Feel Better

Mary Ruefle’s Sadness

Here’s a piece of writing from Mary Ruefle’s book My Private Property. In this collection, amongst other things, Ruefle attempts to get a grip on the emotion of sadness through a series of short colour-themed passages: there’s a piece on blue sadness, purple sadness, pink sadness, and red sadness. The one I’m going to read for you here is Gray Sadness. And it goes like this.

Gray sadness is the sadness of paper clips and rubber bands, of rain and squirrels and chewing gum, ointments and unguents and movie theaters. Gray sadness is the most common of all sadnesses, it is the sadness of sand in the desert and sand on the beach, the sadness of keys in a pocket, cans on a shelf, hair in a comb, dry-cleaning, and raisins. Gray sadness is beautiful, but not to be confused with the beauty of blue sadness, which is irreplaceable. Sad to say, gray sadness is replaceable, it can be replaced daily, it is the sadness of a melting snowman in a snowstorm.

I want to write here a few words about that Mary Ruefle piece, and I hope you’ll stick around for them if you’re reading this. Or even skip-ahead if you like through my introductory spiel about what I’m planning to do with a new podcast project I’ve given myself. Part of what I want to say about Ruefle is connected to something Ruefle reveals to us right at the end of her book. And I really don’t think I’m overselling this when I tell you that when you find out that single sentence in which she later frames her colour poems, or whatever they are, it will blow your mind. It’s almost like a plot twist, although in this case, more a mind-twist that is up there with the surprise endings of films like The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, and The Usual Suspects. Seriously though, it’s a really great brain-discombobulator. So stick around for that if you can, or feel free to scroll ahead to the Big Reveal further down. I really don’t mind if your mind suggests at this point you skim read. Especially because, this just me writing/talking to myself here. Nothing more. Nothing less. 🙂

In future episodes I’ll probably go straight to the nitty gritty on whatever piece of writing I’ve selected for that session, that’s the plan. But for this one, seeing as it’s the first, I wanted to talk to myself a little bit about why I, or anybody else for that matter, might want to do this, which is to say: talking to oneself in front of a microphone. And by extension, writing or painting for oneself. For even when we tell ourselves we’re doing it to communicate with others, it starts as a conversation with ourselves. And what’s that about? It’s obviously about something.

At the time of recording this, spring 2020, Google tells me that there are 800,000 active podcasts on the internet for us to listen to. Which amounts to 54 million episodes and rapidly expanding, especially now that thanks to companies like Anchor, owned by Spotify, you can now make and host a podcast for free. No hidden charges. It’s wonderful.

But let’s come back to that number: 800,000 people, very few of them professional broadcasters, i.e. paid to talk to themselves and others. No, these people, people like me, are all just babbling away in their bedrooms or offices on a weekly basis. And then uploading those thoughts in the form of a podcast onto the internet. And that doesn’t include everyone else who talks to themselves but doesn’t upload their thoughts in the form of a podcast, perhaps preferring a good old-fashioned blog, or Twitter, or Instagram (thoughts can also be pictures, right?), or Facebook.

What’s going on here? Why aren’t we happy with just having our thoughts and keeping them to ourselves?

I guess what we need to consider is what we actually mean when we talk about having a thought. What I mean is a kind of inner speech act which can then be voiced aloud, or remain in that more inchoate form as a thought. If you think about it, thoughts are kind of weird entities. Nicholson Baker in his essay “The Size of Thoughts” captures this quality with humour, but also a kind of deadpan nous:

“Each thought has a size,” he writes, “and most are about three feet tall, with the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine, or a cigarette lighter, or those tubes of toothpaste that, by mingling several hidden pastes and gels, create a pleasantly striped product.”

Thoughts start to bubble out of us as a form of inner and outer speech at a very, very young age. I don’t have children, but I have watched infants at play, and was of course once an infant myself, and what becomes very clear, even at the age of two or three, is that these young human creatures are talking to themselves all the time. Listen to them as they play, which often involves chattering to each other, or if not another, to themselves.

