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Be yourself — everyone else is already taken.
— OSCAR WILDE
The shift from living with attachment to the judgmental mind to living with kindness is perhaps the most important part of our work with the critic. It requires us to embrace all of who we are — the good, the bad, and the ugly. This can require a radical shift in our inner world, to allow ourselves to welcome into our heart the parts of ourselves we have denied, repressed, or rejected.
Carl Jung wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” We can try running to the light for a while, as happens in a spiritual search, in the hope of bypassing all of the difficult, painful stuff of life. But that ultimately does not work. Genuine spiritual growth has to include all of who we are.
Fortunately, life has a way of encouraging us to deal with our disowned parts and hidden selves. In all of life there is a yearning for integration. At some point it is not a choice. Life will eventually grab us by the tail or slap us in the face to wake us up. It does that by finding ways to help us see the pain of splitting off vital parts of ourselves that we have denied. That certainly is what happened to me.
Enlightenment Is Not Above The Daily Muck
In my own spiritual journey, like many young, idealistic seekers, I had a skewed vision of what enlightenment was. It was a place that was far above the muck of everyday life. It was beyond the messiness of emotional pain and the conflicts of relationships. I wanted to transcend, to get above it all, so the challenge of being human wouldn’t hurt so much.
Eastern meditative traditions seemed to offer a way out. I was on a fast track in meditation, heading only toward the light. I wanted to awaken so I could rise above the inner struggles. I didn’t see then that I was misdirected in my search, driven by an unconscious fleeing from pain.
Such a naive aspiration has within it an inability to turn toward our more vulnerable, tender, and wounded places. But in the journey toward healing the pain of the inner critic, the essential transformation occurs when we begin to turn toward ourselves with kindness. That turn allows us to hold the pain of our losses, fears, and vulnerability as we would tend to a friend in distress.
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We Can't Escape Who We Are
For most of my life I was quite unaware of the layers of trauma and wounds that I carried. There were parts of myself that felt incredibly tender and sad. Parts of my heart were frozen in fear, isolation, and numbness. Yet the more I opened to the spiritual path, the wider the chasm grew between the clarity and light I sought and the hurting places inside. The critic was my reminder, an indication that all was not well, a manifestation of how I had turned against myself. My search for the light was a defense against the sadness and pain within.
What the journey required was for me to stop trying to escape. I needed to find integration and wholeness right here, in my own body, inside my own skin. The peace I was looking for was not to be found in some heavenly realm, or in some rapturous mystical experience, but in a loving acceptance of the whole of my being. And that is the journey of descent, of journeying into the heart. We must be willing to be with whatever we discover there and hold it with love, acceptance, and tenderness.
The critic, for all its trying, does not know how to relate to those raw, wounded places inside except through fear and judgment. Generally, those painful inner parts of us were not so welcome by our family, friends, or society. We were often told we were weak for having such feelings. We were led to believe we were self-indulgent or self-pitying if we talked about them or gave them attention. We learned how to hide those emotions and put on a brave face, and we compensated in ways that others wouldn’t detect.
When we do this, the critic tries to ensure we don’t reveal any vulnerability that could open us to being hurt or exploited, so it shuts down the feelings with harsh, shaming words. This habit becomes second nature, and as we grow up, we get further and further away from the tender, raw places inside. And though they remain hidden, they continue to exert a powerful influence over our behavior.
Healing The Inside Split
I have worked with successful, well-known public figures who lived with this split. Outwardly, they were charming, gregarious, and successful in their field. Inside they held vulnerabilities, fears, and self-doubts. They were often ashamed of certain feelings that had lingered from childhood. They frequently displayed an intolerance toward being sensitive and caring toward the places inside that were hurting. They would judge themselves or these aspects of their character harshly. They would often say they wanted just to get rid of this inner stuff that was uncomfortable and move on. Sometimes their very success was a reaction to pain from their early life.
Why had they come to work with me if they were so successful? It turns out that the more they denied and pushed these parts of themselves away, the more they felt split inside. The outer triumphs began to feel more hollow when they realized it was hard for them to be with themselves in the quiet confines of their home.
What did all those accomplishments mean when they felt they couldn’t be at peace in their own company? They were unable to tolerate painful feelings and could only view and judge them with meanness, which created an inner battlefield. It left a vast emptiness inside that they were desperately trying to run from.
