Crossing the Threshold of the Unconscious

Into The Basic Brain


I am not a suspended, rootless thing in the world,

I am earth of its earth and breath of its breath.

Nikos Kazantzakis, The Saviors of God


The deepest brain is about the earth. It is about stability and security. It is about acceptance of life as it presents itself. It is about life and about preservation and creation, not in finished form, but in continuum. We are in the continuum. Life, or basic wave-motion energy, goes on without us and also with us as we emerge into existence.

In the formations of the basic brain we make our first appearance as human life. This is our first brain of basic rhythm, of motion, of reaction and action. This brain exposes us to the earth through our skin, which no longer slithers on the earth but which nevertheless clings to whatever is near. If we notice the ways we invent to be on earth, we become conscious of our being. We notice our efforts to be secure by making tribes and nations and families or at least couples; to control and dominate by using our work, our children, God, and finally ourselves; to become part of or to participate by using any means possible, be they social or antisocial, positive or negative, criminal or good, freeing or possessive, original or addictive. We wrestle in diverse ways to become.

It is in this first brain that everyone tells us we are enough, God loves us as we are, nature is, and we already belong. Again and again human life keeps appearing and keeps not being able to hear this sound closest to the earth, this ground of being. It is here in this first brain, when the other brains no longer function, that we are still alive. What form of consciousness is here?

the continuous beating of the heart

the continuous breathing of the lungs

the continuous expansion-contraction of this brain

Continuity, at the very least, is here.

What to Name this Brain

It is difficult to find an appropriate name for the deepest brain. From the perspective of evolution it is our first brain. It was named the R-Complex by Paul MacLean, because in physical formation it is similar to the brain of reptiles. It is, however, also described in medical texts as part of the central nervous system. Although our deepest brain is similar in formation to that of reptiles, and although some of the basic activities of this brain seem very reptilian such as repetition, imitation, and deception, there are also subtleties in this brain not conveyed by these words. Especially when we take into account the link between this brain system and the entire spinal cord, including the afferent-efferent nervous system and extending to the openings of our skin, the name nervous system brain would seem to convey the much larger implications than I believe are involved. It-complex, first brain, or nervous system brain -- all work -- but I have decided to resolve the difficulty by calling it simply the basic brain, because it seems to me basic both to the other brain systems as well as to the subtle management of energy. When relevant, however, I use all these names interchangeably.

We may be either conscious or unconscious of the energy that we call our self or the energy that surrounds us. However, life goes on with or without our consciousness. This basic brain continues to filter energy in any state that we refer to as unconscious: whether caused by physical damage to the brain, the normal rest periods of sleep, or just lack of awareness. While there is life in the body, it is because energy is still passing through this basic brain system. To access this energy we need at least the following abilities:

the ability to enter into the rhythms of what is happening

the ability to create parameters and to dissolve them when they are inappropriate

the ability of neutral observation of ourselves and all that surrounds us

the ability to move toward and away from, in tandem with life closest to us, which is freedom in this deepest brain

Characteristics of the Basic Brain

Paul MacLean defines the basic brain as the it-complex, including the brainstem, the reticular activating system within the brainstem, and the basal ganglia surrounding the brainstem. "The...brainstem and spinal cord constitute a neural chassis that provides most of the neural machinery required for self-preservation and the preservation of the species."

The main structures involved in the basic brain are the brainstem and the spinal cord, which serve as a channel for impulses and information between the outside environment and the basic brain; the reticular activating system within the brainstem, which channels information to the limbic brain and neocortical systems; and also the basal ganglia, which provide motor function, as well as the storage of basic memory of sensorial patterns.


The spinal cord filters incoming vibrations into the brainstem and therefore is essential for the full understanding of human behavior in relation to this brain. The spinal cord extends the length of the back and conducts impulses from the skin or outer world to the brainstem.

Along the spinal cord extends the afferent-efferent nervous system. Figure 10 shows the afferent system relaying impulses from the openings or pores of the skin to the spinal cord and then to the brainstem. From within the brainstem, these impulses are then available to be sorted through a group of fibers known as the reticular activating system and passed into the limbic system and then to the neocortex. Impulses are then returned through the efferent nervous system to the muscles for action in the outside world.

