Modular Mind: 7 Voices I Hear Daily
MINDFUL MINUTE UP FRONT
Do you hear voices? If you’re like me you have roundtable discussions. After looking into the maze of my mind, I met a cast of 7 characters. From Cavemen to Samurais - this is their story - of how they control our story.
Ohh my voices and I hung out all the time, but it was a casual thing. “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” is how we liked to keep it. In all our chats, I never even knew their names. But after 35 days in Northern Thailand - that all changed. There I intimately met Judy and Pablo. The Samurai and the Chief. Goliath, Dan and Macho Man.
This post is a behind the scenes look at 7 characters of my mind. But this is not just my story, it’s your story. The human story, in all its fucked up glory. Whether meditation virgins or Vipassana veterans, we all hear voices (see part 1: Monkey Mind & Brain Showers). In the habit loops that are our lives, we have imaginary friends that come along for the ride. Who is in control? Likely not us, but them....So let's meet the crazy cast.
THE BITTER-SWEETNESS OF TRUTH
So what insights did my voices share?
In neurotic noise - I found bitter truth. I was like a child realizing the bullshit hoax that is Santa Claus. Like that child, my favorite toys and joys were now tainted ploys. All an empty lie.
My Kriss Kringle? The delusion that all my precious thoughts - are me. The dream that “I” - am in full control. The realization that every craving, every sensual pleasure, is all a fleeting bubble. In flash after flash, the mirage of mind melted away. Left behind was a pool of disenchantment. But like that child, I couldn’t go back to living a lie.
See this unraveling was at one of those ‘silent meditation retreats’. A brain boot-camp is more like it. Up at 4 am, no meals past noon, and 12 hr meditation days. Navigating the maze of mind, a tribal theatre played with a cast of 7 cranium characters. There was Macho Man and Judge Judy. The Time Traveling Chief and Peacocking Pablo. CaveMan Dan, Ghost Story Goliath, and The Samurai of Sabotage.
But where did they come from?
WAIT- BEFORE WE MEET YOUR VOICES, WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY VOICES?
In the circus that is consciousness, we don’t just have one narrating voice - but many. A cast of characters that are like cognitive children, each with unique personalities and tendencies. These mental offspring demand attention and fight our awareness to get it.
These kids are all manifestations of the ego. Different masks the ‘self’ puts on. If you look, you can feel them bubble up in the brain. Each child is a pattern and habit loop in the mind. A bundle of thoughts, emotions, internal commentary, moods, desires, intuitions and compulsions.
Don’t dismiss these children as Disney characters. They are powerful processes conditioned by evolution, neural wiring, and our life experiences. The result? Cognitive algorithms that dictate how we think, speak and act in this video game of life.
So your mind is definitely different, but definitely a mixture of the same monkey madness. So for now, let's meet Macho Maaaan.
7 CRANIUM CHARACTERS, 1 MONKEY MIND
1. MACHO MAN RAAAANDY SAVAGE!
“Ohhh yeaaaa!” Give me more, more more. More Netflix. More news. More alcohol. More sweets. More drugs. More sex. More travel. Name your vice, this tornado inside wants MOOORE.
Meet Macho Man - primal cravings and desires are his weapons of choice. Macho Man cherishes comfort and security. And he is usually numbing pain, insecurity, and anxiety - all to give me that relaxing bubble bath of ‘agggggh’. He lives in a pleasure palace, in the dopamine center of my brain. Like the cookie monster, a perpetual pleasure binge is his madness. Randy rules our 20s, but he is a powerhouse until we die.
Belligerence with Macho Man was my blankie of comfort for sooooo long. Weed, wine, and women - all a delusional attempt to scratch an itch that just couldn't be scratched. You may have different values and tastes. But we each have our own a cocktail of comfort, a recipe mix of the 6 senses (thoughts + 5 senses) we cling to. Damn you chocolate and peanut butter.
Macho man is a champ of comfort. Like a whack a mole arcade game, Randy pops up everywhere. Give up alcohol and you want sweets. Give up sweets and you’re horny. Give up sex and food is the lover you are always holding. The tools change, the itches don't.