If you watch a child talking to herself, you will notice that there is often a teller and a doer. The kinds of “conversations” that these tellers and doers have, might involve the following considerations: planning, problem solving, self-reflection, self-image, critical thinking, and emotions. The Polish psychologist Małgorzata (pron: Mao-gore-jata) Puchalska-Wasyl (pu-halska-vasill) has done some really interesting work recently on Inner Speech – also known as Self Talk, or Internal Dialogue or Intrapersonal Communication. In a 2015 study, Puchalska-Wasyl got a bunch of people to tune into their inner speech at various times of the day (smartphone app notifications are a godsend to psychologists for this kind of study) and then what she did was categorise the various forms of self-talk she unearthed. About four or five distinct categories emerged from this:

First off, the Faithful Friend, which represents an internal dialogue associated with personal strength, close relationships and positive feelings. Equally, if not more present: The Ambivalent Parent. Ambivalent because sometimes one experiences this inner speech or thought as being similar to a caring form of parental feedback (“Hey Steve, it’s cold outside, you might want to wear some thick socks so that you don’t get chillblains!”). And sometimes that parental voice, which is also the case for “real” parents can shift into a more critical, even somewhat harsh inflection: “Ah, so your toes and fingers are numb and achey now are they. Did I tell you to wear warm socks and your gloves. Yes, I did, you stupid idiot. And now you’re cold! Well, serves you right.”

Let’s also clarify that these inner voices don’t usually talk in the fully formed sentences that I’m describing above. That would be me translating my inner speech into outer speech. Lev Vygotsky, the Soviet psychologist who did most of the groundbreaking work on inner speech in the early decades of the last century, poetically makes the following distinction between internal and external communications:

“In external speech thought is embodied in words, in inner speech words die as they bring forth thought. Inner speech is to a large extent thinking in pure meanings. It is a dynamic, shifting, unstable thing, fluttering between word and thought, the two more or less stable, more or less firmly delineated components of [verbal] thought.” (Lev Vygotsky, Thought, and Language, 1934)

I love that description. “In inner speech words die as they bring forth thought”! Aah, can you “hear” or maybe feel those tiny little deaths going on in your head? Maybe at this very moment? Those little petit morts, to use the French expression, which also means an orgasm.

But to finish off the categorizing bit: other than Faithful Friend, which I sometimes call The Inner Cheerleader, and Ambivalent Parent, it seems that most of us, but not all of us, have a few other parts of the psyche to contend with.

There’s that Inner Helpless or Anxious Child who may at times feel very distraught and overwhelmed by life-events, or her own perceptions. Interestingly, this is one category that some people recognise as having in quite a substantial way, maybe corresponding to that 25% of us who are ultra-sensitive or highly-sensitive people, to use Elaine Aron’s expression. Those of us who feel things profoundly. Which means that at times this form of amplified feeling can get a bit too much, and maybe even become crippling to some extent.

Because we are fundamentally social beings, you can also find inside all of us what Puchalska-Wasyl calls The Inner Rival: this is the part of us that’s always comparing our lives to others, and often finding us lacking. It’s a very driven, pushy part of the mind, very success-oriented. Sometimes people refer to this part as an Inner Perfectionist or an Unrelenting Standards schema. It often has a kind of ego-driven flavour to it: checking to see, and then feeling anxious, if it perceives us as failing or falling behind with a task. It might even bring in that Ambivalent Parent in the form of The Inner Critic to give us a good telling off if it thinks we’re not up to scratch. Or if you’re lucky, the Faithful Friend or Inner Cheerleader might give you a pep talk. Unfortunately, with the mind’s negativity bias, we’re more likely to hear our Inner Rivals and Ambivalent Parent than our Inner Cheerleaders.

The final category is what Puchalska-Wasyl calls The Calm Optimist: a more relaxed interlocutor associated with positive, pragmatic, self-sufficient emotions. Or maybe the Calm Optimist is just one more configuration of the Faithful Friend?

