Something happened to me today at an intersection. As a guy whose brother is well on is way to his doctorate in cognitive science, and also as a guy who read almost 180 pages of GEB before conveniently forgetting to re-check it out from the library, I can safely say that my qualifications when discussing the science of consciousness are absolutely zilch.
But the cognitive sciences are a study not of the brain but of the mind, which sounds a lot like the opening credits of the Twilight Zone, and I’ve watched like seven Fourth of July marathons so I’m going to go ahead and talk about it anyway. But first I’d like to say a thing or two about party games.
I like parties so much I sometimes even go to them. Even though I live in a cave, I still go to the library often enough which means even I can’t avoid daily Facebook updates which seem to always involve event invites. I sometimes think I have more invites to friends events than I do actual friends.
I don’t know about you, but just because someone is a good friend of mine doesn’t mean I happen to know or particularly like their friends. This is not generally a problem until birthday season comes around (end of Spring, don’t ask me why). There are some friends whose birthday invites you just can’t turn down. You have to make an appearance and buy them at least one, two, or possibly eighteen shots just so they know ya’ll still cool.
My life and living situation is by all accounts unique. The usual icebreakers of “Where do you work? Where are you from? Where do you live?” all fall impossibly, embarrassingly flat. My work is lonesome, and I moved around a lot, and when you say you live in a cave with an electrical outlet people start edging away pretty fast. I can’t really blame them, so I’ve worked out a couple rock solid icebreaker party conversations to smooth out those kinks. You just have to ask one good question that every human being on earth can relate to that they’ve never been asked before.
One that never fails is this: “What position do you sleep in?” This works for several reasons, the first of course being that everybody sleeps, and second being that alcohol is involved. In addition, this question involves the word sleep, which you do in a bed, which is very close to a subject quite a lot of people at parties are quite keen on. Also, people just like talking about themselves, and they’ve probably never been able to impart this particular quirk to anyone besides their bathroom mirror. People will open up and tell you all sorts of stuff about themselves that frankly has nothing to do with their sleep position. One time this guy opened up to a crowd of strangers about his rough life as a kid, which blossomed out of his confession that he can’t sleep without hugging a blanket, pillow, or person. And, I swear, everybody sleeps in a different position, and some are pretty darn entertaining. Once this completely mainstream, unassuming girl said she sleeps on her back with her arms crossed over her chest like Dracula. Which is awesome, alluring, and slightly creepy.
Another great party game – which will eventually lead us back to the main subject, I promise – is “Impersonate your inner monologue.” It is always best to start off by describing your own so that people know what you mean, and maybe a few favorites you’ve heard in the past if it’s not your first time asking. For example, I have a friend whose internal monologue is voiced by Insecure Pimply Guy From the Simpsons. Imagine a puberty-ridden voice saying, “Oh my God everybody’s staring at me what do I do she’s gonna think I’m weird or that I’m crazy what did I say oh my Goooood!” A girl back in Tennessee says hers is a chorus of British children constantly echoing whatever she says in a singsong, sarcastic voice, making her sound completely crazy. Which isn’t really funny until you hear her do it, and then it’s hilarious.
In the heat of conversation and booze, people understand this question at once. If you were standing around the office water cooler, sure, you’d get that look people usually spare for the smelly guy on the Promenade who talks to lamp posts. But once they get rolling people can’t wait to chime in with their own inner monologue, eager to talk about themselves in such a revealing and unique manner. Almost everyone will come up with a voice even though they’ve probably never thought about it before.
I’ve always called mine Second-Guessing Micromachines Guy. For those of you who don’t know, in the early nineties there was a voice actor who was famous for being able to talk incredibly fast. He did a voice on the Transformers cartoon, but he was best known for doing these commercials for tiny collectible toy cars. This guy talked so fast he could practically fit War and Peace into a 30 second commercial spot. My inner monologue has always been that guy, talking crazy fast, expressing confusion at the world, wondering if how I was acting or what I was doing was correct or weird or possibly morally reprehensible. Not sure about the mustache, though.
But today at this intersection, something had changed. I had a pretty creatively productive day today, which I chalk up to waking up on a boat after a good rest and reading Discworld in the sunshine next to a beautiful girl. I could be wrong, but I’m probably not.
Anywho, when the ideas are churning I usually turn off the car stereo so I can, so to speak, hear myself think. At this intersection, I noticed that my inner monologue had changed. Second-Guessing Inner Monologue Guy was still there, but he had been pushed way in the background. Speaking softly but still overpowering him was someone who sounded a lot like me.
Now, here’s the thing. I’ve asked the inner monologue question at scores of parties, and no one ever, ever says their inner monologue sounds just like their speaking voice. First it’s boring and it goes against the rules of the game, and second people just don’t talk like they think. This is generally a good thing. But this new voice sounded almost exactly like mine, if a little breathier and maybe a semitone lower in pitch. I call this new voice the Explanatory Monk.
