It’s an odd thing: As we’re having an experience, the voice in our head is simultaneously describing, explaining, and commentating on it. Usually, it even provides a summary of the event and what came before, during, and after its unfolding.
Often, the narration is so integral to the experience itself that we wonder if there even could be an experience without an accompanying report. Without simultaneous inner acknowledgment, thinking, and commentary, did it actually happen?
It’s also interesting to notice that our commentator has an identity of its own. It has a certain language, style, and tone, a certain thematic and textural consistency. Like a Hollywood screenwriter, our inner voice tends to work in a particular genre—tragedy, comedy, drama, or film noir, for example.
Did you ever wonder why your mind was telling you what you’re doing as if you didn’t already know? And why your mind is so adamant about getting the story of your life figured out, written, and packaged?
Presence of Mind
The mind tends to believe that we are made of mind and mind alone—that without its felt presence, we, and all else, would cease to be; that a mind off-duty, an experience without the thinking, is tantamount to nonexistence. The mind creates the story of an “I” as an object in our consciousness. In so doing, it maintains both the experience of a self and the experiencer of a self, which it believes are needed to ensure survival.
In relentlessly narrating the story of ourselves (to ourselves), our minds are attempting to make life, and us, into something solid, knowable, and constant. By creating a main character called “me” who’s living something called “my life,” the mind attempts to transform the ephemeral, ever-changing nature of being into something that can be understood, managed, and controlled. It takes life, from which we are inseparable, and splits it into two different things: a “me” and a “life.” We then become seemingly distinct and real. We literally think our “self” into existence.
And so, this begs the question, is there a downside to living with this inner narrator? And do we have to live this way? Is it part and parcel of the human condition? The answers are a resounding yes, and no. Yes, there is a downside, and no, we aren’t condemned to living this way forever.
The first downside to the inner narrator is that it can be intensely agitating and distracting. There exists constant noise in the background and foreground of your life, like having a mosquito (or buzz saw) in your ear that you can’t silence or ignore.
But on a more profound level, the narrator stands in the way of your actually experiencing life first hand, in all its richness. You’re relegated to living through your narrator’s description, a mental representation of the real thing, like getting a postcard of the Grand Canyon in place of being there. The voice then goes on to offer commentary on the narration, and you are now two layers away from the direct experience of living.
You might also notice that the voice in your head presents its version of your life as a truth. It reports your life story as if it were the actual reality existing in the objective world. It’s liberating, however, to realize that the narrator’s account of what’s happening is only in your mind. It’s not real in an objective sense, but rather another story about a story—which begins and ends inside your own consciousness. The good news is that you don’t have to live this way, with a middle manager between you and life.
If you’ve ever been deeply involved in an activity, you might have experienced what’s referred to as the flow state. In flow, we’re so engaged in what we’re doing that we cease to be aware of ourselves. We become absorbed into the experience. All notion of time and a separate “I” disappears. And we discover that even when the mind isn’t there self-referencing, we don’t disappear, which suggests that we are more than the mind. Awareness remains even when we lose the felt sense of self. And, interestingly, such experiences are the ones that we later describe as wholly satisfying, blissful, and even divine. The experiences in which we are gone are the ones that we most crave.
How to Quiet the Voice
The remedy for the little voice in our head is three-fold. First, we have to become so fed up with the play-by-play that we decide we’re not willing to listen or live by it anymore. Once that’s happened, we must start noticing our narrator and become aware that its voice is an object appearing in our awareness. And finally, we must set a clear, fierce intention and desire to experience life directly through our senses, and not just receive a report on it. We commit to diving deeply and directly into the ocean of life.
Listening to the little voice in your head is a habit—granted, a habit with deep roots, survival instincts, and lots of practice time, but a habit nonetheless. With desire, willingness, and intention, any habit can be changed. Each time you catch the voice in your head, try to practice a new habit—the habit of directly experiencing your life. First, pause and celebrate a moment of awareness; the fact that you’re hearing the voice means that there’s another part of you that’s awakening—the real you.
Next, intentionally shift your attention from your head (which is where our energy is usually focused) down into your body. Invite your body to consciously relax. Take and feel a deep breath. From there, run a sense loop: Notice what you’re seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, or tasting. Experience each, one at a time. And finally, sense your own physical presence, the feeling of life in your body (not your mind).
With this practice, the little voice in your head will grow quieter and less relentless, and living will become more vivid, satisfying, and ultimately, real.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. She is a regular blogger for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients around the world via Skype. For more information, visit NancyColier.com