“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than anyone.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, from “The Brothers Karamazov,” Part I, Book II: “An Unfortunate Gathering,” Chapter 2: “The Old Buffoon”
“Relationship is self-revelation; it is because we do not want to be revealed to ourselves that we run away and hide in comfort.” – Krishnamurti
“Only in relationship can you know yourself, not in abstraction and certainly not in isolation. The movement of behavior is the sure guide to yourself. It is the mirror of your consciousness: the mirror will reveal its content, the images, the attachments, the fears, the loneliness, the joys and sorrow. Poverty lies in running away from this. . . .” – Krishnamurti
“Relationship is a process of self-revelation; relationship is as a mirror in which you begin to discover yourself, your tendencies, pretensions, selfish and limited motives, fears, and so on. In relationship, if you are aware, you will find that you are being exposed, which causes conflict and pain. The thoughtful person welcomes this self-exposure to bring about order and clarity, to free his thought-feeling from isolating, self-enclosing tendencies. But most of us try to seek comfort and gratification in relationship; we do not desire to be revealed to ourselves; we do not wish to study ourselves as we are, so relationship becomes wearisome and we seek to escape.” – Krishnamurti
“The understanding of the mind is possible only in relationship – in your relationship to property, to people, and to ideas. At present that relationship is reaction, and a problem that is created by reaction cannot be solved by another reaction; it can be solved only when the whole process of reaction is understood – which is the self, the ‘me’. Then you will find there is an action which is not reaction. . . . ” – Krishnamurti
“[R]elationship can be a means of self-discovery. Relationship is a mirror in which I can see myself. That mirror can either be distorted, or it can be ‘as is’, reflecting that which is. But most of us see in relationship, in that mirror, things we would rather not see, and things we want and hope to see; so we do not see what is.” – Krishnamurti
“If we examine our life, our relationship with another, we shall see that it is a process of isolation. We are really not concerned with another; though we talk a great deal about it, actually we are not concerned. We are related to someone only so long as that relationship gratifies us, so long as it gives us a refuge, so long as it satisfies us. But the moment there is a disturbance in the relationship which produces discomfort in ourselves, we discard that relationship. In other words, there is relationship only so long as we are gratified. This may sound harsh, but if you really examine your life very closely you will see it is a fact; and to avoid a fact is to live in ignorance, which can never produce right relationship.” – Krishnamurti
In the choice between distorted self-knowledge and genuine self-knowledge, most of us choose distorted self-knowledge, because it’s more comfortable–the distortions make life easier, more comfortable; the distortions make it easier for us to live with ourselves as we are, and to keep doing what we do.
And so as long as life doesn’t get too challenging, too difficult, and we can remain in control in our comfort zone, this self-deceptive approach to life will “work” for many of us.
How does this apply to our relationships? It means that when a relationship exposes more of ourselves than we want to see, then we will sever that relationship and emotionally cut the other person out of our life. In the choice between keeping distorted self-knowledge about ourselves versus facing uncomfortable truths about ourselves, we will keep the distortion and get rid of anyone who reflects things about us that we’d rather not see, that we’re not ready to face.
In the choice between love and self-preservation, most of us choose self-preservation. In the choice between growing and giving up our distortions and self-deceptions versus keeping these and ending a relationship, many of us would rather end the relationship and keep our distortions rather than give up our distortions and illusions and grow into a more genuinely loving and honest relationship with another and ourselves.
“Only the best in us talks about the worst in us, because the worst in us lies about itself and its own existence.” – David Schnarch
“Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have.” – Doris Mortman
“We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.” – André Berthiaume
What does it mean to be “asleep” in life?
Simply put, being “asleep” means being blind to ourselves, being blind to who we are, why we are the way we are, and what it’s like to be on the opposite end of an interaction with us. It means being ignorant of or unconcerned with all of this and why we do what we do.
Why do we—or some of us, or the vast majority of people—do this?—sleepwalk through life? Why do we—so many of us—live like this? Why are so many of us content to live like this?
What’s the payoff?
A supposedly easier life? A supposedly less painful and stressful and anxious life?