I found I was narrating the events at the intersection, explaning to myself why people were making each turn in such a way. Micromachines Guy would have said, “Whatsthatladydoing? Ishegoingtoturnorisnthe? Isitmyturnyet? Isthatpizzaguyinabighurrymaybe? Ohmygodtheyrebothgoing! Whatifweallgoandhaveawreck? Ohgeezwhatsmyinsurancecoverage? Aaaaah!”
Explanatory Monk says, “The Domino’s Pizza guy thinks it’s his turn. That’s okay because he’s turning right. It’s early in the morning and the woman in the Jetta is putting on her makeup, but she’s just seen the pizza guy. When she gets through let the truck go by. Now everyone knows it’s your turn.”
And I am not making this up. Those were actually my thoughts. I was calmly explaining to myself what was happening in the world, and reeassuring myself that everything was going to be okay. This might seem like an insignificant revelation to you, but I, personally, was shocked. It was so foreign yet pleasing and entirely in the moment. It was like discovering that my brain had been sleeping with the neighbor’s wife and had finally liquored me up and invited me in for a threesome. The first thing I did was pull over and write about it.
Since those first scribbled notes on which this article is based I’ve mulled it over a bit, and a few thoughts have struck me regarding what this all says about yours truly. I believe, first and foremost, that it’s indicative of my growing lack of confusion as I age. It’s no secret that I’m generally not a confused person. That’s not to say the world isn’t full of wonderous surprises, but as a rule those surprises no longer fill me with the idea that everything I know is wrong. If anything, I’m in a constant state of surprise that just further proves I’m correct when I say I know that I know nothing. And no, none of that was self-contradictory.
Frankly, this all struck me as not really very profound. What then occurred to me, though, was that there was a third thing happening at that intersection that allowed me to notice this second voice in the first place.
You see, when I ask people about their inner voices in a stale and sober situation, they’re generally confused. This is because their inhibitions are fully intact. At a party, drunk on alcohol and laughing with strangers, people don’t think before they respond. They just say what pops into their head. The answer that rides along this wave of conversation is always correct. I’ve never seen anybody go back on it. Sometimes I actually see them pause and play their response back in their head, nod in affirmation, and then carry on.
That pause is this third thing. It’s not even a presence or a third voice, although you might call it a third but silent voice. When we listen to our own internal monologues – not just talk about them or act by them but actually listen to the process of our thinking selves – we are tapping in to what today I’ve decided to call absolute awareness.
Absolute awareness isn’t the same as talking to yourself. It’s actually more like sitting quietly in the corner with a typewriter and recording your thoughts as they play out. It’s thinking about your own thoughts as they happen. It seems to me like this should be impossible, and I certainly wasn’t able to do it for very long. As soon as I noticed my noticing, I no longer was. Maybe a lifetime of Zen meditation would beef that recursive state up, I don’t know. But, even as this state of absolute awareness was retreating, I wondered at how familiar it felt. I soon figured out why.
It’s how I feel when I’m making music.
It’s practically cliche to say that there’s this mysteriously magical place from whence, with much practice and gusto, we’re able to draw all sorts of musical inspiration. The humanistic view, which is what I believe, says that this other place is actually a universal mechanism that we all share that just so happens to be really freaking hard to get to. I think of mine as an ocean with a trickle of idea bubbles, and sometimes it’s more than a trickle, and if I practice for years I can get really good at jumping off the deep end and treading water.
I believe that the many endeavors of a human individual are connected by this place, whatever it is for them, whether said individual likes it or not. I believe that the act of writing stories, and meeting strangers, and composing music all come from, or at least can come from, this secret and sacred place. Athletes, mathematicians, even particularly inpsired stock brokers can tap into this place. I’m telling you, everyone’s got it to some degree.
And, finally, I believe that as we grow older this state of absolute awareness becomes a place of dread. It becomes a distant and desolate land. Like the people who edge away when I tell them about my living situation, we learn to shut this place out for practicality’s sake because awareness brings discomfort and it doesn’t pay the bills. At least, not right out of college it doesn’t. And we’re all in such a hurry to pay bigger and bigger bills, aren’t we? Because, like, hey, did you know you’re gonna die some day? And you don’t want this fleeting life to be uncomfortable, do you? Horrors! I mean, discomfort is synonomous with unhappiness probably! We can’t have one single moment of unhappiness, perish the thought! Get your stupid awareness away from me! It sounds terrible and I want no part of it!
I’ve got something to tell you: I’m pretty fucking happy. And I mean that’s a deep happy. I’m particularly glad to discover that I like where my head is going as I grow older. Like a frog in slowly boiling water, I never even noticed the change until one day I ended up breaded and grinning on a plate with some garnish.
I don’t know who you are. I don’t know how you work. I don’t know if you’re Mocking Choir, or Simpsons Teen, or Dracula Sleeper or what. But I know that living my life simply and creatively has helped me learn about who I am down to my very core, and, holy crap, I didn’t run away screaming from what I found there. Beyond even that, it’s helped me make sense of a world full of people who all have their own little worlds floating around inside them, making their decisions and dreams and destinies happen and doing their very best not to muck up the place.
In short, I’m getting better at understanding. Just plain and simple truth and understanding. To me that’s worth just a little discomfort. Thanks for reading.