What? Speak up.

I’m hearing voices again. Actually, I always hear voices, but this time specific words have returned, words I hadn’t heard for some time and they got me thinking. Whose voice is this? How do I know if it is my own voice or the voice of the outside world? Should I listen?

For a lot of my teenage and adult life my internal voices told me that I was too quiet and not assertive enough. I spent a lot of time wishing to be different; that voice didn’t like being quiet. But one night many years ago I was seated around a table with ten people, most of them were, well, loud, and assertive. One exception was an Italian accountant who played the drums in a rock band; he was cool and relatively quiet. I didn’t enjoy the company of the others. They may not have enjoyed mine either, but that no longer mattered to me.

I suddenly realised that I didn’t ever feel happy spending time with loud, overly assertive people and I wondered why I would want a personality that actually turned me off. But who came to that conclusion and what happened to the voice that had been telling me I was too quiet? Who told me at that moment I was now happy being me? I am hearing that voice from the past again. Why? And which of these stories should I believe?

I say I had a sudden realisation during that interminable dinner party, it seemed like a spontaneous thought, but as with any important moment or major shift in perspective, it was more likely to be the product of internal debates without my being fully conscience of what was happening. My mind had been telling different stories, sometimes contradictory things at different times and in various situations. I didn’t always listen.

Our thoughts about ourselves, about anything, are constantly swimming along in our unconscious and sometimes come to the surface as Thomas Metzinger, professor and director of the theoretical philosophy group and research group on neuroethics/nuerophilosphy at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany, explains here.

When I stop and listen to my voices, or thoughts if you prefer, I am observing. I feel like I am observing myself as if I am someone else—a third party with an outsider’s perspective. It is important to differentiate between your own voice and the voices coming from outside of ourselves, other people’s voices, society. This sounds like it would be a helpful practice and it is. It can only help to know what is really going on in your mind and listening to it in this way works.
If we don’t attempt to understand ourselves, we may continue to or end up living in a way that leaves us miserable and unfulfilled, fearful and, possibly, taking our misery out on others. Living a life without reflection leaves us vulnerable to our own self-deception, manipulation by other individuals, corporations, politicians and religion. Society. And we may not even know why. Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” We need to listen.
A life without taking notice of our inner dialog (and signals in the body) can lead to illness as well. The book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, MD., founder and medical director of The Trauma Center in Masschusetts, discusses how the body responds to trauma. In many cases, the trauma is buried inside of the sufferer and is never dealt with. But ignoring something troubling or, if the trauma is stuck in the unconscious, not trying to at least understand the behaviour it may be causing won’t make the suffering pass, it will be manifested in some way, often illness, mental and physical. The trauma examples in this book are extreme and many of the people discussed in the book are still trying to have their basic needs of safety met, but we can still apply the body/mind processes described in this book to less traumatic situations.

So, observing one’s thoughts is good practice, but with this method, how do we know who is observing? After all isn’t this observer our own creation? It may have its own motivations, its own judgements. Was the observer that saw me as too quiet and needing to be more assertive correct? Or was the observer that accepted me the way I am correct? Or both? Which voice do I listen to? They are both valid; both can give me insight into myself. And I may be both. It may be that at this time I do need to be more assertive. Listening to all of the inner workings of the mind, in some way transcending the observer, provides us with deeper knowledge and leaves room for choice, acceptance, change. It is the feeling we have choices that gives us the possibility to live in a way that is meaningful.

A wise man I know always says that you can think and be two opposing things at the same time and, of course, this is a well-known concept in psychology. We are much more complicated than being one thing or another, or really, being anything specific at all.

This may sound terrifying, not being anything at all, but to think this way allows for possibility. Paying attention to and accepting your often times conflicting thoughts, things you don’t like to dwell on, dark parts of your personality, provides us with the knowledge needed to integrate all aspects of ourselves and complete our narrative. The integration is necessary to live an inspired life. Albert Camus said, “We all carry within us places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.”

Our internal narratives are there to help us develop a sense of self. As Thomas Metzinger says, our “mind-wandering network…basically serves to keep our sense of self stable and in good shape.”, though he does not believe in the “self”, the sense of self is important. Metzinger describes it as “an inner image we have of our selves based on internal messages from the physical body (gut feelings, heart rate, breath…) and relationships with others, ethical norms and sense of self-worth.”.  There may be a time where our narrative falls apart and that can be either disruptive and damaging or liberating and give way to new life or both. I won’t address that here, but I may in a later post.

