Five ways to deal with criticism, part 3

This is the final installment. For the first two installments, see Five ways to deal with criticism and Five ways to deal with criticism, part 2.

How about us criticizing others?

Most of you agreed that it is best avoided. This is because our criticism can hurt others and is often not that helpful. If we can’t take it (and even if we can), perhaps we need to avoid giving it, unless we are quite sure of our motivation 🙂 As Nicola Bear Davis said on Facebook: “I know how I feel when I’m criticized, so if tables are turned I will advise someone with enthusiasm and compassion.” We have to know who we are talking to and be free from delusions such as aversion or pride.

If you have some belief in karma, it’s worth remembering that harsh words (motivated by delusion) are one of the ten non-virtuous actions identified by Buddha Shakyamuni as being karmic pathways to immense future suffering. As Jas Varmana put it: “Minds being paths, do we choose the malicious speech path to suffering realms, or the loving-kindness path to higher rebirth? (Both when giving and receiving criticism?)”

A good time to remember karma is when we are on the the receiving end of hurtful criticism — we wouldn’t be hearing this if we hadn’t created the causes through previous criticism of our own. Time to catch the ping pong ball; it stops here.

Cindy Corey said: “I think most of us don’t quite have the skill or non-attachment that would allow non-harmful criticism. I would almost define criticism as trying to use negative feedback to get someone to do something our way and that’s a failure — as people are different and why should people do things our way? I was just doing some reading today with regards to happiness and better relationships and criticism was certainly in the list of 7 deadly habits that create more problems and unhappiness. I think we can help people see or discover what is not working for them through caring and encouraging dialogue, but our interior dialogue is so negative already that I don’t think judgments from others are helpful. In the end, what is important is the intention — to help someone or control them?” Eileen Quinn agrees: “Motivation is key, isn’t it? If someone is criticizing you through irritation/dislike/anger, you will be more likely to put up walls/dig your heels in/get angry etc. I remember a key incident now when this happened to me a few years ago, I didn’t react positively, well more with bemusement than anything, but then the criticizer’s words did seem to me to be from a position of personal dislike and irritation.” Maria Tonella chipped in: “How can you say ‘I don´t like the way you are doing something’ without hurting any feelings…?”

Most of us prefer criticism of us to be indirect (ideally prefaced by some praise?!), but some brave souls do prefer brutal honesty. JB Christy said: “I wish I would get more honest feedback. Mostly people seem to just stop talking to me rather than speaking honestly about what’s going on for them. If they’d talk to me I’d have a chance of doing better. As it is I have to guess what happened. I’m apparently a terrible guesser.” Eileen agreed: “I deal best with directness. If someone is indirect with me I can tell they’re ‘beating around the bush’ and find that kind of frustrating. I would rather someone honestly and straightforwardly said something to me.”

So, if we do decide we really must go ahead and give those invaluable words of advice out of a pure motivation, it seems we need the skill to know whom we are speaking to as well – some people might be okay with the direct approach, but others would prefer us to beat about the bush, giving constructive comments in an accepting context.

Follow the beautiful advice of the ancient Kadampas

The ancient Kadampas were experts when it came to criticism, flourishing on it as the peacock flourishes on hemlock. And luckily all their advice has survived to this day.

As Neil Toyota pointed out: “Remember Langri Tangpa’s Eight Verses of Training the Mind in Geshe-la’s Eight Steps to Happiness, which includes liberating methods to deal with criticism and view/cherish all living beings as spiritual guides.” Wong Tho Kong agreed: “All Vajrana Buddhism practices the Eight Verses of Training the Mind. Criticism is a welcome teacher. It depends on how much you are ready to let go.” And as Isabel Golla reminded us: “Remember Atisha’s advice: praise binds us to samsara so in order to overcome pride we don’t hold on to praise and instead practice non-attachment to reputation.”

Atisha and Geshe Langri Tangpa were old Kadampas and fully realized Lojong (training the mind) practitioners. I love reciting Eight Verses of Training the Mind regularly, including the verse:

When others out of jealousy
Harm me or insult me,
May I take defeat upon myself
And offer them the victory.

The Lojong teachings on exchanging self with others are probably the most powerful methods in existence for helping us to accept and even enjoy criticism, and thereby make rapid spiritual progress.

The emptiness of the self we normally see

When we are criticized it is a great time to check and see how our understanding of emptiness is doing — how sharp still is the pain of self-grasping? If we are still becoming angry or anxious in these situations, and blaming the other person and trying to get free from them, we can make a mental note that we need to improve our understanding of the object emptiness. These are signs that although we may have an intellectual understanding of emptiness we are not meditating on it.

The emptiness of the self we normally see every day is what we are trying to meditate on and realize. Being criticized gives us an enjoyable challenge — the bigger or closer the target, “How dare they criticize ME!!”, the easier and more fun it is to knock it down, and the deeper the understanding of emptiness and resultant joy. We can therefore use specific difficult situations that cause this inherently existent self to appear strongly to deepen our understanding of its utter non-existence. I find this the most blissful and liberating method of all, and it means no criticism (or problem) need ever go to waste!

