This is part 26 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.
The full can is silent, but the half-empty can makes a loud noise.
~ Chinese proverb.
Take a bottle or soda can and fill it halfway with water. Shake the can – the water will slosh around loudly.
Now, fill the can to the brim and shake it again. It’s almost completely silent.
This is an essay about inner silence – calming one’s loudest inner voices to allow quieter voices to speak. Usually, the quieter ones have urgent messages, especially given how long they’ve been neglected.
This post is, in some sense, a followup to Babble.
An Ocean of Voices
It is common sense that the loudest politician is rarely the wisest. That the child who cries the loudest is rarely the one suffers most. That the friend who criticizes most harshly rarely has the best advice. If anything, the volume of a voice negatively correlates with its value.
The Solitaire Principle states that any failure mode of groups of people also applies within the heart of each single human being. A dozen sub-personalities fight over control of your mind, each of their voices clamoring to drown out the others. Perhaps only one or two of them are consistently allowed to speak.
This picture is further complicated by two features. First, voices are quiet for a reason. There are many things your brain is doing that it doesn’t want you to know about (see The Elephant in the Brain). These “meta-cognitive blindspots” may be huge issues in your life that you somehow never get to thinking about. Every time you start, you feel unexpectedly sleepy or preoccupied. Your brain sends an army of louder voices to crowd out the tiny note of confusion whispering: Look at the elephant! Acknowledge the elephant!
Second, external voices are also competing for airtime in your head, and may easily drown out even your strongest inner voice, e.g. the phenomenon “the music is so loud I can’t hear myself think.” All sorts of reading, listening, and watching are processes by which we supplant our internal voices with external ones.
This post is about how attractive and dangerous it is to allow external voices drown internal ones out, once and for all.
The Burden of Consciousness
There are a handful of activities that routinely swallow my time like bottomless holes. Playing video games. Watching anime. Reading fiction. Clicking through Reddit. I feel the urge to throw myself into them periodically.
For a long time, I thought these actions were mainly experiential pica: my brain trying to satisfy my needs for signs of progress, self-improvement, drama, and narrative energy. But the other day, I tried taking a nap instead of watching anime, and it satisfied the same urge. That’s when I realized what I was really looking for: the fast-forward button.
Living consciously and intentionally was too effortful, facing my problems head-on too painful, and what I wanted more than anything was to shut down my own thoughts and fast-forward through life. Read a thousand-page novel, watch a six-season TV show, scroll through a hundred life stories on AskReddit. These were all ways to forfeit my agency and become a medium for someone else’s narrative force.
In sum, the executive thread in my brain did everything in its power to shut itself off.
The Will to Nothingness
The book which for me most poignantly describes the burden of consciousness is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (a novel that I almost don’t recommend). It’s a depressing story in which every character is on the brink of suicide, philosophically and literally.
Here’s a moment when the protagonist’s sister Lucille is accused of cheating (emphasis mine):
Lucille was much too indifferent to school ever to be guilty of cheating, and it was only an evil fate that had prompted her to write Simon Bolivar, and the girl in front of her to write Simon Bolivar, when the answer was obviously General Santa Anna. This was the only error either of them made, and so their papers were identical. Lucille was astonished to find that the teacher was so easily convinced of her guilt, so immovably persuaded of it, calling her up in front of the class and demanding that she account for the identical papers. Lucille writhed under this violation of her anonymity. At the mere thought of school, her ears turned red.
This moment clarified for me an insight about exactly the kind of nothingness the girls in Housekeeping were after. In this kind of nothingness, apathy, conformity, and anonymity are central, while actual suicide is a mere afterthought.
Following Nietzsche (whom I will presumably never understand), we call this urge the will to nothingness. It prays:
Let me not be heard.
Let me not be seen.
Take away my agency.
Drown out my voice.
Fast-forward me through the years.
Let me be one indistinguishable face in a crowd.
Let not the sunrise bring me joy.
Nor sunset sorrow.
Where does the will to nonexistence come from? Part of it is an insecurity that what you have to say is insufficient, that who you are is too broken to contribute. Part of it is bitterness that the world doesn’t deserve to hear your voice and see your face. That these two contradictory ideas coexist in a single heart should only surprise you if you’ve never met a human being.
