True Confessions about the Mean Voice
In my previous post, I talked about the little angry voice whispering unpleasant things in the mind's ear. This seemed to strike a chord, so I wanted to follow up a bit. I call this voice "the mean voice."
The first thing to do is to point out the irony of the situation: I wasn't very happy with the previous post. It felt like I'd had trouble hitting the note I was looking for. And yet all the folks who commented seemed to find it really helpful. Aside from the always-interesting question of who was right (do any of us need to be right?), what's funny about this is that of course what I was experiencing was a form of the mean voice.
So, there's a data point. The mean voice isn't always right. Either that, or everybody was just being nice about the post. But your comments don't really point in that direction.
So what's going on here? I will conjecture that the mean voice in this case is connected to my aspirations for how I'd hoped the writing would come out. It's not looking at what is: it's looking at what I wanted to be what is. Since what I wrote isn't what I'd hoped to write, obviously it's disappointing and not any good.
That's a bit silly. I put a lot of thought into what I wrote. I think what I wrote is actually pretty good. I can't even claim that it's "what I wrote," because really I'm just saying things that I've learned from my teachers in a voice that I might call my own, seen from a perspective that's unique to me. Synthesis from a very rich collection of original sources.
Reflections on my personal mean voice aside, I wanted to address some of the questions that Dave and Steven brought up. "Do I need to ignore it (the mean voice) or be informed by it?" "Is it resistance to our best self? The lizard brain aiming to keep us safe?"
In order to survive in a dangerous world, walking barefoot through a jungle full of snakes and tigers, we need to be preternaturally good at noticing danger before we are in its jaws (literally). For those of us who live barefoot in a jungle, a really highly-tuned problem-finder is critical to survival.
But this problem finder doesn't get less good at what it does when the stakes are lowered. Remember: it's goal isn't to be right. It's just to call our attention to things that might be a little off, so that we can notice the snake in the grass before we step on it, and so that we can notice the tiger lurking in the shadows and GTFO.
One of the examples of the problem finder that I find most interesting, which I never noticed until my meditation practice had gotten pretty good, is that feeling of disquiet that we sometimes get at night, in the dark, walking by a mirror. Will we see a ghost in the mirror? Was that sound we heard a burglar, or a ghost, or a revenant? No. Some data registered in our senses that suggested something, and the way that the problem finder addresses that is to make us feel fear. Fear keeps us safe: it makes us look closer at the pattern, to see if maybe that shadow is a jaguar. This is supremely useful when walking to the bathroom at night.
The thing is, the problem finder is like that all the time. It's always looking for a problem. It feels a dopamine reward when it finds one. So it finds problems everywhere. I'd finished my post, which was pretty good, and the problem finder found a problem with it: it wasn't what I'd set out to write.
The problem finder goes over every social interaction we have in excruciating detail looking for the mistakes we made. And it always finds them. It remembers stuff we did ten years ago that nobody else remembers, and dredges that up.
Is it right? Well sure, sort of. But it's not actually a very useful guide. It doesn't distinguish between things that could be a problem, and things that are definitely a problem. And it's a heavy hammer: when you notice that faux pas that everybody else is already over, it wants you to go bring it back up and make things okay. But that's not going to make things okay—it's going to make things worse.
And unfortunately, it's almost always the case that the problem finder makes things worse, because it's so heavy-handed. So as a first approximation, learning to see, love, and ignore the problem finder is a good approach. See, because if you don't see, it will just convince you that you are terrible. Love, because it's part of you, and if you don't love it, you'll just make it crankier—love is the mind's internal reward system (among many other things), and when the mean voice feels loved, it's not as mean, and it's not on such a hair trigger. Sometimes it shuts up entirely. And then ignore, because it's almost always going to tell you to do something that isn't a good idea, unless there's a jaguar behind that tree, in which case sure, go for it.