Ask the Horse

An Analogy for How the Subconscious Mind Works: Ask the Horse

The Zen Master’s Account

A Zen Master was walking down a road one morning and only a short distance ahead was a horse galloping towards him at full speed. Upon the horse was a rider whose gaze was intent and looking ahead in the direction his horse was sprinting.  As the rider and horse approached, the Zen Master began to make out the features of the man’s face and clearly see just how focused the man’s eyes were upon the direction of their travel. The Zen Master was impressed and wanted to understand the urgency and need for such diligent travel.
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As the rider and horse neared the Zen Master and were within earshot of the latter the Zen Master called out to the man and asked, “Where is it you’re going?” The Zen Master had reasoned he would only have enough time for one question before the hurried two passed him and by knowing the destination he could understand both the destination itself and perhaps derive a reason based on the knowledge of where.  

Upon hearing the Zen Master’s call, the man looked his direction.  The Zen Master was shocked to see a sudden and startled look of surprise rise upon the rider’s face as he promptly shouted back, “I don’t know!”  In the next moment he closed the final distance between himself and the Zen Master and as the two sprinted by he continued, “Ask the horse!”

In this article we are going to cover the Subconscious Mind.  In other articles on this site we discuss how to make changes to the subconscious mind through visualization and the simple yet difficult steps to follow to be effective, however the purpose of this article is to understand:

  • What is the subconscious mind?
  • How the subconscious mind comes to be?
  • What the subconscious mind’s role is within our lives?
Ask the Horse | the Subconscious

What is the Subconscious Mind?

The amazing thing about an analogy, like the one above with the horse, rider and Zen Master is that if you were able to imagine the horse running at full speed, carrying a rider but also not allowing for the rider to be in control then you already have a keen understanding of one of the major principles of the subconscious mind.

The famous psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung once said “there is a limit to what can be held in conscious focal awareness, an alternative storehouse of one’s knowledge and prior experience is needed.”  What you have experienced in your life up to this point as well as what thinking and especially emotions have accompanied the experience are stored away for your mind to access should they experience something similar again.

Think of the subconscious mind like the hard drives of a computer where all of the memory is stored and conscious thought like the RAM or immediately available thinking.  Your subconscious mind has the ability to recall from this massive storehouse of data any memories that pertain to a current situation or a recalled memory and flood your mind and body with thoughts and emotions. In the case of a learned poor experience this can prevent you from making the same mistake twice. 

The downside to the subconscious mind is that when it recalls an event based on like criteria ALL of the thoughts and memories from the previous experience can be released and related to the current event.  

This is what’s known as ‘emotional baggage’ and can unfortunately taint the present moment by overlaying previously experience emotions.  

Let’s get back to the horse.  What was the Zen Master witnessing?  He was watching the horse, or subconscious mind control the man who represented conscious thought.  Memories laced with emotion are powerful and are not linear or rational in their re-exploration. Emotions and learned behaviors triggered by the subconscious may momentarily rule the conscious self if the person hasn’t learned proper techniques for controlling their emotions and reactions.  

How the subconscious mind comes to be?

As mentioned before, your mind is like a computer.  There is only so much processing power dedicated to our immediate conscious thoughts in the present, but what then has become of all of the experiences and thoughts you have experienced over time?  In this section of the article we’re going to provide and example of how the subconscious mind becomes programmed. You always have an ability to reprogram the subconscious mind and understand the more emotionally charged your memories and what you’ve thought of a situation the more work that reprogramming will be.  But, all is possible.

Let’s look at a fictitious but potentially relatable scenario.  Imagine a small girl named Sally grows up in a small home in suburbia with her hardworking parents.  Sally is the middle of three children and often finds herself as the mediator in heated conversations and verbal bouts as they occur within her home.  In addition, Sally is constantly reminded from her parents just how hard they work to provide the quality of life the family has and her mother in particular is especially punctual and a perfectionist both within her home and work.  Now, as we all know, there is no perfect home. Sally’s mother however is especially self-conscious about how the family is viewed and being a perfectionist tries especially hard to ensure the kids are in all of the “right” sports and their grades are A’s.  Instead of the education of Sally being about what Sally has learned, the image her mother works to maintain of having a perfect family envelopes Sally’s life at school as well as at home.

One day at the end of her first semester in 8th grade Sally brings home a report card with two ‘B’s on it.  In addition, but unknown to Sally’s mother, she isn’t enjoying playing basketball and is usually sitting on the bench during games which makes her feel humiliated and that it’s a waste of time.  The feelings of basketball are something Sally has decided to keep to herself but her mother is expecting the report card and so Sally has to hand it over as soon as she’s home.

As can be expected her mother is disappointed.  For a moment, just after Sally handed over the report card and after watching her mother scan down the list of grades with her eyes, Sally thought as though her mother wasn’t going to comment.  Sally’s expectation of how her mother would react had become conditioned with the other expectations her mother had been placing upon the family. In that moment Sally was dealing with only a single item of discussion but Sally’s stomach had slightly tightened due to the culture being set within the home.

