The Deeper Layers of Mindfulness

“Realize that you are in there. You must first come to realize that you are in there. From deep inside, you are experiencing the world. You are experiencing your physical body, your thoughts and your emotions. You are conscious and you are experiencing what it is like to be human.” Michael Singer

An article in the New Yorker grabbed my attention and lingered with me for days. In his article, Actually People Still Like to Think, Ferris Jabr describes a study that concluded that given the option, most people would rather voluntarily shock themselves than be left alone with their thoughts.
Jabr goes on to dissect the questionable conclusions the researchers drew and speculates that it’s likely that the subjects (and most of us, I’d say) simply do not like their ‘mental weather.”  We are, Jabr suggests, averse to the unpleasant wanderings of our minds and hesitant to spend much time there.
While one of the study’s co-authors, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, declared that People prefer electric shock to thinking,” his sweeping generalization deserves some serious unpacking.
As a long-time practitioner of mindfulness meditation, Gilbert’s hyperbolic conclusion doesn’t completely surprise me.  It takes a great effort for most people to sit with their own thoughts without distraction.  Sure plenty of people seek quiet times – reading, listening to music, cooking, taking walks – but these activities engage the mind and keep it occupied.

What We’re Avoiding is our “Untrained” Mind

Truth is we’re all subject to the ramblings of our untrained minds.  Very few of us are taught to think about how we think. Few of us question the nature of our thoughts. Even fewer have learned the art of mental self-discipline.
Being alone with our thoughts is inescapable. We unconsciously construct a stream of regular diversions to keep our minds focused out there – instead of in here.
At the center of all of our unexplored and unexamined thoughts resides the voice inside our heads. In his seminal book, The Untethered Soul, author Michael Singer takes a deep dive into the myopic unknown that is the domain of this voice.  Singer reminds us, “In case you haven’t noticed you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops. Have you ever wondered why it talks in there? How much of what it says turns out to be true? How much of what it says is important? And if right now you are hearing, “don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have any voice inside my head!” – that’ the voice we’re talking about.”
I don’t think the subjects in the study mentioned earlier prefer shocks to the thinking process itself – it’s the content of most of their thoughts they want to escape.  Visions of wonderful vacations, promotions and happy relationships are not the usual stuff of the average mindset. Most minds are prone to unhelpful comparisons, self-criticism and gibberish.
The “untrained” mind (a reactive mind prone to uncontrolled random thoughts and distractions) tends to dwell on the “negative.” It is essentially judgmental in nature. The voice, a critic and narrator, is talking to someone – the question is who.
The voice/voices act like sentinels patrolling the external world for threats and rewards. Perception does the instantaneous work of taking things in and allowing us to experience them. Most of what goes in – comes out without effect.  But every once in a while something gets through that triggers an old thought pattern or strikes an old emotional chord and the voice is ready with commentary and interpretation.
Part of the problem, author Michael Singer, explains is our resistance to uncomfortable thoughts. When we resist, we get stuck in the energy patterns that cause our mental disturbances.It’s a phenomenal system (perception) when it’s working properly. Many different experiences will come and pass through you. If you could live in that state, you would be a fully aware being.”
Problem is we allow ourselves to get emotionally hooked when we hold on to these thoughts and feelings rather than letting them go. Singer says, “You’ll never be free of problems until you are free from the part within that has so many problems. To attain true inner freedom, you must be able to objectively watch your problem instead of being lost in them.”
If you’re interested in becoming more proficient in mental and emotional self-management it’s useful to understand how your Reticular Activating Systems (RAS) works. The RAS is a pattern seeking detector fixed on selecting information that reinforces beliefs.
The RAS plays an important role in determining the content of your thoughts. Think of your RAS as an information filter. Without it, you’d go mad trying to sort and comprehend thousands of bits of unnecessary information
The RAS is like a switching system (the only sense bypassing it is smell) that allows about 2000 bits of information per second to pass through.  When the mind is clear and calm, the RAS does its job beautifully – making connections, activating focus and attention and retrieving appropriate memories for the completion of mental tasks.
When the mind is anxious, input instead activates the amygdala (our flight or fight center) and thinking becomes muddled – triggering stagnant emotions.   Because of the brain’s built-in tendency to operate on stored programs, most of us function on a form of mental auto-pilot unless we consciously intervene. The RAS is the ultimate self-regulation tool because of its role to switch from the perception of things outside of us to perceptions of things within our internal world.
Every time we learn to detach from a thought or voice that feels obsessive or emotionally charged by allowing it without reacting to it, we’re strengthening the RAS by signaling the value of the information as important or not.

