How to overcome toxic self-criticism 

7 mins read.

It all starts with changing our experience.

If we want to change our actions or behaviors, we need to change our intentions. If we want to change our intentions or wishes, we need to change our sense of who we are. feeling smallAnd if we want to change our sense of self, this has to be based on changing our experience.

Carrying on from this article, Giving up self-hatred once and for all. 

We underestimate ourselves badly a lot of the time — in the case of self-dislike by experiencing and relating to an inherently limited unworthy small self. But where is that self to be found? What is it?

That self is who we are not rather than who we are. We want to get to the point that whenever it appears it actually reminds us that it is fake — it is appearing, but not really there. It is like — to use an analogy from the Buddhist scriptures — seeing two moons when we press our eyeball reminding us that there is only one moon in the sky.

Our sense of self at any given moment feels independent, existing in and of itself; but it arises 100% in dependence on what we happen to be thinking.

With self-criticism, we have a lack of patient acceptance for ourselves. We are never waking up happygood enough; we always have to do more or do better. Fighting this self-image, there is no room or energy for growth. We might also have the master emotion of guilt — the feeling that we’re not worthy, competent, or good, that we are, in a sense, rotten at the core.

The opposite is the case

But the reality is in fact the OPPOSITE of what we are telling ourselves. Far from being flawed, we are a being of boundless indestructible potential, pure and good at heart, and in a position to connect to the infinite wisdom of enlightenment.

By learning to accept ourselves happily within an understanding of our enormous capacity for freedom and growth, we will begin to awaken a source of deep inspiration and wisdom from within.

It is terribly sad to go through life not knowing about what we have inside us, or who we already are and can become. As mentioned in this passage from How to Transform Your Lifewhich I’ll repeat because it’s so significant for our spiritual development — our pure essential nature, who we really are, is mind-blowingly good:

Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, for no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom.

Yes, this means us too. However badly we are thinking ourselves to be, we are not.

Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure essential nature of every living being.

hero insideOur delusions, such as disliking ourself, are all based on faulty or distorted thinking, inappropriate attention — so once we get rid of that faulty thinking for good, the delusion goes away and can never come back. But the seeds of compassion and wisdom will be our essential nature for as long as reality remains. (For more on how that is, check out this article.)

And now is the best time to really figure this out, while we have this precious human life.

Buddha’s analogy for our current opportunity

Buddha gives the analogy of a person living in poverty, in a hovel, scrabbling around to be happy and make ends meet for himself and his family. He is working really hard but feeling really poor.

But one day he gets a visitor – a wise person comes to his door and says: “I don’t think you realize this, but below your house is a gold mine. You are in fact exceedingly rich.”

The man may be skeptical at first, but he gets curious one day and checks it out. Sure enough, he realizes that he has been living on top of a gold mine since he was born. And his and his family’s life now changes completely.

gold mine.gifIn a similar way, Buddha has turned up in our lives to tell us that we have an incredible gold mine inside us — innate goodness and purity, possessing the capacity for lasting peace and happiness. Perhaps we don’t really believe him because we have gotten so used to identifying with being a poor person, but one day we check it out anyway and discover that he is right! And our life changes beyond recognition.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Whenever we meet other people, rather than focusing on their delusions, we should focus on the gold of their Buddha nature. This will not only enable us to regard them as special and unique, but also help to bring out their good qualities. Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.

This includes meeting ourselves!

We are not doomed!

In other words, you are not doomed, and nor is anyone else. It is so important that we understand this because, until we do, our wish for lasting freedom for ourselves and others will never be sustainable. We will just keep getting tired, worried, and discouraged, losing energy, burning out. We can’t sustain a wish for something we don’t actually believe in, and if we don’t wish for it we won’t have any energy, effort, or patience to achieve it.

super womanStep 1 ~ new improved experience

Given all this, the first step is to allow our inner chatter to stop for a bit. We can simply turn inward to examine our mind, as explained here, and then use breathing meditation or clarity of mind meditation or absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought.

As result of not focusing on our distracting thoughts, they disappear, because thoughts can only survive for as long as we are thinking them. Initially, just by allowing delusions to go away for a short while, we already feel better.

But please don’t be perfectionist – we don’t have to have a perfectly clear mind; any clearing of the clouds will do. Even a handkerchief of blue sky on an overcast day encourages us that there is plenty more where that comes from. We don’t want to over-judge our meditations, but instead be gentle and relaxed.

Concentration is not about pushing. We can simply relax into whatever peace we have, even if it is tiny. We can allow ourselves to enjoy this. Otherwise we are just buying into being useless at meditation as well – I am too useless even to learn how to be less useless!

When we first start meditating, we realize that we have an endless inane talk show going on. It takes a bit of time and practice to switch this off, so don’t have expectations, aka pre-meditated resentments! Just practice happily without grasping at results. This is how we get good at meditation. It doesn’t matter if our mind is full of busy thoughts — provided we are alert to that and letting them go we are doing really well, as explained in this article on mindfulness, alertness, and concentration. monkey mind

A friend said this the other day:

I love the admonition regarding meditation: “expectations are pre-meditated resentments.” For me, one of the greatest delights of meditation is knowing that any meditation is a good meditation and that judging simply gets in the way of absorption, concentration, and realizations.

I tend to be hard on myself in everything else I do and, unconsciously until recently, use high expectations and my regular failure to meet them as certifications of my not-good-enough self. Sitting down to meditate and just exhaling “Ahh!” is my empowering opponent to and vacation from beating myself up – at least once a day.