Aside from the obvious answer that “everyone else” is doing it and living the same way (asleep), maybe it’s because we’re too full of pride to be willing to look at ourselves honestly (especially if our life is not something shiny and lustrous to behold). Or maybe it’s because we’re too ignorant and unintelligent and so we lack the cognitive capacities to look at ourselves (which is not likely for most people, especially “educated” people). Or maybe it’s because we’re uncourageous because we suspect that we might be too weak to stomach emotionally looking at ourselves and our mess squarely, and so because we intuitively sense/imagine how stressful and painful doing so will (likely) be, we protect ourselves (self-protect) and refuse to face ourselves in an objective and fair and honest way. We remain cloudy and asleep rather than clear and awake and piercingly honest.
When we’re asleep in life we’re not self-aware, we’re not self-conscious. Thus we’re certainly not metacognizing—thinking about our own thinking or examining our own programming and paradigm and looking at our own behaviors. And it’s highly likely that our conscience isn’t very active either—honesty likely isn’t a big concern, nor is doing our best or being our best or growing toward (in the direction of) becoming our best or constantly learning and improving and maturing as a person throughout life.
In short, being asleep means leading an unexamined life. A life where we’re ignorant of our own biases and double standards and hypocrisies and conditioning and underlying psychodramas.
If the unexamined life truly is not worth living, then every moment spent dishonestly or deceptively with ourselves, or ignorant and unaware of our own real motivations and deeper needs and potentials, is life wasted. And conversely every moment where we are contemplatively aware of ourselves or where we are correcting our biases, hypocrisies, self-deception and self-deceit is a moment of life worth living.
When we’re asleep, we’re on auto-pilot and living in ego-mode, we’re lost in our projections and transferences and daydreams and biases and double standards, we’re lost and asleep living a me first “looking out for number one” life where others aren’t “real” and where we’re running around constantly empty and unhappy and lost and trying reactively to get our wants and needs (love, validation, safety, security) met and inner-emptiness filled, trying to feel good, living impulsively, and taking the path of least resistant as often as possible, which means as much immediate gratification (damn the future consequences) as possible.
When we’re asleep we’re certainly not engaged in a 24/7 process of constant and never-ending self-surveillancing of ourselves and our own thoughts and behaviors and the underlying reasons for doing what we do and saying what we say.
Blissful ignorance is the goal when we’re asleep. Not knowing is the goal. Not being disturbed or perturbed or awakened is the goal. Undisturbed and uninterrupted sleep and self-numbing is the goal. Living for the moment, living for fun, living for the next satisfaction or good feeling or psychological high or thrill is the goal.
But not constant self-surveillance. Not truth. Not looking at ourselves, examining ourselves, examining our own thinking, really scrutinizing it, really asking why, really being as honest and courageous and straightforward as possible. These are not the goal.
Probably because they’re painful and disquieting and uncomfortable and not “fun.” They’re not gratifying. They don’t relieve or lessen tension—at least not in the short-term! In fact, if anything, they cause/create more tension, more unease, more anxiety, more depression, more distress, more stress, more confusion. Truth doesn’t make us feel good. Seeing ourselves as we are, with no softeners or buffers, doesn’t make us feel good, especially if we’re a bit of a hot mess or if we’ve made a hot mess of our lives. So why do it? Why look at honestly at ourselves? Why force ourselves to take such bitter nasty-tasting medicine?
Most of us are still very simple creatures—seek pleasure, avoid pain; seek comfort and security, avoid danger and duress. We run on very simple programming: what tastes or feels good must be good for us, what tastes or feels bad must be bad for us. Many people, many of us, live in many areas of our life on the autopilot of these sorts of basic, unconscious (unaware) assumptions and patterns.
But waking up means waking up from the sleep that such a way of life engenders. It means waking up from the sleep of avoiding pain and seeking only pleasure, automatically avoiding challenge and difficulty and adversity and seeking comfort and security and familiarity. It means waking up from the sleep of living and reacting automatically.
Waking up means asking why. Waking up means examining ourselves constantly morning noon and night, and starting to spot our discrepencies and inconsistencies and underlying patterns and notice these. It means learning to ask, in relation to what we do, what we say, what we like, what we prefer, what we avoid, the question “why,” and to do so almost constantly—why am I doing this?—what do I really want from this?—why do I really want this?—what will the long-term effect of doing this or getting this or eating this be for myself? et cetera. . . .