Fig. 10. Afferent-Efferent Nervous System: The Skin-Brain-Action Circuit. From Eric R. Kandel and James H. Schwartz, Principles of Neural Science, 2nd Ed., Appleton & Lange, 1985

Notice that our spinal cord links us to the outside environment by means of the afferent-efferent nervous system, which is continually receiving impulses from our muscles and skin. Also notice that our skin is covered with pores, which are a system of openings constantly exposing us to the world. Although we are used to thinking of our skin as a covering for our body, almost as a form of defense, it would be more appropriate to see our skin as our interface with the environment. Our pores are the eyes of our body. They are the openings that permit energy to come into our deepest brain, just as the nose, mouth, and genitals are openings into the limbic system, and the eyes and ears are openings more directly related to the neocortex. All openings are, of course, interrelated within the three brain systems.

What is implicit in this description is that we are constantly exposed to each other and to our environment. The connection between the outer world, our skin, and this deepest brain provides a physiological basis for Thomas Merton's comment "We are already one." It also helps explain the "collective unconscious" proposed by Carl Jung that affects so deeply our interior life. We can try not to be affected by others or not to think about them, but in the basic brain we cannot keep them out. Collectively, we are all connected, whether we become conscious or remain unconscious of our connections.

Information from our environment enters at least as far as our brainstem without our conscious consent. Only as it passes into our limbic system do we become conscious of this information as feeling, or later as thought or image or intuition as it enters the neocortex. It may well stay "unconscious" until it appears as information in our left or right hemisphere. Our surroundings and the people near us are continually conditioning us. The entire context in which we live and work is informing our brain through the pores of our skin in the same way that a symphony informs our brain through the openings of our ears. We can infer that we need to look at the content of our immediate environment just as carefully as we would look at the books we are reading, music we are hearing, or art we are seeing. Our surroundings are continually impacting us.

Our basic brain is affected not only by the surroundings in which we live but is also, at the same time, affecting and creating the context in which we live. The importance of context in our development brought me to conceive of parameter intelligence, a search for the parameters that define and circumscribe the context or different environments of our life, such as our home, our work, our relationships, and our health.

Given that we are constantly being imprinted by our environment, there are certain questions involved in consciousness. At what point are we actively involved in accepting this imprinting? Or are we conditioned in an unconscious manner by this imprinting? Do we participate at this deep level? For sure, this deepest brain participates and in some way converts incoming impulses into information, but how can we become conscious of what we are receiving or what this brain has already received? It is exactly this process of how impulse converts into recognizable information that we seek to bring into enough awareness to permit our conscious participation.

One obvious first step for consciousness is to focus on this process of reception from our environment through the openings of our skin. Consciousness then involves observing, studying, and taking into account the the context in which we live did not just happen, nor was it predetermined Rather, it is the result of continuous impact-imprint-acceptance reaction to the people, places, and information of our environment. Our deepest brain has been recording, registering, and storing in memory different combinations of information since birth.

To be behaviorally intelligent, we need to be willing to observe our interactions from the point of view of an observer and not from the point of view of an owner of that behavior. We need to be a fair witness to this interesting combination of complex interactions that has gone on all our life and that is influencing our behavior today. With such neutrality we will then be able and want to study our childhood experiences with the same curiosity and acceptance that we might use to study any history, whether it be of a family or of a nation.

Ask yourself what occurred in the past that influenced your development and is affecting you today. Rather than focusing on your mother and father and what they did or did not do in your childhood, focus on what you probably concluded under those conditions. Do the same with early imprints from your culture, your religion, and your education. What did this organism probably decide? You need to take into account the stimuli and your responses, as well as the conclusions-reaction-decisions of your basic brain, if you want to change your behavior. If not, your heritage serves as a network of resistance against any new desire from your limbic brain or any new decision by your neocortex. This network of resistance is why willpower alone, however strong or well intentioned, does not do much to change behavior. Pattern intelligence was conceived as a way to discover the early links made as a result of the continuous exposure and interaction of this deepest brain with its context.


The reticular activating system is found within the brainstem, as shown in Figure 11.

Fig. 11. Reticular Activating System

Gatekeeper to consciousness, spark of the mind, the reticular formation connects with major nerves in the spinal column and brain. It sorts the 100 million impulses that assault the brain each second, deflecting the trivial, letting the vital through to alert the mind. The mind cannot function without this catalytic bundle of cells. Damage to them results in coma the loss of consciousness.

One hundred million impulses assaulting the brain each second! What happens to them? They enter at least as far as the brainstem, then through the reticularactivating system the energy may pass into the emotional or limbic brain and then into the neocortex, as shown in Figure 11.

When these impulses are registered in our emotional brain, we begin to feel or allow ourselves to be conscious of what we are feeling. When they are registered in our neocortex, we begin to think, imagine, relate, or intuit. It is also possible that we do not become conscious of much of the incoming energy until later. At night, entering into the deep relaxation of sleep, we may allow ourselves to access more information, which may appear in images or verbal messages we call dreams -- the most subtle language coming from this brain.

