Sacred geometry

Ending the Inner Critic (1)

Date4th December 2010
Retreat/SeriesDay Retreat, London Insight 2010


So, the inner critic. What is this thing we call an inner critic? I'm sure many of you know, but just to paint a picture of it clearly. It's that dynamic inside, that structure, almost like a sub-personality inside, that is constantly putting us down, constantly belittling us, the voice of negativity, of self-criticism, self-judgment. It's the self-judge. Blaming ourselves, constantly nagging at us. It's a pervasive sense of shame, shame for what we are, how we are, who we are. Harshness -- the inner environment, the inner climate, is one of harshness.

It is of course a force of aversion and a force of contempt as well. It's almost holding ourselves in contempt when that is strong. So when that's up and running, this structure, this dynamic, when it's up and running, there's a feeling of inadequacy, of not being enough. Who I am and how I am is not enough. Not being worthy. So much pain can be caught up in this structure, caused by this structure. So much havoc, decimation. It's incredible how much. Some people, it's so prevalent and so much an ongoing part of the inner world that it's hard to imagine that it cannot be there, that it wouldn't be there. It's hard to imagine life in the absence of that force. In our culture, it's extremely common. This is what I notice, talking to so many people. It's an extremely common dynamic in our culture. So common that people suffer with this.

So first of all, that's good to know. Very often, people suffering with this inner critic constellation inside feel like it's just me, it's just me, somehow there's something wrong with me, and I have this strange pattern of self-criticism -- self-hatred when it's extreme. It's really important to know we're not alone. One is not alone in this. Sometimes if you come on retreat at Gaia House or whatever, we have those small groups, and people check in. Someone dares to voice the pain of this experience of the inner critic, the self-judge, and you can almost feel the room breathe a sigh of relief, "Oh, thank goodness, it's not just me. We're sharing that." So it's important to know that we're not alone in it. Sometimes people believe it's just me.

Other extreme, sometimes people assume that everyone has it, that no one, unless you have some kind of miraculously dysfunction-free upbringing -- that you're going to have this, basically; everyone's going to have this; it's there. That's the other extreme assumption, in a way. Interestingly, whether I assume I'm alone in it, I'm the only one, or whether I assume everyone has it, absolutely everyone has it, both of those assumptions -- opposite, but both of them will tend to lead to a sense of despair with it.

It's actually quite interesting. Chris asked me what I was going to teach, fourteen months or whatever ahead. I can't remember which group, but someone asked me, "Will you come do a day on ... what would you like to do it on?" It was much sooner, a few weeks away you were asking for a title. And I said, "Oh, I'll talk about inner critic."

And I was thinking -- I was writing an email -- what exactly should I call it? I remember calling this one "Liberation From the Inner Critic," and I was thinking of calling the other one "Ending the Inner Critic." I was in the office at Gaia House, and I just turned to a couple of the coordinators there and I said, "What do you think about that for a title?" And they look at me and they said, "But surely you can't end it. Maybe you can kind of quieten it a bit or soften its aggressive edges, but you can't end it. It's kind of part of life, right?" How prevalent that assumption is: "This is something we may be born into because of whatever" -- we'll go into that -- "but it's going to be with us to our dying days." The pain of that and the constriction and the cramping. And it's not. It's possible to end it. So I'd like to rename the title today, "Ending the Inner Critic," ending, because it's really, really possible to end it. That I absolutely know.

The prevalence of this or just the fact that it exists for us, it's understandable. It's understandable that it's there, especially given our history that we might have. Perhaps our family history and some of the messages, explicit and implicit, that we absorb from the family dynamic. Perhaps. But perhaps also in the education system. There's somehow a message that very easily -- certainly when I was going to school -- got rolled up and communicated in the very way we were taught and everything that was around education. So it is understandable. It's important not to blame oneself for the existence of this structure inside ourself. It's understandable given the history.

