Back when we first met, we all seemed to get along okay.
He was always kind of chatty but it didn’t really bother me because it was usually nice to have a familiar voice nearby when I stumbled into a new or uncomfortable situation. For whatever reason he always seemed to be this reassuring voice of reason. A voice that seemed to know me inside and out, and someone who was never shy offering advice.
However like other roommates I’ve had in the past, his charm began to wear off over time.
Things that I used to find endearing about him, like his endless stream of helpful advice and his running commentary of current events, was now becoming virtually unbearable.
At first I tried to reason with him and tell him how I was feeling. I went out of my way to get along with him and avoid confrontation. When that didn’t work, I tried to simply ignore him.
But no matter what I did, the chatty bastard just would not stop talking. . .
Everywhere I went, I could hear his voice chattering inside my head.
“Did you see his face when he read your article?”
“What do you think she meant by that comment?”
“You really need to start running again, you look like the freakin’ muffin man!”
“I can’t believe you’re still wasting your time with that stupid project!”
It never stopped.
Whether I was driving my car, walking the dog, reading a book, or eating breakfast, this guy would not stop commenting and criticizing my every move.
The worst part was that I couldn’t seem to do anything about it. Unlike several of my other roommates who eventually moved, wandered off, got married, or got themselves arrested — this roommate wasn’t going anywhere, because this one lived inside my head.
Any competent therapist would probably tell me that I should take responsibility for him since technically he is a part of my troubled psyche, but I’m not going to because it turns out this guy is a real jerk.
After all, we’re not talking about some well-meaning friend here who usually supports you but, at the same time, isn’t afraid to offer you a little constructive criticism when you need it.
This is one of those people who doesn’t ever have anything good to say and he pretty much just likes to hear himself talk. Eventually I had enough.
Something had to be done.
Since I had little chance of physically escaping him, I knew I had to find some way to tune him out. But how exactly does someone silence a voice that lives inside their own head?
At first I thought I would simply tell myself (quietly and non-psychotic like) to “Shut up” whenever my critical roommate started to go off on one of his little rants. It didn’t take long however, before I realized that trying to drown out the noise with more noise was probably not the answer.
Putting aside the fact that I felt like an idiot arguing with myself, I realized that yelling at oneself (even internally) was a very slippery slope and only a few short steps away from eventually having an full-blown discussion with myself in the toilet paper aisle at Target. So trying to silence my inner bastard by shouting him down was probably not the way to go.
I had already tried to simply ignore him in hopes that he would simply go away, but that hadn’t worked so I began to search for other answers.
After mentioning my problem to a friend, she suggested that I try meditation.
I’ll be honest, over the years I’ve tried various forms of meditation in an attempt to focus my frantic little monkey mind.
I’ve read dozens of books and sat silently for hours (in fidgety five-minute intervals) trying to calm my mind and silence my relentless inner critic. I’ve counted breaths, I’ve chanted mantras, I’ve recited poems, and I’ve done my best to clear my mind of all distractions.
Overall I can’t really say that this has done much to quiet my inner critic. If anything, it has only given him a quieter place to play, and perhaps a more attentive audience.
Here’s how a typical early morning meditation session typically went for me:
“This isn’t so bad. I can do this — I just need to focus”
“Am I supposed to count my breaths or not? I can never remember”
“I should create some note cards with some of this information.”
“I don’t really feel any different — why doesn’t this ever work for me?”
“What was that poem that I used to recite, I wonder where I put that?
“What’s the matter with me, why can’t I just sit still for ten minutes?”
“I need to remember to email Jason back”
“What day was I supposed to return that book?”
“I wonder what time the kids need to be up?”
Stop thinking dammit!
This is pointless, I’m going to make some coffee…
It went on like this day after day. Instead of finding inner peace, however, I only discovered new ways to construct elaborate to-do lists in my head.
Eventually I discovered that I can’t just allow my mind to wander and expect to stay out of trouble. Much like our dog, my frantic little monkey mind needed something to chew on. Something that it can focus its attention on so it doesn’t wander off looking for things to worry about.
At first I followed the some of the suggestions from friends such as counting my breaths or reciting a poem from memory. These kind of worked except instead of simply counting my breaths, I would often find myself analyzing, and of course criticizing, my breathing pattern (is it too fast, too slow, too shallow?) The poem idea worked a little better for me, that is until I would forget a word or phrase and then it would become just another exercise in frustration.
In the end, however both of these methods still involved way too much thinking. I needed to find a way to quiet my mind that didn’t involve more mental gymnastics.
The answer finally came to me one evening as a group of us were sitting outside in front of a campfire. Even sitting outside in the dark, my monkey mind was still hard at work generating random ideas and compiling endless to-do lists.
That’s when something in the fire sparked and caught my attention.
As I sat there watching the flames leap from one log to the next. Something about it commanded my complete attention. Suddenly all of the thoughts that had been bouncing around inside my head just moments before were gone.
I was left only with silence.
As I continued to watch the flames, I knew that I was fully in that moment. Not counting breaths or reciting poetry, but just staring into the fire.
There was nothing to remember, to criticize, or even attempt to control. There was only this ever-changing moment as the fire sparked and crackled before me. There was nothing to do but watch as it slowly consume itself. At that moment, I felt like I was connected to something larger than myself. It was no longer me and my annoying head roommate bickering at one another. It was just me.
Of course the moment you start patting yourself on the back for being in the moment, you’re no longer in the moment.
After that night, I wanted desperately to recreate that feeling even though I knew building a campfire in my living room every morning wasn’t very practical.
I later discovered that staring into a flame was a form of focused meditation where someone contemplates a flickering flame, running water, a picture, or any other type of object in order to stay in the moment and turn off the non-stop commentary that’s constantly running inside our heads.
Don’t get me wrong, my annoying roommate is still around. He’s still there to question and criticize my every move, but at least now I know that it’s possible to distract him, even if it’s only for a little while.
Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.