Thinking about thoughts

Life is a continuous struggle to quiet the mind. This is an ancient belief, at least as old as Buddhism.

Our brains emit an endless stream of commentary for an audience of one that has the illusion of being a conversation. People who lack social awareness — because of abnormal brain chemistry (insanity), because it’s no longer necessary (isolation), or because they don’t care (eccentricity) — conduct these conversations out loud, often to the amusement or confusion to those around them. In a talk for his book Waking Up, Sam Harris says, “Imagine if other people could hear your thoughts broadcast on a speaker all day long. You would seem completely insane.”

It’s also insane that we give this fickle lecturer any credence. But we do. We let this voice affect they way we feel and the construction of our self-image. And unfortunately, most often he’s a critic. According to productivity expert David Allen, “80% of what you say to yourself in your head is negative.”

The vast majority of the objective factors in your life can be enviably great, but if you make a trivial error, such as telling a bad joke among a group of friends, you will be consumed by that embarrassing moment. Well after everyone else who heard the joke has forgotten it, you will be up late replaying the horror in your mind without any sensible purpose. Anybody can recognize how pointless an exercise this is. But the thoughts won’t stop harassing you. Those who suffer the most from self-flagellation are diagnosed as neurotic.

Positive thoughts aren’t necessarily better. Your mood might temporarily improve, but their truth value is equally dubious, and their permanence equally tenuous.

From a scientific perspective, there’s no clear answer to what a thought is. They arise, are “held” somewhere as they happen, then disappear. Thoughts, like memories, have no locus in the brain so it’s unclear where or how they occur. One scientist writes, “What thoughts are remains mysterious from a neuroscientific point of view. They are certainly caused by brain function, but we do not yet have a solid idea regarding what it is about brain function that gives rise to them.”

To recap: thoughts are relentless, opaque, and more often than not, hostile. They are a source of great suffering for people who can’t regulate or learn how to tolerate them.

Assuming one’s physical needs are attended to, quieting one’s mind should be a major personal project for everyone. We are at our most content when we are in the midst of flow, when we are deeply engaged in an activity and lose our sense of self.

When the inner critic is silent.

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