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Book Review: Spiritual Bypassing, by Robert Augustus Masters

You may recall I wrote a while back about my recurring “critic fantasy,” which involved a man getting up while I was giving a talk, and yelling that my book had nothing to offer.

Well, last week, a man actually did approach me after a speaking engagement and tell me my work had nothing to offer!  Oops — perhaps I attracted this situation by “putting it out to the universe” on my blog!  (More on the law of attraction in a moment.)

I didn’t find myself freaked out by the odd synchronicity, although I did feel a mild irritation at being misunderstood.  This was because the man’s rant didn’t seem to deal with what I actually said, but instead with his preconceived notions of what people who talk about “spiritual” stuff say.

Roughly, his complaints went like “all this stuff about ‘making yourself happy’ and ‘creating a Rolls-Royce by thinking about it’ and so on is garbage.”  However, I didn’t talk about either of those.  First of all, I only teach about manifesting Lamborghinis — if you want a Rolls, you need a different guru.

No “Magical Manifesting Mastery” Here

Just kidding — I don’t talk about “manifesting” anything.  In fact, I later realized I was, in a (limited) way, thankful to the man for helping me clarify what my work is really about.  The work I do is about relating to the thoughts and sensations that are already there in our experience, not attracting or creating something to take their place.

One of my biggest inspirations in following this path has been the work of psychotherapist Robert Augustus Masters.  Some might say this inspiration borders on obsession — I even flew from California to Boulder, CO to take Robert’s workshop.  Robert, if you’re reading this, don’t worry — I don’t have your home address.

But here I am joking around, when I’m actually here to review Robert’s latest book, Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters (not an affiliate link).

What Is Spiritual Bypassing?

Spiritual bypassing, to Masters, means “the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.”  Basically, when we learn that getting the “right” job, relationship, car, or something else isn’t going to heal our pain, we turn to spiritual practices, hoping they’ll quell our “bad feelings” at last.

Often, unfortunately, we don’t find the relief we’re looking for.  For example, some people (as I used to do) think meditation is supposed to involve feeling peaceful and perhaps even blissful.

But if they get deeply into it, they discover that it isn’t like that at all — in fact, when we switch off all the noise we’re usually surrounded by, and sit quietly, the pain we’ve been shutting out often comes through loud and clear. And that’s when we start griping that meditation “doesn’t work.”

Spiritual Sedation

On the other hand, some of us do find tranquility in meditation and similar practices, but then we start using those practices to shut out emotions and sensations we don’t want to be with – as Masters puts it, to “find a safety from the more brutal dimensions of life that we crave.”  If we feel angry, for instance, and we see anger as a “negative emotion” we “shouldn’t be having,” perhaps we’ll meditate to numb the feeling.

The trouble is that feeling angry can serve us at times in life.  If we need to protect ourselves against an attacker, or say a firm “no” to someone who’s demanding a lot of our time and energy, anger can fuel us to take decisive, effective action.  Thus, sedating our anger and other “bad feelings” with spirituality (or anything else) can be harmful.

What’s Spirituality Good For?

This isn’t to say that spiritual practice has no benefits.  In fact, says Masters, spiritual practice can serve us by helping us get more comfortable and familiar with our pain, rather than running from it.  “Contrary to what we tend to believe,” he writes, “the more intimate we are with our pain, the less we suffer.”

This kind of statement was hard for me to believe before I experienced the truth of it myself.  Like many people, when I began meditating, I felt really bored, and when the boredom got intense enough I’d simply stop.  Eventually, inspired by teachers like Robert, I focused my attention on the boredom and just allowed it to arise.

As I did this, the boredom became easier and easier to be with — and, as I often describe, this had practical benefits in my life, such as helping me focus on a project I was doing for a long period of time even if I felt bored.

And on that note, look at the word count!  Looks like I’d best put the rest of my review of this important book into a second post.  Stay tuned!

Do you ever notice yourself doing “spiritual bypassing”?  What feelings do you use spiritual practice to get away from?

Creativity And Boundary-Setting

If someone told you that a piece you wrote is garbage and you’re a moron for writing it, could you object to their behavior?

