What the unconscious is, and how it works.
While to most people it'll seem that what goes on inside of them is pretty straightforward, everyone does have an unconscious. This unconscious is a part of us that we aren't aware of, but which does influence much of our acts and feelings. Of lots of things we do or feel, we do not really know where they come from, although they feel compelling nevertheless.
Noticing the unconscious
We can sometimes notice parts of the unconscious, or what it makes us do or feel.
We may start feeling sad, scared or angry for no apparent reason, although it does seem to make sense somewhere inside. We may, as adults, sometimes start feeling like a child (and perhaps try to resist that feeling, as we are adults, right?). We may not feel much at all, having the same flat state all the time, while we can remember that this was not the case when we were young children.
We may stay occupied with particular thoughts for long periods of time. We may fantasize about situations from the past, or things that might happen in the future. We can stay angry about things way longer than seems reasonable. Even when we realize that this doesn't actually help us in any way, we are not really able to stop doing that.
We feel we need to protect or defend ourselves from some kind of emotional hurt quite often. While this need feels quite real, we often cannot quite put our finger on what it is exactly that is happening in us that needs protection.
We have pretty standard ways of reacting to situations, that most of us take for granted. It seems that we just are that way, even when we think some of these patterns are not very helpful to living our lives satisfactorily.
Some people seem to be able to get us to do things we had no intention of doing. When that isn't by some obvious display of force, we may even have no idea what actually made us change our mind. We are susceptible to manipulation.
There are lots of things we feel we "should" or "should not" do or feel. We are only aware that we should, and we feel compelled to comply. We also keep to certain rules without being much aware of doing that, it just seems to happen by itself.
All of these things have some kind of unconscious cause.
Suppression of feelings
When we don't really understand why we are feeling something, apparently, we are not aware of some part of ourselves. It is unconscious.
We suppress feelings, trying not to have feelings that are unpleasant, negative, or uncomfortable, or when they are overwhelming. We might, for example, think it's weak to feel fear, and don't want to feel it because of that. Or we may be convinced it's wrong to be angry or to feel hatred, and because of that suppress these emotions. It may be unbearable to feel rejected or hurt. We want to protect ourselves from these feelings.
When we do that, we are making those feelings unconscious. In fact, feelings don't go away when we suppress them, they just go hidden. Although we are no longer aware of them, they are still influencing us. Our behavior and reactions keep being influenced by those unconscious feelings, and we keep having thoughts that are related to them.
The formation of the unconscious
Most of our unconscious was formed during our childhood, from when we were a baby of a couple of months old on (and for some of us even earlier). As a young child, we experience lots of things as too much for us, and we usually then suppress some of the associated feelings.
During our upbringing, we need to learn to deal with other people and society. Learning the rules is a painful process, that leads to lots of suppression of feelings.
All this creates our unconscious, that most of us need to live with for the rest of our lives.
What the unconscious does
It's not only feelings we keep in our unconscious, it's whole views of situations, and ways of acting in them. In the present we take these memories from experiences from the past as patterns of behavior. We habitually take on particular roles from these patterns, in response to situations with people. We react quite automatically and thoughtlessly, exactly like we did in the past.
These patterns are triggered by how we feel in the moment.
When we, for instance, experience a new situation that disappoints us, a pattern may come up from an old situation that made us feel disappointment. We then deal with the actual situation like we did in the old one. If we got angry about the disappointment earlier, we may now become angry again automatically, whether it makes sense or not.
Someone who experienced a stressful crowded situation in a confined space in her childhood, may now become very frightened in an elevator that is nearly full.
These patterns make us quite predictable and not very aware of what is really happening. It makes us susceptible to manipulation by others. It is the stuff our egos are made of.
The reason we don't notice this process of old suppressed memories influencing our current behavior, is that part of the memory is the suppression itself. We also repeat the pattern of suppression. Thus, we keep forgetting.
In the Western world, it was Sigmund Freud, the renowned psychologist, who is credited for discovering the unconscious.
In Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual ways, the existence of the unconscious has been known a while longer. Various meditation techniques have been used since time immemorial to return to a state of self-awareness.