It's also very interesting that it might be a cultural phenomenon. In other words, this inner critic appears very prevalently in some cultures like ours. It's not so common as yet in the East, in Eastern cultures, for the most part. That, to me, is quite interesting. This could be a whole other talk and subject. We have, because of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and other things that happened historically, we have a culture of individuality. Everything beautiful and all the beautiful freedoms that that brings. We take that for granted, that we are individuals free to pursue and explore our individual paths. But it also has a shadow side. There's a fragmentation of society and what we feel kind of held by, supported [inaudible]. And even further, with consumerist culture, and now in some societies actually seeing a real correspondence with this kind of unhappy relationship with oneself and the existence of consumer culture. So individualism and consumer culture go together. We think, "I'm not prey to that. I don't buy into all that consumerist stuff." Yet it's the air we breathe. It's the messages we receive. When that is strong, the inner critic will -- as it has -- reach epidemic proportions. They build each other. It will be interesting, as globalization, the consumerist ethos and ethic spreads, what will happen globally. But that's a whole separate subject. But it is understandable.

[8:45] So let's just explore some of the territory of what the impact of this is, what the force of it is, what the results of this are in our life. It has so many different effects, so many ways its fingers get into the different aspects of our life. So many ways it controls us, constricts us, oppresses us. I just want to pick out a few. One of the ways is how it affects our practice and our relationship with meditation practice, with spiritual practice, our relationship with our sense of our own process and journey, spiritually, psychologically, etc. One of the ways, very easily, is that 'should' comes into practice. The force behind practice, the motivation behind practice, actually gets usurped by this inner critic, and it becomes a 'should': "I should meditate. I really should get my concentration together. I should be more loving, I should this, I should that."

That comes very strongly into practice, oftentimes. With a 'should,' of course -- you can almost hear it in the word -- 'should' is pressure. It brings a sense of pressure and being pressurized into our relationship with what should be a gift to ourselves, the practice, and inquiry. Now, that's quite interesting. That pressure has lots of different effects. It can block, it can cramp, it can inhibit, it can shut down, it can end the whole practice. It can squeeze the juice and the joy out of our practice. So what should feel like quite a juicy, joyful journey of inquiry, because of this pressure, because of this 'should,' becomes very easily quite dry, quite brittle, quite lacking in joy. Sometimes, for some people.

When there's pressure, what can also happen is a kind of other inner character is born, you could say, in reaction to this pressure. In reaction to the inner critic, we get the manifestation of the inner rebel. It feels like inner critic is pressuring me: "You must meditate. You must meditate this long every day. You must do it better. You must, must, must, should, should, should." And then in comes the inner rebel character: "I don't want to do that. Why should I?" And there's a sense of throwing the practice out. Hopefully we'll get time to get back to this this afternoon. But the inner rebel is actually a manifestation of a healthy life force; there's something healthy in us saying, "No, this isn't right." It's my vitality, my dynamic nature, arising in perhaps not such a constructive way. We'll get back to this, I hope.

But the 'should' and the pressure can have all kinds of effects. Another way that comes in to affecting our process and our practice is, again, it can constrain, inhibit, block our capacity for questioning, for deep questioning in life, for asking deep questions -- the deepest possible questions, the most beautiful questions. To ask deeply in life, "How do I want to live? What's most deeply important to me? What is this existence? How do I see it more clearly, more profoundly?" These are such potent and profound questions. So much importance to be able to ask them. It's part of our innate freedom, to be able to be free to ask such questions, ask questions deeply of life and deeply of our existence. When the inner critic is there, that capacity to question gets strangled, along with a lot of other things.

