The Little Voice

By Jim Selman | Bio

For no particular reason, today I am more conscious than normal of my ‘little voice’—you know the conversation in our heads. I talk about this phenomenon a lot in my work. People laugh when I challenge the conventional view that they can control it: “Try to turn it off” or “Don’t think about what I am about to say”. Then I suggest that this conversation we are always having, what we call thinking, is in fact an endless stream of thoughts that may or may not be related to what’s going on and further, that this ‘voice’ is not ‘me’. This voice, like breathing, is an aspect of who we are but is definitely not the ‘I’ that we associate with being ourselves.

Today as I was lying in bed, I listened to the voice for a while:

“I need to remember to change my plane reservation tomorrow and not forget to pick up a present before 3 pm and the book should be a manifesto for growing older but I wonder if I will ever do it…but of course I said I would… but I wonder if those Porsche sunglasses I saw are really worth it and besides I have too many pairs already…and if my plane arrives a day early then it might be fun to take a bike ride…and maybe I should write a play as a dialogue between older and younger people on the key issues in the world.. If enough old people protested corruption would it matter? And weren’t the flowers beautiful in the lobby? And why do I travel so much? Do I really like it? And don’t forget to pick up the laundry tomorrow morning, unless it might be ready early, and I could still get to dinner although I have to write the speech for tomorrow night but it is only a half hour and I could wing it…I wonder if I have an email message yet from Spain….” And on and on and on

If I thought the little voice was me, I would, no doubt, be crazy. But I do know it’s just a mechanism like dreaming that is somehow playing tapes from the past or the culture or as reactions to whatever shows up in my universe today. I think one of the values of journaling is that it can ‘clear out’ a lot of the background noise and allow us to focus our thoughts—to really think rather than just have thoughts. If we could develop this discipline when we’re younger, I think we’d all be a lot happier and the world would be better off.

I did an experiment in distinguishing real thinking from ‘thoughting’. I encourage you to try it. Pick a subject (I picked ‘aging’) and then try to ‘think’ about just that subject for 5 minutes without any interruption or distraction. It is kind of like meditating. I didn’t make it, but was able to bring myself back fairly easily. About halfway through I realized that I was focused on the topic but was still pretty much not in control of the internal conversation, just concentrating better. Then I asked myself a question that gave a kind of “purpose for my thinking”—“When does old age begin?”—and it got a lot easier. I looked up and a couple of minutes had passed in clear, relaxed thinking without any awareness of the little voice. It was the same experience I have when I’m writing a poem or painting a picture or leading a workshop…I am present and my thinking and my actions seem to merge and ‘I’ disappear—leaving only action in the moment.

By the way, the answer to my question was, “Not yet”.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.