Waking up also means ceasing to be hypocritical—ceasing to ask others to do for us what we’re not willing to do for them, making them do the dirty jobs or go first instead of us. Waking up means putting an end to our me-first I’m-the-center-of-the-world looking-out-for-number-one narcissistic ways. It means, instead, putting ourselves on the same level as everyone else—“Love means learning to look at yourself the way one looks at distant things, for you are only one thing among many. And whoever sees that way heals his heart, without knowing it, from various ills” (Czeslaw Milosz)—i.e. various ills such as narcissism, antisocial tendencies, borderline tendencies, depression, a myriad of anxieties, et cetera.
When we’re asleep we can’t see the wisdom in these words of Emerson—“ Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment” (“Self-Reliance”). When we’re asleep, we (mistakenly) think that what we’re trying to teach—what we intend to teach—is what we actually teach. But as we awaken, we begin realize—the horror, the horror!—that this is not the case—that instead what we are teaches far more than what we say or what we intend or will or pretend to be but not yet are. And so as we awaken we get to work on our character—our level of being, our level of differentiation, our conscience, our capacity for virtue, our work ethic, our level of true psychological and spiritual health and courage, our capacity to love and be loved, and the forces of entropy and laziness and fear that keep us stuck and small—because this is the part of us that we carry around with us everywhere and that we cannot escape or avoid or outrun or disown—“For only as we ourselves, as adults, actually move and have our being in the state of love, can we be appropriate models and guides for our children. What we are teaches the child far more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become” (Joseph Chilton Pearce).
The clock is ticking. At every moment, we’re either awake or asleep, and either waking more up or going more to sleep, and so we’re either unconsciously communicating (teaching) wakefulness or sleep to those around us as well as ourselves.
At every moment we’re either communicating wakefulness or sleep, virtue or pathology. —The opposite of virtue isn’t vice, it’s pathology, sickness. Vice is a symptom or expression of pathology. And evil is the most pathological form of pathology. Truly healthy people are virtuous people. The vast majority of people (us) because they (we) are asleep, unaware, unconscious are neither healthy or unhealthy but are a mixed bag—a somewhat disorderly random amalgamation of virtue and vice, areas of relative integration and coherence and areas of mental unwellness, compartmentalization, distortions, projection, unreality, bias, hypocrisy, denial, avoidance, cowardice, pathology. And the less healthy a person is, the less virtuous and the more full of bad habits, vice, dis-intigration, self-deception, avoidance, emotional reactiveness, the person will be.
So why try and wake up from our slumber? Why burden ourselves with seeing ourselves (and what neurosis and psychopathology and dysfunction there is in us) as we are? Why look clearly and honestly at ourselves? Why force ourselves to take such bitter and nasty-tasting medicine?
Because, in all likelihood, it’s the only way out, it’s the only way to truly grow up and mature as a person and become what was intended. If we’re not willing to have the difficult conversations with ourselves, if we’re not willing to look honestly and starkly at ourselves and start putting ourselves under 24/7 around the clock surveillance and really start scrutinizing ourselves and putting ourselves and our actions under the microscope, if we’re not willing to start seeing ourselves for what we are and start calling ourselves out on our own bullshite, then we’re just marking time, wasting our lives, and we really don’t want to wake up. Because, bottom line, waking up means intimacy—being raw and open and heroically real and honest with ourselves—and doing so constantly—and then doing so with others and owning our psychopathology and neuroticism and weak parts and getting to work on overcoming and outgrowing them. This is the stuff—the day in and day out frontline grunt work—of the “examined life.” And without doing this, our lives are just a blind decent into the grass, a useless march into oblivion.
(This is a slightly edited and updated version of an essay I posted on another of my blogs—http://fullcatastropheliving.wordpress.com/2011/10/09/what-does-it-mean-to-be-%e2%80%9casleep%e2%80%9d-in-life/)
One must learn to speak the truth.
This may sound strange to you. It may seem to you that it is enough to wish or to decide to do so.
But it isn’t.
People comparatively rarely tell a deliberate lie. In most cases they actually think they speak the truth. Yet they lie all the time—both when they wish to lie and when they wish to speak the truth. They lie all the time—both to themselves and to others.
Therefore nobody ever understands either himself or anyone else.
Think about it—could there be such discord, such deep misunderstanding, such animosity and hatred towards the views and opinions of others, if people were able to understand one another?
Of course not.
So people cannot understand because they cannot help lying.
