“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
“Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”
— M. Scott Peck, from “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 51
Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.
This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God—because Truth, Light—knows nothing about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy.
My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love— outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.
We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish most about ourselves—the ones we are born and raised with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to maintaining and expanding this false self, this shadow, is what is called a life of sin.
All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life around which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge, feeling loved, in order to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.
To be a saint means to be my true self. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I truly am and of discovering my true self, my essence or core.
Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.
With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like.
We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face.
But we cannot make these choices with impunity.
Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.
If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it and that confusion reigns.
– Thomas Merton, abridged and adapted from “New Seeds of Contemplation“
Your life is the mirror of what you are. It is in your image. You are passive, blind, demanding. You take all, you accept all, without feeling any obligation. Your attitude toward the world and toward life is the attitude of one who has the right to make demands and to take, who has no need to pay or to earn. You believe that all things are due you, simply because it is you! All your blindness is there! Yet none of this strikes your attention.
None of this strikes your attention because you have no measure with which to measure yourself. You live exclusively according to “I like” or “I don’t like,” or “I feel like” or “I don’t feel like.” You have no appreciation except for yourself. You recognize nothing above you—theoretically, logically, perhaps, but in actuality no; you submit to nothing except your own desires and subjectivity. That is why you are demanding and continue to believe that everything is cheap and that you have enough in your pocket to buy everything you like. You recognize nothing above you, either outside yourself or inside. That is why you have no measure and live passively according your impulses and likes and dislikes.
Yes, this lack of appreciation for anything and anyone except for yourself blinds you. It is by far the biggest obstacle to a new life. You first must get over this threshold, this obstacle, before progressing even one step further. This crux alone is what divides human beings into two kinds: the “wheat” and the “chaff.” No matter how intelligent, how talented, how gifted, how brilliant a human being may be, if he does not change his appreciation of himself, there will be no hope for real inner development, for a work toward honest self-knowledge, for an awakening. He will remain such as he is now for his entire life.
The first requirement, the first condition, the first test for one who genuinely wishes to work on oneself is to change his appreciation of himself. And he must not do this theoretically—he must not imagine, not simply believe or think; rather he must do this in actuality: he must see things in himself which he has never seen before—which he has never had the nerve or courage to see before. And he must see them fully. A person’s appreciation of himself will never change as long as he or she sees nothing new and untoward in himself.
Today we have nothing but the illusion of what we are. We do not respect ourselves. In order to respect myself, I have to recognize a part in myself which is above the other parts. And my attitude toward this part should bear witness to the respect that I have for it. But so long as I treat all parts of myself equally, I think too highly of myself and I do not respect myself, and my relations with others will be governed by the same caprice and lack of respect.
In order to see oneself, one must first learn to see. This is the first initiation into genuine self-knowledge. In order to see ourselves realistically, we must see all the ways in which we habitually over-estimate and over-appreciate ourselves. But you will see that to do this is not easy. It is not cheap. You must pay dearly for this. For bad payers, lazy people, parasites, there is no hope. You must pay, pay a lot, pay immediately, and pay in advance. You must pay with yourself; you must pay with sincere, honest, conscientious, disinterested efforts. And the more you are willing and prepared to pay without economizing, without cutting corners, without cheating, without falsifications, the more you will receive. Because from that moment on you will become acquainted with your nature. You will begin seeing all of the tricks, all the dishonesties that your nature resorts to in order to avoid paying with real cash, real effort, real expenditure, real sacrifice, real cost to oneself. Because up till now, you like to cheat, you like to cut corners; you like to try and pay with your readymade theories, your convenient beliefs, your prejudices and conventions, your “I like” and “I don’t like”; you like to bargain, pretend, offer counterfeit money.
Objective thought is a look from Above. A look that is free, that can see. Without this look upon me, seeing me, my life is the life of a blind person who goes her own way, driven by impulse, not knowing either why or how. Without this look upon me, I cannot know that I exist.
I have within me the power to rise above myself and to see myself freely—and to be seen. My thinking has the power to be free.
But for this to take place, my thinking must rid itself of all of the garbage that holds it captive, passive, unfree. My thinking must free itself from the constant pull of emotions. My thinking must feel its own power to resist this pull—its objective capacity to separate itself and watch over this pull while gradually rising above it. For it is in this moment that thought first becomes active. It becomes active while purifying itself.
