Image by Gerd Altmann
We are complex beings. Within each of us there are many, many aspects, some of which seem to be at war with others.
The Inner Critic: The Voice of Failure in my Head
We all have an Inner Critic: that voice that nags at us, puts us down, tells us we're not good enough. When we were little, our parents or teachers were critical of us, and we developed the habit of criticizing ourselves. When I hear a voice in my head saying "You failed," that's a giveaway that my Critic is speaking. Only the Critic would say that.
Be aware of the Critic's distinctive voice or pattern. Often the Critic masquerades as Reality or Truth and keeps its true identity well hidden. At such times, go cautiously and ask yourself: "Is it possible that there is another way to see this situation?" The tricky part is to remember to ask this question. Ask it whenever you start feeling bad, especially if you are putting yourself down or judging a situation as hopeless.
Know that you can always choose whether or not to tune in on the Critic channel, or some other channel of your mind; don't hesitate to switch channels as soon as you realize you're hearing the Critic. Haven't you spent enough of your life listening to that voice? Perhaps it was useful at one time, and then you may not have realized that you had any other option, but now you know there is a choice. Be aware that you can decide whether or not to listen to the Critic, to believe it, or to act on what it says. Whenever you do make another choice, observe carefully what happens. Although the Critic has always warned you that disaster would ensue if you stopped obeying it, discover whether or not this is true in your experience.
When I Listen to my Critic...
When I listen to my Critic too much, everyone around me starts sounding bossy and critical. I start seeing Critics all around me because I project them from my own mind. Hearing the Critic's judgmental words, I begin using this language toward others, and they in turn feel criticized by me. At such times, try telling your Critic to put earphones on and listen to its favorite music.
When others are angry at me, my Inner Critic arises and says, "See -- you did it wrong, you failed to please them." Now, when I hear that, I'm learning to say, "I did the best I could at the time. If they are angry, perhaps it's their problem."
Despite all the abuse my Critic seems to heap upon me, it has a valuable role to play in my life. When I was growing up, its cautions helped me to survive; I need to honor it for that. When the Critic's voice is getting in my way, I sometimes say: "Thank you for your concerns. Please save them for later. I'll check in with you after a while." This frees me from my Critic while I focus on an important situation. Later, I can dialogue with my Critic and ask about its fears. Usually I learn that my Critic was afraid of a possible negative consequence of my behavior, and was trying to protect me. It's good to define for your Critic what you want its job to be, while setting limits on when you will listen to it.
Get The Latest From InnerSelf
Once while I was attending a workshop with Barbara Brennan, I was practicing the skill of tuning into other people's energy fields. My Critic was declaring loudly, "You'll never learn how to do that; you have no skill whatsoever!" I thanked it and asked it to be silent for awhile, promising that I would check in later. Much to my surprise, I was then able to do rather accurate readings of two participants in the workshop. On the train ride home, I remembered to check in with my Critic. It brought up a fear of which I had not been consciously aware: that if I were to develop psychic skills, some people would perceive me as weird or crazy, and I might lose certain friends. This was the first time I had ever truly listened to my Critic on my own terms, instead of raging against it or meekly complying with it. I was impressed by its genuine concern for my well-being.
Can This Be Done Differently?
When my Critic is ranting about some error or act of poor judgment I've made, it sometimes works well to outline what I would do differently next time. For instance, when my Critic was berating me over missing the Creek Cleanup Day, I said: "Next time, I will write it down in my schedule. That way I won't miss it or schedule other things for that day."
Sometimes it seems more like a Complainer than a Critic. It's a fearful voice that worries, "You've made the wrong decision, this experience isn't what it should be, you're missing out." The false perception that leads to complaining and criticism is based on the belief that I have to rely only on my own wits and choices (with no help available from Spirit). This calls for a compassionate but firm reply, such as: "Dear Complainer, I'm sorry that this experience isn't quite up to your expectations. But life isn't really about finding the most perfect experiences, it's about making the best of whatever is given. Let's focus on what is delightful instead of what isn't." Fear of missing out can actually cause us to miss out on the present moment! We can never know enough to make the wisest choice at all times, but we can choose to look for the gift.
ASK YOURSELF: What is my Inner Critic trying to protect me from?
The Impartial Witness
The best balance to the Inner Critic is the Impartial Witness. The role of the Witness is not to judge, compare, criticize, or give orders, but simply to observe with impartiality, detachment, curiosity, even wonder. The Witness might say things like, "Let's take another look" and "Is this the real truth or not?"
Ram Dass tells a story of a farmer with a son and a horse, both of whom give him great joy. One day, the horse runs away, and all the villagers shake their heads in consternation. The farmer says, "We'll see." The next day, his son goes out to search for the horse, and instead comes back with two wild horses, both very splendid. The neighbors say, "What good fortune." The farmer says simply, "We'll see." A few days later, as the son tries to ride one of the wild horses he is thrown off and breaks his leg. "Poor fellow," intone the neighbors, sympathetically. The farmer: "We'll see." The next week, war breaks out and all the young men of draft age are signed up to defend their village; all, that is, except the farmer's son, who is too disabled to fight. "Lucky man!" sigh the villagers. And so on it goes. The farmer, like the Impartial Witness, does not get caught in the emotional roller coaster caused by evaluating each event as good or bad, lucky or unlucky. He observes and accepts what is, without judgment. Therein lies his serenity.
