Who is Listening?

“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it
make a sound?”
Of course we all recognise this thought provoking quote –
and one of the thoughts that sprang up for me today was to do with our Internal
Now in this regard I’m not talking about what some refer to
as our Conscious – Unconscious Dialogue. I’m really referring to what is
perhaps colloquially known as Self Talk.
A dialogue essentially involves two or more ‘voices’ shall
we say. It is a conversation, a discussion, an exchange of thoughts and ideas
expressed in words. Within the same linguistic stable there is monologue – where, as we understand it,
there is only one voice.

Self Talk
Once we have the facility to talk, we develop our facility to
Self talk.
Children, from around the age of two, can be observed talking to themselves –
particularly when at play. Starting first with the work of psychologists Jean
Piaget* and Lev Vygotsky*, there have been extensive observed studies and
researches concerning the emergence of self talk or ‘private speech’ in
By the time we are 7, say, we have become very well
practised in the art of self talk – and by that age this facility has also become
much more internalised. It seems that through constant daily usage and practice
we have bonded together our thinking with our self talk, so much so that they
are barely discernible and appear to be one and the same.

Self Listening
Of course, for there to be a dialogue there has to be two or
more voices, and here I would describe our internal dialogue as having an
active voice and a passive voice. Thus far I have explored the emergence and
use of the active voice – yet, what
of the passive voice?
Now – simply in terms of labelling at this point, I would describe the passive
voice as being that of the Self Listener.
Once we have the facility to listen, we develop our facility
to Self Listen. And part of that
development is this – as we internalise our self talk so we also internalise
our Self Listening.
By the stage we are merging our thinking with our Self Talk,
we are ‘hearing’ our thinking with our Self Listening.
Through our developing
cognisance and the vehicle of language, we are able to recognise and understand
our thoughts. We now have a fully developed Internal Dialogue – and we have a
complete understanding of who we are at any given moment.
And it is quite easy to see how we can fully accept the premise behind Rene Descartes’
famous quote Cogito Ergo SumI
think therefore I am.

The Data
On a purely sensual level, every sound we hear in every
moment of time makes up a vast array of incoming auditory data. The same
applies to all other sensual data as well.
We have AND develop a mental facility to filter that data in such a way that our
processing capacity is not overwhelmed. It is a facility that runs at both an unconscious
(involuntary) level as well as a conscious one. It is a function that takes
place within the reticular activating system (RAS) and is located in the brain
stem adjacent to the Thalamus.
Now, one of the amazing functions of the brain is the facility
to take internally created images, sounds, feelings and other sensory data –
and to treat them as if they were real. The internally sourced data passes
through the sensory gateways (or filter) in the same way as externally sourced
data. Our imagination, our dreams, visualisations etc are all formed of
internally sourced data – yet they are presented to our perceptive apparatus as
being as real as the external experience.
So if we examine our Self
, we can easily understand how our thoughts, the words from that nagging
little voice in our head, can seem as real as if they were on “the outside.”
Now one of the functions of the RAS is that we can play a
conscious part in directing the filtering process. We are, therefore, not
totally at the mercy of whatever data is coming in – both from outside and,
more to the point here, from the inside. We CAN moderate what we pay attention
to in terms of our Self Listening.
And part of that moderation comes from how we manage our attention.

The Judge
Within our mental facility we also have The Judge.
The Judge evaluates incoming data in terms of how to
respond. At the involuntary or unconscious level, this takes the form of responses
to stimuli – we respond to touching something hot, we jump in response to a
loud bang, we shield our eyes in response to a blinding light, and we recoil in
response to a vile smell or a sharp, acidic taste.
At the conscious level we respond in a whole variety of
ways, PLUS we add in markers which we label EMOTIONS. The emotions make each
experience more vivid. The emotions get filed away in memory along with the
data that makes up the experience, and the emotional markers enable quick and
easy recollection of the experience. As we know, whenever we remember something
with a vivid emotional marker, the entire experience of data + emotion comes
flooding back.
It is The Judge
in us that decides not only what we respond to, but also what kind of emotional
markers are going to be used. At the conscious level, The Judge makes decisions
based upon our beliefs and values and also our sense of self, or what we assume
as being our sense of Identity.  
And when it comes to our Self Listening we find The Judge is also there, evaluating what is
being said in our Self Talk.
When we are critical of ourselves, or self-demeaning, or verbally beating
ourselves up, The Judge then becomes
the Self Talker. If we are driven to self-harming, then our behaviour is a
response to the Self Talk of The Judge.

