Well, I may or may not know much about “enlightenment,” but I thought I would write what little I have managed to glean over the years anyway.
First of all, what is it? For years and years I have been reading books, listening to gurus and their followers, and generally asking around, and failing to get a clear answer. Now, however, I believe that I have managed to piece together an idea about it. So, this is my idea.
Enlightenment is, I think, all about being your authentic self, without pressure and without strain. Just freely being who you are without unnecessary worry and without having anything to prove to anybody. You don’t need to be “good enough” for anything. You just are, and you don’t mind if you don’t happen to measure up to anybody else’s ideas about what you are supposed to be or how you are supposed to live your life, or how talented or otherwise you are expected to be. It is total self-acceptance. There are no unnecessary fears of, say, not measuring up, or of abandonment, or lack of trust (fear of surrender). There may be more to it… I don’t know. But that, at least, is the minimum starting point. Some people talk of “cosmic consciousness” or similar. There may be something to it, but to me it seems more likely to have been added on by the superstitious, unenlightened followers of various gurus, or perhaps to have been invented by the unscrupulous to enhance their control over people and their money. So, for now, I will ignore it. If it exists, it will happen.
How To Achieve Enlightenment
The consensus seems to be that to achieve enlightenment you must silence, or at least tame, the inner voice: your inner monologue with yourself. That voice in your head that goes on and on. The point is to reach and identify with the silent knowing within you that is your genuine self. The voice, it seems, is not you. You are the listener, not the speaker, and to achieve enlightenment it is necessary in the long run to stop identifying with it: to actually see it as not yourself, all the time. At least when meditating I believe it is a good idea to silence other inner sounds at times, such as music. However, it seems to be the voice that is the main problem. Now strictly speaking, an enlightened person may or may not have a silent or mostly silent inner voice, but they will certainly have developed the skill of ignoring it when it suits them. However, it is clear from most of the literature on the subject that the best way to get there is to do exercises that distract from it, blot it out or silence it, one way or another.
Lines Of Evidence
Many traditions and authors seem to point towards the idea of silencing or controlling the inner dialogue, almost always without mentioning it specifically. A few are listed below.
- Buddhist meditation, and other forms of meditation that I have tried or read about as well, seem to be aimed at silencing the inner dialogue, or drowning it out with other things (breathing, a mantra, etc.); I am aware that the Buddhists also have meditations aimed at promoting good feelings, loving kindness and so on, but their primary meditation technique, the mindfulness of breathing, is aimed at quieting the verbal mind. They also have mindfulness meditation aimed at improving concentration on sensory input in the absence of mental chatter.
- Yoga in its various forms – even when done just for physical exercise – appears to be aimed at silencing the dialogue as you concentrate on other things. There are various types of yoga designed for different types of people. For example, tantra yoga distracts the mind with sex, and the better you get at tantra, the longer you keep it going – and the longer your mind is otherwise occupied. This is the same with the other types of yoga (you can see a summary of different types here). One weakness of the distraction approach, it seems to me, is that you are still concentrating on outer things and are not particularly aware of your authentic self even if you are being authentic. Nevertheless, people find these experiences a refreshing temporary relief from their normal states of being (stress, worry, self-doubt, etc.) but I doubt that either meditation or yoga enlighten many people due to the lack of clear explanation given to people practising them;
- Carlos Castaneda. Based on what he describes as a Toltec shamanistic tradition from Central America, silencing the inner dialogue is the most important goal of a “sorcerer” (an enlightened “warrior,” that is, a person committed to acting with impeccability (to the self) at all times). Carlos’ books are rather dense and mysterious since he didn’t seem to know just what, exactly, he was writing about, especially in the early ones, but they are fascinating too. They could also be fake, but even if they are, they seem to have been written with a lot of insight;
- Don Miguel Ruiz. This author discusses Toltec knowledge as well, explaining it in simple language. “The Voice Of Knowledge” is especially relevant in this context although “The Four Agreements” and “The Mastery Of Love” are also relevant and excellent. I would recommend everybody who is interested in this topic to read all three. The idea is to a) disbelieve your inner voice, and b) to commit to always treating yourself with respect (i.e., to behave impeccably/honestly with respect to yourself) – so you don’t allow your inner voice to harass you;
- Tao – “Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river.” Thus says the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist’s main book. This pretty-much sums up what it would be like to be a human that does not harass itself with its inner voice;