The energy may also show up in sudden realizations or unexpected awareness. It may be that some weeks or even years later, when we are engaged in a totally nonassociated activity, all of a sudden we "get it;" we have a realization, an "a-ha!" moment. Somehow, we have given ourselves permission to access the information that was already stored within us, forming it in a new and meaningful way.


The basal ganglia are formed around the brainstem and include the caudate nucleus, the putamen, and the globus pallidus. Damage to certain parts of this area may result in inability to control motion. Although we believe we control our actions and although we want to control them, we have to count on the participation of the basal ganglia of our basic brain. As describedby Richard Restak in The Brain, we can decide to write our name and want to write it, but in order to act on this decision and desire, our basal ganglia have to be involved.

MacLean emphasizes that the basal ganglia are involved in far more than motor activity, however. Instead of waiting for the results of additional brain investigation, I decided to probe further based on studies of human behavior. I asked myself: Could it be that the basal ganglia store certain data that are learned as instinctive reactions for the protection of life? Could it be that the first data of stimulus-and-response are stored in this brain as patterns, which then continue to direct our behavior? Could it be that impulses basic to life stored themselves as sensory patterns, available for automatic retrieval?

For example, we learned to walk as a child in interaction with our environment and by means of responses to stimuli. We stored the pattern of how to walk, and now we walk without thinking about how to do it. In the same way, we were impacted by various kinds of behavior, rather than just motor behavior, from people in our environment, and we learned to act in response to what was happening. Our reaction to the stimuli could have been either imitation or a contrary reaction. All we know is that we were exposed and that our basic brain registered our reaction. Therefore, the censorial memory, message, or pattern, whatever we wish to call it, is registered in our basic brain.

Even though reptiles may access these patterns directly through their reptilian brains, perhaps humans can retrieve these instinctual patterns only upon command from the neocortical centers in collaboration with desire from the limbic system. Or perhaps it is here in the basic brain that all patterns are stored and may, on a more subtle level, be activated through stimuli from the environment even without conscious agreement from the neocortex or limbic system. We have all had the experience of deciding not to take another drink or piece of cake and believing we did not want to, when the drink or cake was in our hands before we realized what we were doing. We say "it just happened." We have decided many times that we will not react, even if the other person makes us furious, but somehow or other something happens and we do react.

Something in ourselves is stimulated by something in the other. Until now we have called this lack of specificity "the unconscious" and in that way felt ourselves free from knowing our own behavior or even free to blame the other person, the situation, or life itself. Now, knowing about our basic brain, we can become conscious that what is stimulated is that message or pattern that we have stored in our own memory.

Instead of blaming the other or hiding ourselves from our own memory as if it were an unmanageable darkness or shadow, we can take another look at this memory and find ways to form new decisions. When we are not able to make a new decision, at least we can become conscious that the root of a specific problem lies within ourselves and not in the other person. The other is only a mirror that stimulates us.

The existence of sensorial patterns stored in the basic brain also explains the process of addiction, in which we are all involved, if not with alcohol or drugs, then with habitual and repetitive behaviors. I believe it is important to realize and to admit that we are all addicted to something. Indeed, positive addictions can be very helpful. The issue is to become conscious of the addictive process and to choose addictions that will favor our lives.

We have been concentrating on the motor memory of this brain rather than on our patterns of behavior. I believe we must search in the basic brain to discover the roots and the repetitive subtlety of our patterns.

Fig. 12. Learning and Behavior as Repetitive Wave Motion

Please read from the bottom up as if you were reading a neutral repetitive process that begins with attraction and repulsion and, through repetition over time, converts itself into a route and then routines. Once routines are repeated, they become habits and then addictions, values, rituals, religions, professions, and finally institutions.

Day and night we move subtly and sometimes not so subtly toward and away from people, places, ideas, colors, feelings, things, and events. We know this as instinct, although we often refer to this basic sensorial process as the unconscious. We don't yet know how this takes place within the brain, but our behavior reveals a continuous repetitive rhythm. When we move toward something again and again, pulse with it, are attracted to it, imitate it again and again, then we can. If we can again and again, we will, we persevere, and we are then able to enact it or reenact the action. When we do this enough, it becomes our route, our routine, a habit, something we deeply value.

