I appreciate Sam Harris’s apt analogy about inner monologues — being caught up in your own thinking is like having been kidnapped and held hostage by the most boring person on earth. You’re forced to listen, as though at gunpoint, to an internal commentator who insists on telling you its impressions of everything it notices or thinks about.
Nothing is too petty, too repetitive, or too obvious for the boring kidnapper’s ongoing monologue: Susan was wrong to criticize people who wear Crocs to the grocery store; a certain politician is the worst person alive and here’s why; your ex-partner was definitely out of line when he accused you of wasting dish detergent that time; the two halves of this Oreo don’t line up, but it would be so much nicer if they did.
If you’re ever able to step back from your own mental chatter, and listen to it with some critical distance, perhaps after a long meditation, or in one of those tired but insightful moments near the end of the day, you might find it indeed exhibits many of the characteristics of an extremely boring and self-absorbed person. It’s not that you yourself are this way — surely you don’t say everything that comes to mind. But the mind does.
Like the most boring person on earth, your inner orator repeats itself tirelessly, recounting its political convictions at every opportunity, or relating facts and stories it knows you already know. It believes everything it says is of riveting importance, just because it thought of it. It also sings. It sings haphazard bits of songs like Wake Me Up Before you Go-Go, or Never Gonna Give You Up, without provocation. And it never believes it has said enough, happily filling any gap that might otherwise be used to silently appreciate the moment as it is.
I’m aware not everyone’s inner voice is quite like that, and I don’t mean to paint idle thinking as being all bad all the time. Even the most incessant and reactive stream of mental talk can occasionally be helpful (although how it helps, exactly, is a bigger discussion).
In any case, mental talk does seem to vary immensely between individuals, in style and tone. For some people, their mental talk mostly sounds like their own voice, offering commentary and non-sequiturs as life unfolds. For others, it resembles the voice of a parent, or a celebrity, or a bickering Italian couple. Some people insist they have no inner monologue at all, and are astonished to hear that others experience such a thing.
It’s also possible, I suppose, that some people have mental chatter that only comes up with fascinating and original observations. It think it’s safe to say though that (a) most of us do experience some sort of mental talk, which habitually voices our impressions of the world, and (b) it sometimes dominates our experience in a very unpleasant way, especially when we’re feeling worry or anxiety. Those are the occasions when the kidnapper goes from verbose and boring to verbose and extremely pessimistic, and it’s hard not to start believing his paranoid theories.
This explains why people sometimes say they wish they could turn their chattering minds off for a while. This can be done, under certain circumstances — if you don’t mind exposing yourself to the downsides of hard drugs, death sports, or other drastic pursuits. Otherwise, the overly talkative mind is just a condition of reality we must learn to manage.
There are lots of ways to help manage mental talk, but here’s one that takes twenty seconds and gives you a little of that precious critical distance from what your mind is saying. It allows you, at least, to turn the boring kidnapper into something more akin to a boring television show playing in the other room.
The person who taught me this didn’t give it a name, but I call it Corner Glimpsing. It involves glimpsing briefly at the corners of the room you’re in, or the corners of any physical thing really (a desk, a monitor, etc). By doing this, you recapture attention that had been previously occupied by mental talk — attention the boring kidnapper depends on to continue his diatribes — and bring it to visual experience.
You do it like this:
1. Notice that you’ve been caught up in thinking (i.e. held hostage by the boring kidnapper)
2. Don’t worry about halting the thinking. Instead, direct your attention to any physical corner — of the room, a window frame, a shelf, any place where two or more lines converge. Spend a few seconds looking at the corner, noticing its simple shape and color.
3. Turn your gaze to a different corner, and look at it for a few seconds.
4. Move your gaze like this to eight or ten different corners, spending a few seconds glimpsing at each one. When you switch corners, turn your whole head, not just your eyes.
(Some of you who have taken Mindfulness for Relaxation might already know this trick from the included “Anxiety Kit” booklet.)
You might discover that this simple act of looking, if you do it sincerely, loosens the grip of idle thought. The mental chatter may continue, but it has to drop into the background for you to really look at something.
You use corners for this exercise because they’re just bare convergences of lines, so they don’t give the mind much to analyze or opine on. If you looked at the contents of your bookshelf instead, the boring kidnapper would be right at your ear again, telling you how she once read the first fifty pages of Moby Dick and should really get back to it, or that bright orange has become a strangely common color choice for book spines in recent years.
After a half-minute or so of Corner Glimpsing, the small release from captivity it affords gives you a chance to put your attention where you actually want it: on the task at hand, or somewhere else where it can be more useful.
Corner Glimpsing also shows you that whether you’re stuck in your thoughts is really a question of where your attention is pointing, not whether there are thoughts occurring. The would-be kidnapper never runs out of stuff to say, but you’re the one who ultimately decides where the attention goes.
Photo by Mauro Mora