(c) Andrew Safer 2015
You have a chat with your manager and let your guard down. On your way home, a familiar voice pipes up: “I probably shouldn’t have said that. Now he’s going to think I’m disloyal / stupid / not qualified / soft.” But the commentator in your head doesn’t stop there. “Why do you always put your foot in your mouth? You really blew it this time!” Blah, blah, blah.
All this inner commentator needs to get started is a scrap of raw material from your life, and, fueled by even a little bit of insecurity, fear, paranoia, shame, inadequacy, etc., he/she continues to hold forth authoritatively, like a guest lecturer.
In mindfulness meditation, we are training in cultivating a non-judgmental attitude towards whatever comes up in our minds—and there is certainly no shortage of opportunities! We’re right here in this room one moment, and presto! Gone the next: planning the next step in the project we’re working on, wondering why our friend didn’t reply to our e-mail, complaining about the pain in our back. Once we notice we’ve hitched a ride on the train of our last thought, we simply come back to the breath.
When we have a busy mind during meditation—we can’t seem to settle at all—we might find our inner judge, jury, and executioner berating us for not being present. But the good news is, this habitual rap on the knuckles affords us an opportunity to be mindful. In an instant, we can become aware of this voice that usually flies beneath our radar. When we kick ourselves for having gone AWOL, and then become aware of it, the seeming non-event of noticing is the jewel of mindfulness.
When we notice the beating-myself-up thought pattern among the stream of stuff that runs through our heads, and see it simply as “thinking”, this viewpoint radically changes the dynamic. Our inner critic can’t control us in quite the same way; its authority is weakened. The fact that our inner expert’s latest pronouncement is just a thought (not a fact) begins to sink in. The emperor has no clothes! Practice shows us that this animated mouthpiece-with-attitude, that has plagued us for so long, comes into existence at particular times. We provide life support for him/her, and then when we move on to something else, our visitor unobtrusively crawls back into the woodwork. The awareness of seeing what goes on in our minds gives us the opportunity to make a mindful choice. Instead of automatically feeding the inner critic with our attention, we can either return to our breath and the here and now, or we can go along with our habitual pattern and buy into the message. “You’re a loser, an idiot, ugly…” We then follow the developing story line like a dog going after a bone, giving it further fuel, which provides the encouragement the inner critic needs to stick around and pontificate some more.
Mindfulness practice enables us to recognize and meet him/her respectfully with a cocktail of acknowledgment, openness, and non-engagement, and then come back to the breath—posture–reality-—present moment. Through this process, we are making friends with ourselves by (1) becoming familiar with the visitors who take up temporary residence in our heads; (2) letting them be as they are, without judging them as “bad” or trying to get rid of them; (3) neither exalting nor diminishing them; (4) seeing that there is a sense of space that is always here, along with the visitor, and (5) over and over again, returning to the world that exists beyond our thoughts, beliefs, and interior monologues. By acknowledging and extending hospitality to our inner critic without buying in to his/her story line, we begin to see what it’s like to treat ourselves—including the parts we “don’t like”—gently, and with kindness.