On balancing the voices in my head

Jan. 16, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

It’s 5:30 a.m. I crave the symphony of morning birds with their chirps and tweets laced to the background hum of rustling leaves. Perhaps there’s a gentle breeze along with the subtle smell of smoke and ash from a fire that kept me warm the night before.  Looking at the horizon, I see the first rays of light shine down and through the cloud of fog that sits above the lake, held there by the surrounding mountains capped in snow.

Instead, I compensate by waking to the fake sound of birds, a running stream and static noise coming out of my $20 Costco alarm clock. Every now and then I may be lucky enough to get the hoot of the 5:45 a.m. Caltrain, police or ambulance siren — one never knows.

In all practicality, what I wake up to is bullshit anyway. What is important is what comes after: the two voices that fight to dictate the route my day takes.

The first voice storms in. Knock! Knock! Knock! Pounds the door. “Check your phone!” “Book that appointment!” “Your emails — you can’t forget those!” “Facebook,” “Instagram,” “YouTube,” etc.

Move. I listen to it. I give it my attention. I reinforce it. I feed it. I give it power.

Doing useless, meaningless tasks that trade my attention for a rush of dopamine becomes an uncontrollable urge. Eventually I rationalize it. I reinforce it. I feed it again by giving it what it wants. I can’t help it. Slowly but surely I lose control over my day. There is no time to take a step back. I’m stressed. I’m tired. And I’m overloading my cognitive capacity.

Usually this is where the story of regret begins. The story of how I could be doing something more meaningful – but I am not.

It’s the same voice that after being sucked into its pleasures tells me:

“I’m not on track.”

“I’m wasting time.”

“I’m being sidetracked from my mission.”

The same voice that tells me I am not enough. It’s the internal critic that is never satisfied.

Wrestling with this voice in my head, it is difficult to realize that I have given up my capacity for creativity and empathy. The power and the dominance of this first voice in society and in our minds leaves little room for a second voice.

Instead of barging in, the second voice whispers in my ear. These whispers linger in a gentle, warm, loving and reassuring way. I am reminded strangely of my grandmother’s tight hugs, uncomfortable not because she makes it hard for me to breathe but because of what the tightness represents — a wise truth. I get a similar feeling of understanding when I listen to this voice. It brings me closer to a center that I have learned to navigate to throughout my life. Through all the shit, this center keeps you real, keeps you humble and keeps you moving forward. It’s where your values sit — who you are and who you want to be. From what I can tell, listening to this voice and living its words is what it means to be living your truth.

If you’re worried I plan to tell you how you to live, don’t be — I am not. The point of the contrast between the two voices I wake up with is to shine a light on the thoughts that pop up in our minds and how they control our days.

Reading Daniel Goleman’s “Focus,” I realized my first voice worked beneath my consciousness, monitoring the signals coming from the senses. It originates in the primal part of the brain and is known to activate, as neuroscientists like to call it, our “bottom-up” senses. It’s largely outside of my control, and it’s going to be there until the day I die. The second voice, on the other hand, comes from the neocortex. It works to control the impulses from the first, it involves “top-down” circuitry, and it is in my control. Through “top-down” circuitry we establish self-control, and we are able to direct and observe our attention.

So, how do I feed the second voice and starve the first?

Too often the second voice recedes behind the chaos of everyday life; it gets left behind, and so you get taken on a roller coaster by the external, down into a never-ending rabbit hole. We keep chasing because it feeds the primal egotistical, impulsive, emotion-driven part of our mind. But this takes us away from ourselves and our center.

In solitude, we have the room to become aware of when the two voices are at war. And we can take action to starve the first and feed the second. In this place, I am mindful of the hundred engineers that dedicated thousands of hours to figuring out how to use a 6×4 inch device in my pocket to manipulate me by playing with my primal attention circuits. I am aware they compete in an attention economy that fights for my time and my thoughts and their success lies in taking away mine.

If you think I am calling on you to become recluse, you’re mistaken; the world is a communal place as it should be. Although to be so “connected” that you sacrifice the connection with who you are is absurd.

Creativity, empathy, happiness and attentiveness lie in our ability to be mindful – and this requires solitude. We are our truest selves in this place, we are our most centered, most empathetic, most creative and most attentive.

That is something I will fight for.


Contact Gurinder Nagra at gnagra ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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