right now, what am i adding to life?


The voice-over is a familiar technique of delivering information during film, documentaries, marketing videos and commercials; it's the addition of a disembodied voice over the top of the visuals, guiding the audience's understanding or 'reading' of the film. While the actor who speaks isn't visible, the words they say are crucial to our interpretation of the film, etc, for they provide us with a translation of onscreen events that otherwise could have a myriad of possible explanations, much like the headline in a print ad provides the artwork with a message. Without a narrative or voiceover, a series of disjointed filmed events could be an interesting film, but it would be a demanding cinematic experience as well, as the accumulation of inconclusive, often unconnected elements could easily overwhelm the viewer.

The voiceover is, of course, modeled on the role our thoughts, or running inner commentary, plays in life. Inner speech provides us with an explanatory perception of external events, along with a narrative thread, without which we would find ourselves confused and distracted by the wide variety of impressions and sensations swirling around us. Indeed, we rely on our interpretations to such a degree that we believe our interpretations are sound, even objective and inherently true; opening to the realization that our understanding of the world is inherently subjective and often wildly inaccurate brings about a certain unease: we may, as they say, be missing the plot more than we'd like to believe.

Beyond providing us with an understanding of, not to mention meaning for, life, our inner voice influences our emotional reactions to events. Let's explore a scenario: You have a new supervisor at work, who, on a friday afternoon, asks to come into their office on monday morning. Depending on your mood and current outlook, you could interpret that request in a variety of different ways, for example: a) I'm to be demoted or fired or b) I'm finally going to get that pay raise I requested months ago. Both interpretations are speculative and subjective, as they're based more on moods, rather than any real information; as the supervisor is new, you have no idea how they confer good news or bad, nor what a monday morning meeting could mean. Yet, despite the unproven and hypothetical nature of the perceptions, a negative interpretation of the supervisor's request could trigger fear, filling the mind with obsessive concerns about finding a new job, financial vulnerability, and a result a ruined weekend might be in store. One could easily become defensive or angry as a result of the spiraling concerns, barging into the supervisor's office on monday morning, ruining what was intended to be a harmless get-to-know-each-other meeting. A positive interpretation, on the other hand, could lead to a variety of pleasant fantasies, including shopping spree, money spent under the assumption a raise is in the offing. Such an emotional response could have stressful implications as well. In this scenario, not adding any reading of what the request meant would be the wisest way to proceed.

While so many situations in life are inconclusive and unclear, how we interpret determines how we react and how much or little we suffer as a result. Eventually, we may pile reactions on top of reactions, berating ourselves for being so negative or optimistic, creating little wars in the mind.

So the role of spiritual practice in relation to thoughts is not to add more interpretations of life into the mix, but rather to help us reduce the aggravating consequences of our views, beliefs, interpretations and on. Rather than reacting to our judgments and apprehensions with aversion or agreement, we develop a detached view, understanding they're only speculations and guesses about the world, but not inherently true. In each moment we can ask ourselves:

"Right now, what am I adding to life?"

Eventually, we begin to see that less inner commentary is often better, for the more we can strip out the voiceover from running atop the movie of our life, the more we can take in the stunning variety and richness of what we're experiencing. Its the commentary we add to our days that make them seem predictable and mundane, or needlessly dramatic and threatening. Life itself is rarely either, once we fully return to it.