- Flow is the state of perfection achieved by top sports people and indeed anybody else operating at one with their task (e.g., yoga exercises), according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It is when you are concentrating on what you are doing and not thinking about who you are or how well you are doing as such. In other words, it is when you forget yourself, and are not trying to “be somebody.” If you can achieve flow, you can achieve happiness, he says in an interview with WIE magazine (now EnlightenNext magazine – not apparently available online any more). This is another distraction approach, in effect, and it is someting we’ve probably all experienced from time-to-time;
- Cognitive Therapy – a modern branch of clinical psychology, this aims to improve people’s lives by correcting errors in their thinking patterns. For example, people with depression often have an inner voice that is overly critical and they need to be trained to correct its errors or, equivalently, as Don Miguel Ruiz and the Buddhists say, to disbelieve it, so that they can recover from their depressions. One good example is Overcoming Depression by Paul Gilbert, a must for depressed readers everywhere. In my experience, however, it is not only depressed people whose inner voices are critical: it seems to be the normal state for much of humanity. Depressed people just take it a little further: most people’s inner voices seem to make them miserable to some degree.
- Jesus Christ apparently said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life on My account will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39, Mark 8:34-37, Luke 9:23-25) This sounds like an attempt to describe what I am talking about here, apart from the “on My account” bit, depending on how we interpret “My.” Anyway, according to the stories, Jesus, Moses and indeed the Buddha all deliberately spent some time away from the rest of life, and came back enlightened: Jesus went into the desert, Moses went up a mountain, Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree. There would appear to be something to be gained by spending some time in contemplation!
Well, I could go on, no doubt, and maybe I will add some more items if I think of them. For now, I want to briefly discuss what many enlightenment teachers claim, namely that it is necessary to get rid of one’s ego and to live in the present moment instead of focusing on the past or the future to achieve enlightenment. It is clear to me that they have it back-to-front: both ego and not living in the present are by-products of the inner voice: they are effects, not causes. Therefore it will be more effective to deal with the inner voice first.
From this point of view, the ego is the story we tell ourselves about who we are and how we are supposed to behave. The voice tells us things like, “I need to be strong,” or, “I am not very good at this sort of thing,” “I am fat/ugly,” “I am lazy,” and so on, and on, and on. These fictional ideas constitute our image of who our inner voice thinks that we are. But there is no need to believe it. And, if we want to eliminate the ego then all we have to do is tame our inner voice: our ego will disappear along with it, since it is the voice that is maintaining it all along anyway. Recognizing fiction when we hear it is pretty much all it takes.
Living In The Present
The thoughts that maintain the ego are typically based ostensibly on past experience, or on past beliefs. For example, the idea, “I am not good at this sort of thing,” or “I could never do this,” may often be traced back to some bad experience (often a very minor thing) at some time in the past. But there is no reason why that should apply to our current situation: people change all the time and no two situations are identical anyway. Your level of interest and motivation can make a big difference too. Many people who tell themselves that they can never learn academic facts and figures can tell you all the statistics of their favourite football team or whatever it may be. Also what a person cannot learn or do rapidly, they can usually do nevertheless, but more slowly: application and perseverance are much more important than native ability in most things: the world is full of clever failures.
Many, if not all, fears are based on ideas about the future: “what if I mess up?” “What will people think?” “What if I look stupid?” and so on. Firstly, these feared things may never happen. Secondly, thinking about them only makes them more likely since our emotional reaction to such thoughts interferes with our ability to handle the situations in question. Thirdly, even if the feared things happen, why suffer through them 100 times in advance when once at the time will do? And with no advance fears having sapped your abilities or your confidence, you will handle them better anyway and they will quickly be over.
I maintain that in both past and future cases, there is no need to think most of these thoughts at all. Of course, this doesn’t prevent legitimate planning, or learning from your mistakes, but once you start going round in circles, over and over the same fears or regrets time and again, you know that you are planning or learning nothing. You are just winding yourself up. Silence or otherwise control the inner voice, and such past and future living automatically disappears and your inner emotional reactions will necessarily relate only to the situation in which you find yourself in the present moment. This is living in the present.
