By Noelle Sterne
When you talk to yourself, what do you hear? Who’s really talking? Inside our heads, we’re always talking to ourselves. We hear many voices, and most of the time they’re far from friendly: “Hey, stupid, use the big bowl for all that pasta!” “The Phillips screwdriver, idiot!” “You want to do that? You must be kidding! You’re too old, tired, fat, lazy.”
Voices like these seem to whirl around endlessly. Psychologists call them the superego, inner judge, censor, internalized parent, and many other fancy names. A friend dubbed them “the bad priests.”
As you no doubt already know, these harsh, negative voices are insistent, tenacious, and stubborn. They easily dominate our minds. The more we try to ignore or quiet them, the more they clamor for attention. The East Indians name this part of the mind a “drunken monkey,” always chattering and condemning.
You may not believe it yet, but you can ignore that unruly creature, shut it out, starve it, and listen to something else instead that’s much more on your side. You reasonably ask, “Who the heck would that be?”
Beneath the frenzied surface of our daily trivia, endless judgments, catalogues of chores, and swirling wisps of past regrets and future fears, this is our Inner Guide, our Voice, who lives quiet, untouched, inviolate.
The Voice has many names: inner knowing, intuition, right brain, soul, higher power, inner self, true voice, Jesus, Holy Spirit, God, your heart, your gut. Over the centuries, many have acknowledged and developed it—artists, scientists, great leaders, enlightened beings, philosophers, and countless people like you and me. Most of the time, though, the Voice has been talked of or written about largely by mystics, and it’s been reserved for saints or schizophrenics.
With the exciting reawakening of spiritual consciousness throughout our culture, the Voice has again become respectable. It’s being rediscovered as a quality we all have and can develop. You may be familiar with your Voice and regularly consult it. If so, let this article be a reminder and refresher. Marianne Williamson describes our Inner Voice beautifully:
We are graced with a greater capacity for direct contact with our own higher power than most of us are in the habit of using. When we stay close to the wisdom of our own knowing, seeking solutions to our problems in the sanctuary of the heart and not in the vanity of the mind, then we can pretty much trust in the unfolding, mysterious wisdom of life. (“Meditation,” O, The Oprah Magazine, October 2000, p. 119)
As we lose our society’s embarrassment about drawing on resources other than the material and palpable, we gain the strength to recognize the value and virtue of our Inner Voice. It’s resurfacing (have you noticed?) not only in inspirational writings like Williamson’s, but even in the popular media, a testament to our society’s hunger for spiritual content. Inner listening is recommended in everything from diet advice (“Hear your body’s cravings for broccoli”) to clothes (“That purple shirt is crying out to you”) to dating (“Your stomach does flip-flops when you study his eyebrows, and it’s not indigestion”) to daily living (“Do you know when the phone will ring before it does?”) to major decision-making (“Something’s prodding you to take that job offer”).
All this acknowledgment doesn’t mean the Inner Voice is easy to find or listen to. We may read about it or hear dramatic accounts of how other people found theirs. I think especially of the dramatic account of the irreverent and candid Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love the first time she heard her Voice—in the middle of the night as she sobbed on the bathroom floor about her unbearable marriage (pp. 15-16). No one else’s experience, though, can substitute for our own. Like life, each of us must go through thestages ourselves.
Why should you care about finding your Inner Voice? Why is it so important? Like a kid pushed to violin lessons, you may be whining, “Aw, do I have to?”
No, you don’t. Here’s a good reason to take the lessons: If you don’t cultivate your Voice, you’ll never get to trust yourself—or your life. You won’t be able to succeed at the forgiving self-dialogues that help you see your past in a newer, more wholesome light.
If you’re no longer fighting the idea, let me help you locate your Inner Voice, separate it from all the others, and then foster it. In our sophisticated know-it-all or know-where-to-get-it-all culture, unlike our teaching about manners and the pursuit of money and ever more information, we have little valued this Voice or taught its importance. Despite our culture’s increasing and encouraging openness about spiritual matters, most of us find the concept of the Voice strange and slightly suspect. We need strong intent, determination, and some courage to recognize it.
Of the many voices that drown out our Inner Voice, the most insidious is the Inner Judge. This is the master negator and torpedoer, the ultimate disapproving and demeaning parent, the ever-demanding, never-sated god to which we’ve all sacrificed too much psychic energy and too many years.
I’m sure you know it well. Every time you do something good, solve something, or get a great idea, this is the voice that instantly trumpets, “Ridiculous! Who do you think you are? It will never work. Are you crazy? Don’t you know all the things that will go wrong? Let me count the ways.”
How, then, to turn off this endless doom-saying loop? I’ve learned, through much mind-gnashing, that to try to suppress it is almost impossible. It’s as stubborn as weeds. If you try to grind it into the ground, it will spring up again the minute you lift your foot. If you try to reason it to sleep, it will stay awake forever, cackle, and stare at you with hollow glee.
The better line of attack is to replace that ominous voice with more productive messages—following some principle we were supposed to learn in middle school science class, something about two things being unable to exist at the same time. The replacement principle can be triggered with many techniques. Here are several powerful ones.
Shout that monkey down. Give it some of its own medicine. Tell it, with all the force you can muster, “Shut up! You’re wrong! I am not crazy! I’ve never been saner, and you’re not gonna stop me!” Even if you don’t quite believe your own retorts, shout them anyway. Bellow as if you believe.
As you may know, affirmations are wonderful, elevating replacements that quiet the Inner Judge. A version of verbal prayer, they have been used for centuries. Many books contain excellent affirmations. Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life is one of my favorites. At the end of every chapter, she prints a meditation that sends you to the ceiling. Although specific to the subject, each begins with this: “In the infinity of life where I am, all is perfect, whole and complete.” You can also create your own affirmation for any event, circumstance, person, or quality you want to feel better about.
