The 24 hour cable news channels are a fairly recent invention. But the voice inside our head that chatters away almost non-stop likely is as old as modern human consciousness.
There's a lot of similarity between so-called news anchors and our own inner commentator.
(Who is it? Me? But it's giving me advice, berating me, encouraging me, talking to me. So how could it be me? Assuming there even is a "me" for the voice to be or not to be.)
They both spend a lot more time recollecting the past and musing about the future than reporting on what actually is going on. That's why I added "so-called" before "news anchors."
What passes for news these days is mostly speculation. Nobody knows who is going to win the 2016 presidential election, how the stock market will perform this year, or whether Kim Kardashian is going to stay married. But a lot of people pretend that they do.
Likewise, none of us knows what is going to happen in the next moment, much less the next day, next week, next month, or next whenever.
Yet our desire for security and illusory knowing leads us to make up stories about possible futures, along with selectively re-telling the past in ways that please us. Is this necessary? Does it serve much of a purpose? Would we miss our minds' inner anchorperson if it shut the fuck up?
Interestingly, Harris is both an ABC anchor and a student of meditation/ mindfulness. Initially skeptical about the whole tame the monkey mind thing, he comes to realize the benefit of reducing the chatterbox that sits inside his cranium, talking about crap it knows nothing about.
Harris learns from a Buddhist teacher, Joseph Goldstein, that thinking isn't the problem. Non-useful thinking is. Here's a report on Day 9 of a mostly-silent ten day meditation retreat Harris goes on.
As he [Goldstein] presses his case, he says something that bugs me. He urges us not to spend too much time thinking about the stuff we have do when the retreat is over. It's a waste of time, he says; they're just thoughts. This provokes me to raise my hand for the first time.
From the back of the echoey hall, in full-on reporter mode, with my over-loud voice apparently not atrophied one bit from disuse, I ask, "How can you advise us not to worry about the things we have to do when we reenter the world? If I miss my plane, that's a genuine problem. These are not just irrelevant thoughts."
Fair enough, he concedes. "But when you find yourself running through your trip to the airport for the seventeenth time, perhaps ask yourself the following question, 'Is this useful'?"
His answer is so smart I involuntarily jolt back in my chair and smile.
"Is this useful?" It's a simple, elegant corrective to my "price of security" motto. It's okay to worry, plot, and plan, he's saying -- but only until it's not useful anymore. I've spent the better part of my life trying to balance my penchant for maniacal overthinking with the desire for peace of mind.
And here, with one little phrase, Goldstein has handed me what seems like a hugely constructive tool for taming this impulse without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I also liked this advice from a how-to-meditate section at the end of the book.
Write down this quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn and put it up on your wall: "Meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It's about feeling the way you feel."
It's amazing how many times I can hear this message and yet forget it when I sit down to meditate. You don't need to achieve some special state; you just need to be as aware as possible of whatever's happening right now. This is what the Buddhists mean by "letting go" -- better translated as "letting be."