To speak the truth is the most difficult thing in the world; and one must study a great deal and for a long time in order to be able to speak the truth. —The wish alone is not enough.
To speak the truth one must know what the truth is and a lie is, and first of all in oneself.
And this nobody wants to know.
(G.I. Gurdjieff, in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 22)
“Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.” – Franklin P. Jones
A lot of what is true in life stings as well.
Death stings. Loss stings. Failure stings. Rejection stings. All of these stab at and wound our pride, our vanity, our ego.
“If we can’t handle being told off or not getting what we want, how will we be able to handle death when that comes?” – Pema Chödrön
And if we can’t handle criticism, constructive or otherwise, and metabolize it maturely, then how will we be able to deal with the rest of what contributes to the full intensity of life? We’ll always be shrinking from life, retreating, afraid of life and afraid most of all of ourselves and our own reactions and the heat iand ntensity of our own emotions.
“All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why.” – James Thurber
“This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.” – Rilke
“The first necessity is that we should have the courage to face life, and to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.” – Karlfried Graf Durchheim, “The Way of Transformation,” pg. 108
“We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can;” Rilke counsels us, “everything, even the unprecedented“—which means even that which we find immense and overwhelming and unpleasant and unsettling and discomforting—”must be possible within it.” We must learn to take on life and become big and strong and mature and sane enough to live and love on life’s terms, not our terms, and overcome our natural tendency to be “timid before any new and inconceivable experience with which we feel ourselves ill-equipped to cope.” We must overcome our natural timidity and our innate tendency toward flight—to retreat, avoid, shrink, ball up, wall up, play it safe, take the path of least resistance, take the path of least stress and least emotional intensity. “That something is difficult“—and unsettling, for that matter—”is all the more reason for us to do it. Most people have turned their solutions and their approach to life toward what is easy, and toward the easiest side of the easy; but . . . if only we would arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then that which now appears to us as most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” (From “Letters to a Young Poet,” letters no. seven & eight)
The primary reason we shy away from criticism is that it’s difficult. It’s difficult to deal with. It’s difficult to metabolise. It’s difficult to stay calm and centered and rational when we’re hearing something we don’t want to hear or something that challenges us or dis-validates us.
Criticism triggers us, shows us our weak spots, makes us feel bad or inferior or inadequate, makes us feel like we’re under attack, brings up all sorts of unpleasant and difficult and white-hot negative emotions (our fight or flight responses)—intense, flooding emotions with which we feel ill-equipped to cope. In other words, criticism makes us feel inferior; it makes us feel bad about ourselves; it makes us feel invalidated, rejected, not good enough, wrong; and no one likes to feel inferior or not good enough, no one likes to feel attacked or rejected. These are all unpleasant emotions that are difficult to deal with and metabolise.
And so one of the primary things to learn that will help us better and more peaceably deal with criticism and not flood emotionally when someone is criticizing us, is lessening our dependency on “reflected sense of self”— on other people’s approval and acceptance and validation. The less we rely on others’ acceptance and approval and validation for our sense of self and for our emotional stability, the less likely we will flood emotionally when criticized, and the less likely we will view criticism as such a intense personal attack—or form dis-validation or rejection—and the less likely we will be to spin out and flood emotionally. The less we need other people’s acceptance of us, then the less we will mind their rejection of us as well, and thus the more skilled we will become at maintaining our equilibrium emotionally, thus freeing us to deal with criticism rationally—in a calm, cool, collected, thoughtful, inquisitive, grounded, rational, discerning, lucid, sane way.
Like it or not, each of us is at the helm of something that was built much more for pleasure and for playing it safe than for tolerating pain and the unknown; something that is much more emotional and egocentric than spiritual and egoless.
We are emotional and reactive beings first, before we are sane and rational and less reactive beings. The latter is something we must learn to grow into; and it is something very difficult and painful to grow into.
Yet, like it or not, through concerted effort, we can become much less emotional and reactive and avoidant and egoful; we can come to learn or teach ourselves to do the unnatural—to endure pain and discomfort for the sake of growth and self-improvement and self-transcendence, to not automatically run or shrink or wall up or flood or spin out.
“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” – Robert Frost
“Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly.” – Thomas Huxley
“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, Economics, Peace and Laughter (1971), p. 50.
From “The Road Less Traveled,” by M. Scott Peck, pp. 52-53—
A life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged.