The Inner Voice
What is this inner voice? Isn’t it “me?” If I control it, won’t I be censoring my own thoughts? This approach to enlightenment certainly raises all sorts of questions along these lines and I hope to deal with them here. What follows is my personal theory about the inner voice. I haven’t read anyone else describing it in quite the same way, but this is what I think about it and I can assure you, it works. It is the model I use when thinking about it.
My view of the inner voice is that it is the language module of the brain simply doing its job – generating language-based descriptions of things: what we see, what we believe, and so on. For example, when we look at an object, the vision module of the brain analyses the information coming in from our eyes and tries to come up with a theory about what it is that we are seeing. The theory it finally settles on is then presented to consciousness and that is what we finally become aware of. It is worth noting that we are never, ever, aware of what is actually going on in the world: everything that comes through our senses has to be figured out by our brains and all we end up perceiving is a “virtual reality” – an inner video show – a representation of reality and not the thing itself.
That this is so may be easy to demonstrate. Most people have had the experience of looking at an object and not being able to figure out just what it is. When we are in this state, the object can be quite hard to see clearly. Then, after a few moments, we realize just what it is and the image flips – suddenly it becomes clear. I believe that at that point we have applied a good model to the sensory data and have come up with a consistent representation – our theory fits the sensory data well and suddenly we can now see the object properly.
So, it is my conclusion that just as the vision module interprets visual data to produce a visual model of it, and the audio module interprets audio data to produce an audio model that we perceive as sounds, so it seems to be with the language module. Things are going on, and, left to its own devices, once it has been taught a language, it provides a running commentary – an interpretation – of the events and thoughts that are passing through your brain.
Enlightenment, I think, involves re-training this module so it becomes a more accurate and more useful tool, and so that it does not run on and on continuously when it is not required, depressing and distracting us from our authentic selves.
Is The Inner Voice Me?
Most people “identify” with the inner voice. That is, most people assume that the voice in their heads is the sound of themselves consciously thinking. But, if it is essentially just your language module providing interpretations of sensory data and previous internal thoughts and feelings, then it is not “you.” It is just an automatic, unconscious system. Notice that we do not perceive its operation, only its output. Compare it with vision or sound: we don’t know how it is done, but we end up seeing or hearing something. In the case of verbal thoughts, we can pose ourselves a question, then, crucially, notice that we do not consciously calculate the answer. We simply intend to get an answer then wait for it to appear in our consciousness. We may wait with an air of concentration but we wait nevertheless – the thinking process itself is silent as far as our awareness is concerned. The actual process of producing the answer is done outside our awareness – unconsciously – and we just pick up the answer when it is given to us.
The same happens when we think of something to say during a conversation: the words to say what we want to say simply appear. We know what we intend, and the language module turns it into words for us and then we speak them, occasionally having to pause to correct a mistake along the way. The fact that we can intend what we want to say before we have the words to say it also demonstrates that we actually think without words, should there be any doubt about that: words come at the end of the process, long after the meaning is known to us.
So as I wrote earlier, we are not the voice: we are the listener. The flood of words is no different to the flood of images and sounds that we also experience continuously (not to mention the other senses). We are not our eyesight. We are not our hearing. Similarly, we are not our verbal thoughts.
Sages down through the ages however have found that the inner voice is different from the other senses in one crucial respect: it can be re-trained for our benefit.
How The Inner Voice Is Trained Normally
For many people, if we listen carefully to the kinds of things our inner voice says to us, we find that it is pretty negative. “Be careful!” “You are an idiot!” “What were you thinking?” “Why did she give me that dirty look?” “You will never be able to do that!” “What if I make a fool of myself?” “You are not smart enough.” “You look too plain,” “They’re going to leave me!” “He won’t get one-up on me,” “I must not fail,” and so on, ad nauseam.
Where did it learn these ideas; these essentially false models of reality?
Think about this: according to one study the average child hears the word “no” 17 times more often than the word “yes.”
