Awareness of our internal chatter can lead to insight.
- You are your brain.
- Being aware of being aware can help to improve peace of mind.
- People spend a lot of time talking to themselves but not much time listening.
Who doesn’t want to be the best person they can be?
Maybe a thought like this has never occurred to some people, but, judging from the number of books and workshops and YouTube videos and Ted Talks and websites that offer one self-improvement angle after another, personal betterment is a quest at the front of many people’s minds. Lots of experts from various fields, such as psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy seem eager to offer their insights, suggestions, and advice to speed up your progress on the self-help superhighway.
A common theme throughout this boundless assortment of self-help tactics, devices, and strategies is the idea that life can be improved through the more skillful use of our brains. For example, a recent Ezra Klein article in the New York Times1 about the way we think includes statements like, “I’m trying to work with my mind more and against it less,” and, “All we do is use our brains.”
Statements like these are strewn abundantly along the self-improvement trail. My interest now is more about the idea that there’s an “I” that “uses” something called “my brain.” The very obvious implication seems to be that all of us are made up of at least two parts: “me” or “I,” and “my brain.”
I find this distinction odd because, no matter what angle I think about it from, the inescapable conclusion is: I am my brain. You are your brain, too. Our brains are not tools or instruments like a hairdryer or a harp that are separate from ourselves. It’s all the one brain.
Why might this be important? If we think of ourselves as just one big interconnected hodgepodge of memories and plans and ambitions and irritations and wishes and concerns and preferences and goals, we can start to look more closely at what is going on. As undeniable as it is that all our thoughts and ideas and dreams and concerns and hopes are all brain activity, it is also certainly the case that it’s often possible to become aware of a kind of narration going on about our lives. And, you guessed it, the narration is also more brain activity.
It seems that, at any point in time, I can either be engaged in an activity, or I can think about the activity. If I pay attention, I can become aware of a chatter going on. It’s sort of like a voice but also different from an actual voice in ways that I can’t really describe. Nevertheless, I’ll often notice that the narration is describing or suggesting or predicting or reviewing or providing some other form of commentary about what’s going on right now or about something that has already happened, or even about possibilities that are yet to occur.
The narrating can include questions. You might be familiar with queries like, “When will you ever learn?” or, “How could you possibly have screwed it up?”
This ability to switch the focus of our attention seems to be one of the very cool features of the mystery we call “awareness.” For instance, I can pay attention to the clickety-clack of the keyboard as I type or I can remind myself to pick my son up from school in an hour’s time. I can focus on the brilliant blue of the Ulysses butterfly that is cavorting around in the air beyond my window or I can wonder if I’m living the life I want to live.
Intriguingly, one of the things we can pay attention to is awareness itself. We can become aware of being aware. I can notice that I’m noticing all these different things. And then I can notice that I’ve kind of stepped back from or popped up above it all.
As it happens, being able to switch points of view can be really useful. If we could squeeze the essential ingredient out of each of the offerings on the extravagantly abundant smorgasbord of psychological therapies and self-help programs, we would find that tinkering with awareness is the key. Various activities, like mindfulness or thought diaries or goal setting or exposure or progressive relaxation or chairwork or rescripting all have the purpose of helping people develop new perspectives by increasing their awareness of the happenings of their mind. In terms of what I’m discussing here, the general focus is getting people to spend more time thinking about what’s going on rather than being in the going on.
The basic idea to all of this is just to notice what you’re doing or thinking rather than only being in the doing or thinking. At any time, you could ask yourself “What am I thinking?” and then pay attention to what happens next. The acronym for this question is, ironically, “WAIT.” It’s ironic because, while we’re very good at telling ourselves what to do, we seem much less willing to wait for a response.
You can ask this question of yourself as often as you like. You can even ask the question of the question: “What am I thinking about what I’m thinking?”
You are your brain. You can’t use your brain as though it was a kitchen utensil, but you can get immersed in the hubbub of your mind and, through that immersion, you can spend time WAITing to float around above it all. From this bird’s-eye-view you can access at any time, you could find yourself discovering ideas and insights you might not have even known you were capable of creating. I hope you enjoy the voyage.