Become Aware Of Your Inner Emotions: The Art Of Self-Control
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor
It is difficult for any of us to pick up a book these days on Buddhism and not be confronted with phrases like: develop self-awareness, sit in awareness, the aware body-mind, clear your mind, no-attachments to thoughts, and other catchy words that are meant to focus our attention to the state of our thoughts at the moment. We sit to become aware of our thoughts and how to quiet the chattering-mind in order to awaken to the wider meaning of this life of ours. This is the primary activity of a young meditation practice in fact. Because without learning to quite our mind, the ability to move to deeper stages of meditation states of awareness is impossible. We are ask to confront the inner obstacles that promote unproductive thoughts and addictions we often become attached to, and sometimes even transforming them into self-serving monologues or actions. It is interesting how the ego-mind takes this ability to an art-form as a way to entertain it’s self, especially when it thinks we are not paying attention.
One such mind-driven addictive scenario is the critical commentary we replay that has the potential to stifle useful and positive change. We can become our worst critic. This self-induced “voice of doom” we call the “inner critic”, and it is ready to be active in all of us. If left unrecognized and unchecked, it creates a pattern of negative inner comments that can undermine our well-being and destroy our creativity, attacking our work when we have written just a few sentences, played just a few notes, or painted only a few strokes. Even worse, it can destroy our spiritual practice.
This inner critic criticizes what ever is in front of it. For example, if you do not go to a meditation retreat, it says, “You are not very serious about your practice.” If you do go to the retreat it says, “You wasted so much time daydreaming during that retreat, you should have stayed home.” A hallmark of the inner critic, you see, is that it often puts us in a double bind, damned if we practice, and damned if we don’t.
So, how can we work with our inner critic to tone it down to a useful whisper? I say useful, because critical analysis of our role in events, or our behavior, can promote understanding, achieve wisdom, and produce positive change. We can come to see the inner critic as a single voice among many, but one that is not always right or even truthful. You might even give it a name that can act as the lesson that you are NOT your critic. You can say, “OH, hi there Mr. Negativity. What are you so worked up about now?”
For the inner critic does get worked up. It emerges in childhood, trying to keep us from getting into trouble. It reviews our mistakes endlessly, in an attempt to prevent future errors or failures. It believes that the best way to ensure our happiness is to berate us about our shortcomings. It does not realize that it is also stealing our innate capacity for happiness as we mature into adulthood. As we grow older, it can infiltrate our thoughts so thoroughly that we don’t realize that we have fallen into a pervasively negative pattern of thinking about ourselves. But what is worse, it projects onto others the same critical feelings. In it’s most negative form it begins to convey the notion that we are defective or broken in some way. In adulthood the overactive inner critic becomes an immature childish response to life situations that we have not outgrown.
Think of it this way – you would never rent and watch the same painfully bad movie two hundred times. And yet that is what we allow our mind to play; painful episodes from the past over and over again. “Remember when you made that stupid mistake? Let’s run that mind movie again, and again, and again.” We need to tell the inner critic that we are not stupid. We only need to review our past mistakes once or twice, then move on with determination to change. We adapt, not adopt.
It helps to get some perspective on the damage a strong inner critic can do. Imagine for example that we are in a store and we observe a mother scream at her 4 year old son saying something that your inner critic says to you, “You’re an idiot! I’ve told you a million times not to do that. You are hopeless!” We would all recognize that these kinds of statements can be harmful, or even abusive. No one, a child, even a pet, can thrive under that pattern of negative attack. And yet we allow our inner critic to attack us in this way, repeatedly. Now I admit that hopefully most of us have more mild critics then this, but I know for a fact that many of us struggle everyday with abusive self criticism.
The Buddha was quite clear about not giving energy to negative thoughts. He divided all his thoughts into two classes, those that led to awakening and those that led away. He cultivated the former and put aside the latter. If you recognize the inner critic and stop feeding it mental energy, its power will weaken. This is another reality of why we develop a strong meditation practice. How can we cultivate a voice to subdue the inner critic? Through a compassionate and wise practice. We can meditate as the Buddha did, full of compassion for living beings — including ourselves. We can breathe out this silent phrases, “May I be free from anxiety and fear. May I be at ease.” (Try it now) We can even direct these phrases toward the inner critic, because this is the very part of us that is chronically anxious and fearful. It is desperately afraid that we will make a mistake, lose our job, be unloved, become sick, grow old, become ill and die — which of course, eventually, we will. If we do this often enough it becomes an addiction. We need to see the inner critic as an unwanted guest in our lives when it refuses to go home.
It is true that there is a kernel of truth in what the inner critic says. When we can hear what the critic says and take away the stinging words, the negative comparisons of self and other, then it is transformed into the voice of discrimination, wisdom, and determination. Ultimately, the only sure cure for the inner critic is to practice. The critic relies upon an idea of a permanent self that must be fixed. It feeds on comparing, on thoughts of past and future, of mistakes and anxieties. The inner critic has no traction in the present moment. It lives in the past, and is fearful of the future. When our mind becomes quiet, when we stay in the moment, there is no past or future, there is no comparing. When our meditation practice becomes mature it expands to become a huge field of calm awareness in which sensations, thoughts, and the sounds around us come and go. Everything is just as it is, fits in their own place, interconnected with every other piece of the whole. The Universe expressing it’s self just as it is. Nothing is broken.
