What about consciousness, what is it? It is the electrical impulses that travel the nervous system that create ephemeral bursts of energy we call thought? Where does it go when we go to sleep? Why does it need to sleep?
What do we call this consciousness? A soul? The inside person? The self?
Let’s dig a bit deeper. Let’s separate out the function of the self into three components, the background, midground and foreground as places where conscious or unconscious thought takes place. In the background is the primitive brain (limbic system, amygdala) or as some would call it the “pea brain”, “the lizard brain” which takes care of our immediate responses of fight or flight. In the midground is the prefrontal cortex and this is where cognitive thought arises, this is thinking and probably the location of the “self”, if the self is going to inhabit any part of the brain. Finally, there is the foreground which is our connection to the outside world, our sensors, smell, taste, sight, and hearing take place here and are sent to the background or midground for processing.
Let’s say you are driving in traffic and suddenly the car in front of you slams on the brakes and you have to react immediately – in that moment no conscious thought is taking place, the immediate reaction is to put on your brakes. If the car safely misses that car in front of you all that emotion froths forward in invectives, strange taste in the mouth, involuntary motions indicating anger and an increased pulse rate. All of that happened without thinking about it, it was a reaction. This is a normal response to something that could have caused you harm. In time the adrenaline that was pumped into the system dissipates and you regain a sense of normalcy.
There are many situations that cause us to react rather than think first react second. The ideal would be to train the brain to identify the issue as a threat or not and process it with the right response. Anger in many instances is not a response to a valid threat, but an automated response to an external stimulus, and that anger can be controlled with training.
Anger is in general not processed cognitively, it is a response. Now, anger can be managed by understanding if the threat is valid or not and by taking a few simple steps the threat can be subdued.
The first step is recognition of the threat. Is it a real threat or a perceived threat? To answer the question is it real or perceived some type of midground processing has to take place. The act of consciously thinking about the treat and treating it as an emergency or as an event takes a bit of time and practice. One way is to identify things that make you angry. What things make you angry, where they real threats or just perceived threats? Write down what those events were. The next time something happens see if you can quickly identify that threat. Write it down so that you have a catalog of things that cause sudden unexpected bursts of emotion.
The second step is analysis, what is the threat and what needs to be done? Some things are going to get processed in the amygdala without any thought but those are probably important things to have happen in the background. It is those things that aren’t a threat that need to be brought forward to the midground for analysis. Things that might make you angry (that you know about), like being late for work. You woke up late and because of that you have to do everything faster and that introduces errors which begin to pump adrenaline into the system which ends up fueling anger, impatience, sharp words to others, etc. Are those things threats, no, they are manifestations of being late in the first place. Identify and then analyze the response, did it make sense to respond that way, why?
The third step is to accept the event rather than react to it. Take a deep breath and accept the event not as a threat but as an outcome of something that you are in control of. Try to slow down, take a deep breath and regain focus. Let go of the buildup of the adrenaline and let the tension be released in your body. Smile! Breathe! Relax!
All that to say we have parts of the mind that process things automatically and others that we think about and we call the thinking part consciousness. The goal is to neutralize the negative thinking, the angry response, or things that generate negative energy in our body and it can be done with practice. There are a number of methods to help bring the conscious and unconscious to a state of peace or balance.