To me, the Witness is like the sky above, observing everything; or like the ancestors looking upon us with unconditional positive regard, and perhaps a touch of fond amusement. Great old trees have this quality of pure awareness, perhaps because they have witnessed so many generations of humans and animals and their dramas. The trees remain unmoved, a stable awareness in times of crisis and storms.
Cultivating the Impartial Witness
How can we cultivate the Impartial Witness? Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us of the witness quality of quiet water, which we can learn to emulate by quieting our minds, with this meditative phrase: "Breathing in, I see myself as still water. Breathing out, I am reflecting things as they are."
Angeles Arrien advises that our Witness needs to be stronger than our Critic; "Stop feeding your Critic gourmet meals," she says. She suggests that we look at our experiences without exaggeration or diminishment. When I observe myself doing something that appears to have a negative consequence, I am now learning to say, "How interesting! What can I learn here?" The Witness looks with curiosity and a desire to understand; it doesn't attempt to evaluate.
One of the great tasks that I believe we all come here to accomplish is to learn who we are. That sounds funny in a way. Aren't we supposed to know ourselves, just from living with ourselves day in and day out, year after year? In truth, if we don't reflect and take time to get to know ourselves, we can stay very much in the dark. After more than fifty years, I am still shocked at how little I know myself sometimes. Just when I think I know who I am, I change. Half the battle is to know what I truly want, so I can give it to myself!
I've discovered that being self-aware is a great gift to give others. When I know and communicate what I need and what works or doesn't work for me, I give other people clear guidelines. They don't have to read my mind in order to avoid stepping on my toes. Conversely, my lack of self-awareness creates difficulties in my relationships. For example, I've had experiences traveling with a friend when I didn't realize that I needed some alone time or quiet time each day. If that did not happen, I found myself becoming irritable without knowing why.
Looking at myself through the compassionate eyes of the Witness, I can see that I need a lot of help. Yet I also see that this is true of most of us, and I'm neither ashamed nor sad about it. Nor am I proud of it. It's just the way things are.
The Powerful and Practical Practice of Meditation
The most powerful way to cultivate the Witness is through the practice of meditation. Sitting quietly, we observe our thoughts and feelings with acceptance, without judging or attempting to control or change anything. "Nonattachment" is a term used to describe a calm attitude toward thoughts and feelings, and ultimately toward whatever life brings. By not identifying with our viewpoints, opinions, or judgments, we begin to gain freedom from them. This is very different from refusing to look at or know about uncomfortable inner processes.
"Mindfulness" refers to the ability to go about our daily activities -- breathing, walking, driving, speaking, eating -- while being fully present and aware. This concept, which I first learned about in Thich Nhat Hanh's wonderful book The Miracle of Mindfulness, sounds deceptively simple. The trouble is that our lives seem terribly complex. It's only possible for me to eat mindfully if I slow down, stop trying to read or listen to the radio or carry on a conversation at the same time, and put my full attention on each mouthful of food. Is it worth it? Whenever I eat with true mindfulness, I wonder whether eating disorders would exist if everyone simply practiced mindful eating. We would really taste our food, and we would be more in touch with our bodies to know whether the food was agreeing with us or not; we might know when we were eating to try to fill an emotional emptiness, and when we'd had enough.
Our breath is one of the greatest allies in the practice of mindfulness. Coming back to an awareness of breath, several times a day, is a deep practice of being present in the body, present in each moment. It's a wonderful refuge from the fears of the future and the regrets of the past. During these moments my Witness gains strength.
SPEND a LITTLE TIME EACH DAY reviewing your experiences while you are calm and relaxed, not giving more time or energy to what went badly or well, but just seeing it all from the slightly more distant perspective that time can give. It's very tempting to evaluate: "I did a great job on this, I did that terribly." Instead, simply look at it all and ask, "What can I learn about life? What can I learn about myself?"
Copyright 2000, published by Talking Birds Press.
Author Cathy Holt provides us with a kind of primer on becoming more grounded by sharing personal stories and describing the teaching of many well-known spiritual practitioners such as Thich Nhat Hahn and Sun Bear, and the study of works by other medical and holistic experts. With a reminder to us of the importance of our being connected to nature, the author outlines the tools essential for finding peace through personal awareness.
About The Author
Cathy Holt, M.P.H., is a holistic health educator and environmental activist. She co-authored a previous book and tape series, Creating Wholeness: A Self-Healing Workbook Using Dynamic Relaxation, Images and Thoughts, with Erik Peper, Ph.D., and is a contributor to EarthLight magazine. She is a biofeedback therapist, an activist in the movements for peace, renewable energy, occupational health, deep ecology, and voluntary simplicity, and she also assists patients in preparing for surgery and leads workshops on letting nature heal. She has recently moved into the Hanover Eco-Village. Cathy can be reached by visiting https://www.heartspeakpeace.com