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May 24

Silencing The Inner Critic

by Christina Feldman

The nagging, negative voice of self-judgement, says Christina Feldman, is a powerful affliction best met with courage, kindness, and understanding.

mirror-running-fixedUnruly beings are like space.
There’s not enough time to overcome them.
Overcoming these angry thoughts.
Is like defeating all of our enemies.
—Shantideva

The Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree on the eve of his enlightenment and was assailed by Mara, representing all of the afflictions we meet in the landscape of our minds: worry and restlessness, dullness and resistance, craving, aversion, and doubt. The one affliction that did not make an appearance in this story is the powerful voice of the inner critic—the inner judge that can torment us on a daily basis, undermining our well-being and distorting our relationship with life. The inner critic is the voice of shame, blame, belittlement, aversion, and contempt. To many of us, it is so familiar that it seems almost hardwired into our 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 meditate and inspires us to act in ways that bring suffering and harm to an end. Discriminating wisdom is the source of every wise act and word. Discernment draws upon ethics, compassion, and wisdom and teaches us moment by moment to discover the Buddha in ourselves and in others.

The judging mind is optional; it can be understood and released.

The inner critic is a creature of a different nature. With the inner critic, we may still come to our cushion but we come accompanied by a story that tells us we are unworthy or inadequate. With the inner critic, we still act, speak, and make choices, yet moment by moment we feel endlessly criticized, 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 or speech, nor does it lead to the end of suffering. The judgmental mind is suffering and compounds suffering. It suffocates ethics, the guidelines of kindness and care, and it wounds our hearts and lives.

Discriminating wisdom is essential and must be cultivated. The judging mind is optional; it 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 Siddhartha ended the moment he was able to look Mara in the eye and simply say, “I know you.” These few words were a reflection of a profound shift in Siddhartha’s heart: the shift from being intimidated and overpowered by Mara to having the courage to open a dialogue of understanding with Mara, and bringing intimidation to an end.

The judgmental mind that causes so much pain in our lives cannot be exempted from our practice. The judgmental mind needs 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 aversion. It needs kindness and understanding. The late Jiyu-Kennett Roshi, a Zen teacher, said the training of liberation begins with compassion for the self, and that cultivating a non-judgmental mind toward ourselves is the key to a genuine compassion for all beings.

We begin this process by asking what a non-judgmental mind looks like, and what it means 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 pain with the same mindfulness we would bring to a pain in our body or to another’s sorrow.

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