The Cure to Nihilism is Silence?!
I will not pretend to know how to solve the problem in general, but this is what worked for me. An insightful friend of mine asked me one question which shook me out of the will to nothingness:
“What if every time you wanted to play video games you just introspected instead?”
It had never occurred to me, despite the fact that I love to write, despite the hours I daydream and doodle at every opportunity, that I could make room for these inner voices by silencing the world completely.
For weeks after that day, I took many long walks, muttering gibberish under my breath. I lay in bed and daydreamed. I wrote for hours without stop. In that time I learned that my will to nothingness was unjustified. I learned that my inner voices would never stop having things to say. Later, I also learned that the world deserves everything I can give it, and more.
Look through your life. What do you do to shut off the burden of consciousness? Do you reach for your phone at boring social engagements? Do you drink or smoke? Do you throw yourself into stories that have little artistic merit just to pass the time?
What would happen if every time you wanted to do that, you introspected instead?
Cf. The Loudest Alarm is Probably False.
Alternative hypothesis is you were just sleep-deprived? I also find it harder to resist superstimuli when I'm not getting enough sleep, not eating well, etc.
Although it's also true that in my experience watching anime etc. is usually a combination of various kinds of pica and a desire to escape from parts of my experience (usually emotional pain). So I was explicitly trying to introspect as little as possible.
Although it's also also true that one of the key interventions that helped finally solve this problem for me was improving my diet (avoiding gluten + drinking pedialyte). What can I say? Everything is related.
This is definitely a huge part of it, and taking naps every so often really does reduce what I thought was nihilism.
I'm still not sure how many of my psychological problems have purely physiological causes and cures. Every outside data source suggests "way more than I think."
In some sense this whole post is just saying "lots of things are escapism from pain," but somehow I found the idea of the "fast-forward button" a fresh and more resonant statement of the problem than "escapism."
I found your remarks about the “fast forward button” to be extremely incisive and I will probably be processing it all day. It fits into and complements my existing model of how this works.
I have a chronic pain condition that is active about half the time, and when I’m under its thumb, I will seek out exactly those distractions that are likely to intrinsically soak up most of my attentional capacity. If consciousness is a sequence of moments assembled by lower-level processes, then I need some stimulus powerful enough to bump the pain-suffering gestalt off the queue, or at least reduce its relative frequency.
Successful examples might be reading something genuinely interesting, playing chess on my phone (until that becomes boring), engaging in conversations of the right type, or even working productively on a task as long as that task is flow-y and doesn’t require a lot of conscious management. Unsuccessful examples would be cycling through fifteen different websites to find something that could serve as enough of an attentional attractor that it pulls some moments of consciousness away from the pain.
Of course chronic physical pain and background psychic pain are very similar here, and I will engage in the same behaviors to avoid the psychic pain of mundane life. I hadn’t really fully made the connection that this is what I was doing until your “fast forward” comment.
Literally gave me chills!
Sometimes when I'm sitting zen I find myself wanting to be doing almost anything else. I keep having thoughts about wanting the bell to ring and the period to be over. Just being is too much for the conscious mind! But, as you note, this is tantamount to a wish for, if not death, then at least temporary respite from the burden of living.
I don't quite know what to do with that, but I will say I am alternatively at peace when sitting when I am able to sit in open awareness and the self falls away. I don't fail to notice the moments--it's not like I'm in a trance or asleep--but I also don't want them to go any faster or slower. They can just be.
I'll also note that I do something similar to you it sounds like when my mind wants to turn away from what it would otherwise do: I let my mind wander. I find I'm better rewarded for my time with a refreshed mind and new ideas than if I spent my time escaping from myself.
Just being able to acknowledge that "burden of consciousness" has been useful for me. I used to start to feel it, but would never pay attention because most of me was like, "What?! Of course you can bear the burden of consciousness! We're fucked if you can't, right? So let's just of ore the fact that you sometimes feel this way." Though I'd still like to increase my "capacity for consciousness", not causing myself to suffer extra because of it was a good step.
