We all have an inner monologue; that persistent stream of thought that spills from our mouths as words, and even spills over into our dreams.
It’s imperative to know that this monologue isn’t us, and we can prove to ourselves it isn’t us. Just for one second, stop reading and then—in the middle of a thought—forcefully think, “Kah!!!” Then watch the pause that comes after. It might take a few tries to catch it.
What happened to you in that instant of no monologue? Nothing really, right? Things were just the same as before, just minus the chatter. That means this monologue isn’t you. If it was you, you’d have disappeared with it.
So there’s no need to identify with our monologue. All of these thoughts, “I’m great,” “I suck,” “Oh no!” “Yay!” “I wish I was better,” “Fuck, it’s miserable outside today.” They’re not us, they don’t define us or reflect us or the world we live in. They’re problem solving and interpersonal tools used out of context, and we can live just fine without the narratives.
We don’t even have direct control over the monologue. Just beneath it, there’s a quiet, rapid data stream that mental processes condense into our monologues by picking and choosing the most relevant information. You can see this quiet stream of thoughts, urges, memories, meanings, and feelings when you meditate. Because even as we sit and think, “This is a thought,” we can be aware of how that thought—and a dozen others—was already, well, thought before we plopped it into our inner monologue in a solid, coherent form.
Schizophrenia is actually a disorder in which mental processes are too unbiased, so they don’t filter through this stream in an effective way, so you not only end up with an inner monologue, but several different ones that the mind makes sense of by attributing them to other sources.
Anxiety and depression are similar, except in those cases, mental processes are too biased, so they only pick out thoughts related to fear, self-doubt, hatred, and sadness. In all of these cases, and even in the absence of illness, the main issue is the same: that incessant stream of data.
In meditation and mindfulness, it dries up over time. Our inner monologues become fine-tuned, accurate, and only related to the present moment. Because without this quiet stream, there is no perception of past or future. There’s no mental process to form fictions out of our memories, and there’s no anticipation of the next thought, feeling, or moment. Just This.
When we talk about attachment and aversion, it’s always in relation to this stream of thoughts, feelings, and meanings. Consciousness and intention pull some information in and push other information away. This is what keeps that stream going. In practice we’re turning back and going against the stream, back to its source. Which is now, only now. This present mind.
When this stream dries up, that’s when our sense of self changes. Because who are we without memories and expectations? What remains in emptiness? Nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be. Just This.
We see that there’s never actually been a stream. How could there be when there’s only ever been this moment? There’s no room in the present for a stream. The stream is made by tying moments together. It’s only memory, and mental processes use memory to make predictions. When these two components come together, there’s the world with all of its labels, views, desires, and patterns. That isn’t actually the present moment.
The true present is incomprehensible, but not beyond experience. There’s no time for even a single thought to form, much less a static person or a sense of separation. So when we’re asked to be mindful of the present, it’s this that we’re aiming for. Not the remembered moment, not the dressed up, airbrushed, and well-done moment. The naked, no effects, uncooked moment, what is before mental processes make it into something else.
All these memories, monologues, preferences, habits, views, beliefs, temperaments, and expectations—none of it’s us. Memories are unreliable, and views and preferences change. Temperaments depend on our state of mind. All of it depends on making the present into something it’s not: the past and future.
None of that’s us. We’re what remains when it’s all gone: Just This. And in that, there’s no room for suffering.