Kill the Interpreter

by Denise VanVliet

Imagine the scene: You’re giving a lecture or workshop and you are already nervous. You have thoughts of ‘what if I fail?’ ‘What if I suck?’ ‘What if I forget something?’ ‘What if I look stupid?’ You get over your nerves and you get up and begin the lecture. You start off rocky but it begins to smooth out. You’re on a roll! Everything is going smoothly. Then, without warning, someone just gets up and leaves the room. Your thoughts start racing. ‘What did I say?’ ‘They don’t like my presentation.’ ‘I suck!’ As these thoughts start racing through your head, you begin to sweat and your heart starts racing. You begin to suffer.

Another scene: You are walking to your desk at the office and see a fellow employee. Normally you cordially smile at each other. Well, this time this person does not smile back. Your thoughts begin with, ‘What did I do wrong?’ ‘This person must be angry or not happy with me.’ And you start digging through your memory of a possibility of a wrong that was committed. You begin to suffer.

These are just two scenarios where our thoughts start to ‘interpret’ a situation and we believe these thoughts as true. Without questioning these thoughts, we begin to suffer in the body and Mind. Contemporary neuroscience identifies a particular part of the brain, sometimes called “The Interpreter” as a source of the familiar internal narrative that gives us our sense of self.

The Interpreter, when believed at face value, can really cause a great deal of suffering.

A professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, Antonio Damasio says it this way: “Perhaps the most important revelation is precisely this: that the left cerebral hemisphere of humans is prone to fabricating verbal narratives that do not necessarily accord with the truth.”

"All things are preceded by the mind, led by the mind, created by the mind." ~ Buddha

So our thoughts create these stories that we believe to be true. Michael Gazzaniga is a Professor of Psychology and the Director for the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California writes: “The left brain weaves its story in order to convince itself and you that it is in full control….What is so adaptive about having what amounts to a spin doctor in the left brain? The interpreter is really trying to keep our personal story together. To do that, we have to learn to lie to ourselves.”

The Buddha once summarized his entire teachings in one sentence:
“I teach about suffering and the way to end it.”

To end this type of suffering that we bring upon ourselves is to ‘kill the Interpreter’. Well, we can’t literally kill this part of ourselves, but when we have these thoughts, notice where these thoughts are coming from. Observe them and notice how your body responds to these thoughts.

So again with the scene; you are giving a workshop. It’s completely natural to be nervous. The work shop is going well and all of a sudden, someone gets up and leaves. You can hear ‘The Interpreter’ begin its narrative of what it thinks is happening. You just observe and then say to yourself, I do not know why that person is leaving. I hope they are okay. And you continue with the workshop. No racing thoughts, no reaction to the stress that it creates in the body. No suffering.

The next scene; walking to your desk and you see your fellow worker, no smile. You can feel ‘The Interpreter’ making up its story of what could be wrong. You let it go and send heartfelt blessings to that person and wish them a good day. Whether out loud or in your mind. No stress, no response in the body. No suffering.

Noticing when ‘The Interpreter’ starts to take over by making up a story and becoming aware of how your body responds is a step toward awakening and letting go of the suffering that we cause within ourselves. Noticing how this simple change, by ‘killing the Interpreter’ changes how you reduce your own suffering.

Denise VanVliet DD, LMT