If we cannot do this—if we refuse to do this—our thoughts are just illusions, something that further enslaves us, that we use to numb and avoid ourselves, a snare in which real thought loses its power of objectivity and intentional action. Confused by words, images, half-truths, fantasies, falsehoods, it loses the capacity to see. It loses the sense of “I”. Then nothing remains but an organism adrift, a body deprived of intelligence and seduced by any- and everything, and wholly at the mercy of “I like” and “I don’t like.” Without this inner look, without this inner seeing, I can only fall back into automatism, and live under the law of accident and nature.
And so my struggle is a struggle against the passivity of ordinary thinking, being seduced and led astray and obliterated by it. Without struggling against ordinary thought, a greater consciousness will not be born. At the heart of this struggle—to create order out of chaos—a hierarchy is revealed—two levels, two worlds. As long as there is only one level, one world, there can be no vision. Recognition of another and higher level is the awakening of thought.
Without this effort, without this struggle, thought falls back into a sleep filled with seductive and consoling words, images, preconceived notions, approximate knowledge, dreams, fantasies, and perpetual drifting. This is the thought of a person without any real intelligence. It is a terrible thing to realize that one has been living for years without any intelligence, without a level of thinking that sees what is real, with thinking that is without any relation to the real world. It is a terrible waste to think this way.
But without realizing this—without realizing that perhaps one has been thinking for years without intelligence—there is no hope for awakening.
Try just for a moment to accept the idea that you are not what you believe yourself to be, that you overestimate yourself, in fact that you lie to yourself. That you always lie to yourself every moment, all day, all your life. And that this lying rules you to such an extent that you cannot control it any more. You are the prey of lying. You lie, everywhere. Your relations with others—lies. The upbringing you give, the conventions—lies. Your teaching—lies. Your theories and art—lies. Your social life, your family life—lies. And what you think of yourself—lies also.
But you never stop yourself in what you are doing or in what you are saying because you believe in yourself. You never doubt or suspect yourself. You must stop inwardly and observe. Observe without preconceptions, accepting for a time this idea of lying. And if you observe in this way, paying with yourself, without self-pity, giving up all your supposed riches for a moment of reality, perhaps you will suddenly see something you have never before seen in yourself until this day. You will see that you are different from what you think you are. You will see that you are two. One who is not, but takes the place and plays the role of the other. And one who is, yet so weak, so insubstantial, that he no sooner appears than he immediately disappears. He cannot endure lies. The least lie makes him faint away. He does not struggle, he does not resist, he is defeated in advance. Learn to look until you have seen the difference between your two natures, until you have seen the lies, the deception in yourself. When you have seen your two natures, that day, in yourself, the truth will be born. You will finally be born.
– Jeanne de Salzmann, abridged and adapted and at points modified from “Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teachings,” pp. 2-6.
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)
Reflections on Courage and Truth: Are you mentally healthy or one sick little puppy?
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all . . . ”
(Compare the following excerpt with Pascal’s thoughts on “Flattery, Truth, and the Ego.” This is how most of us develop and maintain our sense of self and borrow our emotional pseudo-stability. And it’s really quite sad. Because if we stopped to look at what we’re doing to ourselves and if we really thought about it, is this really what we would want for ourselves? Or for our children?—is this what we would want to raise them to do and how to be?)
“Most people must look at themselves only from a distance—and only through the false and distorted reflection of others—in order to find themselves at all tolerable or attractive to behold. Self-knowledge is strictly off limits for them. Thus people such as these (which is to say the vast majority of us) are very well defended against their own spying and sieges, against their own attempts at self-knowledge. Their self-attempts at self-knowledge are futile—they are rarely able to make out any more of themselves than their outer fortifications. The actual stronghold is inaccessible to them, even invisible—unless—unless friends and enemies turn traitor and lead them there.”
– Nietzsche, from “Human All Too Human” # 49, and “The Gay Science,” # 15
– – – – – – – – – – –
“Metal health will drive you crazy, metal health will cure you sane” (or something like that)
(From “The Road Less Traveled,” by M. Scott Peck, pp. 50-63.)
Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.
What does a life of total dedication to truth (reality) mean?
First of all, it means a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination.
We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world, we most not only examine it, but we must simultaneously examine the examiner.
Examination of the world without is never as personally painful and unsettling as examination of the world within, and it is because of the pain involved in a life of genuine self-examination that the vast majority of people steer away from it, distracting and anesthetizing themselves to it through various means (drinking, shopping, television, movies, bar-hopping, superficial relationships and interactions, “having a good time,” dissipating ourselves in thousands of ways).
Yet when one is dedicated to the truth the pain inherent in it seems relatively unimportant—and less and less important (and therefore less and less painful)—the farther one proceeds down the path of self-examination.
Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. To overcome this pain we must be totally dedicated to truth. That is to say, we must always hold truth, as best as we can determine it, to be more important, more vital to our self-interest, than our own comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth.
Thus a life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of total honesty. It means a continuous and never-ending process of self-monitoring to assure that our words and deeds match and that our communications invariably reflect as accurately as possible the truth or reality as we know it.
Such honesty does not come easily or painlessly. The reason people lie or shade the truth is to avoid the pain of challenge and it consequences.
Insofar as the nature of a challenge is legitimate—and it usually is much more often than not—lying is an attempt to circumvent legitimate suffering and hence is productive of mental illness.
Most people are resistant to challenge. They talk volubly enough about this or that, but they leave out crucial details. They are wasting time in their effort to avoid challenge, and usually they are indulging in a subtle form of lying.
Thus a life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged.
The only way to revise our understanding of reality is to expose our map 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 our own fetid air, and more and more subject to delusions.
Yet because of the pain inherent in the process of revising our map of reality, we almost always seek reflexively to avoid or ward off any challenges to its validity.
Leading a life of total dedication to truth and of openness to challenge may seem like a never-ending burden, an extraordinary task, a “real drag.” And indeed it is difficult; it is a never-ending burden of self-discipline and calling ourselves out on our self-deceptive and avoidant tendencies. Which is why most people opt for a life of very limited openness and honesty and relative closedness and self-deceit, hiding themselves and their maps from the world and others.*
It’s easier that way.
Yet the rewards of the difficult life of honesty and dedication to the truth are more than commensurate with the demands. By virtue of the fact that their maps are continually being challenged, open people are continually growing people and strengthening as human beings. Through their courage and openness, they can establish and maintain intimate relationships far more effectively and more deeply than closed people can. And because they are dedicated to being impeccable with their word and not speaking falsely, they know that they have done nothing to contribute to the confusion and darkness in the world. They don’t have to slink around in the shadows, construct new lies to hide and maintain old ones, and waste time and effort covering their tracks and maintaining their disguises (their false selves).
Ultimately open and growing people find that the energy required for the self-discipline of honesty and dedication to truth is far less than the energy required for secretiveness, deception and avoidance. The more honest and transparent one is, the easier it is to continue being honest and transparent, just as the more lies one has told, the more necessary it is to lie again and more frequently.
By their openness, people dedicated to truth live in the open, and through the exercise of their courage to live in the open, they become more and more free from fear.
The healing of the spirit has not been completed until openness to challenge and a fierce dedication to truth become a way of life.
(*Peck is talking about the “emotional cutoff” here. He is talking about the tendency that the vast majority of us have to act out on what’s worst and weakest in ourselves and to emotionally cut off or banish those who do not flatter us and who do not reflect back to us ourselves in a way we wish to be seen. Those around us who see us too accurately, or whose gaze is too perceptive and unsettling, so much so that it makes us uncomfortable, we avoid them, emotionally cut them off and cut them out of our life, banish and excise them. We’d rather live in a hall of mirrors life in a funhouse, being surrounded by those who are so weak and unloving and who care so little about us that they reflect back to us our distorted and malignant sense of self while we provide the same disservice to them. [a mutual admiration and distortion society].).
– – – – – – – – – – – –
Rilke on “Acting Just Once with Beauty & Courage” (from “Letters to a Young Poet”; letter no. eight)
We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it.
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.
If we imagine the being of our person as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. And in this way they have a certain security. Yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells? We, however, are not prisoners.