That’s right. The inner voice learns during our upbringing. It is repeating the words of parents, guardians, teachers and other influential people in our lives such as older siblings and friends, plus, of course, our own contributions. But since we were only children when making many of our own contributions, many of its ideas about the world are simply wrong. Indeed, if you listen to it carefully and critically, you will discover that most of what is says is, at best, inaccurate. In fact, it normally spouts gross generalizations based on its learning rather than thinking carefully about the exact current situation. This is useful for us as children as we are not in a position to know enough about the world and we don’t have the skills or abilities to think carefully: we have to learn general rules of behaviour if we are going to survive. But as an adult it is best for us to take a different approach.
As a child, we develop ideas about how the world is. To get along with our parents or guardians, who we depend upon completely, we learn to behave in various ways to get what we want from them and to avoid punishments, and in the process we develop theories about what life is like. “I must do well in school to be acceptable.” “It is us against the world.” “It is dog-eat-dog out there so I must be ruthless.” “I must not get caught.” “I am not good enough so I had better keep quiet.” “I must be super-efficient at all times.” “People are not to be trusted.” “Nobody will love me.” “My feelings are an embarrassment.” Much of this early thinking is erroneous, or the ideas are impossible for a mere human to live up to, but if it alters our behaviour appropriately, it serves the purpose of ensuring our survival, even as it makes us miserable. Also, as children, we trust our parents and guardians and listen to their opinions uncritically, so we copy their errors too.
Training The Inner Voice
These ideas that we invent or inherit, I must emphasize, are not facts: they are theories and so have the essential nature of fictions. But we base our whole lives on them. By the time we are adults, we have long forgotten where they came from and that they are just theories. We are so used to thinking them that we don’t notice that they are made up. We think that they are facts. Further, we think that we are actively thinking them, when in fact they are being churned out automatically by our unconscious language module (albeit partially in response to our feelings about what previous thoughts it has churned out). We also fail to notice that for the most part they are inaccurate (indeed ludicrous) generalizations and do not, in fact apply very well to our current situations. Often, also, they are plain lies: some typical examples are listed below, along with corrections.
Correcting The Voice’s Errors
You can begin training your inner voice simply by correcting its errors whenever you spot them. Some of the examples may seem picky or pedantic and it may not seem important to correct some of the most trivial errors, but I have found that it is indeed important to be impeccable with your word. If you let the thin end of the wedge get in, these tiny errors get exaggerated over time if they are not addressed:
- “You are always late!” Always is both a generalization and simply untrue. Not many people are always anything;
- “Nobody could love me.” Nobody is another generalization and not a verifiable fact, unless you have the time to try out each of the 6-plus billion people on the planet. In fact, far from being a fact, it is untrue: strange as it may seem, even the most unlikely people can find love, as any casual observation of your local high street will quickly reveal. It may not be easy in some cases, but the implication that it is impossible is a lie. It also suggests some misconceptions about the nature of love: a) receiving love is actually relatively incidental; we feel best when we are giving love so it would be best to concentrate on doing that, with all people that you encounter; b) giving unconditional love is easy with dogs, cats, children and so on, and so it can be with adults too: it is pretty much the same, except when choosing partners we also look for various material factors and personality and lifestyle compatibility; c) many people confuse the divine obsessions of the early stages of relationships with love. In fact, I would say that this is lust. I believe that it is OK to be in lust if you are both aware that that is all it is, or if it is accompanied by love in both directions. Otherwise all you have is a guaranteed short-term relationship; d) I don’t think we fall in love so much as fall in lust. Love is more of a choice we make (see points a) and b) above);
- “I could never do this.” I covered this earlier. People change. It may be centred around baseless fears about the future or false interpretations of past experience. Persistence and application count for more than natural ability. Many great achievers are not all that talented: they just plod along doing what is required without being intimidated by fear and with the right team of people to help them. If your inner voice is silent you won’t even think such fear-based thoughts and will be able to proceed without hindrance. Also, ‘never’ is a generalisation;
- “I am being abandoned.” You may have lacked security or proper care at some time in the past but why let that bother you now? Also, you are claiming telepathic knowledge of what is in the abandoner’s mind: it is just a fictional spin you are placing on the events and you don’t necessarily know for certain what they are planning on doing or why, no matter how obvious it may seem to you now. Furthermore, if they are abandoning you, surely they are not the right people for you anyway? You are now better off and free to find someone better. ‘Abandon’ is also an emotionally powerful word. Try something more neutral to take some of the terror out of it: ‘going away’ or ‘moving on,’ perhaps. Consider also that this phase of your life may now be now coming to a close: it may be time for you to move on. There may also be some lessons to be learned so you can concentrate on those for a short time – but if you find yourself going round in circles or getting tense, abandon those thoughts! They will just be winding you up. In the end you may have to just leave it alone, permanently;
- “These people will cheat me if they can.” Probably you will have precisely no evidence for this fiction. You may have been cheated in the past, most probably by other people. If these particular people have cheated you before, that is different. Make your plans accordingly. But if you are simply generalizing from experiences with other people, then remember that generalizations are fiction until proven. Take reasonable precautions, of course, but of course people respond better when treated with respect and that means trusting them (to a reasonable degree) until you find out better;
- “People are not to be trusted.” The correct way to phrase this is “Some people are not to be trusted.” Get it? Stop generalizing!