As Sally expected, her mother finished looking over the report card and then created a moment of tension through silence by not responding immediately to what was presented in Sally’s grades.  Sally’s mom set the report card down on their kitchen island and walked over to the sink to wash her hands. After an unfair amount of time, letting the anxiety and nervous system tense within Sally, her mother finally turns around and placing one hand upon her hip and looking Sally directly in the eyes begins to lecture her.  

Fast forward nearly 10 years.  At the time of her first semester in 8th grade, Sally was only 13.  Within her home was a culture that utilized intimidation and silence as temporal means of punishment and then a stern lecture littered with what simple grades mean to Sally’s future and how again those simple grades made the mother feel disappointed about Sally.  Sally now, almost 10 years later is interviewing for her first job. She’s excited to have the chance to interview with a marketing agency she’d interned with between her junior and senior years of highschool. As she’s sitting in the human resources waiting area with a couple of additional copies of her resume in hand and wearing one of her first professional suits she decides to scan over her resume one last time to rehearse some of the accomplishments she’s had with each of the items listed.  As soon as she opens her folder and glances over the top of her resume her mind freezes. She’s horrified and can’t believe what has happened. She has a type on the top of her resume and to make it worse it’s the spelling of her college which she knows the hiring manager also went to. Sally’s mind feels with a cloud of anxiety. Her body tenses. Immediately her mind starts racing to what she’s going to say in response to the error.

Let’s stop the scenario here.  What do you think Sally’s mind will project the hiring manager to say?  Do you think Sally will imagine the hiring manager slowly glancing over the resume, pausing for just a moment without speaking and letting the tension build in the air.  Maybe Sally would imagine the hiring manager getting up and walking to the back of their office and then slowly turning around and placing one hand on their hip proceed to lecture Sally of the mistake.  Where would Sally’s subconscious mind have created that scenario from? Where are Sally’s expectation of perfection and the fear of repercussion coming from? Do you think Sally will imagine the hiring manager to be disappointed?

This is how our subconscious minds are programed.  Through our past experiences and via the thoughts and actions of not only the people we are surrounded by especially early in our lives but also ourselves.  The self-talk created in Sally’s head has become a pre-conditioned response. What if Sally’s mother had a playful and light conversation about the two ‘B’s Sally had back in 8th grade?  What is Sally’s mom had asked a question about how difficult the classes had become to understand from Sally why the grades were as they were. What is Sally’s mother told Sally that being perfect is impossible and there will always be little mistakes here and there that sneak in and when they happen to laugh them off and press on.

What the subconscious mind’s role is within our lives?

We only have so much capacity within our minds for immediate calculation.  Our brains can be trained to think more clearly and compute more reasonably however the structure of our brains are also set up to rely upon our past experiences to make immediate decisions.  This is one of the primary purposes of the subconscious mind. It acts as a supporter of conscious thought.

Another use the subconscious mind is subconscious action.  Nearly 70% of what we think each day is actually a repeated thought from previous days.  We are constantly reinforcing our thinking as well as reliving our days. Our subconscious mind is set up to support our subconscious actions.  In short, without giving conscious thought to our actions our subconscious mind optimizes our activity.

Let’s say you’ve figured out a way to make money online.  Your mind has rewarded itself chemically through dopamine for the feeling of having made money.  Your actions moving forward will be both conscious and subconscious supporting that rewarded behavior.  Without thinking, your actions will be optimized to seek out that reward. This is how addictions behave as they are chemically driven.  The emotional and chemical reward from sex, drugs and some behaviors is exactly how our subconscious actions will over and over again bring us back to the same addiction.  Our subconscious minds optimize our actions. Check out this article to understand addiction.

(If you enjoy learning about the subconscious mind, you might want to check out some examples of duality! And if you enjoy that, then we also have a duality course review for you to read!)

Reigning in the Horse - The Power of Affirmations

Just as a reign on a horse coupled with a bit can help to slow and guide the horse so too can we train and control our subconscious mind utilizing mantras similar to those used in Transcendental Meditation as well as using affirmations which can be simple phrases written into a journal.  

The experiences you have in your lives, both past and present, lead you to think about them and judge them as having either been bad or good.  That judgement and results in a feeling about the experience which in turn produces a chemical reaction and begins training the mind as to what is good vs bad.  Those feelings in turn lead you to take actions to seek similar or dissimilar experiences. Affirmations are a way of intercepting that chain of events by reconditioning what is thought within the mind.  Instead of negative self talk for example, if you’ve been working with a Mantra of self love or compassion the mantra will have a good chance of taking the place of the self talk. That break in the chain will then lead to a new feeling and therefore a resulting new action.  

The subconscious mind is a powerful tool that has evolved to help us live as optimally as possible and draw from past experiences for present moments.  It runs independent of our conscious mind and if not intentionally managed, like what the Zen Master had encountered, it can take us on a wild ride and all we can do is hang on!

(For more on this subject, check out these Ted Talks on the subconscious mind!)