This self-critical nature of ours is natural when it is processed as productive in bringing positive change to the way we engage the world around us. It is a kind of mind-tool in a way. But it can also become another addictive behavior when allowed to run-a-muck and rule our lives. We must learn to identify the triggers for our addictions, such as being over critical of self or others, which are things or thoughts that set off an automatic reaction in such a way that we find ourselves in our addictive pattern without knowing how we got there.
The triggers might be external, or internal, or both. An external event such as a song, or a personal item around the house, can set off an internal trigger such as loneliness. We may not be aware of hearing the song even, just that the feeling of loneliness has welled up again and we want to escape from it. We may not be aware of the loneliness, just the thought of wanting to fix some dissatisfaction. We may not be aware of the dissatisfaction, just of taking or doing whatever will ease it. So this is how one addiction can lead to other addictions in an endless circle of unsatisfactoriness. We may not even be aware that we are bringing this on ourselves and suddenly realize we are back in the grip of addiction. We may think, “Why is this happening to me, it is not my fault?”
If we can identify the trigger, we can disarm its effect and no longer be caught in that particular compulsion. To find out what triggers our addiction, we need to sit and contemplate the causal-chain of events or a situation. As we identify the immediate triggers, we often find other, more subtle ones. Sometimes when people discover another trigger, they feel that what they did before was wrong or a waste of time. Do not get caught in that trap. Any addiction usually has more than one trigger.
We can bring the power of our meditation practice to bare when we learn a few creative and effective techniques. One we will call “Meditation for finding triggers”. This technique focuses on what happened just before you indulged in your addiction so that you can identify the immediate trigger. Begin by thinking about how your addiction has harmed you or others, and how you would like to stop creating harm in this way. You are developing intent here. Generate the motivation to first clear obstacles from your mind that stop you from thinking clearly and then to fill your mind with compassion and wisdom. Lower your anxiety level. Tune in to your body-mind energy that is always at our disposal and think about how you are being nurtured by this energy. Slow your thinking down by being aware of your breathing for a few minutes. Now bring to mind a recent time when you indulged in your addiction and focus on the moment when you started. Go back a fraction of time to when you were just about to engage in your addiction. Meditate on that moment. If you are under the influence of intoxicants this technique must wait until you have recovered a more normal state of clarity.
If you have identified an external trigger, try to build up a vivid awareness of your surroundings at that time. Imagine this past event as a present experience. Where are you? Are there people around or are you alone? What can you see? What smells are there? What taste is in your mouth and what sounds can you hear? Is your body aching, or numb? Are you comfortable or uncomfortable? Any of these things might be an external trigger. View the trigger with equanimity. Stay with your awareness of this for as long as you can.
If you have identified an internal trigger, continue by building up a vivid awareness of what was happening in your mind at that time. Did you have any pain? Were you winding down from a stressful event? Had someone disappointed you or had you disappointed yourself? Was there someone or some people you were trying to impress? Did you feel cheated by life? Were you unable to cope?
Any of these might be internal triggers. View them with equanimity. Stay with your awareness of that moment as long and as vividly as you can. Know clearly those aspects of the moment that were triggers setting you off into the addiction. Acknowledge to yourself that this is your reality, and addiction is, or has been, the way in which you cope with your reality.
Now move to close the meditation session by allowing yourself to abide in the energy you have created that will generate feelings of compassion and wisdom. Imagine this energy being absorbed into your body-mind and healing all hurt and pain and sickness. Allow your body to feel relaxed, and at ease. Imagine this energy of compassion being absorbed into every part of your being, healing all negative emotions and leaving your mind peaceful and calm. Rest in that state as long as you can.
Take pleasure in what you have achieved in this meditation, even if parts of what you remembered were painful. Make a conscious choice to use the energy that comes from this pleasure to continue making positive changes to your life and worldview. Keep a journal of your sessions in detail so you will begin to build up a case for change. Dedicate your meditation session to your wellbeing, and to the possibilities and potential for change. It is really up to you to bring this about. Remember, out of every adversity is an equal or greater opportunity.
This meditation needs to be repeated often if you want to get a better feeling for the addictive triggers. As you become more aware of the moments before you fall into your addictive pattern, you can more easily change the pattern. As you repeat the meditation, take it back to just before the moment that preceded the addictive behavior, then a fraction earlier than that, then a fraction earlier still, and so on. As you do this, you gain more power to protect yourself from the compulsiveness of addictive patterns, and open yourself up for positive change.
All of us in some ways are stuck in a web of condition and circumstance, and we must come to terms with those conditions and shape our lives within narrower limits than we would choose if the world was perfect. But none of us live on a deserted island. Whatever our condition, though, we have the power to make ours a life of worth and dignity. If we wish to live healthy and happy lives, we must have courage: courage to see things as they truly are, courage to see the likely consequences of our action and inaction, and courage to do what needs to be done to develop a strong and useful body-mind free of mental defilements. We have an obligation to all sentient beings. As Buddhist’s we are called to extend an altruistic hand that embraces everyone with equanimity when we awaken to our social obligations. Our Buddhist practice is enriched when our psychophysical state of being is purged of the negative and clothed in the positive.