Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Silent Thoughts that Run Your Life

Most people have an internal monologue. Not just when they're reading, but much of the rest of the time too. There's a little voice sort of narrating their day to day activities all the time, or commenting on memories or imagined scenarios when they're distracted. "Ugh, I forgot to take out the garbage this morning." "Oh, that's a nice skirt!" "When is that report due again?"

Many of your thoughts--and I use that term loosely, referring to just about anything going on in your head that you can potentially be aware of--are therefore verbal.

I expect that there is an enormous bias, when we talk about our thoughts, to report the verbal ones, the ones that express themselves through our inner monologue. At the very least, we only tell people about our thoughts after they've passed through a translator that renders them verbal (unless we're using non-verbal art). But those cannot possibly be the only thoughts we have. We are too complex for that.

There is an exercise many people try when first dabbling in contemplative spiritual traditions that goes like this (and I do mean for you to try the exercise yourself):

Take out a watch or some other way of keeping time, and something to write with. Sit comfortably but upright, take a deep breath, and relax. When you're done reading this paragraph, set the timer for one minute. Then, sit silently, and clear your mind of all thoughts. Just stay that way, thinking nothing at all, for a whole minute.

Now take a few moments to write at least a sentence about your experience of the past minute. Did anything unexpected happen? How easy or difficult was it? If you noticed thoughts happening, what were they? (Feel free to post whatever you write in the comments.)

I find this exercise interesting for several reasons. First, it's very difficult for most people. Within seconds of starting the timer, they think to themselves, "Ok, no more thinking. Damn it, that was a thought!" Experts often call this "monkey mind".

Second, people very inexperienced with this sort of activity think their mind suddenly explodes in thought as soon as they sit down to practice, while somewhat more experienced practitioners come to realize that their mind is thinking all the time, and such exercises merely bring attention to that fact.

A few people really do get through the whole minute without activating their inner monologue, but most of them report making a continuous effort to suppress words that try to come up.

(And then there are some people who have no idea what you mean by "inner monologue" even after you describe it to them. I don't actually know how many, the state of science on this is bad, and I could talk about that for an entire post but this post is not about that. Mindspace is deep and wide. Moving on.)

But the most enlightening thing I've learned, both from personal experience and from talking to others who've tried this sort of thing, is that people implicitly believe that if they're not using words to talk to themselves in their heads, then they're not thinking--"no voice" equals "still, empty, featureless mind". The thoughts they struggle against the entire time in this exercise are the verbal ones, so much so that they aren't even aware of any other mental activity. And then when they finally manage a whole minute without narrating their experience, they think they've succeeded. I felt the same way when I first started.

Monastics, and others who sit in silence for hours every day for years, find that the inner monologue eventually becomes much quieter and often silent during those periods of sitting, whether they're quieting it on purpose or not. They also find--and this is perhaps the only really strong justification I know of for putting in the time requiured--that there are an awful lot of other things going on in their heads besides words. When the words stop drowning out all out all the other mental activity, it's possible become aware of those many silent thoughts. From there, one can learn to exert some control over the other mental activities, just like you can probably exert some control over your inner monologue now.

For example, you can re-read this sentence and think "white" when you read "blue". You can choose to generate a verbal thought about the texture of the floor below you. You can speed up the voice, slow it down, change its pitch, change its volume. With practice, you can even render it mute.

Most of what happens in your head is not words. Most of what determines your behavior has very little to do with the voice that narrates your actions (though the voice is also a powerful instrument once you know how to use it). You are far more prone to influence by silent mental flinches, urges, aversions, attitudes, emotions, shifts of attention and focus.

You can gain some control over most of these things. But you have to become aware of them first. You have to become intimately acquainted with aspects of experience you usually ignore before it will begin to have implications for your behavior in real life. Just like you can't quiet a verbal thought you didn't know you heard, you can't respond strategically to an aversion you didn't know you felt, or to a belief you didn't know you held.

The goal of the exercises I'm developing over the next few months is to help rationalists, and others who value clear thinking and better decision processes, gain awareness and control over the workings of their minds--without spending ten years motionless on a mountain top. Specifically, I hope to provide access to enough awareness and control that my readers can put whatever they know or learn of epistemic rationality to much better use.

I doubt I'll post literally everything I'm working on to this blog, but I'll want to share my thoughts as I work through them, and I'll want to have readers test run a lot of the exercises. Stay tuned!

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Adele Dewey-Lopez said...

I couldn't suppress all thoughts, but I was mostly able to suppress the verbal thoughts, and the thoughts that were left were different from my typical experience.

Most of the thoughts I had felt like waves of color flowing across my brain. Mostly blueish or black, with some red and orange sparkles. Suppressing a thought felt like a dark grey swell, kinda like putting my tongue on the roof of my mouth.

I also became aware of how incredibly *tired* I am. I had been feeling kinda off, but I had thought it was because I hadn't eaten enough before.

Rhaidot said...

I made the exercise last night, just before of going to sleep, so I wasn't able to write the results immediately. Because I have a dissociative talent since early childhood, I thought I won't have any problem to get it right. But I was wrong. I was able to suppress the 2000 voices that my mind has to narrate my life, yet, I started to catch a odd murmur from all the objects surrounding me, noises of the people in another houses, and the narrators grabbed to those noises desperately. It was interesting, it made me realized that I pay too much attention around me, specially with my ears.

I tried the rate system but T am not sure that is working well, so I am going to add it here.

Rating: 5

This post proposes an excellent starting point to learn about meditating and be more self-aware.

Anonymous said...

[Text dump of my notes, because I'm tired and wouldn't comment at all if I'd have to make a carefully worded post.]

I found this much more difficult than thinking nothing during a planned meditation session. I thought about the time not passing (okay, it seems my countdown failed and I only ended this after counting ten breaths and calculating that it must have been at least 2 minutes). I thought about my breath, about my sitting position and about my tasks for tomorrow. I feel less anxious now, so this works like a meditation light. I must say that at the end of a 10 minute meditation, I usually find it difficult to think of something deliberately.
Which does not come from training effects, because I don't have much training in this.