“The only difference between us and someone who is noticeably insane is that we are able to keep our mental chatter relatively inaudible.” -Eckhart Tolle
I looked out my window and noticed clouds in the sky. I thought to myself, “Strange weather.” Then I said out loud, “Strange weather.” Who the hell was I telling this to?
Have you ever been in a car with a driver who can not stop talking? They talk about a movie they saw, a book they are reading, something someone did or something that they will do in the future? I can think of no better example of just how much we identify with the voice in our heads- even at the expense of our and others safety when we are driving a potentially dangerous vehicle at high speeds.
We do the same thing when we are driving alone. We are usually more identified with the voice in our heads than we are with the experience of driving a car. While driving we are far away from that classic Zen saying: “When doing the dishes, just do the dishes. When walking, just walk.” While driving, very few of us are just driving. Even when we are cleaning our homes, taking a shower, sitting by a swimming pool or eating food you might noticed that you are more identified with the voice in your head than you are with the experience of what you are actually doing.
Why is this?
I was thinking about this as I was watering some of the plants in my garden this morning. I was thinking about why we are so identified with the endless mental chatter that runs through our heads, even when we know that it is the root of our unhappiness, anxiety and stress. It’s the equivalent to smoking cigarettes even though you know the cigarets are killing you- but still you can’t stop. As I was thinking about this I realized that I was lost in thought! I was more identified with the voice in my head than I was with the experience of watering my plants! I was thinking about this essay I wanted to write. I was thinking about what I was going to do tonight. I was thinking about a hundred different things that chattered their way through my mind. Compulsive thinking, thinking, thinking! But I was not even aware that I was standing in a puddle of mud.
In his book The Antidote, Happiness For People Who Can Not Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman writes in depth about how trying to make ourselves happy and successful (in order to avoid feelings of uncertainty) is precisely what sabotages the attempt. He writes about numerous individuals who have chosen a radically different and less forced positivity approach to achieving sustainable happiness and fulfillment. In one section of the book he visits the worlds best selling spiritual author, Eckhart Tolle, in his cramped and tiny apartment in Vancouver, Canada. In Tolle’s apartment Oliver (who is an award winning journalist) and Eckhart engage in an illuminating conversation about how we tragically misidentify who we really are with the voice in our heads.
Oliver asks Eckhart what he thinks is our biggest barrier to fulfillment and happiness. Eckhart replies by telling him that it is the compulsive voice in our heads:
“There is complete identification with the thoughts that go through your head. It’s just a total lack of awareness, except for the thoughts that are passing through your mind. It is a state of being so identified with the voices in your head that you actually think you are the voice in your head.”
Oliver goes on to write about how one day Eckhart Tolle, after suffering immense anxiety and depression, had the realization that “I am so sick of myself!” Eckhart thought to himself that this statement implied that “there must be two of me: the “I” and the “self” that I cannot live with. Maybe, I thought, only one of them is real. I was so stunned by this realization that my mind stopped. I was conscious but there were no more thoughts.” After his breakthrough Tolle, who was up until then on a path towards becoming a successful intellectual and academic scholar, no longer mistakenly believed he was his thinking: he saw himself instead as the witness to it.
The fundamental premise in Buddhist philosophy is that all suffering and unhappiness is the direct result of attachment. When we become attached to emotions, thoughts and perceptions we cause ourselves and others suffering. It is important to keep in mind that this does not imply that we do not value or care about the things or people in our lives. Being non-attached has more to do with the understanding or insight that the fundamental nature of everything in our lives (including us) is impermanent. The more we try and attach to things (whether it is our car, our partner’s happiness, our happiness, our security, our health) the more we will suffer when things change. “Everything is always changing,” I told myself last night as I abstained from reacting to feelings of anger when my dog put a giant hole in my brand new shirt.
As I was watering my plants in the garden, completely identified with the mental chatter that was running through my head, I was in a state of attachment. Attached to the thoughts about what “I” would do later or what “I” would write. As a result I felt somewhat dissatisfied and impatient, even while engaging in the peaceful and enjoyable activity of watering plants.
The practice of mindfulness can be summed up with one sentence: Aware and non-attached to the bundle of thoughts, perceptions and sensations that move through our consciousness. Just see what happens and be present with all the uncertainty that arises when we are not attached, could be the motto of mindfulness practice. When we practice mindfulness we experience what the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote about in the 18th century:
“I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they too are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement.”
Hume goes on to discuss how all human unhappiness and dissatisfaction is the result of being completely identified with this perpetual flux and movement. “Why don’t humans see this?” Hume often ruminated in his writings.
When we practice mindfulness we are aware of the voice in our heads, but not identified with it. We witness the flux of thoughts and emotions continually passing by, while sustaining non-attached awareness, which remains focused in the present moment. Whether we are driving cars or watering plants, we are being mindful when we are calmly observing rather than consumed by the compulsive thinking quest to make ourselves happy and secure at some point in the always illusive future. We notice the voice in our heads but are not identifying with it. When we do this we open up a new dimension of consciousness. We become aware of a deeper, more present self, behind or underneath our thoughts. As a result the compulsive thoughts lose their power and we are more aware that the reality that is our life right now has almost nothing in common with the voice in our heads.