Freedom from Yourself

One of the most powerful ways you can learn to calm the reactive mind is through the active practice of some form of mindfulness. This is, in short – the ability to bring your awareness to the present moment – with as little judgment as possible, to observe the contents of the mind.
Here’s the key – The repeated practice of mindfulness strengthens our cognitive ability to select or release welcome or unwanted information flowing through our brains.
Unless we begin to learn to “stand back” and observe what we actually are thinking, the mind continues to run the same programmed thought patterns. The purpose is not to “fix” or “problem-solve” but to notice and allow thoughts to surface without becoming hooked on them.  In the process, we are retraining the mind to undo its chronic reactivity.
Even a simple practice of learning to bring your conscious attention to ordinary activities begins to surface our incessant chatter.  David Cain at Raptitude points out, “You will soon that the trains of thought you have to interrupt to be mindful are seldom interesting or useful. Most of it is just noise, perpetuating itself only because you’re not putting your intention anywhere on purpose. Junk food for your mind.”
When we begin to pay attention to our mental wanderings, we will also notice more of what we feel. Thoughts triggers feelings (“I really don’t want to go to work today.”“I can’t stand having the same meetings over and over.” “I can’t make a move now though because it will be too risky.” “Maybe I will wait until the performance reviews have been done.” “No, that’s not a good time because the kids will be out of school and I won’t have the time for job hunting.”)  and feelings trigger more thoughts.
Depending on how emotionally invested you are in any of your mental meanderings, unrestrained thinking will prompt a roller coaster of feelings. This is often how we allow the background noise of unregulated thinking to constantly reinforce and re-trigger our emotional state.
One of the most common myths about mindfulness practice is that the goal is to stop the mind. Believing this is a pointless source of frustration, especially for the novice.
The unobserved mind can run our lives. Beneath the clamorous voices is a quiet that you will discover. You’ve spent your entire mind filling your mind with thoughts – and while some are useful and even wonderful – most just cloud your experience and divert you from the possibilities of tapping inner peace.
There is nothing esoteric about developing the skills of mindfulness. Everything you are experiencing in your mental, emotional and physical world depends on it.  Your ability to see the workings of your own mind more clearly is the greatest power you can achieve.
Again, Michael Singer explains beautifully, “When you begin to notice who is experiencing your experience, eventually you will get to a point within yourself where you realize, you, the experiencer and the experience have a certain quality. And that quality is awareness, consciousness and an intuitive sense of existence. You know that you’re in there. You don’t have to think about it; you just know.”

You just know.  That’s the freedom.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Photo: First Light 4 Corners AZ Matt Walker


  1. As always, Louise, this is beautifully and brilliantly done.
    One of my own “thought experiments” over the past year or so has been to notice when the inner critic is hosting too much of the dialogue; then making a deliberate shift to thinking about something I’d rather have going on in my head — for example, a particularly meaningful conversation I had earlier in the day or celebrating a piece of work that I got done or especially liked, thinking about someone I love, etc. This is not meant as a form of suppression, just choice making that liberates me from the critic’s rigid allegation that I MUST PAY FULL ATTENTION ALWAYS to the critic — or I’ll pay. (Can you hear how tyrannical that message from the critic can be?) The effect is that of turning aside from critical and useless chatter by reminding myself of what feels good — as a kind of inner mutiny.
    What I find especially interesting is that I rarely need more than the briefest moment’s shift to put me back in touch with a quiet that exists in the interstices, neither negative nor positive, and beyond all that. The mutiny seems to be a “choiceless choice,” if that makes any sense at all.

    • Hi Dan,
      Thanks for your generous appreciation. The voice inside our heads (long a fascinating subject of study for me – probably to quiet the inner tyrant, which I’ve learned to do with a firm, yet more gentle approach in recent years) is of course, multiple voices. Although many speculate whether these voices represent separate “selfs,” most theorists agree that we’re talking about old, conditioned voices from our early years. I suspect these are fused with emotional memory – a major reason for their durability. So, I guess in saying this, I believe that listening more deeply at persistent messages, can have value if if we’re willing to look at the emotional connection.
      I’ve also learned through years of meditation that the brain is always talking (usually “evaluating” as the brilliant Michael Singer points out) what it likes and what it doesn’t like. Consequently, it’s maddening and unnecessary to pay attention to all of it.
      It’s a fine dance, greatly aided by increased awareness of it all. One very gifted friend suggests extending more loving kindness and compassion to the harsher voices recognizing that their
      deeper intention is self-protection even in their chaotic, disembodied state. This, too, can have the impact of quieting.
      Your last point is important to remember – that the awareness, the intent, however brief, can bring us back to the deeper place of knowing.
      Then there’s the question that teachers like Eckhart Tolle and others pose – so who is it – that’s doing the watching?

