Arguably, we tell ourselves lots of things: Remember to call grandma tonight. That broccoli should steam until 7:22. It’s hot inside. While it is true that many of these thoughts are not conscious, is it possible for a task to be completed without observation and self-instruction? Such thoughts probably do not occur in full sentences, regardless of what the italicized dialogue in conventional novels or the soft-spoken voice-overs in movies might have us believe. Perhaps because we are already aware of the concepts taking shape in our minds, we think in phrases, keywords, or simply a set of emotions. Why we think to ourselves over the most mundane of things is up for debate, although one might argue that as social creatures, we are so used to vocalizing our thoughts, observations, and desires to others that we simply cannot go without remarking upon them, even to ourselves.
What if, instead, we were to silence our minds? Anyone who has participated in a meditation exercise will know that he or she is supposed to let go of the thoughts, the to-do-lists, and whatever else crowds his or her mental space. Instead, we are to exchange those thoughts of the past and the future for thoughts regarding the present moment. Close your eyes to the visual stimulation around you. Focus on the flow of your breath. Ground yourself, and feel your feet, or your seat, heavy on the floor. And, if you are having trouble keeping your other thoughts at bay, imagine your breath as a wave, ebbing and flowing and swirling around you. Ultimately, you should reach an empty space, where you are aware, but not thinking.
That can be a tall order. Before you are aware of it, you may be pacing your breath, counting to four with every inhale and counting again to four, forward or backward, as you exhale—particularly if you have an extensive background in music and a lot of experience with four-four meter. You might focus on your belly swelling as your diaphragm stretches, and the sensations it causes, because when else do you consciously take such deep breaths? When I was younger, and I found myself occasionally tracking the rhythm of my breath, I used to do everything I could to trick myself into not thinking about it. I would start to wonder how I was supposed to take a breath without actually telling myself to, and try to remember how I was breathing an hour ago, or yesterday, or the past nine years of my life, without thinking about it. It seemed to take a lot of mental power to think about breathing, and the only thing that could relieve that burden was a distraction—something else to think about.
Perhaps a less childish example is the mental soundtrack, that song stuck in your head that plays in endless loops. I find it most annoying when it’s a song that I don’t know well enough, when I can only remember how the chorus goes so that the same 23 seconds plays without end, because I can’t remember the bridge to get to the end of the song. Some people swear that actually listening to the song stuck in your head will get it out of your head. Others will listen to anything other than that cursed track. Others marvel at the fact that I don’t always have a song playing my head, because doesn’t everyone have their lives accompanied by a soundtrack? While there is no good explanation (or universal cure) for this unfortunate malady, it’s a good example of what can pop up in your head when you don’t have something to think about, and even when you do have something else to think about and can’t afford the distraction.
Some people also struggle with other consequences of the words that weave in and out of their lives. For some people, it’s difficult to go to dinner parties without staying up all night replaying the conversations in their heads. Some personalities are prone to analyzing the moments of each verbal repartee, coming up with witty comebacks and agonizing over why-didn’t-I-say-that moments. But even for those who don’t really care about what transpired early in the evening, the conversation re-plays with startling clarity, until they realize with irritation that they’ve pretty much memorized the inconsequential dialogue, actual or doctored, that could be considered a waste of mental space. Even though the momentary conversation has long since passed, clearing it from your mind can feel impossible until you somehow manage to fall asleep—and then groggily wake up, wishing you remembered how you had finally managed to quiet your mind and succumb to slumber, all the more useful for the next time this happens.
Perhaps, our internal dialogue is not so useless. Maybe the voices in our heads serve a function, as a trail of consciousness that reminds us of our mental capabilities or a protective blanket from loneliness. When all of that thinking gets to be too much, perhaps the trick to making peace with the chattering in our minds may not be to push them out, but rather to slowly nudge the conversation in a different direction. A penny for your thoughts?