The trap I painfully realized is the fleeting essence of Macho Man. The cravings keep crashing in, and the satisfaction dissipates like a fart in the wind. You can’t kick-back in pleasure palace with your ‘ comfort cocktail’, redecorate a bit, and then host dinner parties. Instead, it’s more like a doomed sand castle. With each coming tide, its’ destruction is inevitable.
This is the endless craving cycle of madness that is the Macho Man. A beast that can never be fed, the desire for more and newness just keeps burning. His kryptonite? RAIN, but more on that later.
2. PEACOCKING PABLO
Ohh peacocks are pretty - ridiculous. But we humans are simply social animals 2.0. Just substitute turquoise tails for midnight silver Teslas, job titles, homes, and gadgets. Whether troops, tribes or towns - our primate brains constantly calculate social order and rank. Meet Peacocking Pablo.
Our cognitive algorithms crank away, comparing every signal and every person. Back in the day, it was who is fucking who. Who is friends with the Alpha. Who is being a lazy ass free rider. Nature apparently selected us to be nosy ass beasts. This is not conscious behavior, socially sorting just happens.
If we navigate the physical landscape using our senses, then this algorithm helps us map out the social landscape. Pablo helps us fit into the tribal web. Besides determining our place in the social pyramid, Pablo loves imitating humans. From kids to adults, our mirror neurons are always mimicking others: tool making, behavior, fashion.
Signs of Peacocking Pablo: Do you subconsciously move out of the way of taller people? Are you truly meeting the new person or sizing them up? Can you imagine dancing but not looking around at others (ever)? Have you said, “what the hell is he wearing”? What is fashion/style anyway? Do you treat the beggar, waitress, and man in the suit the same?
This pecking order has its obvious benefits back in our monkey troop days. But when social sorting becomes your means of self-worth and identity, watch out. This is where material consumerism not only thrives - but manipulates.
Look out for Pablo, he is a sly operator, always tiptoeing on the subconscious fringes. But once you have your social pyramid mapped out, then Judy comes gaveling in.
3. JUDGE JUDY
Meet Judge Judy, my ego’s favorite weapon. She is the judge, jury, and executioner. If Pablo’s helps me map out the social landscape, then Judge Judy help me safely navigate the world. Her courtroom? Judgments of myself and the world.
If Macho Man has all the fun, the Judge is the nagging guilt trip of “shoulds”. Ugggh, I shouldn’t have binge ate the chocolate. 10 hour Netflix marathon, WTF is wrong with me? The Judge has a colossal bench in consciousness, analytical and morally dissecting all of my actions.
We grow up in different cultures, but the critical judge never stops. I’m not good enough. What’s wrong with me. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. Ironically, why did I just judge that person? You name it, haters are gonna hate, and the Judge is the best. It can be a vicious cycle of judgment, shame, and guilt.
But for my monkey mind, my biggest judgments are saved for all the jackasses of the world (I’m a work in progress ok).
MY TOWER OF JUDGEMENT
The Judge helps me analyze, understand and survive in this world. But she has a dark side. She is a hasty workaholic who is cognitively biased and toxic. She judges humanity nonstop. Who are they? Are they good or bad? Right or wrong? A threat or a mate? Part of my tribe?
If you listen, you can hear her verdicts chime in all damn day. Problem-solving is one thing, but she becomes an OCD control freak who just got a label maker. She compulsively prints a judgmental label on every facet of life.
The judge kicks my ass daily. I have painfully realized how much she dominates my life. Subconsciously, it can be scary as hell living In an ever-changing world and having no real control. But when I bust out my label maker, it creates a comforting moat of protection against the dangerous world. Guarding my ego and heart, now nothing can hurt me. Sitting in my judgmental tower, not only do I feel protected but I have a delusional sense of control.
Even worse - the Judge begins to fuel my pride. With every pounding of the gavel, she is ‘tearing others down, to secretly build me up’.
Judy means well, but she is a drag on life. I might be safe, but I’m isolated and closed. If I’m stuck in my judgmental prison, then I can never be truly open to the moment. Open to the person. I shit on life’s hidden delights. Vulnerability, connection, compassion, and spontaneity? All stabbed by judgment.
