Meditation, Italian Prison and the Voice in my Head

Voice in my head

The other day my son asked if I have a “narrator,” or voice in my head. Apparently, he had heard some people do and some people don’t. 

“What do you mean by ‘narrator?’” I asked, just to clarify, even though I was pretty sure I already knew. 

“It’s a voice you hear in your head that sort of talks you through things all day – like an actual voice with words,” he explained. 

“Then yes, I do,” I said, while the voice inside my head screamed, “What?! Who doesn’t???” And “That’s not even possible! They’d be brain dead! Or are there some people who are just, I don’t know, like animals? Just going through their day one thing at a time without the incessant discussion and evaluation of every possible option or experience they encounter along the way? How would that even work? There’s no way this…” 

The voice didn’t stop there. It never stops there. Or, really, anywhere, ever, forever; at least not of its own accord. 

So, for the record, yeah. I have a narrator in my head. 

Also, she’s not alone. There’s a bunch of them in there. In fact, there’s whole other worlds, universes and realities, creatures and cosmos, darkness and light floating around in there. 

Know what I mean?  

I don’t think I’m alone. I think most of us (if not all of us, because come on, seriously?!) have this to some extent or another. Although perhaps the strength and persistence of one’s narrator affects us all differently.  

Truth be told, I live mostly with the narrator in my head; much more than here in the real world. I’m like Alice – just innocently going about my daily life, when I catch sight of one little rabbit hole and next thing I know, I’m having tea with a madman, a set of befuddled twins and an evaporating cat. 

The other day I snapped to attention to find my son waving his hand in front of my face and saying “Hello?! Where are you?!!!”

Yikes. Fell down another rabbit hole. 

As for where I was? Working to rebuild my life after a stint in Italian prison. 

You see, we were driving down the road and a bicyclist flung himself into the street unexpectedly (everyone is always doing that here in Italy). Now, I wasn’t even close to hitting him; at least not any closer than I am to hitting everyone all the time on these impossibly narrow Italian roads; but it made me think: 

What if I did hit someone? 

They’d lock me up in Italian prison! 

I’m not prison material. I’m soft like a peach. 

I’d have to join a prison gang just to survive. 

At least I’d be forced to speak Italian all day and I’d finally become fluent. 

But it would be prison Italian, which if it’s anything like prison English, would mark me for life as rough, ignorant and uneducated. 

Maybe I could read books from the prison library to improve my language skills. 

But then the other prisoners might see me as snobby and pretentious. 

And they might shiv me over it. 

Or beat me up in the yard.

I don’t have the survival skills to upend prison hierarchy!

No, my best chance would be to blend in and try not to stir the pot. 

But what am I even thinking?! What about my kids?! Who would care for them while I was gone? 

And what about after I got out? Would they resent me forever? 

And how would I even build a life after Italian prison? Does an international conviction go on your American record? Do they have work placement programs for international prisoners? And what

“Mom? Hello???” 

And I’m back. 


So, yeah, I’ve got a narrator in my head. She’s a big one. 

There’s only one thing that quiets my narrator and replants my feet somewhat solidly on the real-life ground: meditation. 

I’m not officially certified or anything; I learned to meditate like a shipwreck survivor – sink or swim. Because when my narrator is badgering me with incessant information and dismal predictions or has sucked me down a rabbit hole so deep and windy, I’m not even sure which way is up, I need something that can reel her in and help me find my footing again. 

There are a few kinds of meditation I rely on. They’re not official; just patchworked together from readings and my own imagination, but I’m sure I’m not  the first to practice them. In case you’re interested, here’s a how-to:

To Start:

I find a quiet space where I can be alone, and get into a comfortable seated position. I like the classic criss-cross-applesauce folded legs position, with my hands resting on my knees. Then I close my eyes and focus my attention on my breath, in and out, in and out. I pay close attention to how the air feels flowing past my lips and expanding my lungs. I inhale deeply and exhale slowly, then repeat, repeat, repeat, as my focus deepens. Once I feel somewhat calm and ready, I move into one of the following meditative exercises:

The Full-Body Flush:

For this exercise, I breathe in deeply, feeling the air flow past my lips and into my body. I feel the air expand my lungs. I feel it swirling. I exhale slowly. I inhale deeply again. This time, I allow the air to fill my entire body, feel it filling my head, my shoulders, my torso, my legs, my arms, my fingers. I feel it swirling around the tension, thoughts and feelings in my body. I feel it swirling around the tension, thoughts and feelings in my head. Then I exhale, blowing the air and all the tension, thoughts and feelings it encompassed with it.

