The ancient practice of mindfulness is having its day in social media and in our culture at large. Googling the term, I encountered dozens of advertisements promising success, numerous offers of self help, and several academic articles from scientists and psychologists. The idea of quieting the mind is now a cultural phenomenon, and has accordingly been diluted down to allow access to practices of mindfulness for anyone with a computer. While most of the links I saw seemed simplistic, they also seemed relatively harmless, compared to how else people could be spending their time. 
 
That said, the idea of mindfulness is an important part of inner development and most spiritual teachings emphasize the necessity of observing the mind as a lifetime practice. In doing so, the practitioner will soon discover that there is a continuous narrative taking place in the mind, with one thought leading to another to another to another. The Buddhists call this monkey mind, with the image of a monkey swinging from tree branch to tree branch. Just so, one thought follows another incessantly. Different traditions have developed different means of quieting the monkey mind, such as meditation, or simply seeing the fact of the inner talking more and more clearly, causing it to lessen on its own. One of the hallmarks of a person who is more evolved is that there is less of this kind of associative thinking going on. Much less.
 
The inner talking is a fact of our existence. But if I look carefully I might also see that there are not only the random associations, which are like background static, but that something else is also occurring. Very likely there is a narrative which keeps coming up. It is a kind of song we sing about ourselves, though not a harmonious one. The songs are different for different people, but there are not an unlimited number. Maybe five or ten at most. The songs always revolve around some sort of evaluation or judgement I have of myself; comparing myself to some other person or to some imagined idea of myself. Perhaps I see I constantly question my ability, that I doubt whether or not I’m good enough. Or I see I constantly compare myself to others, either noting that I am superior or inferior to them. Or I habitually say to myself that things are unfair, that I can’t catch a break. Or that there is no use trying, it doesn’t matter anyway. Or that I am always finding fault, even about small and inconsequential matters.
 
Everyone has such thoughts from time to time, and sometimes they are not only justified but necessary. If I completely miss the mark in some way sincere self criticism may help me for the future. But most of the time this is not the case. Instead, I see that I keep returning to the same one or two thoughts again and again, often several times a day, and always containing the same story line. It is my song. 
 
I’m generally unaware of my narrative. It’s not usually loud or strident, rather it’s more of a muttering to myself, a small voice sounding underneath the general flow of thought. Sometimes it’s just a fragment of my song that appears, a few notes restating the whole, echoing the entire song. It seems to not be a very big deal, just a kind of background commentary, and if I do see it at all I chose to ignore it.  Unfortunately, it has more power than I know.
 
This kind of song, sung over and over again, prescribes and proscribes my opinion of myself. It prescribes who I must be and proscribes who I cannot be. If the song were to be sung only from time to time it would be unimportant. But I have come to repeat it many thousands of times, and it’s potency lies in this repetition. After quite a few years it is now being sung automatically, beneath my awareness, and it is insidious because of that. You could say that we have come to live in a mental jail cell, captive to the self image created by our song, and we are our own jailers. To unlock the door of the cell and walk out to freedom would be wonderful. But first, I must come to recognize that I am behind bars. After that, a repeated recognition of my situation at the moment I am singing my song will eventually result in my escape.
 
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