From my own inner-talk experience, I recognise having a good deal of Ambivalent Parent who is either supportive of what I’m doing, but more often than not critical. Likewise: the Helpless Child can sometimes rear its doleful or panicky brow. And the Rival, big time, telling me how everyone else is succeeding in ways I can only dream of. I think the Rival has got even worse in the last few years with social media. But when I’m in a good mood, I get to hang out with that calm, more optimistic Faithful Friend, who is probably my favourite inner broadcaster.

And at this point if you’re going: what are you on about, I don’t experience those inner dialogues or monologues in any way whatsoever. Well, I’d invite you then to pause your reading for a minute or so and bring your attention to your inner world. See if your mind is able to focus completely on the sensations of breathing, or of some other bodily perception. Now notice if your mind after a few seconds, or more, starts “talking”. Maybe not in complete sentences, but certainly in ways that for the observing mind are quite noticeable. One moment you’re focused on the breath, or on the sensation of your feet on the floor, and the next moment, you’re thinking. Which is to say: talking to yourself.

You might also want to ask yourself when you hear these parts of your mind in action, when you become aware of these thoughts, who is doing the noticing. This is why psychologists will often call this a dialogue rather than a monologue. Even if the thoughts are going on and on like a stuck record, or a sort of thought-earworm as they often feel to me, the fact that we can perceive them and engage with them, must mean that there is somehow one part of the mind getting up on its soapbox, or little stage, and another part that is listening or sometimes talking back. And now with fMRI imaging, that is exactly what’s going on: with the left part of the brain, especially the inferior frontal gyrus, which you can actually touch through your skin and your skull if you place a fingertip on the slight indentation, just above and front of your left ear. That’s the part generating speech, both inner and outer, and when this part is activated, we also can see activation in the right hemisphere, especially the Right Temporo-Parietal Junction, which is a more social part of our brains, used to think about other people’s minds. When I’m listening to someone talk to me in a therapy session, my Right Temporo-Parietal Junction is working overtime. But even when we’re talking to ourselves (i.e. thinking), it’s like the left-hemisphere is broadcasting through the inferior frontal gyrus sound-system, or language-system messages to the temporo-parietal junction. It’s pretty much a dialogue, as is therapy, even if one person (the therapist) is maybe talking less than the other person: the client or patient.

The listening part of the psyche may also have its own agenda, which would of course make it another part of the mind: the Inner Critic or Ambivalent Parent getting snappy and frustrated with the Helpless or Vulnerable Child. The Inner Rival perhaps ganging up with the Inner Critic to point out how useless we are at fulfilling our ambitions. But if you pay really close attention, you might also be able to notice that there is a part in there, that doesn’t have any kind of agenda. Sometimes psychologists and others who are interested in how the mind works, might call this dimension of experience The Observing Self, or Witnessing Self, or Consciousness, or Awareness. It’s not a talking part, it’s a watching part, it’s like an audience member rather than a performer. If moods are like the climate and thoughts are more distinct weather phenomena such as blizzards, or clouds, or rain, then Awareness is often likened to the open sky, or the Universe, that contains all of this atmospheric activity, without being affected by it per se.

So here’s what happens when I tune into my mind at this point in the proceedings, yammering on in the background as it always is. I’m going to speed up my delivery a bit here to give you a flavour of how my mind often sounds or feels when it’s “talking” to me.

“Are you sure you want to do all this explanatory stuff right at the beginning of the podcast? I mean, isn’t this a little bit boring. People don’t want to listen to you spewing out mind-stuff without it being shaped first into an interesting and convincing narrative. What’s that Reith line about the BBC: educate, entertain, something something. Stop typing and google it. Stop typing, google it. Google: REITH EDUCATE ENTERTAIN. Why aren’t you listening to me. Stop typing. I need you to google this. I can never remember that bloody quote. My memory’s awful. Why can some people remember stuff and you can never remember stuff. That’s not fair. They’ve got an advantage. Imagine having a photographic memory and being able to remember everything you read. Uh, why can’t I have that. That’s not fair. Maybe I’d be more successful in my field if I had a photographic memory.”