Living in Harmony with All of Who We Are
Life encourages us to live with integrity, wholeness, and honesty. To live out of alignment with those things is inherently painful. It is reality’s way of making us live in harmony with its universal laws, because when we don’t, we suffer.
And so, if we want to be free of pain, we must begin the important journey of integration, where we start to befriend ourselves. Where we turn toward our fears, pain, and insecurities with kindness rather than persecution and punishment from the judge. We can learn to distance ourselves from our critic so we can listen with sensitivity to these difficult parts of ourselves and hold them with tenderness.
A healthy milestone on this journey of integration is when we befriend our own pain as much as we do with our loved ones. The result is that we are able to be there for ourselves with compassion as we struggle, to be our own best friend when we are in the emotional trenches. This is not necessarily an easy thing. It takes patience and courage to keep turning toward those difficult places inside and to not slip into judgment, rejection, or shame. It also requires keeping the critic at bay with a firm compassionate strength that allows it no room to interfere with the process. No room to make us feel ashamed or weak. We do this with the understanding that to allow such tender, raw feelings to emerge, we need inner distance from the judging mind.
Healing Your Inner Wounds Meditation
The poet Rumi, in his well-known poem referring to the human heart as a guest house, writes:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor
Welcome and entertain them all
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture
still treat each guest honorably...
The dark thought, the shame, the malice...
meet them at the door laughing
and invite them in.
What would it be like to welcome any and all of your painful emotions, as Rumi suggests? What would it take to make that shift from turning away to embracing whatever lies there inside your body and heart? The following meditation will help you explore that.
- Find a place where you can be undisturbed for at least ten minutes. Sitting in a chair where you can be upright yet relaxed, assume a comfortable posture.
- Gently close your eyes and turn your attention to the sensations of your body and breath.
- Once you feel settled and present, take some time to inquire into a hurt or difficult emotion you may be carrying from the past. Call to mind any childhood, adolescent, or recent painful burden within you. Stay attuned to your heart and body. Feel into any emotion that may be present.
- Notice whether you have a tendency to turn away from yourself when you feel the pain, vulnerability, or sadness you carry. Instead of feeling the pain, do you get lost in thoughts or distractions?
- As you connect with a painful memory or emotion, take a moment to say, “Welcome,” and really let in the feelings. Experience them with a kind attention.
- Notice any judgmental thoughts or reactions you have to those feelings. You can tell your critic in a firm but kind way that you are not going to listen to its comments, that you are going to create inner space to feel what lies beneath the surface.
- If the feeling is intense, take long, slow, deep breaths and see if you can simply be with yourself in this vulnerable place. If the feelings that come up are too strong, shift your attention to something neutral like your breath, or sounds, until you feel grounded again.
- Notice any agitation, restlessness, or desire to escape or to get lost in thinking. If that happens, bring your kind, soft attention back to whatever feeling is present, again and again. The more you settle into the tender feelings, the more you allow some resolution through your loving presence.
- Keep bringing a kind, caring attention to these difficult emotions. You may even verbalize this in words that express your care or love, such as “May I hold my pain with kindness,” “May I love myself just as I am,” or “May I be free from pain.”
- When you feel ready to end this meditation, slowly open your eyes, and gently move and stretch.
Notice how you feel after doing this practice. Sometimes it is not easy to sit with our suffering. Yet even the intention to do so can allow a softening or opening toward the pain that lies within, and perhaps some understanding of it.
As you go about your day, try bringing this same kind attention to your emotions each time you feel vulnerable or in pain. Remember that you can practice this anytime you feel strong or difficult emotions starting to arise. Also remember that healing takes time, patience, and a lot of loving presence.
©2016 by Mark Coleman. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library. http://www.newworldlibrary.com
The inner critic is the voice inside our heads reminding us that we are never “good enough.” It’s behind the insidious thoughts that can make us second-guess our every action and doubt our own value. The inner critic might feel overpowering, but it can be managed effectively. Meditation teacher and therapist Mark Coleman helps readers understand and free themselves from the inner critic using the tools of mindfulness and compassion. Each chapter offers constructive insights into what creates, drives, and disarms the critic; real people’s journeys to inspire and guide readers; and simple practices anyone can use to live a free, happy, and flourishing life.
About the Author
Mark Coleman is a senior meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California, an executive coach, and the founder of the Mindfulness Institute, which brings mindfulness training to organizations worldwide. He is currently developing a wilderness counseling program and a yearlong training in wilderness meditation work. He can be reached at www.awakeinthewild.com.