Michael Singer, author of The Surrender Experiment, tells the story of a conversation he had when he was a young man. At a pause in the conversation, Singer found himself considering where to take the conversation next. What happened next was what we call a “light bulb moment.”
He became aware of his inner voice: the meta-thinking part of his brain that was scrambling for a way to restart the conversation. “I noticed that I was uncomfortable and trying to find something to say,” he recounts in his autobiography. “For the first time in my life, my mind and emotions were something I was [aware of] instead of [just experiencing].”
If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you know that inner voice won’t shut up. It constantly delivers a running commentary on our likes, dislikes, fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams. It projects into the future and ruminates on the past. If someone told you they hear voices in their head, you might think they’re crazy—and maybe they are—but the reality is we all have at least one voice in our heads.
Would you ever put up with someone who told you that you’re not good enough, who constantly reminded you of your worst moments, or continually predicted the worst is likely to happen? Nope.
Becoming aware of that voice and then learning to observe it is an important step in personal growth. When we become aware of that voice—when we can learn to think beyond what we feel—we can retrain ourselves to live better. You don’t have to believe everything you think, but you have to be aware of it if you want to have a choice.
Over the past several decades, I’ve learned a few tricks to become aware of this voice. I call them “mind games.” It can be helpful to think of them as games—fun challenges you can give yourself during mental downtime—like your morning commute or while folding the laundry. Here are three of my favorites:
Mind Game #1: Think About Your Mind
The first mind game is easy … so easy, in fact, that you might initially think it’s silly. The game is simply to think about your mind. For the next 24 hours, try to think about your mind, as often as possible. Keep track of how many times you think about your mind, and award yourself an “awareness point” each time you remember to do it.
When you think about your mind, what you are doing is immediately developing awareness that you are not your mind. Just the fact that you can think about your mind shows there is a separation: there is a “you” thinking about “your mind.” That awareness is a powerful tool for personal growth.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this mind game. While it seems ridiculously easy, it can be very difficult to keep playing for more than an hour. The reason is we get lost in the mind—we forget. The trick is to keep playing, for a full 24 hours.
At the end of the day, write down your score—your total awareness points—on a piece of paper, and move on to the next game. Try to top each score the next day. That’ll be a solid measure of your progress.
Mind Game #2: Get Into the Balcony
Imagine yourself sitting in a theater balcony. Your mind is on a stage below, illuminated by bright lights. You’re the audience. Your mind is the spectacle. You’re observing it from a higher perspective.
Imagine that you can see the thoughts and feelings happening in front of you on a stage. You can watch yourself replay that difficult conversation with a co-worker or react to the anger of a family member.
When I play this game, I literally see a brain sitting onstage, with all the different circuits lighting up. You might see your mind onstage as a floating swirl of colors and shapes. Maybe you see your mind played by Antonio Banderas.
Psychologists tell us that visualizing concepts can help give us a sense of mastery over them. This mind game of sitting in the balcony” helps you visualize your mind from an elevated perspective.
For the next 24 hours, try to run through this visualization as often as possible. At the end of the day, write down your score. Next time, see if you can beat your personal record.
Mind Game #3: What Was My Mind Just Thinking?
The third mind game is simply to ask yourself, as often as possible, "What was I just thinking?"
For example, you might be walking the dog and thinking about some presentation you have to give at work. You simply say to yourself, “work presentation,” then award yourself an awareness point.
You might be doing the dishes and thinking about some mistake you made when you were in your 20s. You say to yourself, “regret,” then award yourself an awareness point. At the end of the day, write down your total score.
With all these mind games, the trick is to “catch” your mind while it’s thinking, then immediately reward yourself with an awareness point. Like training anyone, the reward is important! In traditional meditation, we also try to notice when our mind wanders, but meditation leaves many people with a sense of failure: “I can’t keep my mind still.”
These mind games turn that model on its head (so to speak). By rewarding yourself for noticing your mind, you give yourself a little burst of dopamine. You train yourself to notice your mind. When you play these mind games repeatedly, day after day, you begin to naturally notice that mental voice—and that’s the beginning of developing mastery over your thoughts.
Mind games are powerful, but you don’t need other people to play. They’re even more powerful when you play them with yourself.