There’s a voice in my head. It automatically names the things I see. It replays memories from earlier today and from decades ago. It rehearses the right words for upcoming situations. It gets stuck on catchy songs really easily. It barely makes any sense when I’m drowsy, and it makes me laugh when I’m tipsy.
I’m told this voice makes me special. It supposedly separates me from the animals. But it doesn’t always feel that special. Sometimes it gets pretty negative. Sometimes it becomes a weapon that seems to wield itself, attacking other people and criticizing me.
I can witness all of this when I take a silent moment to listen. The exercise gets even more interesting when I hear words and attitudes that clearly came from somewhere else.
I’ll have a thought only to realize its perspective, phrasing, and attitude aren’t mine. Sometimes I notice thoughts that sound less like me and more like my parents, or my wife. The people I care about are quite literally in my head.
Even more often, I notice ideas in my head that are injected from journalism, advertising, and fiction. It’s getting hard to tell the difference. As I write this, we’re still on pandemic lockdown here in Ontario, conflict in the Gaza strip is spinning out of control, and climate change continues to threaten all life on Earth. It’s difficult to sort out how I feel about all this when so many of my thoughts are governed by whatever headlines or think-pieces I’ve been reading.
The point is, I can clearly hear that my inner voice doesn’t define me. This isn’t some abstract philosophy. I can hear why this voice is not trustworthy. It’s a mysterious part of my consciousness that has been deeply influenced by my childhood, my past experiences, and my information diet.
Listening to my inner voice has taught me that there is no authentic ‘Jay’ without including the influence of other people.
And, as it turns out, the rest of my sense experience is just the same, authentic only in its direct relationship with the external world. So the only reasonable conclusion is that true authenticity embraces and celebrates interconnection with everything.
Don’t get me wrong. Even if this running commentary in my head isn’t who I am, it still has an extreme amount of power and influence over my life. So much of my daily experience is governed by how this voice responds to its environment. And even though the stories I tell myself get negative and critical sometimes, my internal voice usually handles things pretty well. Not everyone is so lucky. Many serious mental health disorders manifest as distorted internal talk.
Anxious people find their inner voice constantly overestimating threats. Depressives can’t escape negative spirals of self-judgment and criticism. Schizophrenics depersonalize their thoughts, growing paranoid that the voices are an external manipulation (maybe they’re not so far off). And those who have no such clinical diagnosis still find themselves struggling to manage a frantic inner narrative, constantly judging, criticizing, and worrying.
Whether you’re facing clinical psychological issues or not, it’s hard to deny the influence of this inner voice on your quality of life.
It’s the invisible force that governs your relationship with yourself and everything around you. There might be no aspect of your waking life worth exploring more than your inner voice. This is the basic rationale for reflection.
Whether in therapy, your diary, meditation, or in conversation with a close friend, there’s a clear logic to introspection. Reflecting on the voice in your head teaches you about your own patterns. You naturally learn to identify them and respond from a place of clarity. You can learn so much about who you are - and who you’re not - from reading the transcript of your internal narrative.
Let’s try an experiment. I’m going to rest my hands on the keyboard now, close my eyes, and type whatever comes to mind. Okay, here we go:
The birds are nice here
Ugh, my back is still stiff
What time is it?
Was that the baby waking up? No, just the cat.
Writing my thoughts like this is kinda pretentious. Who wants to read this?
Maybe I should stop now and scrap this.
I might have overdone it today, after this I should get some rest.
Oh a car horn, that’s rare sound out here in country.
Different from Toronto, I hear cars honking all the time at home.
Wonder when we’re gonna get a chance to go back to Toronto.
I miss the city, but I guess if I was there, it would be all locked down anyway.
But I guess there are still people out and about, would be nice to see them all.
But boy is it nice to be out here too. I’m going to miss it.
I should have set a timer on this, wonder how long it’s been.
Oh man, my posture is totally slouching.
Okay that’s enough of this.
Well… maybe one more minute, let’s see if one more thought comes up.
Whoa, what kind of bird was that? It sounded like a horse.
As I look back at that list, I gain insight. On one hand, it’s just a mundane flow of everyday thoughts. On the other hand, I can see some really interesting patterns that are very much related to my inner life these days.
I mistook the cat for my baby waking up; definitely still a little edgy from some of those rough nights when he was a newborn. And my back’s been out lately, so not a surprise that I beat up on myself for bad posture. Not helpful. Finally, the whole bit about Toronto; we’re away from home right now and I’m not sure what our next step is going to be. I guess all it takes is a car horn to bring that tension to the surface.
Hopefully by now, the logic of reflective practice is clear. But why is it so helpful? Somehow, just by documenting my thoughts and analyzing them, I feel a weight lift. The sore spots feel a bit better. I feel a sense of release and opening. The baby’s sleeping, my back’s okay, and home is here and now. Surprisingly often, you don’t actually have to do anything about the patterns you find. Sometimes just noticing them is enough.
Now let me invite you to create your own stream-of-consciousness bullet list. Don’t wait to do this. You’ll forget. Do it now, while you’re here with me, even if only for 1 minute.
Open a blank document or a page in your journal, close your eyes, and wait for that next thought to arise. The mindset is almost like you’re playing catch. You’re waiting for the other person to throw the ball. In this case, that other person is your own inner voice. Just sit in that state of readiness, see what thoughts come up naturally, and start typing.
After a minute or ten, open your eyes and reflect on what you wrote. Try not to engage in too much self-judgment. It’s important to notice what’s there, accept it, and learn from it. There’s no need to criticize.
And after you’re done reflecting, if you’re up for it, send it to me - I’d love to know what’s on your mind, even if it’s as mundane as a bird that sounds like a horse.
Jay Vidyarthi, M.Sc. is the founder of Still Ape - the world's first UX design studio focused exclusively on mindfulness, compassion, and wellbeing. He is an attention activist who believes mindfulness will empower individuals to reclaim choice in the attention economy. Jay helped launch Muse: the brain sensing headband, Sonic Cradle, the Healthy Minds Program, Brightmind, and 10+ more mindful technologies. He serves on the advisory council for the Mindful Society Global Institute and his work and ideas have been recognized and featured internationally (Harvard, ACM, MIT, UToronto, Forbes, Vice, Fast Company, TED, etc)