And on and on and bloody well on it goes. Sometimes that inner dialogue is a joy. But often I find it a tad tiresome, don’t you. Also did you notice some of the different parts of the psyche in there, doing their thing? There was definitely some Ambivalent Parent in my thought-splurge and maybe the Rival?

Often when I talk to the fellow-travellers that I’m obliged to call patients or clients about meditation or doing some kind of centering practice in order to help them get a bit of distance on their more painful mind states, they say to me stuff like: “I’m a really bad meditator. I can never stick to the breath, or quieten down my mind.”

And I always go: SNAP!

Because I’ve been meditating off and on for decades now, and sometimes the mind can quieten down a fair amount, maybe for a few seconds or even longer, but that’s not meditation as far as I understand it. That’s being stoned, or drunk, which is also why those mind states often feel so good. But it’s not meditation.

Meditation, as far as I understand it, at least in its current most-recognisable guise as Mindfulness, is more about finding a way to come back to ourselves: to a breath, to the page of a book, to a voice talking to us in a podcast, especially when the mind does what the mind always does: which is chatter, lecture, muse, worry, analyse, pontificate, moan, groan and sigh. 

Meditation is more about trying to find a way to co-exist with the minds we have than beat them into submission like a disobedient nag. It’s about trying to understand the mind, to learn how to tolerate or maybe just put up with the entity that it is. Perhaps even learning in time how to cherish and love that inner shock-jock of the mind, that sometimes irritating, hectoring, griping, moaning, soap-box-standing thought-spewing entity we very proudly refer to as The Human Mind.

When we look at other people, I think it’s easier to spot these different parts of the mind than it is for ourselves. In some way, being a psychotherapist is really just about having that healthy distance on someone else’s mind, a distance that I like you, don’t always have on my own mind.

Take a look at other people’s Twitter or Facebook feeds, and you’ll immediately see examples of all the categories I mentioned above, and also a whole of host more extreme social versions of that inner talk: the troll mind, the egotistical mind, the narcissistic mind. But it’s hard to see these in ourselves. Though I’m sure that if you’re in a relationship, and past the honeymoon stage of things, your partner will recognise these parts of your mind for you, and you probably won’t have too much of a problem recognising in them that utterly self-serving, self-focused Donald Trump kind of mind that we all have in some shape or form. I don’t know about you, but when I read or listen to Trump, I often recognise in the bilge that flows from his mouth something disturbingly familiar: a wild, chattering, knee-jerk reacting, impulsive, self-centred, paranoid, and often just plain loopy part of the human psyche. Yours and mine, and his. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was only a part of that psycho’s psyche, but unfortunately it’s not. We’ve all got some version of this mind. I really do believe that.

Trumps biggest problem, and let us pray that this is what eventually upends his disastrous and malignant reign is that he has no filter between his inner speech and external speech. Which is kind of scary when you’re exposed to it in this unfiltered way. And perhaps this also explains why most of us don’t actively choose to sit down and quietly listen with care and attention to what’s going on in our own minds. Which is not to say that that we’re not compulsively hooked or fused more often than not with the contents of our inner speech. But that’s different to a kind quiet, defused, or detached listening to our inner worlds.

One of my favourite psychological experiments is the one carried out by the social psychologist Timothy Wilson in 2014, where he got hundreds of student volunteers and community members to sit alone, so not together, in an empty room with nothing but their own thoughts to keep them company. And just in case they got bored, or found their thoughts disturbing, or anxiety provoking in some way, Wilson allowed these people to press a little button next to them which would deliver a sizeable shock to their gonads. Actually, I don’t know where the shock got delivered, but it was not a fun, buzzy little vibration. It was a painful jolt of electricity. And rather than sit quietly in a room alone with their thoughts, 67% of the men in the study, and 25% of the women, chose to self-harm.

Which of course is where I now quote Blaise Pascal’s “All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone” And that was written in 1654. A very long time before smart phones. 

But this piece (and my wee podcast) is not about meditation, it’s about other stuff, stuff to be found in stories, and poems, and paragraphs of books that light up and amaze my mind, that make me go WOW. And because my mind, like your mind, is a deeply socialised mind, even if you live off the grid, hermit-like, in the middle of nowhere, with no other human minds around you, when your or my mind is amazed by something beautiful or interesting or awful or tragic, it’s first impulse (see if this is not the case for you too) is to want to share that amazement with other human minds.

