Silencing the Inner Critic

6.5 mins read

Happy Easter everybody! It’s a good time to slough off any stale self-limiting sense of self and arise as someone altogether more incredible. I hope this article helps with that.

low self-esteemFor starters, how much do you like yourself?!

Someone told me she was dismayed recently to hear her 5-year old express self-doubt and self-loathing. She was trying to figure out how he came to feel that way given that she is always trying to encourage him; but we agreed that these days self-doubt is prevalent and can be picked up anywhere, including by kids.

This young mother went onto say that she herself suffers from low self-esteem so he may be picking it up from her.

Do you ever feel overly self-critical? Do we all feel like that sometimes? Most of us are not immune to identifying with a painful, limited sense of self and experiencing a resultant self-loathing.

Where does it come from?

I am going to come up with a few theories here, numbered a-d. Please feel free to add to these in the comments.

 a. External conditions

Being overly self-critical can come from other people criticizing us a lot and us internalizing that feeling of unworthiness. It could have started in childhood with an influential adult in our life saying stuff like, “Shame on you! There’s something wrong with you! You’ll never amount to anything.” And, not knowing better, we then started to repeat those insults in the first person.shame on you child

It could arise from cultural or societal put downs, such as racism, sexism, or homophobia, where again we internalize these harsh voices and repeat these narratives to ourselves.

Self-criticism can also come from life events we find hard to deal with — for example, if we are fired we might feel unworthy and useless, letting our job (or lack of it) define us. If we are rejected we can feel unlovable because the person we love doesn’t love us back  and, internalizing this, we conclude it must be our fault.

b. Repetition

Whatever conditions encouraged it, self-criticism is negative self-talk that gets stronger with repetition.

In 2005, the National Science Foundation published research on the number of thoughts we have, concluding that the average human being has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. And, get this, they also concluded that about 80% of those thoughts are negative and 95% are exactly the same repetitive thoughts as the day before!

The person who pointed me to this statistic asked me whether training the mind in meditation meant that we switched out those 60,000 negative or uncontrolled thoughts with 60,000 positive thoughts. Pondering this, I would say that we don’t have that many thoughts once we start training in concentration and finding our happiness in peaceful, positive states of mind. For example, we can learn to stay focused on love all day. What do you think?overthinking

This as opposed to the young multitasker with the split-screen, thoughts flitting all over the place – “what number shall I put in this Sudoku box? Which email shall I reply to now? Do I even like this music? Who’s that texting me? Why did he say that to me? Will I ever get a job I like? I’m hungry” – amounting to surely tons of thoughts in even the short time I was covertly observing her. The number of thoughts we have, I would wager, is going up every year as our mind becomes more and more outward orientated, constantly seeking happiness in a multiple of things outside ourselves.

Buddha called an uncontrolled mind a “monkey mind” precisely because it’s jumping all over the place from one object to the next (as well as grabbing stuff or chucking it around). Our mind can only focus on one object at a time – so in multi-tasking the mind is simply moving rapidly from one object to the next and back again. Distractions and over-stimulations like these are literally the opposite of concentration, a single-pointedness in which we focus on one object at a time, eventually for as long as we like.

Add to all this the discovery that 9 out of 10 thoughts are reportedly out of our control and you can see why we have a problem on our hands. Is it any wonder that our uncontrolled, repetitive, negative, over-thinking monkey mind is causing us to feel bad, mad, or sad all day, and in life after life? Including all those repetitive self-bullying thoughts!

c. Anger directed inwards

Self-dislike or self-hatred is actually part of anger, anger directed inwards, which exaggerates our faults and edits out our good qualities. We are talking to ourselves about ourselves in ways and at a rate that we’d quite possibly never put up with from someone else. If someone was following us around all day telling us we were hopeless, we could at least lock ourselves in the bathroom for a few minutes respite. Not so much when we are doing it to ourselves.