Traveling the world, the power of openness vs being judgmental has slapped me in the face. A stranger with nothing - generously offers you everything. A conversation with an almighty asshole - yields a powerful life lesson. Or Plan A blew up, but ohh the serendipitous surprise of plan D.
We all have different values and experiences in life, but we all judge. We all have our towers of pride, protection, and control. Start to become aware of her constant verdicts. Instead of judging moments, we can begin to truly live them.
4. THE TIME-TRAVELING CHIEF
The Time traveling Chief is my tribal CEO. He’s an OCD planner - worrying 24x7. Like a parent, his mental nagging can be maddening. He analyzes my past for lessons learned. He simulates the future to strategize and ensure the survival of the clan (and me). Optimizing for peace, he politically navigates complex social dynamics.
But in all his help, the Chief is a damn nervous nellie. Some nags are important, most are petty bullshit. In his mania, he makes me a time traveler. Compulsively yanking me into past memories and future scenarios.
The Chief’s Chatter: Wait, is that a snake? Are the buffalo gods migrating? The river is drying up, 12 moons ago we....Wait, is that a snake. What will I say to my boss? What should I wear to dinner on Saturday? I can’t believe that asshole said that to me.....
He means well, but the Time Traveling Chief never stops. Not eating the poisonous plant - important. What to watch on Netflix 10 hours from now - not so much. The more you bow down to him, the greater his tribal tax. What’s his tax? He loves to gobble up our time, devouring one moment after another, all to live in the past and future.
5. CAVEMAN DAN
From apes to Homo Sapiens, we live and die by social norms. We each get one banana. This is my tree branch. You don’t cut the queue. You pick up your own dog’s shit. Norms evolve, but what doesn’t? If someone violates a norm, we erupt in anger. This is going ‘apeshit’ with my Caveman Dan.
Don’t think Macho Man pleasures for the Caveman. Instead, he lives and dies by what is just and right. He marches with a club of Fairness. If Pablo creates the social map, Judy analyzes the web of people and things, then Caveman Dan ensures social stability.
Our inner ape is wired for fairness. In a famous psychological “Fairness Experiment”, two Capuchin monkeys are side by side in two cages. They each do a task and get rewarded with a mediocre cucumber. Life is good. After a short while, one monkey starts getting a delicious grape. The other - still his mediocre cucumber. Now things are inequitable. The grapeless monkey now goes bananas - yelling, jumping, and banging the cage. He now throws his cucumber reward at the scientist. Start the revolution!
This wiring of fairness runs deep in our monkey minds. The grape isn’t about a grape, it symbolizes fairness AND respect. In evolutionary psychology, social status isn’t just bigger monkey = more mates. Instead status has 2 levers, 1. dominance and 2. prestige/respect. Thus the grape unfairness is about respect. It triggers primal pride and moral outrage. So like a gang member getting punked, Caveman Dan will fight to maintain fairness and his tribal street cred.
The chattering of Caveman Dan: If someone bumps into my shoulder, hello caveman. If someone cuts me off in traffic, hello caveman. If someone cuts the queue, hello caveman. You took 3 Naan from the buffet when everyone in the retreat knows you take just 1, hello caveman!
We need norms, morals, and laws. But Caveman Dan’s club of fairness can be a pitfall of self-righteousness and pride. Assholes to angels, we all are who we are. 8 billion people all trying to figure out this thing called life. Remember, it's not personal, it's simply 'in my perception'. Actually, now we know it's Caveman Dan's.
6. GHOST STORY GOLIATH:
There is something timeless about gathering people around the mystical flames of the campfire. Mother of cooking. Home of the tribal dance and song. And the original stage of telling the story.
Thus meet Ghost Story Goliath, the Hemingway of Ego stories. All day, he cranks out storylines. Who am I? What is this crazy world? Bullshitting is Goliath’s craft. For every good story is usually exaggerated bullshit no?