I repeat this over and over, focusing on each specific area of the body until I feel light and empty. The head takes the longest to clear. Often, I will blow out one thought just to have it arise in my head once again. It’s not a problem. Thoughts and feelings will arise. I just keep inhaling cool, clear oxygen and blowing the thoughts, tension and feelings out with my exhale. Over and over, until I feel light and clear. Then I just relish this feeling for as long as I can.   

Sea Sponge

Sometimes I start with Sea Sponge and other times it follows the previous exercise. Either way, it starts with deep and thoughtful breathing, in through the nose and out (more slowly) through the mouth. As I inhale, I feel the air not only coming through my nose, but through my entire body, sucking inward through every pore, like a sea sponge. 

When I exhale, I feel the air exiting my body (taking all those wild and unruly thoughts and emotions along with it), not only through my mouth, but through every pore of my entire body, like a sea sponge. I focus on this sensation with every in and out breath; sucking clean, empty air in, and expelling air back out again through every pore along with all the inner chaos it now contains. I feel the space of the room around me, full and all encompassing, like water. I pull it in and push it out, breath after breath after breath, until I am as cool, clear and clean as a sea sponge happily expanding and contracting on the ocean floor. 


Like Sea Sponge, sometimes I practice River on its own and sometimes it follows or is used in combination with one or both of the above exercises. This exercise is especially good for days when my thoughts and feelings are particularly sticky and the attachment is hard to let go. As with the previous exercises, I start with deep and focused breathing. In through the nose, out – slowly – through the mouth. Then I imagine I’m sitting on the grassy bank of a river. When I exhale, all the thoughts and feelings that come with it are propelled into the water, where they are swept away downriver. It feels good to watch all the thoughts, feelings, emotions, cares and concerns be swept away, even for just a short while.

Breath after breath, I use this practice to slowly empty my mind. Sometimes groups of thoughts are pushed down river at once. Sometimes just one thought, feeling or sensation is breathed out and sent down river. More often than not, particularly persistent thoughts are sent down river more than once as they arise in the mind again and again. This is ok. We’re not worried about thoughts arising – that’s just what they do. When they arise, we breathe them out, into the river, which washes them gently away, over and over and over again, until an underlying sense of peace arises. 

The Best Part of Meditation

Once I’ve successfully cleared out my head and body (no small feat), and reached the point where thoughts are still arising, but are flowing more easily out and away, without me getting hooked into them like a trawled fish, I move on to the next phase:

I shift my attention to my core, just behind my ribcage, which is where (if I am clear enough) I find a rather delightful glowing sensation. I focus on this sensation, allowing it to expand and fill my now freshly cleared body. I hold all my attention on this joyful, peaceful sensation for as long as I possibly can. Then I shift my attention just a little lower, into the pit of my stomach, where I find an even deeper and more comforting resonance to sit with. 

When I’m done, usually via a timer I’ve set for 10-30 minutes, I quietly open my eyes, take a few more deep breaths and go about my day. 

I’m told that eventually, I’ll be able to sustain the calm and clarity I gain during meditation a bit better throughout my daily life. I hope so. But even if it’s just  a short break, that’s ok. In fact, it’s exactly what I need. Because here’s the thing; I kind of like my wild and unruly narrator. She’s a little nuts, a bit of an extremist, and is perpetually convinced that everyone is about to get stabbed … but she also tells the most amazing stories and takes me on adventures you just wouldn’t believe. I don’t want to shut her up entirely. Sometimes, I just need a damn break.  

Thanks, meditation 😉

4 thoughts on “Meditation, Italian Prison and the Voice in my Head

  1. What a treat to read this today! Do you ever say out loud, “Will you just be quiet for a minute?” only to have someone look at you, startled? Yep, what I have to do with my narrator sometimes!


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