The only way we can be certain that our map of reality is valid is to expose it to the criticism and challenge of other map-makers.
Otherwise we live in a closed system—within a bell jar, to use Sylvia Plath’s analogy—rebreathing only our own fetid air, and more and more subject to delusion.
Yet because of the pain inherent in the process of revising our map of reality (read: dealing with criticism; which is essentially what most criticism is: a challenge to our map of reality), we mostly seek to avoid or ward off any challenges to its validity. . . .
The tendency to avoid challenges is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature.
But calling it natural or a characteristic of human nature does not mean it is essential or beneficial or unchangeable behavior.
It is also natural for us to defecate in our pants and never brush our teeth.
Yet we teach ourselves to do the unnatural until it becomes natural, until it becomes second nature. Indeed, all self-discipline might be defined as teaching ourselves to do the unnatural.
Because another characteristic of human nature—perhaps the one that makes us most human—is our capacity to do the unnatural, to transcend and hence transform our own nature and conditioning.
From the motion picture “African Queen”—
Charlie Allnut: “A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.”
Rose Sayer: “Human nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
Every person (okay, almost every person) on the planet has this capacity—the capacity to learn how to do the unnatural, the capacity to learn how to tolerate discomfort for the sake of growth, the capacity to rise above the baser parts of their (which is to say “our”) nature.
And yet very few will take up the task or the challenge.
Again, it all boils down to the difficulty and unpleasantness factor. Meaning, mastering ourselves emotionally and becoming less reactive is difficult work—it’s difficult and it’s work; meaning it’s often not pleasurable; it’s often painful, difficult, daunting, overwhelming, unsettling, stress-inducing, anxiety-provoking.
And most people want things easy, light, simple, fun; most people don’t want to work, least of all on themselves; most people would rather be (most people long to be) accepted for who they are and as they are, than work on themselves and work on overcoming or rising above the baser or less noble or more reactive parts of their nature.
“Learn to work harder on yourself than you do on your job.” – Jim Rohn
Again, it comes down to difficulty versus the path of least resistance. It’s easier to avoid criticism and just react to it emotionally rather than responding to it rationally and by thinking critically and honestly and staying calm, for the latter requires mastering ourselves emotionally, it requires the difficulty of overcoming our nature—our tendency to react emotionally, to flood, to self-protect, to go into fight or flight mode instead of think, observe, remain open and inquisitive. For most of us, emotionality or emotional-reactivity is our first responder, not calm cool and collected and orderly critical thinking and detached unbiased objective fair-minded inquiry.
And for most of us the desire to feel good or comfortable or adequate or accepted is more important than the desire to see ourselves and life as it is. We are more dedicated to the little picture (the ego) than the big picture (reality, true psychological and spiritual growth).
“Truth is reality. That which is false is unreal. The more clearly we see the reality of the world, the better equipped we are to deal with the world and with the demands of adult life.
“The less clearly we see the reality of the world—the more our minds are polluted and befuddled by falsehoods, misperceptions, illusions, distortions, dishonesty—the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise choices.
“True mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.
“What does a life of total dedication to the truth mean?
“It means, first of all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination and self-awareness. We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world (and thus to know what is true and real), we must not only examine the world, but simultaneously examine the examiner and our own assumptions, motivations, and paradigms/schemas—the lenses we use to look out upon and make sense of the world.
“Truth or reality (or even our own self) is avoided when it is painful (or too humbling or shameful to examine or become truly aware of). Yet we can only grow when we have the discipline to overcome that pain (and overwhelming sense of shame or powerlessness).
“To have such discipline we must be totally dedicated to truth.
“That is to say that we must always hold the truth, as best as we can determine it, to be more important, more vital to our own self-interest, than our comfort.
“Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth and growth.” (Abridged and adapted from M. Scott Peck, “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 44, 50-51; parentheticals mine)
Reality is not for everyone. The real world is not for everyone. Truth is not for everyone. The vast majority of human beings still prefer some variety of soft food intellectually, psychologically and spiritually. When it comes to truth and living in reality, many people are still hooked on the soft sugary make-me-feel-good stuff—you know, the emotional Gerbery stuff. Many people, which is to say, many of us, haven’t gotten to the point where we can take the real stuff. We haven’t evolved that much or differentiated that much. We can drink red wine—most of which is honestly quite nasty—arguably much nastier than criticism—or we can drink scotch or whisky straight up—but we still can’t similarly take the emotional hit of criticism.
