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:

  1. Its dialogic nature: there is an interaction between different perspectives
  2. Its tendency to be condensed: like conversation between familiars
  3. The extent to which it can incorporate other people’s voices: parents, historical figures.
  4. 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.

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  1. Rev. Franklin Vilas  - August 8, 2017 - 6:09 am
    Reply /

    Carl Jung, in working with his own inner material and in his work with patients, practiced what he called “active imagination”, which involved a dialogue with inner figure and events that occurred in dreams. He found that such dialogues opened the psyche to the deep personal and collective unconscious, and moved the person along the road of individuation.

    Jung’s famous “Red Book” contains the results of this inner dialogue. Ultimately, it brought the ego into conversation with the Self, that deeper inner archetype through which he believed the human is met by the divine, and the Imago Deity in the unconscious is activated.

    Best to you and Ann,

    • Danny  - August 10, 2017 - 9:52 am
      Reply /

      I appreciate your Jungian scholarship, Skip: it is particularly relevant here. I like how he sees inner dialogues as a way of opening up the psyche to the deep personal and collective unconscious and thereby moving the person toward individuation. I sense though that the conversation between the ego and the Self fosters more than individuation as it is normally understood. Though perhaps Jung saw individuation as union with Life or God….

  2. Hans  - August 8, 2017 - 1:03 pm
    Reply /

    In my experience this approach facilitates our escape from the prison of words, which always keeps us bound to rather strict definitions in our minds, and often cause communication breakdown because our neighbor’s often slightly different definitions.
    Once outside the prison of words, we may more easily enter through the veil into the inner realm of intuition, and even revelation, …in other words, …approach Home!

    • Danny  - August 10, 2017 - 9:55 am
      Reply /

      Hans, I am always moved by the way you are able to bring your prison work to reflections of this nature. I came across this poem by RD Laing that reflects the challenge you point to:
      The range of what we think and do
      is limited by what we fail to notice.
      And because we fail to notice
      that we fail to notice
      there is little we can do
      to change
      until we notice
      how failing to notice
      shapes our thoughts and deeds

  3. Steve  - August 8, 2017 - 2:56 pm
    Reply /

    A very compassionate approach to the self! We do not force ourselves into a linearity – which I tried for years and hurt very much – but rather listen to all the words, embracing them as God or another Lover might. And good things happen.

    • Danny  - August 10, 2017 - 9:58 am
      Reply /

      Thanks Steve: ‘Listen to all the words…embracing them…’ How true! And how difficult to simply listen and meet words, experiences, others without the immediate rush to interpretation, judgment, reaction….. When we do, as you rightly note, I believe, good things happen.

  4. Diane J. Abatemarco, PhD, MSW, Mother, Grandmother  - August 25, 2017 - 10:17 am
    Reply /


    I so enjoyed the posting and contemplated the idea of inner dialog that is different from our storylines that we might tell ourselves and that keep us trapped in struggle. And although I find meditaton and contimplation useful I do find that it is and always has been that the highest levels of awareness I’ve experienced are when I am in the midst of a safe and open community.

    As I’ve mentioned previously, I hypothesize that resilience is something we can nurture in ourselves and others; for I believe that the more curageous we are with sharing our pain and struggle with others the greater our resilience will be. At least this has been my experience and it is what I observe in others who have had much more complex and difficult lives than me.

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