Updated: Nov 1, 2020
If you're driving an old clunker of a car, with creaks and yawns and metal-on-metal grinds, it's hard to focus on the road and to stay in your lane. You're always being distracted by the cacophony of car-aches and wondering what's going to fall apart before you get to your destination. You watch your console for warning lights. You listen for the first sounds of catastrophic failure of your vehicle. And you wonder if you'll ever get to your destination--even if it's just a shop around the corner from your home.
Noise is one of the costs of our contemporary society. Pity the poor folks who live beneath the glide path to the main runways of an urban airport. Pity the poor folks who live next to the guy who needs to play his tunes so loudly that you're invited to listen whether you want to or not.
We used to yell to our friends, "It's so loud in here, I can't hear myself think!" This way of speaking is interesting to me. It is significant only if the speaker is taking an important exam or writing an overdue report for her boss, and the ambient noise distracts her from what she needs to concentrate on.
On the other hand, if someone would say the same thing in a club on Friday night, you would have to wonder what it is that they need to think about in such a place. There, it's either "look, flirt, get interested" or "look, dismiss" or "talk to your friends without looking elsewhere" or "dance your own thing." It's all pretty much non-verbal. A club is about "being there," not about thinking philosophical things or worrying about the politics of the moment. So, in the midst of the noise of the club's music, what really needs to be thought about?
In the interior world of a person seeking inner silence and peace, the same questions prevail. We each have an inner voice which is talking almost all the time. Sometimes, this inner talking is important, such as when a person is taking an important exam or writing an overdue report. But much of the time, unless the person is focused on a particular issue and is "thinking it through," the interior talk is just background noise, like having the TV on in the background when you're home alone, just to have some relief from the quietness.
Unless there's a reasonable purpose for using it, such as at this present moment, my inner voice is dictating to me the words I am writing here, our inner voice is not contributing much that is of value. Usually, it is simply repeating to us what we have already experienced (such as, "That man sitting toward the front of this bus hasn't had a shave in two weeks.")
Often, that voice is interpreting for us the perceptions which we are experiencing--it's telling us what is happening with what we're experiencing (such as, "That loud noise that just started under my car must be the muffler blowing out. What a terrible noise! And look, everyone on the sidewalk is looking at me.") These interpretations can be useful because it's easier to handle what we think we understand than to deal with something we are completely at a loss about.
The voice can also make forecasts (guesses) about what's going to happen next in an occurrence we're paying attention to. Or it can re-tell the same story over and over again in a person's mind, such as in grief. Or it can re-tell over and over again what harm or danger a person believes is about to occur and about which the person can do nothing--this is called worrying.
Some of this mental activity has no positive impact on the person who is enduring it, and may even have a negative effect--worrying is a good example of mental energy spent disablingly.
But our inner voice is so familiar to us that often we identify it as "myself." We simply take for granted that this inner voice is "the real me" talking to me, advising me, and directing me.
If that were the case, then how could we understand the experience of two inner voices, each telling you to think or say or do something which conflicts with what the other voice is telling you. ("Get the yellow one." "No, get the blue one. I like blue more than yellow." "No, get the yellow one. Wearing it will make me feel sunny and happy." And on and on.) In cases like this, which voice is "the real me"?
And, more importantly, what would happen if that inner voice stopped talking? Would you still exist? Or would "the real you" evaporate?
When I was a young man--a graduate student--I spent a month traveling in England. One afternoon, I was sitting in a passenger compartment alone, although 5 other people could have been sitting in the same compartment with me. Then the compartment door opened and a man walked in and sat down. He said to me, "Do you have that voice going on in your head all the time, thinking about this and that, always telling you what's going on with you or in the world around you?" It was an odd question, but I took it seriously because I had never thought before then about that interior voice, though I knew instantly when he described it what he was talking about. "Sure," I said. "Of course." "Of course?" he said. "What would happen if you knew a way to make that voice stop talking all the time?" I suddenly got very nervous and argumentative. "That's not possible," I said, agitated. "You can't shut that voice off. That voice is ME!" "You've got some things to learn yet," he said to me as he got up and opened the compartment door. He gave me a pamphlet and said, "Read this." I took it from him and watched him leave the compartment. "What a jerk!" I though to myself, as I threw the pamphlet onto the floor. It took me quite a while to calm down.
I didn't recall that episode until perhaps thirty years later, when I was beginning to understand what that man was talking about. I was learning then that silence of mind is a useful (and beautiful) tool, if you will, for entering peacefulness and for being aware of the present moment as it smoothly passes and continually changes into the present moment, leaving the previous present moment to remain only as a memory.
That interior silence is the way into the divine serenity of the present moment, when all things gather in relationship with each other as the One.
More on this next time.