Saying “I cannot meditate because my mind is too distracted!” is like going to the doctor with a bad stomach ache but refusing to take the medicine. The doctor says, “Take these pills, you’ll feel better!”, but we reply, “I can’t because my stomachs hurts too much.” It is precisely because our mind is so distracted that we need take the medicine of breathing meditation 😁.

The rest of this explanation on overcoming self-hatred is on its way soon — I figured your coffee break might be up. Meantime, your comments have been very helpful up to now, so please leave more below!

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Giving up self-hatred once and for all

5.5 mins read.

Kadampa Buddha 4Call me biased, but I can’t help thinking that Buddha Shakyamuni is the best psychologist who ever walked the earth. Yet he is also transcendent, visionary. His vision is not just about us all feeling better, but about us all being our very best self, which just happens to be enlightened.

Following directly on from this article, How to stop being so down on ourselves.

A friend of mind recently went through the stuff of nightmares, a hellish trauma. This only happened in November, but she feels that with Dharma she should have “got over it by now,” and is upset with herself for feeling constant flashes of anger, fear, and sadness. Instead of accepting these unpleasant thoughts as entirely normal post-traumatic weather in a sky-like mind, she is buying into them and feeling they define her; and therefore she feels she is failing at being a “good Buddhist.” It will be hard for her to move beyond this horror if she keeps beating herself up, and her Buddhist practices and meditations will just be overlayed onto a sense of an inadequate self. I am glad we had a chance to talk yesterday because this is exactly the kind of problem we are dealing with here.

The last 4 articles have been about toxic self-criticism or self-hatred, what’s wrong with it, and where it comes from, including the relationship between our experience, sense of self, intentions, actions, and life. Now, with all this practical insight, we’re ready to give it up once and for all.

So how do we? First it might be helpful to see how NOT to.

Option 1. Change my view of self?

pep talk in mirrorMaybe we think the first step to overcoming self-hatred is changing our sense of self by telling ourselves we are great?

But this doesn’t work, any more than it works for someone else to tell us we’re great if we’re not feeling it. Maybe we talk to ourselves in the mirror: “You’re wonderful! You can do anything!” But our experience tells us otherwise. Affirmations or pep talks in the mirror won’t work if we’re feeling crummy inside.

Option 2. Change my intentions?

So maybe I should change my intentions or wishes?

But that doesn’t work while we are holding onto a limited view of self because what we want depends on whom we think we are, our sense of identity. So, for example, if we feel we’re a really hopeless person, we cannot help but have underwhelming wishes that hold us back from realizing our potential. This in turn makes us feel even more hopeless.

Option 3. Change my actions?

Often we try to change our actions through sheer will power, for example by forcing ourselves to do things outside our comfort zone, things that are supposed to be good for us. However, this is a stretch and not sustainable because there is a gulf between our head and our heart. It generally winds up with us having to control or suppress our actual wishes, which can make us feel hypocritical or more conflicted. For example, if we feel we need to be on a diet but are identifying ourself as an overweight loser whose only comfort is food, we may lock the fridge door but then give in and stuff ourselves later.

To summarize, what we do depends upon what we want, which in turn depends upon who we think we are.

So what CAN I change?!

No-one-can-make-you-feel-inferior-withoutGiven this, what do we need to change in order to get rid of self-hatred and other delusions? We have to change our EXPERIENCE. And this starts by getting in touch with our peaceful, pure, and boundless nature. It is not a case of, “Whatever! I can’t do this, it’s not me!”, believing that our lack of peace and incompetence is our very nature. Look what that leads too! We need to know our real nature or potential versus doubting it.

In How to Transform Your Life (free here), Geshe Kelsang explains:

Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, for no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom.

We need to discover who we truly are. This can be as simple at first as doing a short breathing meditation and giving ourselves some moments to identify with the result. When we disconnect from the external world and the internal chatter, we discover an innate peace of mind and goodness. We have changed our experience to one of relative happiness and contentment. We start to get what Buddha means about our mind being like a limitless sky.

hero inside 2If we sit with this for long enough (as a guest writer explained beautifully here and I plan on exploring more in the next article), we come to realize we have developed a new view of ourself. We have changed our basis of imputation. And we can build upon this with many virtuous and wise states of mind, all the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra if we so desire.

A conversation

 Just as I was writing all this, I overheard a conversation at the next table in this Denver café – a young woman was sharing with her friend how she hadn’t been invited to a social occasion: “I don’t like it; it makes me feel small. Who does she think she is?!” The other commiserated animatedly with some swear words and distasteful “facts” about the unfriendly person; and they both laughed.

To serve and protect our unworthy small self, to try and make ourselves feel bigger, one strategy is to be down on somebody else and ideally get other people to agree with us.

feeling small 2The dissing and laughter seems to have solved the problem temporarily! But, no, after a brief relief they are back on the subject – “What I want to say but can’t is ‘I’m tired of you being so b****.”

What her friend could usefully say to empower her is, “Look at the limited self you’re holding onto right now. It’s not actually you. It is a fake sense of self. Just let it go. You can be the master of your own moods.” But instead they are both now pinning all the frustration about the way she feels on the b**** friend who didn’t invite her; and that person of course is out of their control so there is no solution there.

As mentioned all over the place, there are two problems here. The inner problem can be solved by dissolving away the limited self by realizing it’s not actually there, and identifying with her natural self-contained happiness and boundless potential instead. On that basis, maybe she can find the courage to talk to her b**** friend, making an attempt to solve the outer problem, but in a calm way, without feeling on the defensive. If she does that, her friend is also more likely to listen.

The next installment is here.

Comments welcome!

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