Summary: Five ways to deal with criticism

To summarize what everyone has been saying:

(1) Ask yourself, “Is it true or not?” Follow Geshe Kelsang’s advice above.

(2) Identify with your pure potential, not your faults, and then you can accept and use criticism without feeling bad about yourself.

(3) Follow the beautiful advice of the ancient Kadampas, who were the experts.

(4) Use criticism to realize the non-existence of the self we normally grasp at, and destroy all your delusions once and for all.

And last but not least …

(5) Avoid criticizing others unless you really have to!

Your comments are welcome on any of these three criticism articles, and please share and rate (press the stars on) the articles if you find them helpful. Thank you.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

21 thoughts on “Five ways to deal with criticism, part 3”

  1. Thank you Luna. What jumps out at me from your article is the lovely verse from Eight Verses of Training the Mind.
    It almost startles me as I am so far from that at the moment!

    However, I equally feel very inspired by seeing it and feel a wish to work towards that way of being as a norm. It suddenly feels possible. What a wonderful and welcome feeling. x

  2. Luna,
    Thanks for tackling this difficult subject. This relates to the five inattentivenesses and it was a question on my FP test. Which one of these would I have the most trouble with? Mine, and I would guess most students, was blame or criticism by the Teacher. It is difficult and your articles are very helpful.

    I try not to criticize others but I think many of us criticize others silently in our minds. I know I do. The thought is as powerful as the speech so we must be very cautious with criticism of others with our thoughts, as well.

    1. You make a very good point. When we think bad things about people, whether or not we voice them, it is still dirtying: if we have some Jiminy Cricket sense of shame or consideration for others on our shoulder, we feel grubby after thinking unkind, uncharitable thoughts. It is a wrong done to truth and the cause of truth. Also malicious thoughts are one of the ten non-virtuous actions, so clearly Buddha saw their destructive power.

  3. I am extremely grateful for a fantastic series of articles on criticism Luna, they are both broad and illuminating, and very good for my practice! Thanks to all the Facebook contributors too!

    All I will add here is a brief reflection on the ‘ad hominem’ fallacy from a Buddhist perspective that may be of use when either giving or receiving criticism. I am still thinking ‘on my feet’ with this one, but a couple of interesting things have emerged.

    A ‘fallacy’, according to Hamblin (in ‘Fallacies’, 1970) is an argument put forward that ‘seems reasonable but is not’. There are many kinds of fallacies that correspond to manifold forms of distorted argumentation, but for now I will concentrate on one. The ‘ad hominem’ (literally, ‘to the man’) fallacy is performed when the attacker resorts to a strategy of using a a personal attack to swing the odds of ‘winning’ a dispute in their own favour. Ad hominem attacks can range from subtly sarcastic personal comments, to explicit personal attacks, to public attacks that try to damage a person’s standing. It is most noticeable when the focus of the dispute suddenly becomes personal and shifts to the negative aspects of someone’s character as reasons for claiming they are the winner.

    Personal attacks tend to hide the central issues under discussion because the purpose of the attack is to disable the credibility of the accused to the point where their views are considered unreliable. Under such conditions, disputes cannot get resolved ‘on the merits’ of any relevant objectives and situations, and can easily degenerate into quarrels.

    We can see the ad hominem from a Buddhist perspective as a practice of first painting a negative picture of someone (known as a “straw man”), then drawing inappropriate attention to the ‘negative traits’ exhibited therein (however true), at the same time as conveying the sense that a person inherently is that “straw man”. This form of encouraging ‘grasping at an inherent other’ and ‘grasping at inherent possession’ is a form of ignorance that can serve as the basis of anger, hurtful speech, divisive speech or doubt, whether by the attacker or by an audience he is trying to influence (known as “poisoning the well”).

    So, what can we do when faced with a personal attack? First, it is important to identify when a personal attack is really taking place. Sometimes, it is clear to everyone that one’s actions and manner are completely central to a dispute, and in this case talking about these as a way to resolve things is legitimate, even though it may involve difficult acceptance by the person on the receiving end. It is also reasonable to insist on fair standards of communication, and to point out when someone is being out of line during the discussion (again, this has to be done skilfully). Both these types of personal comment do not shift the focus of the dispute, and if used sensitively, can be very productive. But truly personal attacks can be distinguished by their shifting focus away from the central issues, in effect ‘derailing’ the dispute. There can be a sense that a personal issue must be resolved before real progress on the original issue can be made, or that an obstructive “straw man” has been imported into the situation, or that the dispute has got hung up on anger or practices of ‘naming and blaming’.

