The 3 Selves

Being human is an insane experience based on sensory input alone. Every day, trillions of data points rain upon us, and our brains somehow find a way through the chaos. Are they flawed? Certainly. Do they steer us into mistakes? For sure. Yet, it is nothing short of a miracle that our minds manage to navigate us the way they do.

The real kicker, however, is not how we deal with the outside world. It is what’s going on inside that serves as ultimate proof that humanity is truly a species surviving against all odds.

We all know what it’s like to “talk to ourselves.” There’s some inner back and forth, usually leading up to a decision. But when you are talking to yourself, who is doing the talking, and who is doing the listening? There must be at least two parties!

Let’s say you’re debating whether to order a pizza. You’ve already had more than enough food for the day, but you just love it, so you’re considering munching on a few slices for dinner. How might that conversation go?

“I should order a pizza! I love pizza. Pizza is great! It will be delicious.” Enter, the Talker. The Talker is the loud, instructive, demanding voice that starts – and steers – most of our inner conversations. The Talker is the leader in any internal dialogue. It is your ego, the self-oriented, instant-gratification-seeking, ancient survival machine.

The Talker would do well in 10,000 BC. “Danger! Run!” “Food! Eat it all!” “Safe environment! Sleep!” But today? Not so much. In our modern, basic-survival-mostly-guaranteed world, the Talker only gets in the way of higher human aspirations. Okay, but what’s the response to the Talker’s pizza plan?

“Mmmm… pizza. I like pizza! Pizza is great! But I’m kinda full. I don’t think I want pizza now. Are you sure? I don’t really know what I want, honestly. I don’t think I want anything. I just wanna play for a bit, then decide later.”

Enter, the Listener. The Listener is the quiet, submissive, contemplative voice that ponders your ego’s blaring declarations. It is the follower in most internal conversations. The Listener is your inner child. It may not be your true self, but it is a version of yourself that’s much more in tune with the modern world, because the Listener is drawn to the now, the present. It is in a state of constant wonder about the world, and it wants to adapt as best as it can. Unfortunately, the Talker often gets in the way.

Since the Talker is so loud and abrasive, the Listener doesn’t want to cause any trouble. Therefore, the Listener will often falter and go along with the Talker’s ludicrous plans. Have you ever felt yourself shaking your head or nodding along internally to one of the Talker’s scathing rants? That’s your Listener saying, “Hey! I’m here too! Don’t ignore me!” Sadly, being a yes-man is, most of the time, all the Listener gets to do.

“No! I said pizza, so we’ll have pizza! I’m ordering. I bet you’ll love it when it’s here. You know what? You’re ordering. Now shut up and dial!”

Aaaand that’s how you end up with a thousand extra calories for the day.

Now, if you’ve read this far and agree with me that this inner back and forth, or, often, inner steamrolling, takes place in some form, something fascinating follows: There must be a third party! After all, how else could you and I possibly observe the Talker arguing with the Listener? Enter, the Observer.

The Observer is the silent, higher form of awareness that merely witnesses both the Talker and the Listener as they keep unspooling your inner dialogue. It is a bystander to your internal conversations. The Observer is, figuratively speaking, the most human version of yourself, because the Observer does not differ in any of us. Its behavior is always the same. It sits, watches, and observes. The Talker and the Listener can take a million forms, but the Observer only has one job: objectively perceive what’s going on, without judging any of it in the process.

The funny thing is that when the Talker or the Listener can feel the Observer watching, their inner bickering immediately stops. It is a bit like the quantum Zeno effect, a principle in physics, which roughly states that while you observe particles, their state will not change. Think of a person sending a distinct look to another person in a crowd. When the looked-at person realizes they are being looked at, if only for a second, they will stop in their tracks. That’s what the Observer does as you’re talking to yourself.

Why does this happen? We might carry three selves around in our minds, but we can only ever slip into one role at any given time, so naturally, to become the Observer, we first have to drop the role of Talker or Listener.

The beauty of being the Observer is that “it” is not fussed about what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter whether you’ll have the pizza or not, whether you have to work late, whether you’re stuck in traffic, or whether someone is giving you some bad news. After all, you’re just observing! You’re not here to judge.

The Observer can most easily enjoy “the process,” as Thomas Sterner calls it in The Practicing Mind, whatever particular process you might be going through at any given time. Slipping into the Observer role takes practice. Meditation helps. Self-awareness helps. So do slowing down, simplifying, and making your tasks short and small. The book is a great place to start.

The point is that, as you go about your life every day, you are carrying around not one, not two, but three selves inside your head, selves so different from one another, they might as well be different people. That’s a lot to manage, and when you combine it with the external barrage of sensory inputs flooding your brain every waking second, it is no wonder that, sometimes, it can all feel like it’s a little much to bear.

Being alive is the miracle of miracles. There is no experience so unique as the privilege of being human, but it does come with a lot of responsibilities. Don’t feel bad when you fall down. It is one hell of a job. Let one of your three selves pick you back up, and together, you’ll manage whatever might come your way.