We have a need to build a sense of self not only to feel stable, but in order to reach what might be called your ‘ideal self’. This doesn’t mean to be perfect, oh, no, no, please no, and it is not a selfish endeavour. It means we might be able to find a sense of calm and fulfilment in life. It even goes beyond that, which I would say is an equally important, if not more important, aspect of having a stable sense of self, but I will come to that soon.

Digging deep isn’t always a comfortable process. Many people would rather continue the story they’ve created even if it is false or causing misery. This in itself is difficult, and a reason many people carry on suffering. But while it is difficult to live life this way, for some people it feels easier than the alternative. 

In one of the book groups I used to organise, we were scheduled to read a history book about status and how, in our time, the desire for it causes stress. One of the group members refused to read the book saying, “I know I am shallow and don’t want to be reminded of it.”. One might say she is at least aware, but she wasn’t willing to think about her shallowness. It seemed she didn’t necessarily like her shallow self, yet she didn’t want to address it. But as a sparkling, intelligent woman I recently met said, it is important to meet yourself with kindness and compassion. 

Which leads me to that other important reason for getting to know your Self: moving beyond it. I acknowledge that there are many people who are suffering and for whom taking care of themselves is the most important priority and only thing possible. There may be obstacles to being able to move beyond focusing on yourself, but if we stay stuck in self-care mode, we may never progress to living our life well. This is equally important for our relationships, the people around us and the world as a whole. If we don’t take the understanding, kindness and compassion we may find for ourselves through our self-inquiry out to others, we will lack the ability to give those gifts to the world. 

One thing I find troubling, for example, is amongst a certain socio-economic class, self-care has become a buzzword, a huge money-making industry. Many people are turning inward and staying there, some getting caught up in the consumerism of self-care. I am not trying to make a judgement here, I am contemplating how people attempt to find some peace and how it may go wrong or why it may stagnate. What are the obstacles? Culture? Society? Consumerism? Human nature? What more needs to happen during or between the dialog with one’s self and the place where life becomes something meaningful?

I like to describe the process of understanding your Self by going through yourself to individuate and to then reach a greater understanding of humanity by using Goethe’s words so will end with those. In his thanks to Luke Howard, the man who gave us names for clouds he says,

To find yourself in the infinite,
You must distinguish and then combine;

Therefore my winged song thanks
The man who distinguished cloud from cloud.”.


A translation of Goethe’s poem:
In honour of Mr. Howard        

When Camarupa, wavering on high,
Lightly and slowly travels o’er the sky,
Now closely draws her veil, now spreads it wide,
And joys to see the changing figures glide,
Now firmly stands, now like a vision flies,
We pause in wonder, and mistrust our eyes.

Then boldly stirs imagination’s power,
And shapes there formless masses of the hour;
Here lions threat, there elephants will range,
And camel-necks to vapoury dragons change;
An army moves, but not in victory proud,
Its might is broken on a rock of cloud;
E’en the cloud messenger in air expires,
Ere reach’d the distance fancy yet desires.
But Howard gives us with his clearer mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp,
He first has gain’d, first
held with mental grasp.
Defin’d the doubtful, fix’d its limit-line,
And named it fitly. —Be the honour thine!
As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,
Let the world think of thee who taught it all.
When o’er the silent bosom of the sea
The cold mist hangs like a stretch’d canopy;
And the moon, mingling there her shadowy beams,
A spirit, fashioning other spirits seems;
We feel, in moments pure and bright as this,
The joy of innocence, the thrill of bliss.
Then towering up in the darkening mountain’s side,
And spreading as it rolls its curtains wide,
It mantles round the mid-way height, and there
It sinks in water-drops, or soars in air.
Still soaring, as if some celestial call
Impell’d it to yon heaven’s sublimest hall;
High as the clouds, in pomp and power arrayed,
Enshrined in strength,
in majesty displayed;
All the soul’s secret thoughts it seems to move,
Beneath it trembles, while it frowns above.
And higher, higher yet the vapors roll:
Triumph is the noblest impulse of the soul!
Then like a lamb whose silvery robes are shed,
The fleecy piles dissolved in dew drops spread;
Or gently waft to the realms of rest,
Find a sweet welcome in the Father’s breast.
Now downwards by the world’s attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris’n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour–
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.
(Translation by George Soane and Sir John Bowring)

The Thomas Metzinger essay mentioned above: https://aeon.co/essays/are-you-sleepwalking-now-what-we-know-about-mind-wandering

I recommend this wonderful novel exploring the disintegration of narrative: H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/22/nicola-barker-books-interview-love-island-happy



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