Follow only one rule: Always decree your affirmations in the present tense. Here are some broad-spectrum ones to spark your own:
- I am worthy of all good in my life.
- I deserve to love and be loved.
- I forgive myself and I am forgiven.
- I lack nothing. All I need is here now.
- I hear my true Voice now.
- I am guided to the right words, decisions and actions in this situation.
It’s okay. Praying doesn’t commit you to going to church on Sunday or major holidays, or joining committees. If you need reassurance, prayer has made it into the mainstream media. A while ago, an article in a supermarket magazinerecommended prayer for stress and recounted the stories of people who prayed for guidance in conquering, among other things, marital discord, fears and even to-do lists (Diane Benson Harrington, “Pray Away Stress: A Soothing Strategy,” Family Circle, January 20, 2004, pp. 30, 32-33). Current magazines and Internet features report almost daily on prayer as a force in solving problems, either in how-to articles or summaries of studies with 4,256 people in the Republic of AwGoOn.
If you think you don’t know how to pray, take a verse or hymn from childhood, a psalm, or even a Christmas carol, and repeat it to yourself. Or try a contemporary prayer, like one from Marianne Williamson’s Illuminata or Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul. I often use this statement from A Course in Miracles: “Let every voice but God’s be still in me” (Workbook, p. 411).
Silently or aloud, as you say a sentence like this or passage of your choice, focus on what it means. Let it saturate your attention. Keep repeating it and feel yourself lifting and lightening, yielding to the Higher Power. That’s prayer.
Although it’s close to prayer, meditation doesn’t need to have a religious connotation or mysterious quality. You don’t have to join an East Indian monastery or never lose your temper. Like prayer, meditation is now routinely written about and advised in magazines and online along with diets, relationships, kid-raising, and certainly stress. If you still don’t get it, you can buy Stephan Bodian’s Meditation for Dummies.
Despite the many books and articles about how to meditate, it’s basically simple: In a quiet place, with no distractions, take a few deep breaths. Choose a word, phrase or sentence, or one of your affirmations if you wish. The important thing is to pick something that grabs you or has special meaning. It doesn’t have to be an esoteric mantra, or right according to any authority. It only has to be right for you. Repeat it steadily, without pressing or hurry. Here are some examples: Peace, One, Love, Ahhhh, Joy, I am whole, I have all I need, I like myself, My world is established in Divine Order, God is with me, “In quiet I receive God’s Word today” (A Course in Miracles, Workbook, p. 220).
A warning, though: When you meditate, your Inner Judge, that old drunken monkey outraged at your audacity, will do its utmost to get your attention. It will likely succeed more than a few times, with all manner of ridicule, condemnation and barrages of random thoughts, scenes, lists and worries.
Recognize its antics and just keep coming back to your chosen meditative words. Like a good parent to yourself, be patient, steadfast, and forgiving, shepherding your child-mind to the sidewalk out of traffic. You’re steering your mind out of negativity to determination, self-confidence, and the good you deserve.
Emmet Fox in The Golden Key counsels wisely. Every time a negative thought comes up, he says, “Stop thinking about the difficulty, whatever it is, and think about God instead” (p. 2).
Cultivating your Voice takes desire and practice. Expect to hear it and make room for it. With one of the methods above, you can schedule special undisturbed times for practice. And you can give your Voice a chance in any situation. As you’re getting dressed, having lunch, or driving, consciously tone down the automatic background noises we’re so accustomed to. This may mean resisting the instant flip of the stereo or news the moment you get up, or tearing your eyes away from the TV in the lunchroom, or flipping off your iPhone earbuds the minute you start the ignition.
Cultivating your Voice may mean not grabbing the latest People magazine in the dentist’s office and devouring as much juicy pseudo-news as possible before your name is called. Not grousing to the person next to you while you wait a full 30 minutes on the ATM line. Not showing off your baseball stats while you wait in the car wash. But instead, repeat your word(s) and listen.
Go ahead. Test your Inner Voice. Find an undistracted spot, mentally and physically. Quiet down. Stop reasoning and figuring. Ask something simple: What should I cook for dinner tonight? Who should I phone next? Should I do this task or that?
If 26 things are whirling in your head, you’re not quite ready. Let them stream until they run out. Ask again. As your mind echoes the question you’ve asked, it may come up with some “good reasons” for choosing one over the others. Somehow these don’t convince you, and the whirling continues. Ask again. If there’s no clear-cut answer, just wait. Take a breath. Ask again Then you’ll hear it. Or maybe feel it, or see the image of it in your mind’s eye. You’ll know. The answer will feel right and perfect. And you’ll act.
Your Voice, Your Companion
Your Voice is given to you to be developed and used for anything you want or need to know. In all the ways that the Inner Judge condemns you, the Inner Voice—in reverse—helps you see the past more wholesomely, gain insights into present events, and take actions that will benefit you in the future.
It is with you always, waiting for your hello. As you continue to ask, listen, and “converse” with your Inner Voice, you’ll know without doubt and with great peace Who Answers when you talk to yourself.
Noelle Sterne, author, editor, academician, writing coach, mentor, and spiritual counselor, has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues. These include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Fiction Southeast, Funds for Writers, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Rate Your Story, Romance Writers Report, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. A spiritually-oriented chapter appears in Transform Your Life (Transformation Publishing, 2014). A story appears in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Touched by an Angel (2014), and another in a Tiny Buddha collection (HarperOne, 2015). With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for 30 years Noelle has assisted doctoral candidates in completing their dissertations (finally). Based on her practice, her handbook for graduate students helps them overcome largely ignored but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenge in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015). In Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. For more about both books and Noelle’s services, see her website: www.trustyourlifenow.com.