Changing consciousness is the ultimate aim of every psychotherapy. It's only in our conscious minds that we make decisions, experience life, and forge relationships. If we are "in the dark," meaning not aware of what's in our consciousness, we will stumble through life.
What is consciousness
Consciousness is an emergent property of our nervous system. It is still quite mysterious but it arises from biological organisms. We don't know what all organisms have consciousness, but we can assume it's many more than just humans.
The human brain is a complex network of signals. Most of these signals happen without us knowing about what's going on. This is what we call the unconscious. Most of our brain activity happens outside of conscious awareness. Our senses deliver information to our nervous system and it reacts automatically. Only a portion of brain activity comes into consciousness.
What can we do with our consciousness?
It's our conscious minds that make decisions. We call this executive functioning. The clearer our conscious minds are, the better results we will have with our executive functioning and hopefully have better lives as a result. Our consciousness is where we appreciate art, nature and other aesthetics, engage in relationships, learn new skills, and so on. If we don't develop our consciousness, we are operating on autopilot. Most of the time this is ok. Being on autopilot when we are walking is necessary. If we had to consciously move every muscle to walk, we wouldn't be efficient or be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
How does psychotherapy help with consciousness?
The therapist can take many stances in therapy. The two main categories are supportive and insight. When the therapist is being supportive, they are just trying to create grounding and stability for the person who is struggling. When the therapist is helping with insight, we can think about this as working on consciousness.
Most of our relationships' quality will be based upon what we saw growing up. Even if we didn't like our parents or families, we will nevertheless pick up many of their relational behaviors. In therapy, we can bring those patterns into consciousness so that people can choose new ways of being in relationships that lead to more mutuality, less co-dependence, and so on.
How do I work on my consciousness?
Developing consciousness is a life-long practice. Even though the term "mindfulness" is very overloaded, if not annoying, what it points toward is the practice of developing one's consciousness. We need to slow down to do this type of work. Paying attention to our thoughts and feelings is one way to work on our consciousness. In the therapy room, the therapist is helping to do this. However, we can practice this skill anywhere. We just need to still ourselves and start paying attention to what arises in our minds.
Defenses to consciousness
Many times, what arises into consciousness creates psychological conflicts. These conflicts create anxiety. The anxiety is defended against in many ways since people are wired to avoid discomfort and pain, including psychological discomfort. People defend against these psychological conflicts using rationalization, splitting, intellectualization, and more. All of these defenses keep a person's ego in tact and push away the psychological conflict from conscious awareness.
While in the short term this keeps anxiety lower, in the long term it can create problems since the person isn't aware of the conflict and how the defenses impact their lives. Some defenses are mild like intellectualization where people use their rational minds to avoid their feelings. However, splitting can have a more serious impact on someone's life when they split off entire aspects of themselves. Sometimes these aspects get projected onto others so that they can be managed from a safe distance. This particular process is called projection. There are many defenses and a therapist who is trained in identifying them can help people bring those conflicts into consciousness so they can be addressed. Once people learn to go beyond the defenses, they can access the underlying feelings and learn to cope with them in healthy ways rather than defending against them.
Limits to consciousness
There are limits to consciousness. If there weren't limits, we would be overwhelmed with information and not be able to navigate the environment. Consciousness is purposefully filtered by our nervous system so that we can function. When people take hallucinogens, much of this filtering goes away temporarily.
A temporary removal of filtering is why people access all sorts of new ideas, thoughts, and sensations while tripping. It's also this feature of hallucinogens that is leading clinical research to use these compounds to treat mental health (God forbid we call them spiritual) disorders. When the brain temporarily is talking to itself with new connections that aren't present during our default mode of existence, there is an opportunity to access these conflicts from a different perspective. There are promising treatments for trauma and depression that use guided tripping to help people make new connections to raise their consciousness. We don't want to have infinite consciousness because it would drive us to insanity. We want just enough consciousness to function in the world meaningfully, interact with people in healthy ways, and make better decisions. Beyond that, consciousness would start working against us, overwhelming us, and become a liability. Like with anything, we need balance, including with our consciousness.