Calming the Inner Critic

Santideva, the renowned eighth-century Indian Buddhist monk taught:

Unruly beings are like space
There’s not enough time to overcome them
Overcoming these angry thoughts
Is like defeating all of our enemies.

The Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree on the eve of his enlightenment as was assailed by all the afflictions we meet in the landscape of our own minds.  Mara, in the forms of worry and restlessness, dullness and resistance, craving, aversion and doubt all made their appearance.  The one affliction that is conspicuously absent in this story is the powerful voice of the inner critic, the inner judge that can torment us on a daily basis, undermining our own well being and distorting our relationship with life.  The inner critic is the voice of shame, blame, belittlement, aversion and contempt, so familiar to many that it seems almost hard wired into their hearts.

Before exploring the nature of the judgmental mind it is essential to mark the distinction between the voice of the inner critic and our capacity for discernment and discriminating wisdom.  Discriminating wisdom is what brings us to our cushion to practice, to reach out to another in pain and to act in ways that bring suffering and harm to an end.  Discriminating wisdom is the source of every wise act, word, choice and step we take that leads to the end of suffering and struggle.  Discernment draws upon ethics, compassion and wisdom and teaches us moment to moment to discover the Buddha in ourselves and in others.

The inner critic is a creature of a different nature.  We may still come to our cushion but accompanied by the inner story that tells us that we are unworthy, inadequate.  We will still act, speak and make choices yet moment to moment feel our acts, words and choices endlessly criticised, compared and belittled.  The judgmental mind draws not upon all that is wise but upon Mara, the patterns of aversion, doubt, ill will and fear.  Rarely is the judgmental heart the source of wise action, speech or choice, nor lead to the end of suffering.  The judgmental mind is suffering and compounds suffering, closing the door to all that is true, fear and worthy in ourselves.  Ethics, the guidelines of kindness and care are suffocated by the inner critic, it serves only to harm and wound our hearts and lives.

Discriminating wisdom is essential in our lives, to be cultivated.  The judging mind is optional, can be understood and released.    Thomas Merton, the great Christian mystic described the essence of the spiritual path as a search for truth that springs from love.   Beneath the Bodhi tree Mara’s power over the Siddhartha ended the moment he was able to look Mara in the eye and simply say ‘I know you’.  These few words were a statement of a profound shift in Siddhartha’s heart; the shift from being intimidated by Mara and consequently overpowered to the courage and willingness to open a dialogue of understanding with Mara and bring intimidation to an end.

The judgmental mind that causes so much pain in our lives, cannot be exempted from our practice but asks to be met with the same courage and investigation we bring to any other afflictive emotion.  The judgmental mind does not respond well to suppression, avoidance or yet more aversion, but only to kindness and understanding.  Roshi Kennett, a Zen teacher, only said that the training of liberation begins with compassion for the self and that to cultivate a non judgmental mind is the key to opening our hearts to a genuine compassion for all beings.  We begin by asking what a non judgmental mind looks like, what does it mean to be free of the burden of the inner critic.  To understand these questions experientially we need to turn our attention to the judgmental mind and embrace its painfulness with the same mindfulness we would bring to a pain in our body or a sorrow we meet in another.

The essence of mindfulness is to stand near to, to see, to understand and to find freedom within everything that feels intractable and clouded by confusion.  Mindfulness is a present moment experience, concerned with embracing and understanding the entirety of each moment with tenderness, warmth and interest.  In the light of this engaged attention we discover it is impossible to hate or fear anything we truly understand, including the judgmental mind.  We perhaps begin to see that the greatest barrier to compassion and freedom is not the pain or adversity we meet in our lives but the ongoing tendency to judge, criticise and fear the simple truths of the moment.  Instead of just wanting the judgmental mind to go away we could begin to ask what it is teaching us.  An early nun once said, meditate on the unconditioned.  Liberate the tendency to judge yourself above, below or the same as others.  By penetrating deeply into judgment you will live at peace.