We can’t take our criticism straight up. We can’t “man up” and take the emotional “hit” of criticism like an adult.
What does that say about us as human beings and our level of emotional fitness?
And what does that say about our values and priorities and what we hold to be near and dear to us?
Sure, we tolerate red wine, even whisky or bourbon or scotch on the rocks, because we know the payoff that’s coming—some variant of pleasure—a bit of relaxation, self-escape, inebriation, lessened inhibitions, lessened sensitivity to stress and worry, a precious bit of self-forgetfulness . . . ahhhh.
But criticism offers no such payoff. Once we take the hit emotionally, there’s no intoxication coming our way. Quite the opposite: we end up actually having to sober up—that’s likely one of the reasons we don’t like and value criticism—because we don’t really like and or value sobriety, i.e., reality, knowing who and what we really are and what we’re really like.
Not to mention the idea that knowledge creates obligation; unless our interior life is in complete shambles, we tend to automatically act in alignment with what we know or most strongly believe to be true. So that means we must do some actual work and make a real tangible change.
So who in their right mind would want to have to deal with this—with having their nose shoved in their own dodo? Who wants to have to remember even more clearly what they’re trying to forget? And then who wants to have to actually put in the work and clean up their own mess? If we’re basically frightened, a bit overly sensitive, a bit lazy, a bit comfort-first and path-of-least-resistance oriented, then criticism is not going to appeal to us.
Nor is it going to appeal to us either if our self-image or sense of self is shaky. We won’t be able to tolerate the hit.
If most people are basically dissipating their lives trying to forget or eschew the painful aspects of reality, then criticism will hold no appeal to them.
Most people like to live in their heads and in their own little dream worlds of what they think they’re like. They—which is to say, the vast majority of us—don’t want to know what we’re really actually objectively like. We don’t want to hear the sound of our own voice on an answering machine; we don’t want to watch a hidden camera account of a day in our life. A thousand times a day in a myriad of little and not so little ways we avoid reality, we evade the (painful) truth of ourselves and our condition; we choose what’s in our heads and our ideas of who and what we think we’re like instead of the truth, instead of reality, instead of something more objective.
Because what’s in our heads is like a drug that we like to dope ourselves up on.
And thus criticism threatens to be a total bummer of buzz kill and sober us up from our self-delusion and self-deception. It’s like your parents coming home when you were a teen and having a party. The ultimate killjoy. That’s criticism.
I wonder how difficult criticism would be to take if we had just had some sort of massive near-death experience, or if we had just gone skydiving or faced down one of our biggest fears?
Would criticism still sting and bother us to the same extent if something else in life had just sobered us up?
If we’re leading a truly examined life, then criticism has to be an integral part of that. We only have the inside scoop on ourselves; we don’t have the outside or external scoop on ourselves. We don’t see ourselves as God or as an objective narrator would see us.
But criticism helps bridge that gap.
For me, so much of our aversion to criticism—and the tough to look at and think about stuff in life in general—is about our load capacity for stress. So it’s all very contextual, very relative, meaning, for many people, dealing with criticism is one of the biggest negatives that they will have to go through in the course of a day.
But what if our lives were filled with great heroic overcomings of our fears and anxieties—what if we were climbing mountains, kayaking, skydiving, speaking publicly, doing yoga, practicing meditation, taking up a martial art, going to the top of tall buildings, and or if we were reading the likes Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, M. Scott Peck, C. S. Lewis, Murray Bowen, Thoreau, Simone Weil, Martin Luther King Jr.—people who were movers and shakers when it came to dispensing truth straight up and without any softeners—what if we were daily trying to build our courage and mental toughness in these or similar ways? . . . Maybe then we might toughen up a bit and not be quite as emotionally thin-skinned or underdeveloped. . . . Maybe then we wouldn’t need so much emotional sugar and so many softeners to make the medicine (criticism) go down—or at least get us to listen to it fairly and honestly. . . .