In How to Solve our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang gives the definition of anger:

Anger is a deluded mind that focuses on an animate or inanimate object, feels it to be unattractive, exaggerates its bad qualities, and wishes to harm it.

Then he explains how this works in terms of being directed toward someone else, giving the example of a partner; but I think it also works just as well with anger directed toward ourselves, so I’m going to use his words but switch out partner for ourself.

For example, when we are angry with ourself, at that moment we appear to us as unattractive or unpleasant. We then exaggerate our bad qualities by focusing only on those aspects that irritate us and ignoring all our good qualities and kindness, until we have built up a mental image of an intrinsically faulty person.

self-hatredThat self we are relating to is a mental image. That’s it. There is nothing actually there. There is nothing behind that image. It is a reflection of our thoughts. The sooner we realize we keep projecting mental images of a painful, limited self and believing they are solid, the sooner we will be free not just from self-anger but from all delusions and suffering.

We then wish to harm ourselves in some way, probably by criticizing or disparaging ourselves.

Naturally, if we have set our self up as the problem, the only way to get rid of our problem now is to somehow belittle or get rid of this dislikeable self. But how is that supposed to work?!

Self-dislike arises from inappropriate attention, which means that it is not relating to something or someone who actually exists, but to an hallucination, a projection. Anger edits out everything good about ourselves, leaving all redeemable qualities on the cutting room floor, because it can only sustain itself by focusing on faults. As Geshe Kelsang puts it:

Because it is based on an exaggeration, anger is an unrealistic mind – the intrinsically faulty person it focuses on does not in fact exist.

This is why we cannot solve the problem created by anger with anger itself. Anger only sees faults, so as soon as a solution or redeeming quality appears, “Oh, I’m not so bad! I’m quite nice really!”, anger starts to fade away.

 d. Ego-grasping

We can see from this that at root, self-criticism, like all anger and other delusions, grows from ego-grasping — projecting and then believing in a distorted sense of self, believing it is inherently existent or real. In this case the distortion is a sense of an intrinsically unworthy or dislikeable self, whom we consequently dislike and put down. Luckily, thanks to Buddha’s deep and eminently practical psychological and spiritual insights, this is something we can remedy.

Update: A quick request to those of you who are leaving great comments on this article on Facebook — please leave your feedback here as well so I can address it or use it in the next 4 articles 😃 (Yep, 4, already in the pipeline.)

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Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to be happy

9.5 mins read.

elephant in water.jpegSetting some time aside for a relaxing meditation session every day, even 10 or 15 minutes, is likely the quickest and most effective way to start mastering our minds (aka choosing our thoughts).

Carrying on from this article, Getting started with mindfulness.

And we can think of it more as a mini-vacation than yet another onerous commitment. Effort in meditation is likened to an elephant plunging into a lotus pool to find relief from the heat of the midday sun. In other words, meditation doesn’t have to be another item on an already over-subscribed to-do list — it is more like the space between items. If we take this time, we’ll find our to-do list a lot more manageable because feeling busy is a feeling, a state of mind.

I think pretty much most people can find 10 to 15 minutes in the day for concerted spiritual practice? It is true that we have a lot of stuff on, but I still don’t think we are always too busy to meditate so much as too distracted or attached to doing other things.

Not being here now

Without a skillful meditation practice, our mind will keep on being blown all over the place by our thoughts and whatever else is going on, like a balloon powerlessly buffeted by the wind. We are in danger of remaining totally caught up in fleeting external circumstances to the neglect of enjoying the deep and stable peace we have waiting inside.

Nowadays it seems as though there is even more pointless thinking going on. We can spend our entire day distracting ourselves if we’re not careful (talking to myself here). And this brings me to the main reason I am writing this article today, which is, once we have established some peace in our heart, how can we take advantage of the gaps in our day to keep that going 24/7?

First off, how do we know there are numerous little gaps in our day? How do we know, all told, that, however busy our lives might feel, we have more time than we realize to relax and feel peaceful if that is what we really want?!

