Posted by: Steve Andreas in: Articles
Many people who are tormented by internal critical voices would like to eliminate them altogether, because they so often make them feel bad, and interfere with their living in other ways. For thousands of years Buddhism and a number of other spiritual traditions have advocated silencing the internal “chattering monkey” as a path to reaching enlightenment or nirvana. In the 60s and 70s this prescription was a key part of many “new age” programs that have been very popular, such as Ram Dass’ 1970s book, Remember, Be Here Now, and Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Therapy based on awareness of the “here and now.” In its newest bottle this old wine has been called “mindfulness.”
As I write this, Eckhart Tolle is making immense amounts of money promoting this ancient idea in his book A New Earth, in his interview series of the same name with Oprah Winfrey, and in many other audio books and products. An indication of the extent of this industry is that an Amazon Search for Eckhart Tolle turned up 809 products!
What would it be like to have no internal voices at all? And what would the consequences of this be? Fortunately, we have a coherent first-person account of what it is like. In 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who studied the brain, had a massive stroke when a blood vessel exploded in her left hemisphere, forming a large clot that pressed on her language area, eventually shutting it down altogether. Even though Taylor was a brain scientist, she didn’t immediately recognize what was happening to her. As her language and other left hemisphere functions gradually shut down, she intermittently entered a state that she described as “euphoria,” “nirvana,” and “La La Land,” in which she became less and less able to function. A dozen years later, after her hospitalization and recovery, she described her experience in a fascinating talk that you can view online at: http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/229
The following excerpts are from a transcript of that talk, which can also be found online at: http://blog.ted.com/2008/03/jill_bolte_tayl.php#more
“And I’m asking myself, ‘What is wrong with me; what is going on?’ And in that moment, my brain chatter, my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button and—total silence.
“And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.
“Then all of a sudden my left hemisphere comes back online and it says to me, ‘Hey! we got a problem, we got a problem, we gotta get some help.’ So it’s like, ‘OK, OK, I got a problem,’ but then I immediately drifted right back out into the consciousness, and I affectionately referred to this space as ‘La La Land.’ But it was beautiful there. Imagine what it would be like to be totally disconnected from your brain chatter that connects you to the external world. So here I am in this space and any stress related to my job—it was gone. And I felt lighter in my body. And imagine all of the relationships in the external world and the many stressors related to any of those—they were gone. I felt a sense of peacefulness. And imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage! I felt euphoria. Euphoria was beautiful—and then my left hemisphere comes online and it says ‘Hey! You’ve got to pay attention, we’ve got to get help.’ . . .
“So I gotta call help, I gotta call work. I couldn’t remember the number at work, so I remembered, in my office I had a business card with my number on it. So I go in my business room, I pull out a three-inch stack of business cards. And I’m looking at the card on top, and even though I could see clearly in my mind’s eye what my business card looked like, I couldn’t tell if this was my card or not, because all I could see were pixels. And the pixels of the words blended with the pixels of the background and the pixels of the symbols, and I just couldn’t tell. And I would wait for what I call a wave of clarity. And in that moment, I would be able to reattach to normal reality and I could tell, ‘That’s not the card; that’s not the card; that’s not the card.’ It took me 45 minutes to get one inch down inside of that stack of cards.
“In the meantime, for 45 minutes the hemorrhage is getting bigger in my left hemisphere. I do not understand numbers, I do not understand the telephone, but it’s the only plan I have. So I take the phone pad and I put it right here, I’d take the business card, I’d put it right here, and I’m matching the shape of the squiggles on the card to the shape of the squiggles on the phone pad. But then I would drift back out into La La Land, and not remember when I come back if I’d already dialed those numbers.
“So I had to wield my paralyzed arm like a stump, and cover the numbers as I went along and pushed them, so that as I would come back to normal reality I’d be able to tell, “Yes, I’ve already dialed that number.” Eventually the whole number gets dialed, and I’m listening to the phone, and my colleague picks up the phone and he says to me, ‘Whoo woo wooo woo woo.’ And I think to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, he sounds like a golden retriever!’ And so I say to him, clear in my mind, I say to him, ‘This is Jill! I need help!’ And what comes out of my voice is, ‘Whoo woo wooo woo woo.’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I sound like a golden retriever!’ So I couldn’t know—I didn’t know that I couldn’t speak or understand language until I tried.”