- “You are such an idiot!” The voice must be taught to treat you with respect. This is vital as insulting you is one of the inner voice’s most common unacceptable behaviours. Disallow all such statements: they are quite incorrect. Taking it literally, an idiot has an IQ of below 20, i.e., is profoundly retarded. Most normal people have an IQ between 70 and 130. If you don’t want to be quite so literal about it, remember that all people make mistakes: it is human nature. If you make a mistake it is not a reason to judge yourself negatively. You are no better and no worse than anybody else, ultimately. Be loving towards yourself at all times, as you might be to a small child: you are entitled to such treatment just as they are;
If you have some favourites, why not let me know? Possibly one of the best books for ideas about training your inner voice is Taming Your Gremlin by Richard Carlson.
In general, it is not a good idea to fight the inner voice when it is telling you things you believe are inappropriate: fighting it just generates more negative emotions along the lines of “You are such an idiot!” above. Instead, just note the error and give yourself the corrected version instead. You can pat yourself on the head for spotting it too, if you like: it is good, and effective, to feel good about what you are doing! The inner voice learns surprisingly quickly once you spot something and correct it in a positve, friendly way (so that it feels good). The voice’s job, remember, is to feed you rules and interpretations that are helpful to you, so once you start consciously training it instead of just letting it repeat your childhood learning, it will get the idea very quickly. Old habits die hard, though, so you will have to keep paying attention as the habitual errors of a lifetime can easily slip back in if you let them pass too often.
Silencing The Inner Voice
Sometimes the inner voice doesn’t respond all that well to reason: your fears are just too strong, perhaps, or your errors just run too deep. In these cases, and anyway to achieve full enlightenment, it can help to be able to silence it altogether, at will. I have found three methods, all closely related to each other, and a fourth worth mentioning. These are apart from the methods of meditation and yoga and flow mentioned early on in this article.
- Letting Go Imagine you are the source of all thoughts. When a (verbal) thought appears, just let it float away from you. Do not pursue the idea it raises. Just let it go. Normally, another idea will come up a moment or two later. Let it go uninvestigated too. You do not need to follow-up thoughts if you don’t want to. After doing this on various occasions, you will find that your inner voice learns to quieten down when you are not wanting to hear it;
- Ignoring Thoughts This is similar to number 1, except that you can more easily carry on about your normal business while doing it. Instead of letting go of all thoughts, just let go of the ones you don’t want to be bothered with right now (or ever, indeed). Ignore them. Do not follow them up. Again, very quickly, your language module will learn not to bother you with those types of thoughts. This practice is particularly useful for dealing with nervousness about upcoming events and regrets about past ones. You can make your plans about whatever it is, or come to whatever conclusions you wish to, but you draw the line when you have done enough or are getting nowhere any more. Typically the thoughts will reappear from time-to-time, but you continue to ignore them or drop them each time and gradually they will appear less and less frequently, and less and less insistently. It may help to remind yourself (each time, if necessary) that fears are based in the future and that these do not need to be dealt with: you will handle any problems when the time comes. Similarly, the past is done, the lesson is learned and there is nothing to be gained by going over it again. You are human and our most effective method of learning is by making mistakes. It is built-in to us;
- Refusing Thoughts You can actively refuse specific thoughts too. As with number 2 above, if there are specific thoughts that are bothering you, you can deal with them like this. When they come up, be aware that you don’t want to be thinking about these things. Each time they come up, you can pull away from them, mentally putting your hands up and saying, for example, “no,” or “no, thank you. I don’t want these kinds of thoughts.” Don’t fight them: be nice to yourself. Just remember that you don’t want these types of thoughts. And don’t pursue them when they appear, as in the previous two cases;
- Listening To Music In a way, this is a form of meditation, and especially if you choose relaxing music, its effects on the body have been measured and found to be similarly relaxing and beneficial. Basically, you listen to some music. You don’t think of stuff. You listen, to the extent of spacing out or even going to sleep if it happens that way. This is a form of distraction therapy, like meditation and yoga, and it works just as well for some people. Instrumental music is going to be the best – songs will give your language module stuff to think about. It can be handy to unwind quickly but I’m not sure that it moves you closer to enlightenment as such. Still, sometimes you just have to unwind before you can move on.