This resonated strongly with me; I read this just after finishing a commute during which I was listening to an audiobook that I had hurriedly downloaded for the explicit reason that my brain was currently an unbearable place to be and I needed to occupy it with something else.
Which brings up the important point that this can actually be a really helpful and important strategy, sometimes. If my thoughts are stuck in a rumination loop that’s not going to lead anywhere useful (and will, if left unchecked, keep ratcheting up my anxiety); if things feel intensely, painfully pointless; if a task I need to do feels impossibly boring and I absolutely cannot summon the motivation for it - then shutting off that misery for a time with music or a podcast or a book can be the best choice.
(I read HPMOR (and did next to nothing else) during a week when I was intensely depressed and my train of thought, if left uninterrupted, was full of self-hate and despair and hopelessness. I was really grateful that the writing was engaging and addictive enough to draw me in enough to distract me from my thoughts, and that the book was long enough to last me all week.)
I agree with you, though, that not being able to tolerate one’s thoughts is pretty bad even if you manage to shut your thoughts up most of the time, first because it limits your ability to do things that don’t shut up your thoughts (which can cause e.g. akrasia and procrastination spirals), and also because it limits your ability to pay attention to your preferences (other than “shut up my thoughts”) and change your life to better fulfill them.
It seems like you were able to jump headfirst into your thoughts once you noticed you were shutting them up. I think this strategy might not be available to everyone and may not always be wise, if the thoughts are just Too Much. I’m currently taking a gentler, two-pronged approach:
(1) practice tolerating your thoughts in controlled, constructive ways. For example: meditate; designate certain blocks of time to be in “being mode” (a mindfulness concept, in opposition to “doing mode”) - that is, not expecting anything of yourself and not trying to direct your thoughts and attention in any particular direction; sometimes practice radical acceptance and opposite action (DBT concepts I’ve found very useful); make a commitment to go to therapy and actually talk about your feelings; regularly engage with your bothersome thoughts/feelings in a constructive way (for me this can be writing, thinking aloud, or playing piano; thinking quietly usually leads to unconstructive rumination and makes things worse); sometimes give yourself days when you can do whatever you want, but pay close attention to what it is that you want.
(2) try making your cognitive/emotional environment more hospitable with physiological interventions like sleeping enough, improving sleep quality, exercising, eating nutritious food, taking meds. (this is sort of a “pushing sideways” solution - if you’re avoiding your thoughts because they’re painful, making them less painful is likely to make it easier to engage with them.)
I guess I can’t yet claim that this definitely works well, since I clearly still often need to distract myself from my thoughts. However, I definitely have been discovering feelings and preferences I didn’t know I had, as well as developing the ability to acknowledge some unpleasant feelings and go on with my plans (instead of feeling like I have to immediately escape into a distraction). I’m hopeful that I’m gonna keep getting mileage out of this :)
The "burden of consciousness" and "fast-forward button" are nice metaphors, but a bit fatalistic. To me, a better metaphor is noticing when your brain is consuming information vs. creating information. Too much consumption makes you a bored and boring person, it's as bad as eating all the time. You need to take breaks from consuming information, pull yourself away from shiny screens and try to think new thoughts you've never thought before, no matter how silly. Make yourself laugh! Even a few minutes a day can work wonders.
(While walking to work today, I realized that the Sun is good because it pulls the darkness out of you. Thoughts like that.)
Consuming vs creating is an important dichotomy, and often wanting to "fast-forward" manifests as switching to consuming, though there are important distinctions that I notice.
There's something about wanting an process that's automatic to follow through on, one that's comfortable and familiar. Often I have a strong urge to juggle, which I think has to do with juggling taking just enough focus that I "no longer have to think".
Writing that last line made me think of similarities to flow, but wanting to "fast-forward" seems to be something different from merely desiring more flow.
Here's another idea that I stole from Bertrand Russell. What if the pain is caused not just by any thinking, but by thinking about yourself? If you're mostly interested in external things, you'll be mostly happy, no matter how much time and effort you spend thinking. But if your thoughts have a habit of circling back on yourself and how you could be better, you'll be miserable and look for escape paths, like the internet (which forcefully pulls your thoughts away from yourself and thus makes you happier for awhile).