Goliath Bullshitting the World
Stories don’t just entertain, in their simplicity they empower us to socially organize and process information. In a mind-shifting book called Sapiens, the author anthropologically highlights the power of stories. Religion, history, money, Liberalism, Capitalism, you name it - all agreed upon stories we subconsciously believe in. These stories don’t exist in the reality of the universe, but deep in our minds. Goliath’s stories have enabled evolved apes to dominate the planet.
This power of stories is why Goliath writes in every genre. He bullshits tales over wine to impress mates and gain social respect. He spins causal stories and narratives about reality in an attempt to rationalize our world (e.g. Astrology, Creationism, Heuristics). Or I may judge someone once, but then I feed it into my story machine to keep replaying a story about ‘that rude asshole’.
But what are our biggest stories? The ones we spin about ourselves.
Goliath Bullshitting Ourselves
We don't just play the game of life, instead, we play a part. We create a character, an identity for our Avatar. In all this playing, Goliath drafts one storyline after the next.
Imagine yourself at 13? At 18? At 23? At 28? At 35? 50? We are the same observer, yet always changing. We keep thinking we have it figured out. Always learning, always wrong, always growing. This transience shows that with each feedback loop of life, we keep updating our identity.
In an evolving and never-ending game of dress-up, the costume box for our identities is so big. My style, my car, my modernly minimalistic home. My ‘Unique’ travel experiences and canned stories. My Liberal or Conservative values and worldview. Spiritual seeker or devoted Christian. You name it, all costume attire for identities and stories.
One of the great challenges of life, in my humble hippie view, is to kill the identities. To drop the storylines, yet still play the game. To kill the character and take a chance on people liking the unfabricated you. Otherwise, you can go to the grave letting a character die, and the true you having never lived. This requires killing Goliath, to surrender control. Instead of crafting storylines and identities, we can get out of the way and let life come through us.
Hell, I’m clueless on how to do this, but why shouldn't we try? And I know 20 years from now I will laugh at this paragraph. But I also know, that in killing Goliath, the universe will write one hell of a better story than any bullshit ego story.
7. The Sabotaging Samurai
He’s silent, calculated, and deadly. Meet the Samurai of Sabotage. Part magician, part Mcgiver, part Navy Seal - he will creatively weaponize anything to kill your dreams. Doubt, anxiety, laziness, fear, procrastination and desire are just some of his weapons.
In one of my favorite books, The War of Art, Scott Pressfield beautifully crafts this concept as ‘egoic resistance’. Respect the Samurai or he will end you. For any passion project, the Samurai will wage a war of resistance to maintain control. The more critical the goal, the harder he fights.
He may be the deadliest of all the ego’s faces - for he can wear them all. Ohh the Samurai means well, for in his ego control he tries to prevent rejection and failure of the unknown. Ask any artist or entrepreneur, they battle the Samurai daily.
On retreat once, I saw the Samurai’s true face. After 50 hours of sleep deprivation and 17 hr meditation days, my mind was in a minefield of mind-fucks. I can truly empathize with what it might be like to be schizophrenic. Meditating in my room, crystal clear voices started full on conversations with me. Different personalities tried to persuade me. Some tempting. Some motherly. Some angry. Some befriending. You name it, the mind tried it... The mind declared a strategic war, all to break me.
Yes, these were hallucinations. But it showed me the cunning power of the mind. It put a spotlight on all the usual subconscious machinery of resistance. From that day, I always respect the power of the Samurai of Sabotage.
SO NOW I AM 7 TIMES CRAZIER? WTF NOW?
In the tribal theatre that is our minds, we all have this cast of characters. Judge Judy is the lead in my play, maybe Pablo dominates yours.
So what do we do about them? Why should we even care?
The Judge, Samurai, and Caveman kick my ass daily. So as I have said, don’t listen to anything I say too seriously. I’m literally working through a judgment storm as I write this. But i do think we all want to live better lives. To be more content. Less crazy. Thus we want to be driving the plane, not Judge Judy or some Caveman going apeshit on a poor customer support rep.
So advice from the guy still working through a trailer of shit?
Firstly, build up a meditation practice like I spoke about in Monkey Mind and Brain Showers. It’s a great first step.
