Distracted by worrying, anxious, comparing thoughts? Give voice to them. Then give voice to a response to them.
For years I’ve referred to my overly active thoughts, both in meditation and daily life, as “monkey mind.” Recently, I’ve switched to an image I’ve seen on several nature shows: billions of sardines in a frenzied bait ball being attacked by various swimming and flying creatures. I’m not sure my ball of thoughts numbers in the billions, but I do know that it can be challenging to work with them as they dart around in my brain. That’s why I’ve taken to allowing a single sardine-thought to jump out of the ocean of my mind so that I can hear it separate from the rest. How do I let a thought jump out of my mind? I simply say it. I call this process journaling out loud.
For most of my life I’ve valued letting thoughts jump from my brain onto a piece of paper or computer screen in a daily journaling practice. I can see my thoughts in a journal, but there’s a different effect when I say them out loud. A journal is a confidential tool in which we can explore thoughts and emotions that may feel unspeakable, unshareable, unfit for anyone else’s eyes. Maybe that’s why giving voice to thoughts—literally saying them out loud—feels so helpful. It makes the unspeakable speakable.
Here’s how I do it. I find a location where I can speak without holding back for fear of being overheard. No need to have anyone questioning my sanity for talking to myself! After a few moments of centering breathing, I allow myself to speak thoughts I’d rather not be having. These are generally those thoughts tinged with anxiety, comparison, judgment, anger, perfectionism, or other shadow energies. I try to speak these thoughts in raw, unedited form. The feeling I get in this practice is something like: There, I’ve said it! I’ve allowed it out of my mind and into the air. This thought is real and I’m allowing it to be here instead of thinking it shouldn’t be here or wouldn’t be here if I had my life more together.
After speaking several related shadow thoughts out loud, I pause for an interlude of breathing. Now I want to invite a different voice to speak. I call it by various names: the Voice of the Large Self, the Voice of God, the Voice of Compassion, the Voice of Love. My small self is far from convinced that the idea of such a larger voice is anything but a hopeful delusion. This doubt leads me to a rather assertive invitation: “I need to hear You, Large Self. Right now. I need to know if You are real, if You will actually show up. My vocal cords are available, so feel free to use them.” Then I let It speak.
How do I know the voice that speaks is the Large Self? I remember the Gospel passage about how to distinguish a true prophet from a false prophet: “By their fruits you shall know them.” Applying this to the Large Voice, I tell myself: “By its tone you will know it.” If the Voice speaks with kindness, gentleness, compassion, non-judgment, and acceptance, it’s the real deal. When those energies are flowing over my vocal cords I let go of whether they are coming from within me or from elsewhere. I know the energies are larger than the shadow thoughts voiced moments earlier, so it doesn’t matter whether my brain can figure out their source. What matters is to know that there is more than one voice. Whenever the wounded voice speaks, I want to develop the habit of letting the Large Voice have its say, too.
I’ve been letting the Large Voice address me by name as if it is speaking to me. This is somewhat at odds with my usual conception of “God” or Large Self as an indwelling presence, not an external being. But decades of identifying “I” with the ego-self make it hard for me to let the Large Self speak as “I.” It’s easy when speaking as “I” to drift into speaking from the shadow or small-i self. So I let the Large Voice address me by name:
Kevin, I hear your shadow thoughts. Let’s start by just taking a few breaths ... I see how you are caught in these thoughts, my beloved. It’s OK, don’t make it harder by being ashamed. I see your essential goodness, Kevin, and I invite you to be compassionate with yourself.
The tone has already changed from self-judgment and shame to something much higher. By Its tone I will know It.
Perhaps if I stay with this practice I’ll develop enough familiarity with the Large Voice that it will be able to speak as “I” without being confused with “i.” It doesn’t matter much to me now. I just want to let the Large Voice become a more real and accessible part of my life. I think of this as giving the Large Self voice lessons. The “still, small voice of God” needs a bit of encouragement to become a stronger force in my awareness. That’s why I tell it, “I need to hear You right now—my vocal cords are available!”
Thoughts have a powerful influence on our emotions, relationships, health, and life choices. It’s easy to lose our awareness of their influence because we become habituated to them. Many of our most persistent thoughts have darted through our minds thousands of times. Letting them jump out of the brain gives us a different look at them. We gain a renewed awareness of how pernicious they can be. Letting the Large Voice break through from silence into sound allows us to refresh our awareness that it, too, lives in us. When a humpback whale breaches, it doesn’t stay above the ocean for long, but just a glimpse gives a sense of the awesome power of the creature!
For me, this out-loud journaling isn’t better than written journaling, it’s just different. It addresses shame by speaking the unspeakable out loud. It affords me practice at making the Large Voice a real presence in my life. Shadow thoughts and larger thoughts both become more real when they exist momentarily as real vibrations in my real voice box that travel by way of real sound waves to my real ears and then by real nerve pathways back into the ocean of my mind. In my work as a therapist, I talk with so many people who haven’t heard enough compassionate and affirming words throughout their lives. Journaling out loud is one way to invite the Friend (as Rumi called God) to walk with you on the lifelong path of healing.
Do the work of being in a loving, healthy, committed relationship with yourself.