The first three methods can all blur together at times, and there is nothing wrong with that. They are almost the same anyway. Just do what works best at the time. I do all of the above, and it works very well for bringing me into the present moment, in silence (some of the time!) and therefore getting my emotional reactions to be non-judgemental and authentic, and much, much more free from unnecessary worries and ego responses. I do not consider myself to be “enlightened” in the complete sense that I have fully dis-identified with the inner voice, but I know that I have moved a lot further along that road than before I discovered all this.
- After a couple of weeks of using methods 2 and 3 in particular, I noticed that I had developed a most interesting inner technique for deciding which thoughts to allow and which to leave. I was asking myself, “do these thoughts help me to achieve my purpose?” Depending on the answer, which is usually “no,” I allow or disallow them. This is interesting in particular because it demonstrates (to me) that I am in touch with my inner purpose to some significant degree. That is something that I have never been clear about before, for as long as I can remember. Suddenly, I know what I want, at the very least on a moment-to-moment basis. Clearly I am now in touch with that enough to be able to distinguish clearly between that and what my inner voice “thinks.”
- After a bit longer, I have noticed that while silencing the voice is succeeding in getting rid of many needless fears and self-consciousness in the negative sense, it is not succeeding in getting rid of them all right away. There seems to be another layer. My day-to-day life is tremendously improved by these techniques, but when I wish to push myself a long way beyond where I have gone before, there is still self-consciousness. Where is this coming from if my language thoughts are not the source? I suspect “conditioning,” a fancy name for force of habit. I have spent much of my life behaving in certain ways, and feeling certain feelings and inhibitions: my emotional self is conditioned to respond in habitually fearful ways to challenging situations that I would previously therefore not choose to put myself in. How to deal with this? My thinking is that I can gradually push the boundaries and re-train my emotional self accordingly. Habits can be re-trained by making gradual changes and maintaining the changes for a time, typically about six weeks for each step, until a new habit is formed. One question immediately arises: if my emotional self is my authentic self, isn’t it inauthentic to train it with new habits? Well, perhaps not, because I also know what I want and there is clearly a mismatch between the two. My emotional self is not my authentic self either then: it is merely authentic in the sense that it feels what it feels. My consciousness is my authentic self, apparently. Or, as I put it earlier and maybe more accurately, the silent knowing within. My consciousness? My intuitive self? I don’t know! Anyway it is good to remember which is my authentic self and not get it confused with some other mechanism such as the emotional self, authentic, conditioned, or otherwise. So just as one can be incorrectly identified with the inner voice and believe it is “me” thinking, one can incorrectly identify with the emotional self and incorrectly believe it is “me” feeling.
- When meditating, the point is not so much to actually silence the voice (although that helps), but to observe how your verbal mind operates so that you disidentify with it… so that you are not conditioned by what it does. In other words, if you think a thought and then follow it up with more thoughts instead of just letting it go, you know that you have “bought in” to that thought – believed in it – and you are not yet in full control of your language module. Ultimately, the idea is not to stop the thoughts as such, you can continue having them if you like, but to be not controlled by them. You don’t want to be having the habitual response that you believe in the thoughts automatically all the time. You are still believing in them when you follow them up automatically, even when meditating (using my method 1 for example), which is when you are supposed to be *not* following them up.
