The Narrator and The Silent Observer

What creates the mind's inner chatter? For lack of a better term, "The Narrator" is created by the language loop of the brain's left hemisphere (a circuit of fibers that connect Broca's and Wernicke's areas of the frontal cortex to the temporal cortex). Developmental psychologists like Lev Vygotsky suggested that the formation of inner talk in childhood begins as a self-regulating tool, a way to internalize the instructive voices of our caretakers for occasions when we are alone in the world, or caught in circumstances we cannot interact verbally to seek guidance. The calmer and gentler were the voices of our parents and guardians, along with those we admire and mimic, the calmer and gentler The Narrator we will hear in the mind, and vice versa. At its most useful, the Narrator can offer a calming presence amidst the threatening chaos of life, when events seem stacked against us. 

Without The Narrator we would quite feasibly be overwhelmed by random experience and our ability to self-soothe would be severely compromised. And so we host a stream of commentary about life, an array of views, opinions and explanations about our experience in the world, the new chapters to our ongoing inner autobiography. A voice that annotates our daily hunt for security, adding justifications to behaviors driven by largely unconscious urges and impulses.

Hiding behind the mesmerizing complexity of language, The Narrator's bundle of words conceals a very simple world view: everything is either 'good' or 'bad,' 'right' or 'wrong.' Situations in which we feel comfortable are wonderful, situations in which we feel vulnerable are dismal; its not surprising how it prefers the safest and most familiar routes through life. It's a guiding voice that would have us avoid anything that's challenging or unfamiliar, passing over opportunities to develop tolerance or exploration.

And how quickly The Narrator can turn against us. Due to the mind's tendency to create mood congruent thoughts—language centers tend to generate thoughts in sync with internal feeling states—during our stormiest emotional periods, such as depression, our inner voice falls in line and contributes bleak thoughts  ("What's the point anyway?") predictions ("I'll never get any better…") and observations, rather than rallying to provide us with uplifting assurances ("This too will pass" etc.) The more attention we give to The Narrator, the less we can 'dial down the volume' and experience extended periods of inner quietude. Depend on it too much, and eventually we'll find ourselves stuck watching a movie—our life—with a ceaseless voice over, akin to a film without any moments of quiet, still beauty. 

A goal of spiritual practice is to cultivate an awareness of life with a minimum of needless inner talk. Thankfully, in addition to The Narrator, the mind also offers another presence, that of The Silent Observer, that which is aware but doesn't add any babble to life. This is a quality that exists outside of the relentless opinions of The Narrator, attentive to feelings and impressions, without preferences or agendas. The jumpier our attention spans, the louder the chatter, the less aware we are of The Silent Observer.

Meditation is the most efficient way to rebalance our awareness, to turn down the volume of The Narrator and all its discontent. It is a time to arrive fully in life, like reaching that long awaited vacation, where there's no place else we'd want to be, nothing else we'd want to do. Another solution is to seek out gentler, more forgiving voices in the world, listening and interacting with wise spiritual friends until we find ourselves internalizing increasingly skillful views and opinions.

Of course, giving primacy to The Silent Observer doesn't mean every moment is joyous: transient states of elation, happiness, physical comfort and ease will arise and pass, replaced by discomfort, sorrow, loneliness or boredom. Just as we learn to detach our focus from The Narrator, so too will our practice require detaching from inner moods and external conditions. As good news and bad still arrive at the doorstep of each day, we still age, losses and separations remain inevitable. Yet when we open to life without futile resistance or intervention, we find that The Silent Observer can open to any experience; it provides a safe container that can patiently and calmly hold all of life, it provides the continuum from the most joyous to the most challenging moments of our journey.