I used to go through life without really seeing or hearing much of the world around me. Instead, I was mostly seeing images and hearing sounds created by my mind. Rather than seeing what was happening in the world, I was watching mental pictures of past events from my life—usually ones I regretted, and of possible future events—usually unpleasant ones. Instead of hearing the sounds occurring in the world, I was listening to songs I’d heard in the past, and to mental recordings of criticisms people had leveled at me before or might make in the future.
I wasn’t hallucinating, or otherwise “mentally ill”—at least, not by our society’s standards. I could tell the mental images and sounds apart from reality. Like many of us, I’d simply chosen to live almost entirely in my mind. This would have been all right if my mind were a decent place to live. However, as I suggested earlier, it wasn’t. The pictures and sounds I created with my mind were almost always painful, and physically tiring, to experience.
Unfortunately, over the years, I completely forgot I’d consciously decided to fill my life with mentally-created pictures and sounds. I came to believe living in my mind was perfectly natural, and that humans were simply created to live that way. In fact, it was an addictive habit I no longer remembered how to break.
I had an experience that changed my perception one night when I was lying in bed. I tended to play music in my mind to help myself sleep. This particular night, I became frustrated with the songs I was hearing. As the saying goes, I couldn’t get some song “out of my head”—I seemed to have set my mental CD player on “repeat”—and I wanted to listen to a different one. I’d be successful at changing the music for a few moments, but then the new song would fade out and be replaced by the old, irritating one again. After trying in vain for a while to change my mental radio station, I gave up and decided I wanted the darn thing turned off completely.
Startlingly, when I had this thought, my mental radio actually did switch off. I heard nothing but the minimal sounds in the room, and the sounds of my pulse and breathing. At first, the emptiness was frightening—it was as though, if I didn’t leave the radio on, something would leap out of the silence and attack me. I suddenly remembered I’d experienced this emptiness before, as a young child. I recalled lying in bed, feeling alone and scared by the silence. And, with surprising clarity, I remembered deciding to turn my mental radio on, and leave it on, so I wouldn’t have to feel alone or frightened. The music in my head wasn’t a natural part of being human—I had consciously chosen to create it.
This time, however, I tried leaving the music in my head off. After a few minutes, I began feeling a peaceful warmth in my body. The silence started to feel natural and welcoming, like an old friend I was finally reuniting with after many years apart. I fell asleep shortly after that realization.
When I woke up and had to return to the outside world, I found that I still had access to the peace I’d felt the night before. All I had to do, even in a busy city with loud noise all around, was to focus on turning off the mental radio and listening to what was actually going on around me. Simply hearing the real world, rather than the music in my head, was a very soothing experience.
To be sure, I wasn’t completely free of mental images and sounds after that day. Like I said, living in my mind was a habit I’d constantly indulged for most of my life. Initially, I felt an almost irresistible urge to switch the music back on. I had to pay close attention to my thoughts to make sure this urge didn’t overcome me. If I wasn’t alert enough, I’d unconsciously turn on the music—or, worse, I would dive into a stream of negative, destructive thinking. But with practice, my alertness increased, and my tendency to automatically turn on the radio lessened.
If you find yourself plagued by unwanted mental images and sounds, I have a recommendation for you. The next time you have a moment to sit by yourself, whether you’re in a quiet or a noisy space, simply focus on the world around you. See and hear what’s really going on in the world, without watching mental movies or listening to mental voices or music. Just let your senses take in reality, without mentally commenting on it or imagining things that happened or might happen in it.
At the outset, you’ll probably find it difficult to keep the mental images and sounds turned off. You may find them creeping back into your awareness, no matter how you try to sustain your focus. When this happens, don’t shame yourself—just hold your attention on the real world, and the images and sounds will gradually subside. You may also feel the urge to fight back against your mind, particularly if it’s constantly replaying painful experiences. I used to do this a lot myself—I’d yell at my mind to shut up, because I was trying to concentrate or enjoy my life. However, this only makes your mind into an enemy, and intensifies the negativity of your thoughts.
As you work on stemming the flow of mental images and sounds, the state of peace and emptiness will start to feel more natural. And, in fact, it is. You’ll come to see that directly experiencing the world, without constant mental chatter, is your natural state. It takes effort, and it is tiresome, to operate TV and radio stations in your mind that are constantly broadcasting, and you don’t need to do it. Switching off your mental TV and radio can bring a peace and aliveness to your existence you may never have felt before.