Perhaps with the hope that they too will also go WOW, yes, that is amazing, or “Ah, no, so sorry to hear you’re struggling”. And then these two minds might start talking about why they find this thing amazing or awful, and in doing so share something meaningful and important with each other. I think this is what we’re referring to when we use words like intimacy and connection. At least that’s what I’m referring to, and also why I do the job I do. I really love this kind of sharing. Can you maybe hear that in my voice? For me, it’s the richest and most profoundly meaningful way that we can interact with each other.

I’d even go so far as to say that it’s on par with, maybe even better than food, and wine, and cannabis, and sex. And I love all the aforementioned too. Because unless you’re Sting and Trudi (my mind of course goes: “Google that, just to check that it’s not actually an old wive’s tale”), which is to say a couple that once claimed to spend hours and hours doing cosmically meaningful things with each other’s bodies, for most people the pleasure and connection of sex can not, nor will ever adequately fill a life, or even an evening, in the way that deep, and connecting conversation can.

And yet, how few of us are having pleasurable conversations in the way I’ve just described? I’m getting a good share of them through the work I do as a psychotherapist, which although it has lots of challenging conversations too, there is also much pleasure and interest for me in talking to people about these big, meaningful questions.  But outside therapy, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, particularly in our current age, we don’t get to have so many face-to-face conversations anymore, do we? If this is not the case for you, I think you’re very very fortunate. Privilege is a word that is thrown around a lot these days, but I think having access to interesting and pleasurable conversation IS a great, great privilege. If you are able to engage in this way with other people, or your own mind, even if only for 50 minutes a week, which is how long this podcast as well as my therapy sessions last, then this is still a very fortunate position to be in.

Being a GenXer, although some Boomers share this too, I’m in the strange position of having lived approximately half of my life in an analogue capacity, and the other half of it digital. Right up until my first blog in 2005, if there was anything that excited me and I wanted to share with someone else, I’d need to step out of my house and go and find another human being to be or get excited with. And because I’m an introvert, I didn’t do that to a great extent either, but looking back I probably did it a good deal more than I do now. I think we all did back then, rose-tinted spectacles, and reminsence bumps (as I believe they’re now called) acknowledged.

But look at do we go about sharing and engaging with each other in 2020. We mainly do so through social media. Because here’s the other thing about human minds: yours, mine and pretty much everyone else’s. They’re lazy, which is to say: energy conserving. In analogue times, if I wanted to share these thoughts, I’d need to go out and find a group of people who might be interested in the same things as me. And because these IRL ties took time, sometimes years to build, co-existing and interacting with other people until they were able to trust us and let down their defences with us, and us with them, we had no choice choice but to enter into this often quite laborious but ultimately fruitful exchange.

Compare that to posting something on social media, sitting back and watching all those dopamine-bestowing likes and even the odd electric comment coming back at us. Surely this is much more of a quick fix, a fast food form of social nutrients. It might smell the same, look the same from a certain perspective, but it’s really not the same thing as sitting down to eat a dish you’ve made from scratch with healthy ingredients you can see, touch, taste and most importantly trust.

I don’t know about you, but it feels to me that social Media has become our Cheers, as in the sitcom Cheers: that bar in Boston overseen by Ted Danson and Shelley Long, and Rhea Perlman, you know, the place where everybody knows your name? Or at least that’s what we think we’re getting. But even there, a bar, where its regulars never spent time at each other’s houses, and used that space as we now use social media, as a kind hang out when we want company, or to share the meaningful mundanities of our lives with each other, or when we’re bored and need a little social pick-me-up, even there in the utterly fictitious drinker’s utopia of Cheers, people formed caring, sincere, and genuine connections with each other. So if Norm or Cliff didn’t show up for a week, somebody would probably have phoned them to see if they were OK. Or gone round to their house to check that this person wasn’t ill or worse.

