I’ve been doing a ton of spirituality-based reading recently and I can tell you unequivocally that Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul speaks the loudest. I finished it over a week ago and yet I keep going back to re-read sections that grabbed me. I recommend it to everyone I meet. I talk about it constantly. I can’t get it out of my mind. You know how in my last post I talked about making a shift? THIS BOOK shifted the hell out of me.
Literally the first eighteen words of chapter one made me stop in my tracks: “In case you haven’t noticed, you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops.” WHY HAVE I NEVER GIVEN THIS ANY THOUGHT??? It never occurred to me to take a step back, examine this voice, and try to understand what was going on. Singer says we’re too close to this voice to be objective, but that as soon as we step way back and observe the voice, we immediately realize it never. shuts. up.
The voice: a constant stream-of-consciousness babble that asks and answers its own questions, worries about things over which it has no control, assigns motives to other people’s actions when in fact it has no idea what their motives really are, argues with itself, changes sides from moment to moment, and never admits when it’s wrong. It’s as if you have a crazy roommate in your head that paces the floor muttering to herself 24/7. But here’s the thing — THE thing that rocked my worldview right out of my brain — once you realize that you are hearing it talk, it’s obviously not you. You’re the one who notices that it’s talking.
Singer explains on page 10: There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind — you are the one who hears it. If you don’t understand this, you will try to figure out which of the many things the voice says is really you. People go through so many changes in the name of “trying to find myself.” They want to discover which of these voices, which of these aspects of their personality, is who they really are. The answer is simple: none of them.
Woah. WOAH. Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes. Most of what this voice says to you all day every day is completely meaningless. We have zero control over most of what our internal voice babbles on about. Your thoughts have no effect on anything or anyone except YOU. Singer says of this word vomit: they are simply making you feel better or worse about what is going on now, what has gone on in the past, or what might go on in the future. If you spend your time hoping that it doesn’t rain tomorrow, you are wasting your time. Your thoughts don’t change the rain. You will someday come to see that there is no use for that incessant internal chatter, and there is no reason to constantly attempt to figure everything out. Eventually you will see that the real cause of your problems is not life itself. It’s the commotion the mind makes about life that really causes the problem.
This voice narrates the world for you. What’s interesting to me is that it seems like children do this out loud. They can’t help it. I have many, many friends who over the years have complained, “child X literally never stops talking. We took a 10 hour road trip and he never shut up.” That’s the voice! But as kids, we just let ‘er rip. Whatever pops in our heads, we say. It reminds me of that scene in Elf when he’s following his brother Michael around after school: “Wow, you’re fast. I’m glad I caught up to you. I waited 5 hours for you. Why is your coat so big? So, good news – I saw a dog today. Have you seen a dog? You probably have. How was school? Was it fun? Did you get a lot of homework? Huh? Do you have any friends? Do you have a best friend? Does he have a big coat, too?” It never stops.
At some point, we learned to have this running dialogue in our heads instead. Singer explains that the reason we do this is to feel empowered. If we can’t get the world the way we like it, we internally verbalize it, judge it, & complain about it, which gives us the false impression that we have some kind of power over how the world works. But what we actually end up experiencing is really our personal presentation of the world according to us, rather than the actual unfiltered experience of what is really out there. The things we discuss in our minds are the only things that matter to us, and we tend to discard the rest (but it doesn’t mean it’s not there, and it’s not real). As psychologist William James once said: “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items I notice shape my mind.” So we spend our time re-creating the outside world inside of ourselves, and then we live in that world. We live in our minds. Our not-real minds. But we don’t have to.
And that’s the thing that I really took away from this book: I can transcend this habit. I have to constantly remind myself that I — the essence of me — am the one inside that notices the voice talking. I can objectively watch my problems instead of being lost in them. I’m the one in there who is noticing things. I am the witness, the awareness. But Singer warns that in order to step backward inside yourself to that space where you can really hear the voice-that-is-not-you, you have to realize you’ve been locked in your own mind with a maniac. The crazy roommate. Try this: Imagine that another person is saying aloud everything your inner voice says. Now spend a day with that person. (Now realize that person is a psycho.) But we never tell that inner voice to shut up. To leave and never come back. Instead, no matter how much trouble it causes, we listen. We let this voice pull us out of whatever it is we’re doing, no matter how much fun we’re having. That nagging, neurotic, annoying little voice controls us. But when you take the time and effort to really step back and witness the crazy, you realize you’ve finally figured out that, as Singer says, “you’ve only had one problem your entire life, and you’re looking at it.” And here’s the great news: your will is stronger than the habit of listening to that voice! Take your life back from your crazy inner roommate!
To really drive this point home, Singer tells us to sincerely ask ourselves one (seemingly simple) question: Who am I? Who sees what I see? Who hears when I hear? Who knows that I am aware? WHO AM I? How would you respond if someone asked you? I think we’re all tempted to first list out a biography (I was born in 1977 in New Jersey…) but the question is not what has happened to you since you were born. Or maybe we describe ourselves by what we see in the mirror: our height and weight, eye color, shoe size. But that’s not you either. All of those things have changed over the course of your life! Singer notes: What you looked as has changed; but what about you, the one who is looking? Isn’t there a continuity of being? You are not the objects you look at. This is deep stuff. So let me share with you the passages from The Untethered Soul that helped me systematically build the explanation that makes sense of this:
Eventually, you will begin to realize that the outside world and the flow of inner emotions come and go. But you, the one who experiences these things, remain consciously aware of whatever passes before you.
You are very aware of presence of being, your sense of existence, without the help of thoughts. When you go into deep meditation, the thoughts stop… if you are in there experiencing the peace that occurs when your thoughts stop, then obviously your existence is not dependent on the act of thinking.
You are not your thoughts. You are simply aware of your thoughts.
Notice that with a single glance at a room, or out a window, you instantaneously see the full detail of everything that’s in front of you. You are effortlessly aware of all the objects that are within the scope of your vision… When you look without creating thoughts, your consciousness is effortlessly aware of, and fully comprehends, all that it sees.
Consciousness is pure awareness. What would it be like if your awareness didn’t exist? It’s actually pretty simple — you wouldn’t be there. There would be no sense of “me.” There wouldn’t be anyone in there to say, “Wow, I used to be in here but now I’m not.” There would no longer be an awareness of being. And without awareness of being, or consciousness, there is nothing. Are there objects? Who knows? If no one is aware of the objects, their existence or nonexistence becomes completely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how many things are in front of you; if you turn off consciousness, there is nothing. If you are conscious, however, there can be nothing in front of you but you are fully aware that there is nothing.
So now if someone asks you that very simple question, you can answer: “I am the one who sees. From back in here somewhere, I look out, and I am aware of the events, thoughts, and emotions that pass before me.” Now you are aware that you are aware. And that is the seat of the Buddhist Self, the Hindu Atman, and the Judeo-Christian soul.
Friends, you have always been the conscious receiver of all that was. Doesn’t that blow your mind? Or at least your crazy roommate’s mind?Let her chatter on about it for a bit.