      • Louise~
        Who indeed! I appreciate your expansion here around the voices. They are a favorite topic of mine, as well. That often unruly mob likes to get its attention!
        I want to reinforce what your friend said about voices and self-protection, which may well be a clue to why they are there in the first place. A colleague of mine has asserted that they are self-protective, even in their disembodied state, because that was their original purpose — to protect us from risks that were considered too dangerous.
        For example, a friend whose parents fought a great deal when he was child often retreated to his bedroom. Leaving his bedroom to go back to the living room when he was a child was a risk — he never knew what fight might be going on and how he’d be painfully drawn into it. It’s no wonder that he now sometimes gets stopped, metaphorically at the “door of his bedroom,” when having to take an interpersonal risk with others. The voices warn him of the danger, even if the current risk is relatively minor. So the voices operate as vestiges of something that actually once served to protect him.
        If this is the case, even as they become excessively critical and tyrannical, one approach is to thank these voices, honoring their intent to protect, but then also asking them to “step back” so that the adult self can move forward, making choices that don’t require the vigilance once demanded of the child.
        It is a fruitful and clarifying thing to draw out these connections to emotional memory, especially when its possible to see how the demands started from a positive intent. They then look like husks that are due to fall away as we become truer selves.
        Thank you again for a wonderful post.
        All the best

        • Hi again Dan ~
          Great points. Well you know that certain branches of psychotherapy (gestalt) comes to mind) actively work with these voices and disaffected “parts,” often with great success.
          I learned that what the “voices’ most need is the understanding and compassion that were often denied. They need the loving kindness of unconditional love within gentle boundaries ~
          just as any loving parent would extend.
          But the messages many (shall I dare to say – most, or at least, too many) children receive can be ignored, shamed or even brutalized. This, of course, within the context of harsh, unfeeling
          cultural norms. Even today, with heightened awareness about parenting, absence, distance and benign neglect, can leave the voices hungry for attention that morphs into control, even obsession.
          Great to have this conversation.
          Peace ~

  2. Louise~
    All this reminds me of a bumper sticker I once saw. You know — many people put up something on the back of their car that says, “Back off!” or “If you can read this you are driving too close!” The bumper sticker I found the scariest — which I suspect actually resulted in people creating more space between vehicles — was “I do what the voices tell me to do.”
    I am in total agreement that the voices need a parent’s gentle touch to quell their painful origins and establish boundaries. It seems to me there’s always room for gentle inquiry, as well. “Where does this voice come from?” I’ve asked, and that, too, seems to help. Perhaps this is the Gestalt approach — I don’t know Gestalt psychology that well. In a related way, I’ve done a few exercises scripting an imagined conversation among several inner personas: the “shamer,” of course, the “lonely child,” the observer” and so on, and found it revealing and useful as a way to better hear these separate components of self, their bickering, their inner political moves, and so on. Some of it is laughable written down in this way, and some poignant, referencing losses from long ago.
    Perhaps it was Milton in Paradise Lost who first poetically captured this inner world so well — via Satan’s pre-existential wail: “Myself am hell” — a perfect description of the demons to be wrestled with. A more modern, more compassionate counterpoint would be from Mary Oliver’s superb poem, The Journey, where each voice cries “Mend my life!” Insistent, but essentially powerless, the protagonist, discovers a “new voice,” learns to stride “deeper and deeper into the world,” to “save the only life [anyone of us] could save.”
    All this seems to me a meaningful path to a certain kind of liberating self-understanding. To hold our attention long enough to hear the actual messages, to inquire, to limit, to repair and redeem, well that to me is a real discipline and, maybe, better said, a practice that never ends.

    • Dan~
      When David Whyte reads (and he does a wonderful job of it, if you haven’t heard him) there’s a plaintiff cry for the deeper understanding you speak of in Mary Oliver’s “The Journey.” Those voices that we’ve introjected that cry “Mend my life,” shroud the deeper yearnings that you so beautifully describe, when you say ~
      “this seems to me a meaningful path to a certain kind of liberating self-understanding. To hold our attention long enough to hear the actual messages, to inquire, to limit, to repair and redeem, well that to me is a real discipline and, maybe, better said, a practice that never ends.”
      And the truth is – it never ends. The “practice” is life.
      Love the conversation.

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