Do your social media ties provide that kind of elemental human care and interaction for you? I suspect not, and that’s worrying. I have at this moment 4,523 friends on Twitter (Twitter calls them Followers for some bizarre reason, as if each of us were a little mini-Jesus, and people reading our tweets, were our disciples). Of these 4,523 friends, who in the last five years I have had some lovely little interactions, do you know how many of them would get in touch if I stopped using Twitter for six months, or forever, without any warning? I know, because I’ve done this. And I can tell you, that of my 4,523 friends on Twitter, all 4,523 of them don’t really care if I’m dead or alive.

Not because they’re bad or selfish people. It’s just that Twitter and Instagram and the like, aren’t really about making or having deep and intimate social connections. It’s really just 145 million daily active users (on Twitter), and 500 million on Instagram Twitter, talking to themselves in pictures and words. And occasionally interacting through a Like button with others. Imagine if in your next face to face conversation you had, anything meaningful or beautiful or relatable that you shared, was met by your interlocutor with just a grunt or a GIF or a platitude.

Hey, my mother’s just died.

Grunt. Gif. Soz.

Hey, I’ve just read this book and it’s completely changed the way I think about myself, the world, and everyone in it.

Grunt. Exploding Star GIF. Platitude.

We have all in some shape or form willingly entered into this pact with each other, a pact in which we use other people instrumentally for social nourishment, and for the purposes of getting that sharing and being seen gestalt satisfied, but with all the depth and intimacy of a child’s paddling pool. That is the Faustian pact which we have all signed with social media. And as that’s becoming the only game in town, driven by minds that like their gains to be as easily and non-laboriously gotten as possible, that’s what conversation in the 21st century is now all about my dear friends and followers.

And if we choose not to play that game, then we’re probably going to be talking to ourselves a good deal more, because everyone else is now doing it through their screens. And maybe that’s OK, even if a tad lonely at times. Jenny Bainbridge, who hosts The Lonely Hour podcast, always ends her dispatches with the following sentence: “Until next time, please enjoy your [and then she pauses] self.”

I love this.

Because of the inherently dualistic minds that we have, we’re more often than not in conflict with ourselves, or down on ourselves, or bored with our selves, or frustrated with our selves. But hey, we can also can enjoy our selves. So why not have a wee conversation with yourself about something that’s woken you up recently to beauty or hilarity or amazement. Why not join me in the deep and enlightening pleasure of talking to our selves. That’s my plan with this podcast, which isn’t to say that I don’t want to talk to you too. Of course I’d be very thrilled and honoured if you decided to eavesdrop while I do this. But the journey does need to start with us listening very carefully to what’s coming out of our own minds, fingers mouths.

Gary Portnoy who wrote the Cheers theme song with Judy Hart Angelo, captures this vibe in those sentimental, but deeply touching, at least for me, lyrics.

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name.
And they’re always glad you came.
You want to be where you can see
The troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

I know somebody who knows your name. You do! Have you ever tried talking to yourself with kindness and compassion, like a supportive friend or parent, rather than the usual Punitive or Demanding Parent Mode, or the Inner Critic? Maybe as soon as my mind stops talking, and I stop taking taking dictation as I am doing now for it, you might even decide to write something for your self, or record your self talking and put it online as a podcast. However you do it, as Jenny would say, please enjoy your self.

And if you’ve skipped ahead from the introduction to hear about this mind-blowing twist in the Mary Ruefle colour poem. Well, here it is. Are you ready?

When you get to the end of My Private Property, the book in which Ruefle includes this Benetton array of colour-sadness poems, you will find buried deep in the acknowledgements section, a one-sentence Author’s note. Like a hidden message or easter eggs as they’re known in video games. This is what the note says: “In each of the colour pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.”

Let me repeat that.

“In each of the colour pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.”

