Muhammed Ali, the great heavyweight boxer, was a prolific trash talker. As an athlete that talked trash, Ali was not unique. Trash talk is standard operating procedure at any sporting event. Opponents on the
gridiron, the diamond and the court conduct a quasi psychological warfare against each other, intentionally distracting their opponents, causing them to lose focus, and commit mental mistakes for one purpose: to get the edge.
Ali took trash talk to a poetic level. On February 25, 1964, before his big fight against boxing’s Heavyweight Champion of the World, Sonny Liston, Ali emerged on the world stage rhapsodizing:
Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat.
If Liston goes back an inch farther, he’ll end up in a ringside seat.
Clay swings with his left; Clay swings with his right,
Look at young Cassius carry the fight.
Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room.
It’s a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom.
Now Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing.
And the punch raises the Bear clean out the ring.
Liston is still rising the ref wears a frown,
For he can’t start counting till Sonny goes down.
Now Liston disappears from view; the crowd is frantic,
But our radar stations have picked him up over the Atlantic.
Who on earth thought, when they came to the fight,
That they would witness the launching of a human satellite.
Hence the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money,
That they would see a total eclipse of Sonny.
Capturing the heavyweight title, trash talk would become Ali’s staple. Ali mesmerized his opponents and the world with his facility for words. The sole purpose of his trash talk was to distract and intimidate his opponents, to keep them off-balance—if he could get his opponents to hate him, then he would have the edge over them. The most vulnerable people are those who hate, for being enmeshed in the emotional muck and mire of hate, they lose their concentration. Competing maximally in a sports competition is just as much mental as it is physical. The athlete who places mind over matter emerges victorious.
Each of us has a quasi Ali inside of us that has a facility with words. This inner Ali talks trash. He talks incessantly.
Spiritual growth involves gaining mastery over the inner voice that is adept at trash talk. When we begin something new, the trash talk starts right up: “You can’t do that…You failed before…What are you trying to prove?…Just give up…Don’t work so hard.” So, we do give up. Trash talk can show up at the most inappropriate times, when our focus should be on the sublime. It drags us through the dirt.
Last August, I performed the wedding service for someone whose wedding I had long wanted to do. I first met Cynthia at UCLA when I was a campus pastor and she was 18 years old. She became a part of our campus ministry as a freshman and remained active through all four years as an undergrad and a grad student. Over the years we kept up with each other. She would end her emails reminding me that, when she married, she wanted me to perform her service. She wanted to be married—it was only a matter of finding the right man whom she found a couple years ago. And so, I had the pleasure of marrying her in her beloved city of Boulder, Colorado last summer. The ceremony took place in a mountain pavilion that overlooked the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado. It was a most beautiful wedding. The setting was inspiring. As the ceremony began, I was eager and ready to enjoy myself, which is hard to do as an officiant. Nevertheless, I made a conscious effort to be present to the ceremony, to savor every minute of it.
All of a sudden, it started. In my own head, I heard such trash talk that I could not turn off: “It looks like it’s going to rain. …Why is that guy smiling at me like that? The music should be louder…Why is the flower girl stopping…Kids are fun but unpredictable—they can really mess up a ceremony…I hope my robes hide that few pounds I’ve packed on…”
The trash talk went on and on. I could not stop it. I was literally being taken from the moment. I was being robbed of the joy that I had long anticipated savoring. I took a few breaths to gather myself, to firmly place myself in that moment. Then I proceeded and performed the wedding trying to be fully aware of what I was doing, trying to get out of my head to serve Cynthia and Phillip. This had never happened to me before. . .
Contemplation is the best way I know to deal with trash talk. Time in contemplation will expose the inner trash talker that we all have in us. This trash talker is known by many names: the ego, the false self, the old Adam. I call it the historic self, because it is a composite of many voices and experiences. It has so much ammunition to use in unending ways to frustrate you and to enslave you. The theme is always the same: a wall of resistance that interferes with action you take to better yourself, to become more spiritual, to grow into what God wants you to be.
It is this trash-talking self that we have to engage on a regular basis, taking on a life of its own, a judgmental life, a negative life that at times seems foreign to us; yet, it is very much a part of who we are.
It highjacks moments and keeps us off balance in the way Muhammed Ali engaged in psychological warfare against his opponents: to weaken them, to wear them down, to make them surrender their will to fight.
This is the voice we have to quiet. How so? You confront this trash-talking voice in contemplation, which gives it a platform, allowing it to be revealed. It is exposed, reaching your awareness. You become adept at watching it.
Through contemplation, you are able to watch that voice from your true self in Christ Jesus. You watch at rest. The author of Hebrews says something quite profound in his letter. He says, “Let us strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:11-13)
The word of God is Christ in you, your true self. He is living and active. Your true self enables you to objectify and look at yourself, so that you can see what thoughts are from your true self (spirit) and what thoughts are from your false self (soul), the trash talker that talks incessantly. This is the self that exhausts you, keeps you off-balance, keeps you locked up in guilt and shame.
We over identify with this trash-talking false self. It is not you. Thoughts are not you, least of all ones from this false self. It was liberating for me to come to know that I am not the sum total of the thoughts that I have, especially the ones from my false self.
We are not our thoughts, but we place a premium on our thoughts. Rather, we need to put all thoughts in perspective: they are not the essence of who we are.
The 16th century French philosopher Rene Descartes said, “I think; therefore, I am.” With that statement, Descartes and other idealists made thoughts all-powerful. That is not true. Thoughts are mere objects that can be ignored. We do not have to pay attention to every thought that comes down the mental and emotional pike. “Take every thought captive to Christ Jesus,” said Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians. The true self clearly separates in us what is from the true self and what is from the false self. Too often the two get merged in us. The true self begins the process of objectifying thoughts and feelings so that you can ignore them.
Contemplation empowers you to look at trash-talking thoughts and then let them go. The key to overcoming trash talk is to realize that it is trash. It is not you. It is not true. You are much more than merely a composite of historic thoughts and feelings acquired from your childhood home, your culture, your tribe. You are eternal in Christ Jesus, made such through God’s personal invitation to divinize you through the sacraments. A church father said it best, “God became what we are to make us what God is.” Nothing is hidden from this divine self in Christ Jesus. It is this self that gives you rest from the compulsive, incessant trash talk of your false self. In contemplation, you let the trash talk come as it may; you face it, but you ignore it. You watch it and let it flow by as a boat floats down a river.
It is most liberating to believe that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts can come from anywhere. Thoughts arise that you should ignore. The more you do contemplation, the more adept you become at identifying the origin of trash-talking thoughts and the deficient parts of you from which they arise. You are not depression. You are not anxiety. You are not fear. Be wary of the trash talk that these produce and ignore them.
What brought on my trash-talking episode at Cynthia’s wedding, with its endless commentaries that were petty and negative? The episode was informed by the pressure I had put on myself to perform a perfect wedding for her. I wanted her wedding to be flawless. The idea of achieving perfection fired up my fears. That fear showed up as trash talk that muscled its way into my thoughts as I awaited the procession of the bride. I couldn’t run from the trash talk; I couldn’t shut off the endless, insidious commentary. I had to let it run its course and just not identify with it. Had I identified with it, I would have brought fear into the occasion and ruined it for all present.
The boxers that were victorious over Ali were the ones who could ignore his trash talk and focus on the task at hand. They knew his psychological warfare was meant to distract and make them vulnerable to him. The key is to sit in the seat of your higher self and watch the endless parade of thoughts that only abate when you face them and yet ignore them. That is your true power over the false self.