Making Changes
Now if we want to make a change in some part of our lives in
terms of the way we behave, or the way we respond, or the way we perceive
things – then there are a number of ways we can do this. However, each and
every one of us has a unique make-up – so the best ways of making changes that
would work for me are not necessarily the best ways for you.
So, what might be the best approach?
Well, we know that if we ask our family, friends or indeed even
someone in the street, then the reply we’d get would probably start like this:
if I were you then I’d do XXXX.
However when a client comes to see me then this kind of
response is never going to get them very far! What I need is to get a picture
of the Self Talker, the Self Listener, The Data and The Judge. We’ll have a
conversation and I’ll ask some questions to enable me to get a handle on their
Thinking and their view of how the World works – remembering of course that it is
only THEIR World. I’ll also get a really good view of their expressive language,
both verbal and non-verbal, for their language is the vehicle that conveys the workings,
meanings and purpose of THEIR World.
In order to make some meaningful changes, my client knows
that The Data is not completely controllable. Life and the World will always
throw things in our paths from a deep pile carpet to a rocky road. He can
change some of his Beliefs and Values and get a different perception of his sense
of Identity –this will alter how The Data is filtered, and will also adapt the response
criteria for The Judge. He can moderate his Self Talk – which is his Thinking –
and change his perception of HIS World that way.
Or – he can be a different kind of Self Listener.
Remember this?
a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a

Forest Fires
If my client listens to himself, pays attention, then the
only route left open to him is all the remedies I’ve just mentioned – this is
what I would call the “fire-fighting” approach.
He is there – in his own metaphorical forest – and as the trees of Self Talk regularly
fall he will hear them, judge them, process them and respond to them. The trees
will keep falling, rather like the weather just keeps on coming.
On the other hand, if as a Self Listener he is not in the
forest, then the trees will fall in perceptive silence. His thoughts will rise
up and fall away, form as clouds and then evaporate. There will be much less ‘noise
and clamour’ going on, there’ll be a lot more perceptive clarity. He will, to
coin a phrase, start to “see the wood for the trees.
Life and the World will still present data to him, and his
attention – and he can still manage his attention to deal with matters
pertaining to all THAT data.
In terms of the Internal Dialogue however, his Self Listening has changed. With
less or no data coming in from Self Talk, immediately the role of The Judge has
changed too.

There’s a simplicity to changing the nature of our Self
Listening that is woven into the fabric of how we manage our attention.
When we are attending to something we allocate to it a
portion of our total awareness. The more attention we give – the greater
proportion is dedicated to that something. Meanwhile, we are paying less
attention to other things. This allocation of attentive “bandwidth” is a very
simple equation – rather like “Task Manager” in a computer’s operating system
Now the moment we become really absorbed in one thing,
the amount of bandwidth that is allocated to “other things” becomes very much
diminished. When we’re really in The Zone or a Flow State, for instance,
then we pay no attention at all to “other things.” Time slows down or seems to
be suspended, and our Ego – our sense of Self – is nowhere to be found. As part
of that sense of Self, our Self Talk and Self Listening are not in evidence,
and neither is The Judge. The external data is still streaming in and being
processed, but all the internal clutter has gone.
Self Listening, along with other ego-oriented processes, takes
attentive bandwidth. If we are really worried about something then we find it
extremely difficult to do anything else. We describe this as “I can’t get my head around it. I had other
things on my mind. My head was in another place.”
Sound familiar? It’s because we’ve allocated so much bandwidth to the worrying
and not enough to what we were actually doing.
Yet – what if we’d stopped our
Self Listening?
What if we’d not listened to ourselves worrying, not paid
attention to ourselves worrying?

Take a look at the people you know who seem very calm,
grounded, unflappable, are good at what they do yet always seem to have time
for others. Consider how it is they manage to do so much, so well – without getting
burnt out, worn out or stressed out.
Maybe they were born with it, maybe they’re on something, or maybe they just stopped
listening to their Self Talk?
When people say, “I just learned how to let go,” we might
wonder HOW. How do they do that?
Next time you are worried or dogged by an overload of thoughts
hold your tongue for about 30 seconds. Or hold out your forefinger and try
balancing a pencil on it.
While you were doing that where did all the thoughts go?
Or firmly grip a coin between your thumb and forefinger, stand up and hold it
out in front of you as you stack all those errant thoughts onto it. Feel the
coin getting heavier – and when you are ready and cannot hold it any more, then
just let it go.
Remember – we don’t have to be the “I” who is Listening.

* Jean Piaget – The Language and Thought
of the Child
* Lev Vygotsky – Thought and Language
(alt. Thinking and Speaking) (1934)