Because those gaps are all those times we get on our phones!

Smartphone-AddictionThe average American looks at their Smartphone for 3.5 hours a day! We might possibly be enlightened by now if we’d been using that 3.5 hours for mini-meditations instead.

And today in Madison Wisconsin, on what might have once been a nice lazy Sunday afternoon, I saw someone in a café with one of those new split-screens – Sudoko on the left, email on the right, and big headphones on her head. And of course the phone plonked right between her and the computer, apparently a perfect sign that she is a Millennial as opposed to a Gen X’er or Baby Boomer (who position their phones slightly off to the side.) In that scenario, there is literally not a spare moment to stare aimlessly into space like I feel we used to do in the old days, much less check in on her mind. I surreptitiously watched her for a while, and it was full-on diversion. It looked exhausting. I wanted to unplug her. No wonder this report found that people don’t even like to be left alone with their own thoughts for more than 6-15 minutes.

A Kadampa teacher emailed me this the other day:

“On a recent meditation retreat, I asked assembled students to share their favorite “evasive maneuvers” from the present moment, the ways we all hide out from having to be here with the direct simplicity of right now. People said all kinds of funny and not so funny things. In a discussion group later in the weekend, one student wondered why nobody had brought up Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Another student joked ‘Our teacher asked us what our individual evasive maneuvers were, not our shared ones. Everyone’s addicted to Facebook.’”

split screen
“more productive” or more distracted?!

I am not a Luddite, by the way. I actually relish the opportunities afforded by modern technology. It is not the technology that’s the problem but our strong attachment or addiction to it. Buddha predicted these degenerate times wherein our uncontrolled diversion-seeking would become stronger and stronger – and aptly called this “the desire realm”.

Why to turn inwards instead of phonewards

We apparently tend to check our phones 80-150 times a day. In an international poll taken by Time magazine, one in four people reported checking their phone “every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 people every 10 minutes.” I read that Apple and Google themselves are now coming up with Apps to stop people from being so addicted to their phones … Apps that switch off after a certain length of time, for example, because we are now seemingly incapable of switching them off ourselves.

This attachment has consequences.

addiction to smartphoneStudies are showing a direct correlation between this addiction and addiction to alcohol, drugs, overeating, and so forth – that it lights up the same areas in the brain. It is leading people to insomnia, the light from the screens ruining our much-needed rest. There is a spike in anxiety, depression, and so forth. Among teenagers, it is causing a spike in suicide.

Let alone our children, and let alone the lost art of looking other human beings in the eyes, we are apparently not even paying attention to our cats and dogs anymore! Our furry friends are suffering neglect and boredom borne by our addiction.

None of this is conducive to deep peace or frankly any peace — instead this addiction is making people feel more inadequate and insecure, making us feel worse about ourselves. Our creativity is diminishing because the silence in which we used to pop with great ideas has been taken over by scrolling and tapping.

In the age of attachment we are worryingly inclined to look for happiness outside of ourselves. This could be our last day – so do we want to spend it scrolling on our phone or do we want to spend it in peace and meaning?

kittenThere’s another downside too. In the old days, when there were a few minutes here and there in the day, we might use them to run errands, and end up with more time to do the things we love. Now the chores pile up till we have to spend a whole day catching up, leaving less free time. People also don’t feel they have the time to volunteer their help so much these days, or to spend time in real-life community; even though these activities are proven to make us feel happier and more connected.

As explained more in this article, Are you busy?, I don’t think people are necessarily much busier than they used to be – we are just distracted all the time, so our minds feel busier, we don’t feel we ever have enough time, we get totally overwhelmed. We don’t have a time deficit so much as a mindfulness and concentration deficit.