By adding conscious thoughts, art, and music to a routine, we have ritual. From these routines and rituals come our values and conscience. If we construct a routine in space, it becomes an organization or institution. On a larger scale and over time, these routines, rituals, values, and institutions emerge as our routes, our culture, or the nation. Looking back through our personal and family or institutional histories, we can detect the routes that we have traced over time.

In the same way that we move toward, we also move away from. When we repeat that process of withdrawal or distancing again and again, we are no longer pulsating with; we reject, we become distant and deceive ourselves, we say we are no longer able, we do not want to do the action, and we avoid. We continue to avoid until we displace, meaning that we are not even aware of our own avoidance. We may develop deceitful habits, hiding from ourselves and others. As we move away from persons, things, ideas, or groups, we may very well go on to develop antisocial routines that may then become criminal routines.

I believe this subtle and neutral movement of the basic brain explains why antisocial routines, habits, rituals, and values become as deeply entrenched as any socially rewarding values. We also develop antisocial organizations and professions such as gangs and organized crime to continue this behavior. Observe the high rate of recidivism when we try to change criminal behavior. Neither reward nor punishment has had much success in changing antisocial behavior. Even programs that are well thought out by the neocortex and carried out with the greatest desire, heart, and willingness of the limbic brain do not succeed. I believe we will obtain results with criminal behavior only when we learn to take into consideration this basic brain of pattern and conditioning.

Wave Motion in Other Forms of Life

The basic toward-and-away motion is found not only in human behavior, but in many other areas of nature. We see it in the waves of the sea and in the more solidified waves of rock formations. The river also moves toward and away from its banks. In nature the wave of water flows towards and away from, in constant motion against the parameters of the riverbanks of earth, which also continue to form themselves in interaction with the water. The reptile clearly moves toward and away, its skin close to the earth. The fish follows the same motion, pulsing toward and away through the water. Birds fly through the air using the same wave motion, this time in up and down movement. Thus we see life in water, on land, and in the air all involved in this basic repetitive wave motion.

It would indeed be surprising if human life were not also involved in this constant wave motion. The wave configuration of toward and away from is solidified in the physical human structure of the spinal column. This basic wave structure protects the spinal cord and carries vibrations into the brainstem. Inspired by this characteristic wave motion, I began to study the active, conscious use of the wave as a type of intelligence and formulated the idea of basic intelligence.

This basic wave energy has a "sweetness" that I have difficulty describing. I think it comes from a brain chemical different from those that affect the emotional brain and different also from the meditative bliss of the right hemisphere of the neocortex. I know that its vibrational frequency is different. It is pleasurable, but it is not pleasure. The energy of this brain has quietness, tranquillity, as if it could go on forever. It has calmness, ease of movement, gracefulness of motion -- not form or grace, just ease -- as if in any order, the motion will be right.

Its energy is peace. It is alignment. It is as if one is being carried. As much as I love the feelings of passion and excitement and the bliss of meditation, this energy has an addictive quality. There is an elixir, a quietness, a rightness. I get it while in motion, while attending to ordinary things, such as washing the dishes, tending the garden, or rearranging furniture. What I notice is that my body is confined within a certain space. I move easily doing one thing or another without the distraction of thought or feeling. I do not know if my mind is wandering. All I really am sure of is that I am attending to the action and usually within a defined space and defined time. I want to experience this more. I want this energy in all the areas of my life: work, home, play, health, relationships.

As I have described it thus far, this brain's energy is of being gently carried. I have, however, also experienced other energies I attribute to this brain that are more intense. They have the same quality of alignment, such as being in sync while dancing, that sensation of completely going with and being held. At the same time, it is as if my energy is not with the activity I am doing. I feel compulsiveness and a sense of being driven in which I think myself not in control. The moment I feel or think I am out of control, I am in the feeling brain or the thinking brain and not in this brain of action.

Staying in the basic brain, I sense I am not relating my body proportionally to the action I am doing, and the sensations I experience are various: chaos, discomfort, fear, anxiety, and sometimes panic. I feel overwhelmed. I have the sense of doing an action when I don't want to and feel controlled by it. There is the same sense with all compulsion. We say we are driven rather than saying we are being carried. I believe this is because this brain is in control, but our focus or concentration is somewhere else, not in this brain system and not riding the rhythm of the energy. The essence of control in this brain is entering the rhythm, focusing in this rhythm, and through that focus being able to slow the speeds in relation to what we are doing.

Elaine de Beauport

From The Three Faces of the Mind: Developing Your Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Intelligences. Elaine de Beauport with Aura Sofia Diaz. Quest Books. The Theosophical Publishing House, P.O. Box 270, Wheaton, IL 60189-0270

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