Really?! Well, let’s see. Here’s the piece I read at the beginning:

“Gray sadness is the sadness of paper clips and rubber bands, of rain and squirrels and chewing gum, ointments and unguents and movie theaters. Gray sadness is the most common of all sadnesses, it is the sadness of sand in the desert and sand on the beach, the sadness of keys in a pocket, cans on a shelf, hair in a comb, dry-cleaning, and raisins. Gray sadness is beautiful, but not to be confused with the beauty of blue sadness, which is irreplaceable. Sad to say, gray sadness is replaceable, it can be replaced daily, it is the sadness of a melting snowman in a snowstorm.”

And here’s gray with happiness:

“Gray happiness is the happiness of paper clips and rubber bands, of rain and squirrels and chewing gum, ointments and unguents and movie theaters. Gray happiness is the most common of all happinesses, it is the happiness of sand in the desert and sand on the beach, the happiness of keys in a pocket, cans on a shelf, hair in a comb, dry-cleaning, and raisins. Gray happiness is beautiful, but not to be confused with the beauty of blue happiness, which is irreplaceable. Happy to say, gray happiness is replaceable, it can be replaced daily, it is the happiness of a melting snowman in a snowstorm.”

Just think for a moment of those two snowmen. They’re both melting. Which is to say: they’re both dying, like you and me. Sorry to break the news to you in this way, but in the very depths of living we are also dying. Or as Da Vinci wrote in his notebooks, another form of talking to ourselves: “While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.”

I find this utterly mind-blowing. If you do, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too. But here’s one of mine.

The mind often seems to get caught in a kind of dualistic corner, or trap. If things aren’t going well for us in some way, then the mind often will tell us that we’re up shit creek without a paddle, or some other mephitic metaphor. If I don’t have a girlfriend or a boyfriend, and occasionally feel a bit lonely, then my mind might tell me I’m a loser. Partnered up, good. Not partnered up, bad. Even if we know at an abstract rational that this is not the case. All our partnered up friends are not having the time of their lives. And many singletons enjoy many aspects of their loner lives.

So that’s what the mind does. Either/or stuff. But the heart, or whatever you choose to call that part of your consciousness which is separate, beyond, or maybe just different to the mind, doesn’t play by the same dualistic rules.

The heart seems knows implicitly that everything is kind of bittersweet: that happy is always couched within sad, or vice-versa, like a Russian doll; that there is no black and white, right/wrong distinction for any topic. Including politics. That’s much more about context and what actually works for us. Your goodness and generosity can only exist with your not-so-lovely human traits and vice versa. The heart seems to apprehend this deeply and experientially in a way that the mind struggles to do. Or rather, the mind understand conceptually, but not in the same way as the heart when it’s listening to a theme song from an 80s television show and wants to cry and laugh at the same time. The heart can do this kind of cry-laughter. The heart can do happy/sad, right and wrong. The mind however seems to believe that we’re only good for one thing or another. We’re either living, or dying. We’re either in love with our partners, or we’re not. We either care, or we don’t. And if we purport to be doing both, a part of the mind calls us out on this. There’s even a term for it: cognitive dissonance, that slightly weirded out feeling you get when two sides of the same coin don’t entirely add up. But the heart doesn’t have a problem with any of this, because the heart is all about feeling.

So what might we say to ourselves about the things we’re devoted to, the things that are really important and meaningful to us, if we completely remove our communication from the Like, RT, Sharing-Is-Caring digital economy? What if the pleasure of sharing was predominantly between the various entities that reside within us? The mind and the heart sharing their perspectives on books and ideas. The Left Interior Frontal Gyrus talking to the right Temporo-Parietal Junction. The philosophical big-picture mind, talking to the psychological human-sized mind. And the heart making sure that these minds are not just talking in the abstract, that they’re still connecting to our embodied experience of being here now.

What if we found a way to talk to the world (to books, to trees, to clouds, and all the various living creatures inhabiting this wondrous realm with us and within us) without expecting any answers? No RTs, no likes, no pleasing but also inherently fatuous comments from strangers who we’ll never meet, who will never care for us in the way we all want to be cared for, in the way we want to care for others. What if we started talking to the world around us as people talk to their Gods, and have done so since the beginning of language as we know it, as people talk to their animal companions, as people talk to themselves?

Well, let’s see, shall we?


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