When I work with people who are having trouble starting a project, this is often an area where they feel blocked.  They don’t trust their ability to protect themselves against mistreatment.  They feel reluctant to “put their work out there” because they don’t think they can handle the criticism that might come their way.

It’s also unsurprising that these people suffer greatly at the hands (or maybe “claws” is the better word) of their inner critic.  Because they don’t feel capable of standing up to the critic, and they know how viciously the critic will savage their work, they understandably find it easier not to start projects they’re interested in.

The Power of “No”

Why is it so hard for many people to stand up to abuse, whether from within or from others?  For one thing, I think many of us, growing up, were shamed or punished for saying “no,” or “talking back.”  Many of us came to believe we were not allowed to set boundaries with others, and perhaps that it was “spoiled” and “childish” to do so.

When I work with someone dealing with this issue, one thing we often explore is how it feels for them to say “no.”  I tend to find that, even if the person is alone with me, and there are no judgmental or critical people within earshot, they still feel some shame around doing this.  They don’t look me in the eye as they say it, and their “no” comes out soft and weak.

Often, if they can release their inhibition, and let out a loud, firm “no,” they not only feel empowered — the project they’ve been putting off starts to look less scary and more doable.  Because they know, from firsthand experience, that they can set clear boundaries with others, the prospect of criticism no longer frightens them so much.

I think another benefit of learning to say a powerful “no” — which may seem like a paradox — is that criticism doesn’t make us as angry when we develop this ability.  Work, and life in general, take on more ease when we know we can handle ourselves if we’re attacked — in a way that’s similar, I think, to the quiet self-assurance of a martial arts master.

Priorities Depend On Boundaries

Yet another reason the ability to say “no” is important is that it allows us to set, and enforce, our own priorities.  Often, I’ve noticed, people who are having trouble starting creative projects say they “just can’t find the time.”  However, the reason they “can’t find the time” is usually that they’re afraid to refuse others’ requests.

Whenever someone calls on the phone, for instance, they can’t bring themselves to let the call go to voicemail.  Nor can they be the one to end the conversation.  After all, the other person might feel neglected, and become angry and critical.

When they experiment with declining requests, and get comfortable with the feelings that come up when they do that, the book or business they’ve been “planning” for years ceases to look like such a daunting undertaking.

I’m not saying we should be critical toward others, or take revenge on those who put us down.  As I’ll discuss later, that’s just another way of giving in to the inner critic — by merging with or embodying it.  But I do think learning to say a forceful, unapologetic “no” can bring us a refreshing sense of creative freedom.

Who Is The “I” That Is “Worthless”?

Many of us harbor deep-seated negative ideas about ourselves that nothing we accomplish out in the world seems to shake.  No matter how much money we make or possessions we accumulate, how many degrees we earn, or how ideal our lives look on the outside, we’re plagued by the nagging suspicion that something is wrong with us.  In fact, what we do in the world often feels like an effort to disguise what we really are—“worthless,” “losers,” “disgusting,” and so on—and we worry that some day our true natures will be “exposed” for all to see.

What we don’t usually consider is who we’re talking about when we think something like “I am worthless.”  In other words, what do we really mean by “I”?  I’ve found that regularly asking myself this question has done much to give me a sense of peace and composure, and quiet my negative thinking.

To many people, this will seem like an absurd or meaningless question.  “’I’ obviously means ‘me,’” you may be thinking.  “What’s unclear about that?”  But if you probe a little deeper, I think you’ll see that the answer isn’t quite that obvious.

To illustrate, see if you can physically pinpoint who you’re talking about when you say “I.”  Take your finger and point to what you mean by “I” when you have a thought like “I’m incompetent” or “I’m not good enough.”  The people I’ve done this exercise with tend to point at their chests, or perhaps their heads.  (This is based on an exercise described by spiritual teacher Richard Moss in The Mandala of Being.)

If you, like most people, pointed at part of your body, let’s take a closer look at whether you actually have your body in mind when you say “I.”  Try raising your arm and putting it back down.  Notice that, when you did this, you had the experience of causing your arm to move.  You may even have had a thought like “I am moving my arm.”  You didn’t have the thought “I am moving myself”—in your experience, you were moving something outside of yourself.

