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Photo: Akhilesh Shukla
Photo: Akhilesh Shukla

Get acquainted with those voices in your head

  • It’s often a battle within in times of profound uncertainty, but there’s a way to win it

In my last column, I wrote about techniques to navigate difficult times. I described three alternatives. The first is to accept that Nature’s harmony (or god or spirit or whatever you call it) is greater than you. The second is to create space for us to better witness our own thoughts, and therefore, purposefully respond to difficult times instead of immediately reacting to circumstances. The third is to use our freedom of will to respond with actions in consonance with the direction of that harmony, and not against it.

For today, I am going to dwell a little more on the second alternative: the space to witness. Let me make clear that I am not a guide. All I am seeking to do is to share my personal experiences when I was dealing with unacceptable, but unavoidable circumstances, like a man with no arms, strapped in a seat unable to move while being forced to watch the same C-grade movie repeatedly.

I need to let you in on a secret, since it matters in this quest for space, and it is this: I have a voice in my head. Its tone is usually borrowed from whatever emotion I am feeling at the time. If it is fear, the voice whines in a cacophony of all sorts of catastrophic endings. In the absence of knowledge, it looks for the worst possible outcomes in a given scenario, and then plays out each horrific scene in lurid detail. It speaks as I try to lull myself to sleep at night, and, as soon as I wake up in the morning, it starts again. Every once in a while, it splits its personality. It retorts to its own whining from a moment earlier with the rejoinder: “You’re crazy, there’s no way that could happen. Calm down and take it easy."

If the sponsoring emotion emanates from a recent success, it crows and fawns. It says there is no one who is its equal. And there too, it sometimes splits personality mid-stream. It says: “You were just lucky, stop beating your own drum."

I’m certain that had this voice been that of an actual person, sitting next to me all day long, I would have got rid of that person a long time ago. But the voice seems to be a piece of my personal baggage that can’t be jettisoned.

Had I made a public admission of voices in my head a few years ago, while sitting on the board of a company where I was one of the senior-most executives, I am sure that I would have been met with looks of horror. I may even have been told to find a good therapist—fast. You see, no one likes to admit to themselves, much less to their fellows, that they have voices their heads.

The truth is that all of us have this voice. Let me demonstrate with a simple example. Sometimes, we have to ask a person whom we are conversing with to repeat themselves because our minds had ‘wandered’ and we hadn’t heard what they said. Well, what was our mind doing when it wandered? Talking, of course. And yes, in its ‘voice’, which can torment us when we are vulnerable.

This happens especially when we are met with a fear of the unknown. As humans, we need certainty, even if it is dire, just so we can prepare ourselves. In its absence, we at least need some predictability. Hence, all manner of pundits present themselves in times of trouble and make predictions about what might happen in the future, and we hang on to their every word, just so that we can model what our future might look like.

We should critically consider the value of these pundits. They are human, like us, and are just as blind as the rest

of us right now. Are we better off just accepting the uncertainty and going with the flow, taking each day as it comes, rather than trying to define all possible outcomes and pegging our behaviours upon them? In such times, maybe all we can manage is to do what’s right in a given moment, and then drop the matter.

But what of the voice? Is it me? If so, which voice is me? The whiner? Or the one that tells it to stop whining? Or both?

What I have come to realize is that the voices are not me. This realization seems like the Master Key. Instead, who I really am is the one who is listening to the voices. Put another way, I am the audience, not the actors. Once I consciously turn my attention to who I really am, I have automatically created the space and ability to see and better understand the battle of the voices in my head.

This simple act takes away the power of the mind and its voices. But arriving at the point where one can take this step, and thereafter stay at that level of conscious thinking, does not come easy. For most, it takes discernment to understand the battle and the will to overcome the voices. Some secular and almost all spiritual texts the world over provide us with plenty of instruction on how to get there through the process of meditation, prayer, and self-reflection.

Maybe, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of." Or if you prefer a secular quote, here is Carl Jung: “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes."

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India.

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