Sometimes the questions are very deep. Sometimes it's just a kind of ongoing level of curiosity, inquiry into our experience that gets cramped. I was talking with someone not too long ago, and she just reported something very common -- on retreat, trying to work with her breath and develop her breath meditation. She comes in for an interview and says, "There's all this planning going on. Why am I planning? Why am I planning?" But "why am I planning?" was actually not the question, and it didn't even sound like a question. It's just a judgment dressed up as a question. She wasn't really asking, "Why am I planning?" It was really the inner critic: "This shouldn't be happening. It's not okay. I'm not okay because I can't concentrate." All this -- we're so used to it, we don't even realize it's going on. We're so used to breathing in that air. And yet, what's the effect of that? Basically, not questioning -- "This shouldn't be happening," the non-acceptance of ourselves, the non-acceptance of what's actually happening (in this case, some dukkha, some suffering with the experience). And impossible then to inquire into: what's underneath this planning? Why actually is there planning? What's the experience of the planning? Is there something keeping it going? What happens when I plan?

So in the Dharma we talk about the Four Noble Truths. The first one, the Buddha said, "There is suffering." It's the first -- there is dukkha, there is dissatisfaction, dis-ease, discontent. In a way, those three words -- it's actually one word in Pali; it's just dukkha. Three words: "There is suffering." What he's really saying is, this is the condition that we move in. This is part of the human condition, that we will meet this in body, in mind, in relationship, in environment. We will meet this. There will be dissatisfaction at times. But also wrapped up in that one word, in those three words in English, "there is suffering," wrapped up is an implicit invitation to accept that fact. This is the human condition. There will be suffering. We will definitely meet that, no question. Every day we'll meet it. If that acceptance isn't there, very quickly the inner critic comes in and says, "It's not okay. I don't accept it. It shouldn't be happening. I'm not okay with this happening." Then I cannot take the next step into the Second Noble Truth, which is an inquiry into what is causing this suffering. Do I have to suffer just because planning is going on? Or is planning masking something? Masking perhaps a deeper pain? Could be many things. But I cannot inquire without acceptance.

This questioning capacity, the most beautiful of our human capacities, to question deeply and pointedly and doggedly about existence, it gets really cramped. In relationship to practice, oftentimes the question becomes, "Am I doing it right? Am I doing it right? Is this right? Am I okay?" And sometimes we don't even know that that's what the questioning current has become: "Am I doing it right?" All the depth and the power of that current that can be our practice, with all the joy and all the discovery, it gets cramped: "Am I doing it right?" Or in relationship, in a way, the inner critic is there: "Will they think I'm stupid? Will they think I'm boring?" So much social anxiety comes in via the inner critic because we're not okay with ourselves, because there isn't that unconditional self-love and self-acceptance, self-warmth. And it has to seep out into the way I am with others.

A little while ago, someone realized -- again, on retreat; actually, again, trying to develop their breath practice -- that this was the questioning: "Am I doing it right?" In realizing, it was actually quite liberating. And then is it possible to change the question, and begin to ask myself different questions, as the practice is going on? Being with the breath, "Am I doing it right? This can't be right," that just pervasive little nattering in the background, the question becomes, "How am I?" That's a very different question. It's a question of kindness. In that question is kindness rather than meeting some demands. "How am I?" And eventually, that also became, "What's helpful now?" Again, it's a question that's embodying, manifesting, expressing kindness. "What is helpful now in relationship to the breath, in relationship to deepening concentration?" Very different than "Am I doing it right?"

[19:05] So still just wanting to chart the territory a little bit of this inner critic. It's interesting, if you get a chance to sort of look at the collection of the Buddha's talks and discourses -- which is probably a shelf-load about that big, quite a lot, forty-five years of teaching -- I actually don't know of one instance where he talks about this dynamic. It's pretty much absent. Rather, he talks a lot about striving, about maximizing your effort, about really engaging your full kind of wish for awakening. Quite a different languaging. Nowadays, as teachers in this culture, we have to be very careful. If I start throwing out words like "striving," for most people it's just going to go and land in the inner critic. It will just be interpreted from that, and cause all the chaos inside. So we have to be very sensitive to languaging things in a different way because of this, because it's such a powerful and prevalent force in the Dharma in the West.