After that, the best framework I have seen is Tara Brach’s RAIN of Self Compassion method. Whether emotions, thoughts, behavior or my characters - the RAIN method is an easy-to-remember tool that has helped me practice mindfulness and compassion. It's a tangible and practical way to deal with "our stuff". It’s no magic bullet, but what the hell is.
So instead of reinventing the wheel here is my take on RAIN: Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture. This process can be from 1 to 20 minutes.
R - Recognize what is happening
Like children, these cognitive characters just want attention and acceptance. So simply consciously acknowledge them in the moment. Hello Pride. Hello Judgment. Hello Craving.
Before we can work with something, we have to acknowledge its existence. In that recognition is power. Meditation is rocket fuel for this process, empowering us with greater awareness. Instead of emotions controlling us subconsciously, it’s now within the spotlight of our awareness.
In Vipassana meditation, this recognition of an object is called mental noting (of thoughts, feelings, behavior). E.g. Thinking, thinking, thinking or Anxiety, Anxiety, Anxiety. This noting creates a spaciousness and openness. If you lock up the cognitive characters in the closet while you binge away the feelings - shit will only get West Virginia backwoods crazy.
So just mentally note and recognize reality as it is. The table below is a summary of the noting I use.
NOTING TABLE: If I sense a thought, emotion or “character” I note it.
Macho Man Randy Savage- Craving, Craving, Craving
Peacocking Pablo - Comparing, Comparing, Comparing
Judge Judy - Judging, Judging, Judging
Time Traveling Chief - Worrying, Worrying, Worrying
Caveman Dan - Pride, Pride, Pride
Ghost Story Goliath - Ego Story, Ego Story, Ego Story,
Sabotaging Samurai -Resistance, Resistance, Resistance,
A - Allow the experience to be there, just as it is
Don’t resist, fight, hate, or judge your experience (e.g. Judge Judy). Instead, invite her in for tea. I love this framing from Pema Chodron. Sounds silly, but the idea of inviting them in for tea just defangs us. I fall for the trap all the time of judging my own judgment. Instead accept it just as it is. Simply invite it in for tea.
This is not positive psychology where if you're feeling like shit you just say rainbows, rainbows, rainbows. Nor do you agree with the feeling of say inadequacy. Whether pretty or ugly, we enjoy our ginger lemon honey tea and simply sit with it (and the underlying painful feelings).
I - Investigate with interest and care
After acknowledging and accepting Judy as she is, we can now investigate her. Not in a judgmental what the hell is wrong with you way? But in a curious, warm-hearted manner. Like a gentle counselor or therapist.
There are 2 modes of inquiry via RAIN:
Don't get stuck in the conceptual Idea of judgment, instead, bring your primary attention to the felt-sense in the body. Explore the feeling as it is, not an idea in the mind.
Explore gentle contemplating. How does Judgment make me feel? Why do I feel justified in this behavior? When in life did I feel justified in feeling this judgment? What am I believing? What does this vulnerable place want from me? What does it most need?
N - Nurture with Self Compassion
This last step is juicy and powerful. I battle my judgment monsters hourly. This is not magic but a process of softening up.
Judge Judy may be toxic, but she means well. Like a poor parent, under all that judgment she is compassionately trying to protect me. Understanding her intentions is paradoxically insightful. She is compassionately crazy and by knowing that I can be compassionate to her. Say “Thank you, Judge, but I don’t need you anymore”. If I judge or hate on her, it just causes more of a vicious cycle. Not to get all peace and love, but compassion is the freedom fighter. The chain breaker.
RAIN+ (Bonus): Non- Attachment:
After RAIN, you realize the idea of non-attachment. Understand that you are not Pablo or the Judge. Not anger or doubt. You are not the anxious thoughts or brownie cravings. Instead, if you look through the noise, you are the calm conscious awareness.
DIRECT YOUR TRIBAL THEATRE
Hopefully, the 7 cranium characters help you see through the madness of monkey mind. These voices are real, but they don’t have to be in control of our lives. I’m still figuring this shit out, but aren't we all? So with one mental note, with one mindful compassionate moment at a time, we can start to direct the tribal theatre that is our life and mind.
Happy living friends and as always let me know how it goes for you. Ready - Set - Action!