“The Man Watching” – Rainer Maria Rilke
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
A lot of it comes down to being aware, to mindfulness, to really examining ourselves and our underlying motivations, and the future consequences and costs to ourselves and others. I see the difficulty in dealing with and metabolizing criticism as symptomatic of something larger going on. Why do we read what we read? Is it for the sake of really learning and growing and for the sake of what’s true and actual? Or is it for escape, to feel good, to improve our mood, to steady and stabilize ourselves, or to distract ourselves? “Enjoyments pass, consequences remain,” wrote Hadrat Ali. How much of our day is spent deliberating practicing and developing our courage? What was the last truly courageous thing you did where you deliberately overcame one of your fears or anxieties—where you really overcame something within you that was really holding you back and that kept you sabotaging yourself (and others perhaps as well)?
Courage is a muscle. It needs to be practiced and worked out. Either we use it or lose it. And most of us by the time we reach adulthood fall into a rut of going for comfort and security and convenience first. And so we inadvertently end up letting our courage dwindle and atrophy. There’s a price to be paid for leading a life of too little stress or of always fighting with little things and not wrestling honestly with the bigger questions and bigger issues and anxieties.
If we really knew ourselves, if we were really leading a highly mindful and self-aware and honest and examined life—if we were really interested in leading a life of total dedication to the truth and to reality (see M. Scott Peck’s, “The Road Less Traveled”), then there’s not much that another could say to us that would surprise us. We would have likely already thought it or encountered it (especially in our reading and self-reflection). Not only that, honest criticism and honest feedback would be something we’d welcome! It would only help us—especially since we all have our blind spots!
Thus for me, one of the biggies in learning to deal with criticism is learning for ourselves how to think honestly and critically. To the extent that we are critical thinkers, criticism becomes easier to deal with and more manageable emotionally, because instead of only having our emotions and our psychological defenses at our disposal for us to use in defusing criticism, we have another tool—and a very powerful tool at that—the capacity for rigorous and discerning critical thought.
Murray Bowen, M.D, one of the founders of the field of Family Therapy, theorized that people differed from one another in terms of their level of “differentiation.” On the one end of the scale are those whose level of differentiation is fairly low—they are fused to their environment, they tend to be very reactive, prone to impulsivity and impulsive decision-making and being stressed out, their moods fluctuate with so much that is external to them—the weather, the social weather, a kind or harsh word. They have a high degree of fusion between the intellectual and emotional systems. They tend not to have a lot of well-defined and deeply internalized principles that they live by; instead they tend to make decisions based on feelings and moods and impulse and what “feels” right. They tend to need a lot of support (“borrowed functioning”). (Roberta Gilbert has written several books on Bowen Theory that provide a good overview of Bowen’s ideas; i.e. “Extraordinary Relationships” and “The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory”)
Well differentiated people, on the other hand, are more proactive, lead a more principled-center and conscientious lifestyle, can better delay gratification, have more perspective, borrow less functioning—and when and where they do, they tend to borrow it more mindfully and graciously. They exhibit less fusion in their relationships and with the outside world and between their intellectual and emotional systems.
In other words, learning to more meaningfully endure the emotional hit or pain of criticism and metabolizing it critically and legitimately and honestly is a wonderfully difficult but differentiation enhancing thing to do! It not only requires all the emotional courage and stability and perspective we can muster, it helps to create these! Ditto for out critical thinking skills—it helps to both create and to reinforce these capacities and neural pathways.
So why avoid criticism? Because we’re weak; because we have limited self-capacities; because we don’t think very well for ourselves; because our own sense of self is shaky; because we overheat emotionally and stress out very easily and we want to spare subjecting ourselves to those painful and difficult to deal with emotions; because we’re still depdendent on other people’s validation and approval for our sense of self and emotional stability; because we prefer to live a life dedicated to comfort and feeling good, not to truth and growth; because we want to not have to sober up but instead we want to stay doped up on and anesthetized by our own delusive discursive thinking.
Anyone who is interested in learning the truth about oneself (which in Buddhism we call the dharma), anyone who is interested in finding out about him- or herself, is basically a warrior. If someone is willing to look at him- or herself, to explore and practice honest wakefulness (real self-examination and honest self-awareness) on the spot, then he or she is a warrior—a warrior, meaning, a person who is truly brave.
Warriorship is based on overcoming the biggest obstacle that we as human beings have to face—ourselves. And namely our cowardice and our sense of being wounded or hurt or entitled.
Many approaches to spirituality and life in general are influenced by cowardice. For example, if you are afraid of seeing yourself as you are, you may use spirituality or religion as a way of looking at yourself without seeing anything of yourself at all!
