I had the privilege of talking with Dr. Robert McCrae, a brain scientist from University of Chicago, and found his view of consciousness extremely useful. He said consciousness is like the calm surface of a lake, and various points rise up out of the lake–thoughts, perceptions, sensations, and so on. There is a regulating self sitting by the lake choosing which of those points to pay attention to. When one point is selected, the others sink back down, and the surface becomes placid again except for the point you are focusing on.
So some of the points are bigger and louder because they are more frequently attended to, and some of the points are more interesting because they are related to other meaningful points, such as ideals. But some of the points are bigger and louder because they are related to familiar patterns of thinking and feeling–some useful and some not so useful. The trick is making a reflective choice about what to pay attention to in the complex productions of your own consciousness.
Once one point is selected, it activates other points that may not have surfaced, but that are connect to it under the surface. Sometimes I think about it like a tangle of lots of strings of Christmas lights. You might locate a plug, stick it into an outlet, and the whole string lights up, all jangled together with other strings that are not lighting up. You don’t know which bulbs will light because they are all tangled together. But once you have plugged in one string, it is easier to plug it in again.
The reason this is important is that free choice comes in when you can make a reflective selection about which consciousness-generated points you want to pay attention to. So, for example, your mind generates at the same time the idea that you are angry with your landlord, you have a lot of work to do, you love your dog, you want to apply for graduate school, you really need to go on a diet, you feel vaguely sad about something, not sure what, and so on. You might be really really angry with your landlord, and you might attend to that, and then everything else quiets down. This attention might lead to some thoughts about how to deal with the situation, how to improve the relationship, or different ways to think about what is going on. In other words, it might be a useful choice. On the other hand, it might lead to angrier feelings, outrage, righteousness and so on.
Feelings are, of course, important. The thing to remember is that when you are attending to one thing, you are not attending to all of the other things that might also be important. At that reflective moment when you decide what has your attention, you may be able to influence what grows stronger. For example, you might decide that while your relationship with your landlord is important, and interesting, at a deeper level, and not quite as exciting, your application to graduate school is more important. This is a decision, not will power.
In other words, there is a me sitting here noticing what my mind is generating, and which of those points is making the most noise, and I can make a choice of how to use my mental time (attention) based on what is genuinely important to me in the larger picture rather than what is making the most noise. This reflective awareness puts me in charge of my life and my mind instead of feeling at the mercy of my emotions, thoughts, or impulses.