    A constructive way to counter an ‘ad hominem’ is to reground the dispute by drawing attention to relevant aspects of the situation. If a personal friend becomes angry and starts making negative remarks about or at us, we can try to see why they have become angry and try to focus those issues instead. If we suspect that our friend is resorting to ‘ad hominem’, they may feel that they cannot express their real views, and so giving them an opportunity to do so can liberate them from the need to engage in a personal attack. If this is difficult, then we can try to re-iterate or discuss basic starting points that frame the dispute more positively. If even this fails, the best strategy is to suspend the discussion, giving the disputants time to reflect. When you meet again, the discussion may have transformed due to catharsis or the integration of new perspectives based on the quarrel.

    On a more public stage, politicians are constantly subjected to personal attacks for political reasons. The ‘straw man’ aspect of ad hominem becomes far more visible in these cases. Constructive responses to public attacks tend to be directed at debunking the straw man, whether through direct refutation or publicly exposing the remark as slanderous. This can involve analysis at various levels. How has the negative image been constructed? What methods have been used in an effort to legitimate it? What presumptions have been made about the accused? What are the supposed implications? An effective way to respond to public ad hominem is to use the ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argument, a method favoured by the Madhyamika Prasangika philosophers when discussing emptiness. This involves pointing out contradictions between reality and the arguments of the opponent by focusing on the unreasonable consequences of their position. If such a monster straw man really, really exists, then certain things must follow .. but they don’t. The only explanation is that we are dealing with a fabrication that originated in someone’s imagination. This kind of defense can collapse a straw man, and damage the it’s creator’s own public credibility. But by the time a personal attack ends up on a public stage, there is often no time to retract, apologize or change view .. there is usually a winner and a loser.

    The business of criticizing someone is a sensitive action, but sometimes it has to be done. How can we do it in a way that avoids confrontation or personal pain? The most important thing is to try to avoid ad hominem attacks because this will only cause upset, as well as actively encouraging the faults of ignorance, anger, hurtful speech, divisive speech and malice, a veritable batch of delusions. It is maybe better to focus on the consequences of behaviour, or how that behaviour impacts an ongoing situation rather than blaming them directly for it. In this way we avoid the fault of ‘grasping at another’, or ‘grasping at them possessing negative qualities’, with all the attendant delusional fruits. By focusing in interests and situations, it is even possible to make the criticism without ascribing any negative behaviour directly at all, leaving it for them to realize implicitly themselves. If someone interprets something as a personal attack, we can refocus back on the interests and situations being explored in order to re-assure them that the personal comment was not meant as an attack, only a potential factor that may be relevant to some undesirability.

    We should of course be careful and skillful with criticism, but we should not suppress it in the name of ‘keeping peace’ all the time, especially when it is necessary. Of course, many societies do not permit the open expression of critique, maybe expression problematic. But these societies are ‘closed’, unable to criticize themselves, and this only leads to atrophy, dullness, fixed behaviour, and stagnation, even within personal relationships. If we make sure we avoid ad hominem attacks, we can still criticize one another without personal accusation being inflicted, even if it may be difficult. If we remember the emptiness of both self and other, we lessen the danger of personal attacks arising, and when they do, we can apply the opponents. In short, I espouse a critical society that free of personal attack, but full of healthy dispute and disagreement. We cannot avoid criticism, both as givers and receivers, and we should try to tame the beast and see how we can practice ‘pure criticism’.

    I am very busy (under pressure even) so I have been unable to edit this with the purpose of cleansing my didacticism or integrating it to the rest of the articles. But again, I thank Luna for a great series, and also many of my friends who have inspired me here.

    Much love,

    1. Hey Alex,

      I love your “brief” reflections 😉

      This is well thought out and eloquently put, and I’m sure a lot of us will find it very helpful. Thank you.

      Love, Luna

      1. Hi Vide. I recommend developing an interest in fallacy research, especially if you look into the historical roots. One realizes that (contrary to expectations), fallacies were not even properly understood until 1970, and not really systematized until fairly recently. Most fallacy transmission has occurred as the last chapter of a logical textbook, but they were always distinctly ‘ad hoc’ with little theoretical connection between them (it was called ‘the standard treatment’). Nowadays the focus is on finding systematic dialectical relationships between them. My group calls a fallacy “Anything that prevents the resolution of a difference of opinion”.

  4. Thank you very much Luna …your articles are so inspiring…specially this (the 3 of them) about dealing with criticism are a practical way to recognize our delusions.. from the beginning….and transform them in our spiritual path….the 5 rules are just great….need to copy them and hang them on my neck …very near….and never forget them… bright my mind….thanks again <3

  5. i have been sending all your 3 blogs out coz it’s just an awesome perspective!
    can’t wait to see more from you!
    BTW, I am a Christian and just find your thoughts super inspiring also!
    There’s no stopping you!

  6. Thank you Luna, for another beautiful article. You are actually making going onto to facebook meaningful! Please keep writing.

  7. Very practical, helpful article Luna – thanks. It’s great to see a way to be free from the negative effects of receiving criticism!

  8. Life was ‘transformed’ in ’09 by Geshe-la’s teachings, now, i ‘befriend my criticiser.’

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