So if I say that the inner critic, because of the pain, because of the prevalence, if I say that that needs challenging, we need to challenge it together as a Dharma culture, as a wider Western culture, and also as individuals, it needs challenging. The inner critic needs to be challenged. Even saying that, I'm aware, one could be hearing that through the inner critic. Then not only have I got the pain of the inner critic, then I've got someone telling me I should be challenging it -- in other words, I should be over it, and have dealt with it, so I suck because of the inner critic. Very often what we see and hear, we filter it through the lens of the inner critic. We feel judged. We feel seen through that lens. It's almost like we project it outwards. And very sadly, sometimes, very sadly, this finds its way into colouring the relationships that should be the most nourishing for us. Sometimes this projection of judgment, projection of the inner critic out -- even with an intimate partner, they say something or they don't say something, and we feel we're being judged, we're being seen through that lens. Or with a teacher, with an authority figure. Again, the purpose of any teacher or sometimes even psychotherapist/client relationship, it's for love. It's for growing. And yet sometimes into those very relationships, which could be the most beautiful, the most healing, can come that projection. To challenge it. That doesn't mean non-kindness. Actually, to challenge it is a movement of kindness.

Like I said earlier, and we'll talk about this afternoon, it is possible that the inner rebel comes up when someone says, "The inner critic needs to be challenged." And the inner rebel comes up. Instead of being against the inner critic, it comes up against practice. We get two forces hashing away at us, at what should be helpful. But the possibility in practice is immense, it's absolutely immense. If there's one thing to take from today, it's that it really is possible to be free of this.

I was thinking about this, and what I really want to talk about today is: how do we move towards freedom with this? How is it possible to unseat this force? How is it possible to dissolve this structure? I thought about it. It came up. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but there are two groups of five, and I want to explore this over the course of the day. Two groups of five approaches and practices. The first set of five is when the inner critic is really strong, when we're in the grips of it, when it's strangling us, strangling our heart. And the second group of five is ways we can practise, approaches we can bring, reflections, etc., when the inner critic is not so active, in times when it's a little bit quieter.

So the first five, for those of you who like lists and are writing. And I'll go through them in a lot of detail today. (1) First one is the loving-kindness practice, the mettā. (2) The second one is learning to bring kindness into our mindfulness, and learning to give the inner critic space. (3) The third one is investigating, using the mindfulness to investigate the inner critic, and to gain, if you like, some objectivity through the mindfulness and through the investigation. (4) The fourth one is learning to question the inner critic and really start probing it through our questioning capacity and through dialoguing with it. (5) And the fifth one is reclaiming our power, reclaiming our sense, our healthy sense of inner power -- I don't mean power over anyone; I mean power inside ourselves. Right in the time when we feel we have no power, we feel like we're just being squashed under the heel of what the inner critic is inflicting, right in that time it's actually possible to access our power. This is what I want to go into. The other five I'll go into in the hall today.

Maybe I'll just make a start right now with this first one, with the mettā. Mettā is this word in Pali that means loving-kindness, so deep friendliness. It's a kind of meditation practice in part; it's more than that, but in part it's a kind of meditation practice where we just patiently sow the seeds of kindness, well-wishing, towards ourselves and towards all beings. Oftentimes people use phrases: "May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may you be happy, may you be peaceful," etc. One just repeats these phrases, trying to connect with them. And over time, this has an enormously powerful impact. Of course, when the inner critic is strong, when that dynamic is up and running and has all its power and locomotion, its momentum, repeating little phrases, "May I be peaceful," seems like a complete joke. It's like spitting into the ocean. It's ridiculous. It can feel that way. What feels real at the time of the inner critic is the inner critic. That is what feels real. The perceptions of the inner critic and the thoughts of the inner critic feel like they're real and they're convincing. But it's only that we're locked into a certain perception. In a way, from one point of view, the inner critic is just a habit. Or you could say it's certain habitual thoughts, from one perspective, and they just go round and round, certain kinds of thoughts -- negative, self-judgment, as we said before. It's the habit of those thoughts, those habitual thoughts, plus the habit of believing those thoughts. From one perspective, that's what the inner critic is. It's an orbit, a tight orbit, of negative self-thinking and the belief of those negative thoughts.

