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10/21/2014 07:20 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

The 80/20 View of the Unconscious

Have you ever had the experience of finding a problem insoluble, giving up, and then having the answer come back to you when you were not thinking about it and least expected it? Henri Poincaré, the great French mathematician, solved a particular tricky issue, that had eluded him for years, while boarding a bus. Bertrand Russell reached a philosophical breakthrough when buying a tin of tobacco. At a much more humble level, my best ideas come to me while riding my bike or sitting watching the fish in my pond, thinking about absolutely nothing.

What's this got to do with the 80/20 principle? Well, you'll recall that the principle is about the asymmetry between inputs and outputs, causes and results. And the unconscious is one of the few things that is most potent and yet also most economical in terms of effort. The unconscious powers away in the background without us needing to do anything, and occasionally delivers a result of huge importance to our lives.

Unlocking the Unconscious

There are two things, however, that we must do if we want to access the extraordinary results the unconscious can deliver.

One is to care about something -- really care, deeply, viscerally, passionately. If we don't care then the unconscious doesn't either.

The second key to unlocking the unconscious is highly paradoxical, and quintessentially "80/20". The principle works best for us when we do less, and especially when we stop doing and start thinking. One of the greatest mysteries of the world is that less is more -- that deep focus on a few things trumps spreading ourselves thinly through frenetic activity. But the unconscious takes this to a wholly new level of selectivity, inactivity, and spookiness. Because in order to co-opt the unconscious, we have to suspend all conscious thought and all direct pondering of what matters most to us. The unconscious works when we don't -- it responds to meditation, calm, relaxation, and sleep! We have to tune out the world and our restless ego, and tune into what is beyond us.

Jung and the "Collective Unconscious"

Picture a snowdrop pushing up above the ground in springtime. The flower is just the visible evidence of a much bigger plant underground. Carl Jung viewed the unconscious in a similar way, as a "rhizome" -- an incredibly rich and hidden root system, nourishing the plant and making its life possible. Consciousness, in Jung's view, sprouts from the vastly greater unconscious system supporting it:

Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away -- an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilization we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see if the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.

Jung invented the idea of the "collective unconscious" -- humankind's store of ideas and sensibility that underpins society. In some ways Jung's thesis is close to the theological notion that we access the power of God -- or as I prefer to call it, "the universe" -- by surrendering our ego and tapping into a deeper power beyond our conscious manipulation. Saint Paul captured this concisely: "not I, but Christ within me".

The writer who has taken this further is M Scott Peck, who wrote in The Road Less Traveled "in my vision the collective unconscious is God; the conscious is man as individual, and the personal unconscious is the interface between them."

I see it slightly differently:

• At the top is our personal unconscious, the repository of our own ideas and purpose, which is the working through of our own personal aspirations and will. It is the mixture of reason and emotion that is unique to us as individuals.

• Below that comes the collective unconscious, a vast warehouse of ideas from our culture, a kind of deeply-rooted public opinion that contains contradictions and also changes from time to time as we learn more from science and our collective experience. The collective unconscious includes all the "memes" that are forms of learning and expressions of popular culture, including proverbs, songs, and symbols. The collective unconscious is not individual-personal, but "multi-personal". It is, however, peculiarly human.

• Finally, the most fundamental level of the unconscious may be its link to "the universe" (or God, if you prefer) -- to a power and inspiration that is super-human and perhaps even supernatural. It is only this third level that necessarily has a moral quality, that of extreme goodness or evil. The third level of the unconscious is only open to us when we yield ourselves to a force greater than ourselves, a force far more powerful than us. This, too, is a highly "80/20" notion -- the less we strive, the greater the results, for good or bad.

Practical Conclusions

Let's leave speculation behind. What is hard, practical, and useful can be reduced to just three points:

(1) The unconscious is an incredibly mighty and economical force. We increase our effectiveness more than a hundred times by learning to harness the unconscious.

(2) To do so, we must care about a few things. If we don't care, the unconscious goes on strike.

(3) The key to tapping into the unconscious is to open ourselves up to it. This requires surrendering our ego and activity to a force beyond ourselves.

It is the combination of moral seriousness with meditation, deep reflection, and trust in the universe that achieves miracles beyond our wildest imagining. The greatest achievements go to people who do not strive for their own advancement or bow to the false idol of worldly success.

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