- After a few more weeks, I have noticed that my previous concerns with being “successful” or, more accurately, avoiding “failure”, seem to be fading away. It was once the case that I would avoid putting myself into challenging situations in case I failed or ended up looking stupid. Now, after some time of basically ignoring those inhibitions, they are not bothering me anything like so much as they were. The ratio of their influence seems to have gone from 80:20 to 20:80, roughly. I have been doing things not so much to “succeed” but more because I want to, feel like it, and so on (still ultimately pursuing approximately the same goals as previously), but since I am not focussing on success there seems to be no question of “failure”. I am just not thinking along that dimension, particularly (only 20% perhaps). As a result, I am more relaxed and more effective.
Is silencing or training the inner voice the key to enlightenment? No. It is not “the” key, but it is “a” key. And having uncovered one, no doubt very significant, layer, I have almost immediately discovered another underneath. Perhaps there are others beyond that. What it comes down to is this: as with everybody else, I have spent my life acting one particular role, i.e., “me.” That this is in some sense an act is clear: as children we learn how to behave in certain ways and that becomes our idea of who we are in the verbal mind and in our habitual behaviour. Disidentifying with the voice allows us to see it as a tool and as not-me, although at the same time it is indeed part of our make-up. Presumably I can do the same with the emotional conditioning. However, I also think it is important not to disidentify too much and treat them with disdain! Both these systems are a part of the wider self and embody some of our greatest talents and skills. I am sure it is essential to treat all of myself with love and respect: these systems appear to be designed with intelligence to do specific jobs and indeed as a child in devising these ways of surviving in the world I will have done my best to hone these tools into highly efficient ways of being. These efforts are best respected for the great achievements that they are. The thing with enlightenment is really just to step beyond them without necessarily having to dismantle them. From the wider perspective they can still be used, but perhaps in more and different ways than before. In disidentifying with these systems, we don’t destroy them, but instead recruit them to our wider purposes: we can ask ourselves, “does this behaviour suit my purpose?” and freely modify it accordingly. Ultimately, I will have complete conscious choice and freedom about which tools to use and how to use them. If enlightenment is all about being your authentic self without undue pressure and strain, this involves having full and unfettered access to your inner resources and not being driven by long-forgotten and now irrelevant motivations from the distant past. As for enlightenment’s “cosmic” dimension: I don’t really know what that means. For me, it is probably nonsense but that still remains to be seen.
Questions And Answers
Q: Surely the inner voice is part of me too?
A: It is, in the sense that your hands are part of you too, or in the sense that your visual cortex in your brain is. But it is not, in the sense that it is not a part of your consciousness: it acts as an input to your consciousness only. I maintain that it operates unconsciously and you only perceive its output and can supply some of its inputs too.
Q: How can an “automatic unconscious language module” spout “gross generalisations” about the “current situation” if it is NOT me, interpreting what I am experiencing?
A: In basically the same automatic way that you can remember that 2×2 equals… (fill in your answer here). It is more than just memory though. Even the unconscious brain is very sophisticated and can evaluate and interpret the data it receives through your senses and from your/its previous thoughts and from your conscious intent. Its outputs are, it seems to me though, essentially learned responses: cliches that we are taught as children or invent for ourselves as we go through life. With conscious direction though, we can improve on this a lot. It churns out nonsense because this has been accepted by us for so long, so why should it try harder? Like any other part of the human body, it does the minimum required to get by. And yes, it follows from this that most people think nonsense most of the time!
Another take on this: your visual cortex seems to be able to interpret your sensory input pretty well, no doubt using feedback from other parts of the brain (including your consciousness, it appears, when some object is difficult to recognize), and no doubt using memorized interpretations most of the time. Why can’t a language module do a similar thing, only with learned chunks of language instead of visual images?
Q: Surely not all inner voices are negative?
