurmountable task until it suddenly clicks, and at that moment, it is something you simply cannot unlearn. I’m fortunate in that I taught myself to meditate a long time ago. I don’t know why, but one day I felt with surety that learning to meditate was going to be a vital skill. And I do not believe rewiring your subconscious is possible without this skill.
The subconscious mind is powerful—terrifyingly so. The idea that it runs 95 percent of our lives and the fact that it can’t be changed with thought alone can feel overwhelming. But always remember that it is a servant, and when you look at it like that, it doesn’t seem so scary (at least it doesn’t to me).
Make friends with your subconscious. Make it work for you. There’s so much free material out there that’ll help you bridge that gap. All you need to do is Google it.
The subconscious is not something to be feared, or even ignored entirely. It’s something to be embraced and shaped as you see fit. No matter what your limiting beliefs are, they can be changed. I’m so sure that I’d bet my life on it. So it’s up to you. Won’t you steer that rudder in the direction of change? Because if you do, I guarantee your ship will follow.