Although it may seem so, we were not born with a judgmental, aversive mind.  It is a learned and well practices way of seeing and relating; it can be unlearned.  Looking closely at the judgmental mind we see that it is rarely a truthful, able to see the whole, the entirety of anything.  Instead the judgmental mind is governed by seizing upon the particulars of ourselves and others and mistaking those particulars for the truth. A friend neglects to return a phone call triggering a cascade of anxious thinking that convinces us they are an indifferent person or we are unworthy of their attention.  We arrive late for an appointment and in moments the inner critic has determined we are a mindless failure.  The truth of the moment is born of the judgmental mind.  The practice of meditation, of discovering what is true suggests there is another path that can be followed.

In the Sufi tradition it is suggested that to discover what is true our thoughts should pass through three gates.  At the first gate we ask of our thought – is it true?  If so to let the thought pass through.  At the second gate we ask of the thought – is this necessary, is this useful?  If so let the thought continue on its way.  At the third gate, we ask – is this thought rooted in love and in kindness?  This last question is perhaps the most important, the judgmental mind would appear to falter at all of the gates – not true, helpful or kind.  The next question we could ask is what is it that fuels the inner critic and keeps the endless loops of blame and shame going?

Students often ask why the judgmental mind does not appear in the traditional list of the afflictions Siddhartha met under the Bodhi tree. It is not because the inner critic is an invention of our times.  The judgmental mind is perhaps not one affliction or hindrance but a compounded hindrance.  If you explore just on moment the inner critic is operating you can sense how the winds of all of the hindrances flow through it.  There is craving – it takes form in all the expectations, shoulds, demands and ideals we hold about ourselves and others.  Restlessness and worry make their appearance – the shoulds and expectations generating endless thought and emotion as we strive and struggle to meet them, sitting alongside our fear of failure and imperfection.  Clearly in the judgmental mind there is aversion and ill will, directed towards ourselves and others as our shoulds and expectations are too often disappointed.  Doubt makes a powerful appearance – doubt in our worthiness, goodness and capacity simply to be who we are in that moment.  The affliction of dullness makes a disguised appearance in the form of despair, resignation and numbness.

Holding all of these afflictions together is the inner tyrant, the view of self, the beliefs in who we are and who we are not that continually fuels and fires the afflictive emotions.  This is the invitation of the path of awakening, to understand this compound, to learn how to loosen its hold and power, and to rediscover all that is true and possible within ourselves and others.  This is the invitation of the path of compassion – to extend to ourselves and all beings, kindness rather than harshness.  It is also the path of mindfulness in which we learn to see a thought as a thought rather than a description of reality.  We can begin to see that self judgment or judgment of another is no more than a thought that is laden with ill will and aversion. There is a profound liberation in knowing this so deeply that the ill will can be let go of.

The Buddha taught so clearly, what we dwell upon becomes the shape of our mind.  If we dwell in ill will, directed outwardly or inwardly in the form of blame, disparagement or aversion it will become the shape of our mind and a habit until all that we see is that which is broken, flawed, imperfect and impossible.  In India there is a saying that when a pickpocket meets a saint in the marketplace, all that is seen is the saint’s pockets.  What we frequently dwell upon also becomes a habit of the mind.  Habit and awareness do not co-exist.  Nurturing our capacity to be mindful and present is the first step of understanding and disempowering the identity and power of the inner critic.

We can learn to pause and to listen deeply to the voice of the inner judge with its endless symphony of blame and shame.  We can surround it with the kindness of mindfulness.  We can investigate the truth of its story.  We can begin to sense that the inner critic truly does warrant compassion as does any suffering and affliction.  We can begin to take the ‘my’ out of the story and see a thought as a thought.  Instead of fleeing the painfulness of the judgmental mind we can turn toward it, sensing that everything we are invited to understand in the journey of awakening can be understood within the judgmental mind.  Letting go, compassion, the emptiness of self, equanimity and wisdom are the lessons we are invited to explore in this most powerful of afflictions.  The alchemy of mindfulness is to nurture a sense of possibility into all the moments that at first appear impossible.  We are encouraged to imagine a life free from ill will, blame and shame.  It is a life and a heart of compassion, wisdom and peace.