A: Correct. Many people’s inner voice is positive and helpful. Also, many people start with a negative voice and learn to improve upon its ideas (e.g., by deliberately teaching themselves to adopt a positive and more patient outlook), perhaps without realizing what they are doing (or perhaps through some other method that I don’t know about). I think this is partly why many people become more placid as they age. On the other hand some people just seem to get worse as they age: I wonder if they are losing the battle to train their inner voices (or have no idea about it at all)?
Q: Why does my inner voice stop me doing what I want? Is it evil?
A: Far from being evil, I believe that it is actually trying to help you and protect you, but it doesn’t know the best way. The thing is, when you were a child, you needed lots of set rules to prevent you doing things that would have been dangerous: running into the road, jumping off the roof like Superman, touching a hot iron and so on. The voice got these rules from parents, teachers, your own ideas and elsewhere and has certainly saved your life many times. So now that you are an adult, it is simply continuing to do basically the same thing: preventing you doing things that might be dangerous. Especially those things that cause you some fear and anything that might change the status quo or move you out of your comfort zones where you might not be happy, but you may feel a bit safer in the short term. However, as an adult, you really don’t need such restrictive rules running on automatic all the time: you know how to behave safely. So now it is time to re-train the voice with new rules so that it can help you to do things instead of prevent you doing them. Some people call these new rules new belief systems, or affirmations, or in the case of Tony Robbins, incantations: brief statements that are positive and helpful to replace the old limiting ones your voice used to use. See the section on correcting the voice’s errors above for a little about this, although I am not introducing specific affirmations here. You can do that yourself. My goal is to raise awareness of the voice and bring it under some degree of conscious control in the first place.
Q: I seem to have several different voices – a knee-jerk one, a moderate one, and so on.
A: Well, that is probably good: your inner voice(s) are already pretty-well trained if at least some of them are sensible, I would suggest. You are probably also aware of which ones are best to listen to in various circumstances. This is another way of looking at what I am saying here: we should use our conscious judgement to provide feedback to our language module so that it is helpful. I go one step further though and suggest that it can be good for it to be silent altogether at least some of the time, as I think the gurus are saying, so that we can be more easily in touch with our highest, executive selves, without the distraction that thinking about stuff can cause.
Q: Why not balance the inner voice with moderation rather than silencing it altogether?
A: There is nothing wrong with doing this for increased happiness if you are able to. This can also be another method of moving towards enlightenment, rather like my method 2, where you silence part of the voice (certain unhelpful thoughts in particular): it is a sort of a half-way house and is a method of doing it one step at a time, which may suit many people. You can be very proactive with thought management and it will achieve a lot in a surprisingly short time. Nevertheless, to achieve full enlightenment the traditional thinking is that the inner voice needs to be silenced altogether at will, or fully disidentified with, all the time. I believe this means ultimately that you can be in touch with your true will at all times and without distraction.
Q: If it is so good to silence it, what is the inner voice for in the first place?
A: As a youngster it embodies the lessons of parents and teachers, telling you general ideas about how to behave and (hopefully) keeping you out of too much trouble. If you are into psychology, this would be something like Freud’s superego. We also use it to tell ourselves a story about who we are: “I never do well at athletics,” or, “only the strong survive.” This is rather like Freud’s ego. I have used the term ‘ego’ to cover all of these things however. These uses for the inner voice are fine for young people who lack experience and skill in handling the world, and it can still have a place for everybody in dealing with routine matters, I’m sure (although the Zen Buddhists would argue that it would be better to be fully conscious all the time). However, it has other functions too: it is good for communicating with others, and it can be good at logical reasoning (and at illogical reasoning, if you listen to some people!). It helps with all language-based tasks, basically. What I’m saying is that you don’t have to use it for everything. Use it with discretion, especially if it is negative and insulting to you.
Q: Why not silence the inner voice by taking charge and refusing to be its victim?
A: I think that fighting it tends to be more of the same: it does not feel pleasant to fight it and if you feel unpleasant about something that you are trying to achieve, it makes it harder. It is the same as training children: they respond less well to shouting than to loving reason, as we humans are constructed so that unpleasantness is a sign not to do what the source of unpleasantness wants but to avoid the source (the shouter, or our fighting attitude to our inner voice). One of the things you are trying to teach your inner voice is to show you some respect, so you need to set a good example for it to learn from. Love is the answer.