That's all it is, in a way. What's very freeing about that is the word 'habit.' It's just a habit. It's a habit that's grown and calcified and can be deeply habituated. You just start setting up different habits, different habits of thinking and different habits of believing. I'll get to this. When we do the mettā, we're putting into orbit, we're kind of launching a satellite of different thoughts, different thoughts, and eventually they become the habitual thoughts -- thoughts of kindness, of peace, self-cherishing, self-celebrating. This habit of the inner critic just loses its power, and this habit of self-love actually gets more power. It's just time and repetition. And the stickiness of belief -- which I'll come back to -- also loosens in that. It's just stuck in a certain perception with certain goggles on to believe the inner critic as being the real truth of things. With the mettā practice, I have seen miracles, for myself but also with others. Absolute miracles. A person is so tormented and so imprisoned by this structure over years, decades even, and patiently planting seeds with the loving-kindness practice, even when it feels ridiculous and laughable, just patiently planting seeds like a good farmer, like a good gardener, and it pays off. Something starts thawing in the ice block. Something starts thawing, and the waters of kindness begin to flow. It's just time and patience and a little bit of faith.

So oftentimes when there is this pattern with the inner critic, sometimes a very strong self-loathing, self-hatred even, self-contempt, sometimes we think, "I'll just give the loving-kindness to myself." That can be very, very fruitful. But it's actually really helpful as well to let the mettā spread, to give the mettā to others. When I give loving-kindness to others, it cannot help but bathe me. Those waters bathe me on the way out. I cannot help that. It's like I'm just as healed, in a way, giving loving-kindness to others as I am to myself.

And -- and, and, and -- we need the love of others. So very often in meditation cultures like these, of course, we tend to think all the letting go, all the freeing, all the clarity, everything should be coming from here [oneself]. I'll shut my eyes, I'll go inside, and from my own practice things will come free. And of course there's enormous power, enormous potential from really developing our own meditation practice and our own Dharma practice in general. But actually, how much of a gift for us is it to have the love of others expressed? How much healing can come from that, when someone else expresses their faith in us. There are times when we cannot believe in our own goodness, we cannot believe in our own potential, and someone else says something.

Oftentimes I say this to people, and they say, "Yeah, oftentimes people compliment me, 'Oh, good job, you did well,' and I just kind of blank it. I just let it slide off the surface, and it doesn't land anywhere." So I do mean that -- it's like taking in the compliments -- but actually I mean something even more powerful. I don't know, I don't know if you've had this, either being on the receiving end or the giving end, when someone looks at you very intently, and you know, you feel them looking at you, you feel their gaze penetrate, and you might want to squirm away, and you might want to remove yourself from that intensity, but you know they're looking deep into you, and perhaps they're looking a lot deeper than you can see yourself right then, with a lot more clarity, with a lot more reality, insight if you like. And they say, "I see you. I see you and I see your goodness. I see your beauty. And I don't care what you say, I don't care what you think." You can't squirm away. They've kind of got you there, pinned you. Sometimes that goes really deep for a person. If you've been on the receiving end of that as I have, or on the giving end of that as I also have -- and sometimes as a teacher or as a psychotherapist, that's very appropriate; it's the right thing to do. A person cannot see themselves very fully at that time, cannot see their own beauty. In a way, we're giving someone the gift of a truer seeing when they can't look that way. And hopefully, in time, they learn to absorb that looking, and then they can look at themselves the same way, and look in a way that looks deeply and sees the full beauty there.

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry