The Listening Life… About conversations in our head

Posted by on May 27, 2016 in Blog | 3 comments

I’ve been reading Adam McHugh’s newish (2015) book The Listening Life. McHugh is well know for his book Introverts in the Church and in this new book, turns his attention to the importance of ’embracing attentiveness in a world of distraction’ – to cite the books sub title.

In exploring attentiveness he looks at, amongst other areas, listening to God, to Scripture, Creation, Others, People in Pain and Your Life, before finishing the book with a chapter on The Society of Reverse Listening where he poses the intriguing question of what might happen if instead of church being a place where you came to listen (church being there to tell you things), it became a place that heard – one which genuinely listened to the stories of its own community. Wow, that’s a thought worth developing… although I won’t today.

I especially enjoyed his discussion of ‘The Discernment of Voices’ (p182ff) where he looks at what Ignatius of Loyola calls ‘the spirits’ which affect what we feel in our inner being. McHugh prefers to think of this as discerning the inner voices in our head, and naming them. He suggests that by naming the voices we empower ourselves to either accept or reject their message, and to measure it against the voice of Jesus.

What is he talking about?

Most of us are aware of an inner conversation inside our head. We are constantly thinking, and our thoughts are shaped by our past experiences. Those experiences might come to us in the form of voices which, if we paused, we would recognise. The voice of disappointment, or failure, or criticism, or self-justification. McHugh suggests some common voices – The parent (telling us what we should do – and we really don’t want to); the doomsayer (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong); the critic (giving you a critical commentary on every little mistake others around you are making); the junior higher (making you ridiculously insecure and convincing you that everyone is always thinking about  and looking at you); the lawyer (who crafts brilliant justifications for everything you ever do, no matter how unacceptable)… and so on.

The act of naming these voices helps to disempower them. By giving them a name, we separate them from us. They are not us. They are simply thoughts we can accept or reject. Often we should reject them.

Once we have named these voices, we should learn to listen for the voice of Jesus. McHugh reflects on the Father’s statement about Jesus on the Mt of Transfiguration ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him’ (Luke 9:35).

‘Listen to him’… What would it mean to listen to the voice of Jesus instead of being held slavishly captive to the tired old voices we have allowed to become resident in our head? It would mean that we would feed our minds on a very different diet. Sometimes it would be challenging, at other times reassuring, or insightful, or convicting, or inspiring. Perhaps our own voice would start to resemble his a little more, and become a voice of compassion, or comfort – we might even become wise.

McHugh does alert us that one of the reasons we are not sufficiently attentive is that we hear so many words – we drown in the overload, rather than taking on board the one or two that we should journey with.

So enough words for this post. Hope you can make some progress in listening to the voice of Jesus coming to you in the midst of your daily thinking.

Nice chatting…


  1. I wanted to respond, but I probably should just *listen* to what you said, Brian. 🙂
    Great post.

    • 🙂

  2. Love this line, Brian: “Once we have named these voices, we should learn to listen for the voice of Jesus.” With this we can see how a diligent faith can actually help with mental illness.

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