Notice that Taylor’s report shows how useful her internal voice was in understanding what was happening to her, and in urging her to get help. From “And I’m asking myself, ‘What is wrong with me; what is going on?’ ” to “Oh my gosh, I sound like a golden retriever!” her internal voice directed her attention in ways that probably saved her life.
Taylor’s report of euphoria and oneness is quite similar to the reports of some people who have used hallucinogenic drugs. Others have had similar experiences during epileptic seizures and other unique situations such as sensory deprivation tanks. Perhaps more interesting, the same kind of experience can be created without requiring a stroke, drugs, or extreme environments.
In an early NLP workshop, a man who had read far too many books about the importance of silencing your inner dialogue used his skills to do exactly that. For about an hour he experienced total internal silence—and total catatonic immobility. After he returned from this experiment, some exploration revealed that all his behavior began with some kind of direction from an internal voice, saying something like, “What shall I do next?” or “What’s most important now?” Without this voice, he was immobilized; he was “in the here and now” all right—just as many Alzheimer’s patients are—but he couldn’t get anywhere else, and he was totally incapacitated.
So while silencing your internal voices may be an interesting experiment, it has very significant practical drawbacks. Your mind may sometimes be a “chattering monkey” that criticizes and torments you, but at most other times it is a very valuable resource, one that probably no other animal has. Sometimes it just helps you remember addresses or phone numbers—an ordinary skill that can be easily “taken for granted,” until it’s no longer there! As Taylor discovered, this simple function can sometimes be very, very important. At other times a pair of internal voices might engage in a very useful discussion about the merits of what restaurant to go to, which car to buy, or whether to get married or not. Without those internal voices, you would be as helpless as Taylor was.
If we look a bit more closely at those who advocate silencing internal dialogue, we find some very interesting contradictions. One is that I haven’t heard of a single one of them who has volunteered to have their language area surgically incapacitated so that they could have Taylor’s experience. If nirvana is half as splendid as Tolle and others say, surely that would be a small price to pay.
One of Eckhart Tolle’s other books is titled, Silence Speaks, which indicates that for Tolle even silence has a voice! But more to the point, he couldn’t have created all those written books and audio CDs if he didn’t have an internal voice that he advocates evading or avoiding!
In simplified form, Tolle is saying, in words—and over and over again, “Words are useless; get rid of them.” If his statement were true, then it would be meaningless, because that statement is only a string of “useless” words, a logical paradox. Ram Dass’ book with the title, Remember, Be Here Now, is also an instruction with the same paradoxical structure—a rather large set of words that tells us to ignore words. Many people think that paradox is only of interest to philosophers and mathematicians, but it also occurs in many problems in everyday life that can have significant and troublesome consequences. In this case it results in millions of people spending tens of millions of dollars in a futile quest—using words (printed or spoken) to try to get rid of words.
Chimpanzees don’t have words (except for those who have been taught a few by psychologists) but most people don’t realize that if they got rid of words, they would become as limited as chimpanzees are. Tolle and others who advocate eliminating internal voices really should advertise it as a way to attain “chimpanzee consciousness,” “stroke consciousness,” or “Alzheimer’s consciousness”—and to be congruent they should do this without using any words! But somehow words like “enlightenment,” “the power of now,” “nirvana,” “unconditioned mind,” and other variations on that theme are much better for the marketing that maintains their employment.
By now it should be obvious that silencing all internal voices is a fairly drastic overreaction to a very limited problem. It is as if people said, “Some voices are troublesome, let’s eliminate them altogether, including the useful ones.” Some voices are indeed troublesome; what can we do to solve this problem without creating a much greater one?
If you have ever tried to stop a critical voice, you know that it is extremely difficult—if not impossible—to do. In fact, trying to get rid of it draws your attention to it even more, and results in making it more powerful, and your unpleasant response to it even stronger!
It works much better to make peace with a troublesome voice, and educate it, so that it speaks to you in ways that are more helpful and useful, becoming a friendly and supportive ally instead of a cruel tormentor. How to do that—in a variety of different ways—will be the subject matter of the chapters to follow.
(This is a draft of an early chapter of a book in progress.)