Be quiet, mind.
That voice in my head… Is that me?
For most people, it certainly feels as though we are the voice inside our head. If I am the voice, I should have control, should I not?
Sit down for 5 minutes and think “let’s not think for 5 minutes”. What happens? Can you go 5 minutes without thinking? I doubt it.
This leads us to two possibilities.
1. I am the voice inside my head, but I’m out of control and I will never shut up. I often think things I do not agree with, I cannot seem to quiet my mind, my mind is often hard on myself or others.
2.I am not the voice inside my head, but I have thought I am for so long, I am not sure who “I” am beneath the voice. If I don’t like a thought, that must mean there is an “I” who doesn’t like it. If “I” want the voice in my head to be quiet, there must be an “I” somewhere to want this.
If the above doesn’t make any sense to you, I would encourage you to spend time watching your thoughts for a few days before you continue. What I mean by “watching your thoughts” is simpler than it sounds. Let’s try.
Close your eyes and ask yourself “what will be my next thought?” Wait. Watch. Did it take a bit of time before you had a thought?
This amount of time, we’ll call a thought-gap as labeled by Eckhart Tolle, the quietness between thoughts. Did you cease to exist during that thought-gap? Your existence should have continued and this is good news. It means that thought-gaps don’t hurt "you", in fact, it tells us that we must be more than just the voice inside our head because we don’t cease to exist even when the voice is silent.
To watch your thoughts during the next few days, keep that realization in mind. Start noticing the thought-gaps. It takes a lot of practice to make these gaps larger, so its ok if at this point there’s only a fraction of a second between each thought.
For clarity, from here on in I borrow the Chinese Buddhist term “Monkey-mind” to mean the voice inside your head. We’ll use this because in the Western world, words such as “mind”, “consciousness”, “awareness”, “perception”, take specific meanings depending on the field, and are inadequate at describing the human experience. Whenever you’re talking to yourself in your head, reenacting a situation from earlier in the day, judging someone you see, etc. it is your monkey-mind. For most of us, the monkey-mind is the only “mind” we know so far.
If you’ve started noticing these gaps where your monkey-mind is silent then we can start asking the important questions.
If “I” am not my monkey-mind, what am I?
Ask yourself this question often.
If I’m not my monkey mind, what does this mean for me?
Most of us, as we saw above, unconsciously associate ourselves with our monkey-mind. This is important to understand, because fully associating ourselves with a part of us can cause problems.
A common problem one faces with the monkey-mind is anxiety. For many, including myself, our monkey-mind can take over. It constantly brings our attention to potential eventualities. It creates physical symptoms, tightness in the chest, nausea, difficulty breathing, all stemming from the mind. What if you don’t know anyone at that party? What if the professor asks you a tough question in class and you freeze? What if you don’t know what to talk about with those new people? Remember when you said that stupid thing the other day, you’ll do probably do that again tonight. What if? What if?
For a long time, I tried to fight my monkey-mind with my monkey-mind. I tried to logic my way through it. I tried to think opposing thoughts. I tried everything I could with my monkey-mind. Your monkey-mind dwells on the past and on the future, it distorts memories of your past, and creates false projections of the future using your fears and conditioning. Anyone who has experienced any amount of anxiety knows that your projection of how an event will occur is nearly always worse than the actual event.
It wasn’t until I started noticing my monkey-mind as a voice in my head, separate from me, that I started truly overcoming years of anxiety. As Tolle said, you will not solve a problem of the mind with the mind.
Further, we are very possessive over our ideas. We argue on behalf of them, get emotional, and defend them with passion – as if part of us were to die if we let the idea go. Having and defending ideas is not in itself unhealthy, however our monkey-minds tend to like games, it tends to like to win the games it creates. This often creates unhealthy behaviors; poor arguing styles, strong emotional attachment to our ideas, unwillingness to learn or shift our ideas/perspective, and a general close-mindedness or aversion to new ideas.
These are two important reasons why at the bare minimum, we should entertain this concept to reap the benefits (see skillful means). Once you have felt this to be true (as opposed to simply believing it), it becomes much easier to bring our attention to what we’d like to achieve without being burdened by the falsified memory of the past or our projection of the future.
With practice, we really begin to feel a separation between the monkey-mind and… and what? The deeper you. The silent witness. The higher consciousness. The title is not important. For now, try to notice it in the thought-gaps you witness in your mind. Try to feel it, it isn’t something you can label with the voice in your head. This observer, deep inside of you, has been squeezed out, all its space taken, for most of our lives due to our closer relationship with the voice in our head (the monkey-mind). We identify so strongly with our monkey-mind, have so little freedom from it, that we’ve long forgotten the feeling of using it, instead of it, using us.
Throughout your day, you can practice noticing your monkey-mind. When you notice it, let the thought go. Over time, the more you do this, the larger the thought-gaps become. This gives you (the silent witness) space. With time, I think you’ll find that space changes everything.
Inspiration: Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, Tao Te Ching, Ernest Becker, Eckhart Tolle
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