If our world has terrors, they are likely our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. 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.
And this fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the reality of the individual; it has also narrowed the relationship between one human being and another, which has, as it were, been lifted out of the riverbed of infinite possibilities and set down in a fallow place on the bank where nothing new can occur. For it is not inertia and indolence alone that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new and inconceivable experience with which we feel ourselves ill-equipped to cope. But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another human being as something alive and will himself sound and draw on the depths of his own being.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
“Get busy living or get busy dying,” or “If you’re not growing, you’re dying . . . “
(From “The Way of Transformation,” by Karlfried Graf Durchheim, pp. 107-108.)
[T]he aim of a genuine spiritual practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a person to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, a person’s spiritual practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken and battered—that is to say, it should enable him to dare to let his futile hankering after harmony, surcease from pain, and a comfortable life go in order that he may discover, in doing battle with the forces that oppose him, that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites.
The first necessity is that we should have the courage to face life in all its intensity, and to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.
When this is possible, meditation itself becomes the means by which we accept and welcome the fears and anxieties and demons which arise from the unconscious—a process very different from the practice of concentration on some object as a protection against such forces.
Only if we venture repeatedly through zones of discomfort and annihilation can our contact with what is Divine, and with what is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable. The more we learn wholeheartedly to confront the world and a patterned way of living and reacting that threatens us each with isolation, the more the depths of our own being will be revealed and the more the possibilities of new life and inner transformation will be opened to us.
“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.
From the “Pensées,” pp. 348-350, Penguin edition.—
It is no doubt an evil to be full of faults, but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and unwilling to recognize them, since this entails the further evil of deliberate self-delusion.
We do not want others to deceive us; we do not think it right for them to want us to esteem them more than they deserve; we do not think it is right either that we should deceive them and want them to esteem us more than we deserve.
Thus when [others] merely reveal vices and imperfections which we actually possess, it is obvious that they do us no wrong, since they are not responsible for them, but are really doing us good, by helping us to escape from an evil, namely our ignorance of these imperfections. We ought not to be annoyed that they know them and despise us, because it is right that they should know us for what we are and despise us if we are despicable.
These are the feelings which would spring from a heart full of equity and justice.
What then should we say of ours, seeing it quite differently disposed? For is it not true that we hate the truth and those who tell it to us, and we like them to be deceived to our advantage, and want to be esteemed by them as other than we actually are? . . .
This aversion for truth exists in differing degrees, but it may be said that it exists in everyone to some degree, because it is inseparable from (unhealthy or immature) self-love (narcissism). It is this false delicacy which makes those who have to correct others choose so many devious ways and qualifications to avoid giving offense. They must minimize our faults, pretend to excuse them, and combine this with praise and marks of affection and esteem. Even then such medicine still tastes bitter to self-love, which takes as little of it as possible, always with disgust and often with secret resentment against those administering it.
The result is that anyone who has an interest in winning our affection tends to avoid rendering us a service which he knows to be unwelcome; we are treated as we want to be treated—we hate the truth and so it is kept from us, we desire to be flattered and so we are flattered, we like being deceived and so we are deceived.
This is why each rung of fortune’s ladder which leads us up in the world takes us further from the truth, because people are more wary of offending those whose friendship is most useful and whose enmity is most dangerous. . . . [T]elling the truth is useful to the hearer but harmful to those who tell it. . . .
[The ego] conceives a deadly hatred for the truth which rebukes it and which convinces it of its faults. It would like to do away with this truth, and not being able to destroy it as such, it destroys it, as best it can, in the consciousness of itself and others; that is, it takes every care to hide its faults both from itself and others, and cannot bear to have them pointed out or noticed.
[Thus] human life is nothing but a perpetual illusion; there is nothing but mutual deception and flattery. No one talks about us in our presence as he would in our absence. Human relations are only based on this mutual deception. Few friendships would survive if everyone knew what his friend said about him behind his back, even though he spoke sincerely and dispassionately.
Man is therefore nothing but disguise, falsehood and hypocrisy, both in himself and with regard to others. He does not want to be told the truth. He avoids telling it to others, and all these tendencies, so remote from justice and reason, are naturally rooted in his heart.