In this series of posts I am using the metaphor of “staying on the inside” to explore the common human experience of isolation and fragmentation and also some possible solutions for it.
We have all developed…or inherited…a habit of looking at our lives and our selves from the outside-in. We watch ourselves living, as much as we live, we experience ourselves experiencing, as much as we experience, and we are conscious of ourselves being conscious, as much as we are conscious.
How does this happen? How do we manage to get outside of ourselves so that we can look back in at ourselves. Our eyes don’t pop out of our heads and hover over us. So how do we do it?
This is a fascinating question and if we look closely we will see that the outside/in view of ourselves is contained in a constant stream of inner dialog that we are having with ourselves. While we sit typing, we are also describing ourselves typing to ourselves. We might be happy about it, or upset about having to do it. Either way we are aware that we are typing through an inner dialog that is constantly describing our experience to ourselves while we are having it.
“It is cold and I am tired. I should stop this.”
“It is great that I am finishing this.”
“I don’t think this is my best writing, I should try again in the morning.”
We are all very familiar with the unending stream of commentary about ourselves that runs through our heads. It is like having your own inner news caster reporting and commenting on everything you do.
This relentless commentary is the source of our sense of fragmentation and alienation. We feel fragmented because we are split into seemingly different parts. There sometimes seem to be so many different parts of ourselves all with their own desires, fears and agendas. And all these voices in our heads are clamoring for control, insisting that they know best and trying to compel us to do their bidding.
We feel alienated from ourselves because in all the cacophony of voices we can’t find ourselves. We don’t know who we are. We find ourselves outside of who we are, wondering which of these voices is really me?
The source of the problem is not the voices in our heads. It’s our identification with them that is the problem. So many of the thoughts we have, we relate to not as thoughts, but as me thinking. And this is where the challenge lies. If all these different thoughts, with all their various agendas, and all their disparate desires, fears and concerns, are all me thinking then I can start to feel crazy and lost. Who am I in the midst of all this?
Staying on the inside in this case means never forgetting that none of these thoughts, none of the voices in your head, are you. You are always whatever or whoever is aware of the thoughts and the voices. You are not any thought, or any voice in your head. You are that which is aware of them all.
This recognition, that you are that which is aware and not any of the things that you are aware of, is the essence of what many of the Eastern approaches to enlightenment teach. It is also the essence of what William James was working with in his insistence that the world is made up of pure experience. There are no objects in the world, just experience that overlap and interact and in their willy-nilly way are propelled forward through time.
As we recognize ourselves not to be any of the voices in our heads, but always only that which is aware of them we come home. We find ourselves at peace in the reality of who we are. And we are then free to listen to the various voices or not as we see fit.
Reading your blog I doubted the fact that we ‘consciously’ look at ourselves. Most of the time we are not aware of the way we think (you write about that in your book). In your book you write: ‘All of the incoming information that we receive has to be arranged to create a picture that does not conflict with the past’. As Heidegger says, we only become aware of the thinking structure when something goes wrong. And also: it is through thinking structures that we connect, in this sense even ‘thinking from inside out’ needs fellow thinkers to connect. When… Read more »
Jeff, as always I am grateful for your framing of deep meditations upon which we can reflect and comment. As I thought about this tendency for us to confused thinker and thought as well as all of the anxiety, alienation and distress it causes us, I also recalled the many moments in each day when we are so engaged in a present activity that there is no inner dialogue with it’s attendant I’ll effects. Recognizing and exploring the qualitative differences between these two types of experience helps form a foundation for really believing that and being comforted by the reality… Read more »
Jeff/All, sorry for the typos. My spell check seems to be overly active!
Right on, Jeff. Very clear. Thanks.
Jeff…once again you’ve clearly and simply articulated a reminder of who we really are…thank you!
Our thoughts are constant but the more we quiet our “monkey mind” the more relevant our thoughts can be. I also know that it’s not so much what and who we think we are but more how we act and behave in our lives.