Another concrete example of this: fanfiction. Some is good, the rest... well, I once described it to a friend as `giving my brain something to chew on'. Fast-forward button, indeed.
Totally! I was reading some mediocre fanfiction the other day and I had this note of confusion: "why am I reading this? I thought this was pica for something but...the character is bland and unintelligent, the writing is weak and meandering..."
My current model is that what I usually thought of as "escapism" i.e. I want to be elsewhere for a while, is actually "fast-forward" i.e. I want to cease to be for a while.
That resonates much more deeply than wanting to be somewhere else.
The subtle and terrible part is the vicious cycle: the more time I spend opting out of `being', the more time I have to spend catching up (on homework, social life and skills, fitness, etc.) and that seems daunting, so I turn to escapism again and that spirals on down.
I heard a quote about addiction that I think applies well here:
`Kicking an addiction is harder because of the extra cost it takes. An alcoholic whose drinking is ruining his marriage may choose to keep drinking because it's easier than fixing the whole problem. Fixing his drinking problem doesn't fix the emotional distance it put between the spouses.'
This comment (and the whole discussion) really resonated with me. I think a hard part of this is that if I try and totally remove the activities that allow for opting out of being (video games, mindless reddit scrolling etc.), it tends to only work for a short time before I relapse all at once into them. It seems like this is a case where moderation might be the answer for me personally rather than abstinence.
One unexpected positive of Hammertime is that I've noticed my desire to play video games gradually decreasing over the last month. This might be an interesting case where the solution to the problem is to solve other life problems, at which point the desire to cease to exist simply fades away.
Yeah, okay, I mulled it over for awhile and ceasing to be is resonating more and more. There was this period in January where I found myself rereading the Redwall books, and there was something sort of warm and nostalgic about it but also they're just terrible books and at some point I had no idea why I was still reading them as opposed to something else (and at some later point I stopped).
I think the metaphor of "fast-forwarding" is a very useful way to view a lot of my behavior. Having thought about this for a while though, I'm not sure fast-forwarding is always a bad thing. I find it can be mentally rejuvenating in a way that introspection is not (e.g. if I've been working for a long period and my brain is getting tired I can often quickly replenish my mental resources by watching a short video or reading a chapter of a fantasy novel after which I'm able to begin working again, whereas I find sitting and reflecting to still require some mental energy).
Of course, this is an important habit to keep an eye on. I sometimes find myself almost unconsciously opening youtube when I don't actually need a break which I've been trying to get myself to stop doing.
I tend to go into "info-scavenge" mode as a form of escapism. I think I've internalized an avoidance of overt escapism on a subconscious level - i.e, I get antsy and feel "wrong" if I try to play video games as a way of procrastinating. Instead, I find myself shallowly skimming for into by scrolling through YouTube recommendations but not watching videos, looking at link aggregators (HN, Reddit) but not the actual links, etc. It's like my brain found a loophole because that behavior is superficially similar to what "learning" looks like.
I think it would be a big benefit. I'm not sure if "escapism-mode-me" would follow through. Recently I've been trying to go on walks without any goals other than thinking to myself. So far, after maybe 25 walks, I haven't regretted a single one and it has often been the highlight of my day.
Since you mention Nietzsche, he had the following to say on precisely this topic in "Ecce Homo":
"In my case all reading is among my recreations: consequently among those things which free me from myself, which allow me to saunter among strange sciences and souls – which I no longer take seriously. It is precisely reading which helps me to recover from my seriousness. At times when I am deeply sunk in work you will see no books around me: I would guard against letting anyone speak or even think in my vicinity. And that is what reading would mean … Has it really been noticed that in that state of profound tension to which pregnancy condemns the spirit and fundamentally the entire organism, any chance event, any kind of stimulus from without has too vehement an effect, ‘cuts’ too deeply? One has to avoid the chance event, the stimulus from without, as much as possible; a kind of self-walling-up is among the instinctual sagacities of spiritual pregnancy. Shall I allow a strange thought to climb secretly over the wall? – And that is what reading would mean … The times of work and fruitfulness are followed by the time of recreation: come hither, you pleasant, you witty, you clever books!"