On Thursday October 10th 2019 I'll be giving an hour-long introduction to mindfulness for psychological health and well-being. This is a donation-based charity event in support of the Samaritans - please come along!
Sometimes in meditation we come into contact with critical aspects of ourselves - facets of our mind which have strong opinions about what we should be doing, how well we're doing those things, and so on. Some of these 'voices', as we'll call them, can be highly critical. This is actually so common in modern society that there's a name for this phenomenon: the 'inner critic'.
When we encounter a harsh inner critic, the temptation is either to believe the negative messages it's telling us, or to turn away and refuse to listen to it at all. However, there's a third option, based in mindfulness: turning toward the voice non-judgementally, and actually seeing what it has to say - getting to know it better, if you like.
It often helps to give the voice a name. You might find it helpful to pick a light-hearted name, because it helps to take what the voice is saying less seriously - 'Oh look, Mr Grumpy is grumbling about something again.' For me, I've identified a few different voices within myself which want slightly different things, so I've given them names accordingly - for example, part of me really wants everything to be perfect all the time, as if I'm going to be 'inspected' at any moment. This reminds me a lot of being an army cadet on camp when you literally could be inspected at any moment, so I call that voice 'Drill Sergeant'.
Having identified and named the voice, the next stage is to get to know it. This might seem daunting, and it's definitely worth proceeding slowly and carefully. If it ever gets too difficult, come completely out of the practice and do something else for a while - go for a walk, watch a funny cat video on YouTube, whatever it takes to blow out the cobwebs.
But a key point to understand is that, once upon a time, these voices were probably just trying to help. Maybe something happened that upset you, and so part of you made a mental note and said 'Right, let's never do that again.' But then it happened again anyway, maybe a few times - and this part of you that was trying to protect you started shouting louder and louder, trying to make itself heard, trying to keep you safe. Unfortunately, over time this became more and more severe, and has now become completely twisted, so we end up with these internal voices criticising our every move and constantly yelling at us, and it can be very difficult to detect any hint of kindness or good intention in what's being said.
So the idea with identifying, naming and then getting to know these critical inner voices is so that they can actually be heard. The inner critic is often so harsh because it's been ignored or avoided for so long. Turning toward it, really listening not just to what it's saying but actually asking it why it's saying those things, can begin to transform your relationship to it. Over time we can actually befriend these parts of ourselves, and the harsh, stinging nature of the criticism will gradually lessen.
It's really important to say that I'm not a trained therapist/counsellor or a medical professional, and severe situations might well need the support of a trained professional. On the other hand, these techniques have been used by many meditators successfully for a long time, so it's certainly worth giving them a shot to see what happens - you might just discover a kinder relationship to yourself, and find some relief from that inner critic. Just remember, as ever, to proceed slowly and gently, and stop at once if it gets too overwhelming.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!