I have heard from a few mindfulness teachers the story about the Buddha and Mara. (Click here for Tara Brach’s beautifully written post). Mara, for us laypeople, is the metaphor for our inner critic or that negative voice that tries to persuade us from friendly and kind awareness. He came to tempt the Buddha, but was unsuccessful. Supposedly the Buddha resisted temptation not by ignoring Mara, not by denying Mara’s existence, and not by pushing Mara away. Instead, the Buddha recognized Mara’s existence and he awoke the next day fully enlightened. Subsequently, each time Mara came to visit the Buddha, he would offer Mara a cushion and pour him some tea.
I enjoy hearing this story because it illustrates a key component of mindfulness practice: to recognize without judgement or attachment. It is in this recognition without judgement that the strength of negative thinking losses its power. Another insight from this story is that even though the Buddha attained enlightenment, Mara still visited him. In other words, our inner critic or negative thoughts will still arise as this is a part of our humanness; yet, each time we recognize without judgement or attachment, the critic becomes weaker.
Just this morning I read a brief teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh entitled Sit with Your Fear (305) from his book Your True Home. He writes, “Sitting with your fear, instead of trying to push it away or bury it, can transform it…You don’t have to try and convince yourself not to be afraid. You don’t have to try to fight or overcome your fear. Over time you’ll find that when your fear comes up again, it will be a little bit weaker.” Over these past couple of years practicing mindfulness, I have found this insight to be true. So how does one sit with their inner critic?
Sharon Salzberg tells a great story of how she came to name her inner critic “Lucy” after the Peanuts character. In her book Real Love, she suggests giving your inner critic a persona (pp. 60-62). This way, like the Buddha, we can invite our inner critic for tea. It’s a simple tool to helping us acknowledge the negative voice with a loving and kind awareness. We can better see our critic for what she is, just a thought; and, ask her to be on her way. Eventually, she will visit less or not be so brash.
My inner critic persona is Ms. Perfect. Ms. Perfect is shrouded in fear and doubt. She is cruel and reminds me of my unworthiness. I remember when I was very young and Ms. Perfect started to visit me. As I grew older, her voice became so loud that I took it as my own. This led to many years of self-destructive thinking and behavior. At a certain point, I tried to break free by silencing or rejecting her only to end up in a constant wrestling match. She exhausted me; hence, I turned to mindfulness and meditation to help me eradicate her. But as the teachings of Brach, Hanh, and Salzberg imply, aiming to eradicate our inner critic undermines our mindfulness practice. In fact, focusing on eradication plays directly into the critic’s powerful seduction of attachment and grasping. It is when we practice acknowledging this critic with compassion that we free ourselves from our attachment to it. We are not our critic and do not have to be imprisoned by it.
Now that I have become more aware of the mind-body connection through meditation, I can sense Ms. Perfect’s presence. As I experience her presence physically, I employ a lot of self-compassion so that I may be able to say, “I see you, Ms. Perfect.” Some days I try to sit with her and drink tea, and other days I tell her to be on her way. While sitting with her can be unpleasant and sometimes painful, I recognize that it is necessary to further my awareness and deepen my compassion. May this practice serve awakening.