Or you might convince yourself that there is some religious discipline that will allow you to pass directly into spiritual ecstasy. You might convince yourself that the real world does not exist; that only the realm of spirits exists. However, eventually some tragedy or disappointment will bounce back on you, because we cannot cheat on the basic norm, which is known as “karma,” or the law of cause and effect. We cannot cheat. Trying to cheat on this is what we call “spiritual bypassing.”
Or if you are really interested in working on yourself, you can’t lead a type of double life—adopting spiritual ideas, practices, techniques, and concepts of all kinds, simply in order to get away from yourself. That is what we call “spiritual materialism”—hoping that you can have a nice sleep, under anesthetics, and by the time you “awaken,” everything will be sewn up and have been done for you. And everything will be healed. And you that you didn’t have to go through any pains or problems. Which would also mean that you didn’t have to develop any of the real honesty, courage, wisdom, compassion—the so-called “spiritual fruits” of the journey—required to contend with and resolves these pains and problems.
In a genuine spiritual discipline, you cannot do that; you cannot cheat. You have to face yourself. And you have to face yourself directly, as you are, without backing down, without any softeners. You have to face yourself honestly, squarely, fully, courageously.
Because ultimately becoming a warrior and facing yourself is a matter of honesty. Honesty plays the central part. But so does courage. And so does being resolute and committed. Because in looking at yourself, you may find that you’ve been bad, you may begin to feel ashamed and terrible about yourself, you may begin to feel wretched and completely pitch-black, like the black hole of Calcutta, about yourself and your life. But rather than condemning yourself, the idea is to simply just face the facts—face the facts resolutely, courageously, honestly. Just see the simple straightforward truth about yourself. Simply discover what is there; simply see that, and then stop! Don’t condemn yourself! Because that would just be pride, our sense of wounded vanity or hurt speaking. Rather it’s important to just look; it’s important to be matter-of-fact.
When you see yourself and your life in this way, you begin to be a warrior; you begin to develop a genuine gut-level sense of truth.
One of the main obstacles to fearlessness is the habitual patterns that allow us to deceive ourselves. Ordinarily, we don’t let ourselves experience ourselves fully—we have a tremendous fear of facing ourselves. Experiencing the innermost core of their existence is embarrassing, shameful, incredibly unsettling to the vast majority of people. And so many people try to find a spiritual path where they do not have to face themselves but where they can still liberate themselves—liberate themselves from themselves!
In truth, that is an impossibility. It cannot be done.
We have to be honest with ourselves. We have to see our gut, our bile, our shit, our excrement, our most unsavory and undesirable parts. We have to see that. Because this is the only real foundation for warriorship, and this is the only real basis for conquering fear.
In facing ourselves, we will have to face quite a lot. And we will have to give up a lot. You may not want to, but still you will have to, if you want to learn to love yourself and befriend yourself. It boils down to that.
On the other hand, if you want to hurt yourself by indulging in your neurosis and keeping your heart armored and closed off, that is your business and nobody else’s. Because nobody can save you from yourself. So go ahead. Indulge your neurosis. But you are bound to regret it later on. And profoundly so. Because by then, you may have collected and piled up so much garbage within yourself that it will be almost impossible to undo the situation.
And that would be a very wretched place to end up.
But often, that’s what some people do.
Often we prefer to hurt ourselves. It seems to feel better to pursue our habitual patterns than to help ourselves. It’s more comfortable to continue living in a blind, uncourageous, timid, self-deceptive, dishonest way, than to risk living in a much more courageous, fearless, honest way. To some people, their habitual patterns are so comfortable, so familiar, that it’s like home to them. A broken home. But a home nonetheless. The only home they’ve ever known. And may ever know. Because it’s what they make every new home and relationship into.
So sadly it’s a home they’ll likely never wind up leaving.
If we are to ever leave home, we have to face our fear, we have to face what we fear most: we have to face ourselves. We have to look directly at ourselves. We have to learn how to sit with ourselves and see ourselves for who and what we are.
If we put one hundred percent of our heart into facing ourselves, then we will connect (reconnect) with our original unconditional underlying goodness.
But if we put only fifty percent of our heart into the situation, then nothing very much will happen.
(Abridged and adapted and elaborated on from “Smile at Fear,” by Chögyam Trungpa; pp. 1-10.)