We can check for ourselves — as soon as we have a gap or pause in the day, waiting for a meeting or traffic lights or the kettle to boil, or even strolling down the road, what do we do? Something on our to-do list? Stop to smell the roses? Not usually. Instead we get on our smart phone and start scrolling downwards or sideways, searching for happiness. “Well, that’s underwhelming. But maybe it’s on the next screen! Or the next? Or the next?”

Have any of us actually found happiness and freedom yet in our phone?!

Have any of us found joy, love, connection, or meaning?

Surely we need to pause in the pursuit of happiness to just BE happy!

An idea that can help

We are up against weapons of mass distraction, but we can beat this.

WeaponsOfMassDistractions.jpgNext time there is a pause in the day — ie, you’re about to reach for the phone — reach inside yourself instead. See if you are feeling peaceful and, if you are not, do a bit of breathing meditation or reacquainting yourself with your meditation focus for that day. “What is going on in my mind? I will now improve it.” Feel present. Feel the love. Feel the freedom of peace.

Then go back about your busy day, but still using mindfulness, alertness, and concentration as explained in this last article. 

Buddha said:

From concentration comes peace.

This means both immediately, as our mind is virtuous and peaceful, and in the long-term, as we are familiarizing ourselves with positive objects and so creating causes for peace. The result of concentration is peace. It always is. Even if our mini-meditation is not perfect, we are still creating the karmic causes of peace in our mind every time we go in and not out.

With these mini-meditations we can gradually master our thoughts and remain peaceful and happy regardless of what is going on in our day. We can remember that our mind is like an infinite clear sky and we don’t need to be all mixed up in the thunderclouds or fog but instead abide in the peaceful clarity that always lies beyond. This is our refuge or safe haven. We can relax into that space for a minute or two, and in this way it will gradually become the background of our being so that we are not so quick to get upset and agitated.

Happy_HeartBy the way, please don’t be perfectionist whenever you meditate – expectations are pre-meditated resentments. The entire sky doesn’t have to clear before we can relax into a more peaceful space, even a slight parting of the clouds will do. Some days will of course go better than others – we can just recognize that whatever peace we do experience is the tip of the iceburg, or a gap in the clouds, indicating our vast capacity for boundless space and happiness.

Changing our sense of self

Based on this new peaceful experience, however slight or relative, we can identify our sense of self differently, such as by genuinely thinking: “I am an inner being, peaceful, not caught up in all the external appearances that whizz by.”

We can also think, validly, “I am a meditator.” And what do meditators do?!

This inner peace and self-identification will make it easier for us to stay patient and calm. We won’t have so much itchy attachment to the things outside us. We will have room for love and wisdom. We will feel far more alive.

Case study

A young woman, who said I should call her “Case Study Kaitlin,” told me the other day that she grew up with all technology all the time, but then went cold turkey a month ago. As a result, she said “I have never felt more alive, peaceful, or concentrated.” And this is what prompted her to seek out meditation classes. 

54421012_1286016704910489_8453803795372048384_nIf we use our day like this, taking advantage of the gaps to maintain a continuum of mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, I think we will find that we all get results. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we train in meditation systematically eventually we can eradicate all the delusions that are the causes of our sufferings. Day and night and life after life we will experience only peace and happiness.

Meditation enables us to become comfortable with silence, too; though that might have to be the subject of another article. Meantime, Google “benefits of silence” if you want to find out how important it is.

Coffee/tea & meditation first thing in the morning = can’t be beat

And to conclude this article, here is a practical nugget for you …  Some months ago I bought myself a cheap alarm clock and, come bedtime, put my phone in another room. I was woken in the morning by a screech instead of a dulcet ringtone, but I was good with that because, with no phone to reach for, I found I had no addiction tingle in my hand. It came easier then to just get on with my day and my meditation without an urge to check wake up happy“vital” messages first. So I have been doing this by and large ever since; it feels good to have reclaimed that first-thing-in-the-morning space and time. Plus it’s a lot easier to set compass for the rest of the day.

Over to you. Comments on how you sustain inner peace in this technological age are very welcome.

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