Last time I touched briefly on our internal conversations and mentioned an article in the August issue of Scientific American, entitled Voices in Our Heads by Charles Fernyhough. Here I’d like to explore the potential of the ideas raised for growth and development.
In the first place, what the article calls ‘inner speech’ is not a solitary process but an actual conversation: a real dialogue between different perspectives. As such it can be developed and enhanced like any interaction. Fernyhough notes four main qualities of inner speech:
- Its dialogic nature: there is an interaction between different perspectives
- Its tendency to be condensed: like conversation between familiars
- The extent to which it can incorporate other people’s voices: parents, historical figures.
- Its role in evaluating or motivating our behavior: effecting actual change
It may be, the article concludes, that inner speech is a crucial piece of apparatus for taking our thoughts into new territories, and, I might add, taking our consciousness to new levels.
I’ve experimented with my own attempts at meditation, which is a form of inner speech, by overlaying the skills and structures of Dialogue. Applying the four stages of dialogue – connecting, exploring, discovering and harvesting – along with the necessary skills, to my inner speech might go something like this:
I connect at the beginning of a meditation by (a combination of) being present to my breath, scanning my body, noticing my feelings, acknowledging what is going on for me. The result is the same presence and compassion that is generated when I connect with anyone in a deliberate and skillful way.
The trust that accompanies such presence and compassion allows me to take the next step into an exploration of what is going on for me. I can deliberately listen to my inner conversation, allowing the different voices to speak without a rush to judgment. I can listen more calmly to the deeper movements, like the triggers that tend to elicit a knee jerk reaction, and instead ask a question to deepen my understanding. Finally I can hold the tension that differences cause rather than succumb to premature resolution.
I’d like to reflect on a practice here that I – and many before me – have found helpful, particularly in this stage of exploration: using a short reading or poem to focus the process. In the Christian world the practice has been known as lectio divina (literally ‘divine reading’). It involves reading a piece in a slow, meditative way, then pausing and musing on a word or phrase that touches in a deeper way. Here the focus is on musing or contemplating in the sense of pondering rather than analyzing. A second reading of the piece can deepen this contemplaiton, leading to a kind of listening for what is stirring in one’s heart. The process can continue in a similar way with further reading-contemplating.
In fact, this practice also includes what I have found to be the third stage of dialogue which is discovering by which I refer to listening FOR the new meaning that is often generated out of the tension between differences when they are held appropriately, that is without easy resolution or simple dominance by one. In the context of inner speech, it can be a way of building new meaning out of these flashes of insight.
Harvesting refers to the takeaway that is necessary if the process is to be fruitful and meaningful. It can take the form of a simple decision/commitment to continue the inner conversation at another specific time or to change a behavior that may be creating problems or to take a particular action that can be reviewed in a way that leads to real change.
I tend to close this inner conversation, the way I would any interaction, with a simple acknowledgment of what has occurred and a word of gratitude.
By way of commentary, let me add a couple of things: one is that it seems reasonable to me – and in fact I have found it most useful – to bring a measure of intention and skill to something that I do a lot of in a more random and even unhelpful way: inner speech. Another is to suggest that prayer – which is a form of inner speech – can be enhanced in a similar way. The poet, Mary Oliver, has suggested something of this nature:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention…
A final thought is on prayer as it is more traditionally understood as an interaction with God. The Scientific American article notes our capacity to converse with an entity that is not there – a deceased parent, for example – which is something we all do. It notes also the power of literature to colonize our thoughts in the sense of causing us to adapt the persona of a character from literature who can then shape our thinking and behavior. In one sense, traditional prayer is doing something like this. Certainly lectio divina is a deliberate practice to allow or invite another entity – whether a teacher or a God – to shape our inner (and outer) world. My dialogues with God or a deceased parent can be as richly creative as those I have with myself.
Of course, it might be suggested that these too – these deceased family members or wise people from the past or even this God – are simply aspects of myself. I have certainly engaged in conversations with my deceased father that were as real as any other conversation. And the fact that looking in the mirror and seeing my father looking out at me, especially as I get older, suggests that he is clearly part of my self. Perhaps, as Rilke suggests, this is the process of becoming: a kind of integration of all the different dimensions and levels of myself.
I live my life in ever widening circles,
each superseding all the previous ones.
Perhaps I never shall succeed in reaching
the final circle, but attempt I will.
I circle around God, the ancient tower,
and have been circling for a thousand years,
and still I do not know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a continuing great song?
This is a process that is ultimately infinite which brings me to my final thought about inner speech or talking to myself. I am inclined to define or describe prayer as this conversation with myself which is endless both in terms of its process and its goal or outcome. Prayer is a way of saying myself; it is speaking from what Yeats calls the ‘deep heart’s core.’ In this sense, it is related to my authentic self as a practice for helping its emergence and realization. Many of our intuitive remarks reflect this awareness in us all: ‘enjoy yourself, be yourself, get a hold of yourself, be true to yourself….’
As a postscript and in anticipation of the next post, I would suggest that there is always the danger of self-delusion in such inner speech, including meditation and prayer, which is why I believe that this project of self-discovery and self-becoming is best done with another, in relationship. At the least, this self-discovery process is enhanced by interaction with others. Which is why community has always been critical in the human journey. The philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, puts it clearly:
The more the self is engaged with other free individuals, the more the self is free..
In the meantime, does any of this ring true for you? Do you talk to yourself? Who is that self? Do you talk to others? To God? Why? I know these questions may sound a little challenging but perhaps they are also an opportunity to speak about something we have all wondered about at one time.