In other words, you experienced yourself as the controller of your arm’s movements.  And if you’re in control of your arm, you must be separate from it—just as the driver of a car is in control of the car but separate from it.  You are not your body—you are in control of it, in the driver’s seat.  You can also grasp this point if you imagine how you would think and feel if you lost your arm.  Even if your arm were gone, you would still think of yourself as “I.”  You wouldn’t think of the lost arm as “I.”

But even the idea that you are the “driver” of your body doesn’t completely express the truth.  After all, there are functions of your body, like breathing and circulation, that you don’t have the experience of controlling at all.  So really, you are not in full control of your body—you are something with partial responsibility for your body’s activities, and something else takes care of the rest.

Some people, as I said, point to their heads when doing this exercise, and say that they are their brains, or at least some part of them.  However, this idea doesn’t fit with our experience either.  The brain, as we know, is an incredibly complex organ, with more than 100 billion neurons that constantly interact through the exchange of chemicals called neurotransmitters.  But these things don’t come to mind when we say “I.”  For example, when we say something to ourselves like “I can’t do anything right,” we don’t mean that our neurons or brain chemicals are incompetent.

The truth is that it’s very hard to pinpoint what we mean when we say “I”—most of us, myself included, can’t do it in a satisfying way at all.  At first, this uncertainty about what we really are seems frustrating.  But when we hold our attention on the uncertainty—when we allow the fact that we don’t know what we are to simply be—we start to feel inexplicably calm.  It’s actually comforting, I think you’ll discover, to accept that you don’t know who and what you really are.  Personally, when I allow this uncertainty to be without judging it or forcing it away, I sigh or laugh with relief.

Accepting this uncertainty leads us to peace because it helps us see how ridiculous the things we think about ourselves are.  We have all these negative beliefs like “I’m not smart enough,” “I don’t relate well with people,” and so on, but we don’t even know who we’re talking about when we say “I.”  To really get how meaningless and comical this is, try making up a nonsense word, and then making some negative statements about that word.

For instance, you might try saying something like “Grum is a loser,” or “Grum is worthless.”  This statement is, of course, laughable, because in saying it you’re putting “Grum” down without even knowing what he, she or it is.  And if this statement is absurd, the beliefs “I am worthless,” “I am a loser” and so on are equally so, because you are just as unaware of what “I” really means.  In short, you have no business calling yourself names when you don’t even know who or what you are.

I’ve found that holding my lack of knowledge of who I am in my awareness gives life a sense of freshness and adventure.  The possibilities open to me no longer seem so limited by negative beliefs.  When I keep in mind that I don’t know who I am, those beliefs can have no power over me.  In some ways, it’s as if I’m a child again, full of curiosity and wonder at the world and unrestricted by harmful ideas about what I can’t and shouldn’t do.  As Lao-Tzu wisely put it, “to know that you do not know is best.”

In The Intuitive Way: The Definitive Guide To Increasing Your Awareness, Penney Pierce aptly describes the sense of freedom and awe that comes from being willing to accept how little we know about ourselves and the world:

Truly successful students possess a natural “beginner’s mind” and can temporarily suspend what they know to listen, act, receive, and process new data with childlike innocence and directness. With a beginner’s mind you will not be threatened by not knowing or by having personal experiences that vary from the norm. You’ll feel fresh and sincere. You’ll trust yourself, trust the process of learning, and trust that whatever you need next will be revealed in a way you can understand.

The next time you start beating yourself up, I invite you to see if you can return to this calm, receptive state of “beginner’s mind.”  Simply ask yourself “who is this ‘I’ that I am being negative about?”  Who is the “I” that is supposedly bad, unattractive, unsuccessful, and so on?  Notice, and cherish, the blankness and emptiness that come up in response to this question.  Regularly bringing this question into your awareness can gift you with a deep sense of peace and freedom.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Positive Thinking, located at http://www.widowsquest.com/carnival-of-positive-thinking-62/.)

Entering The “Inner Body” To Quiet Painful Memories

For many years, I was tormented by memories of uncomfortable events from my past.  I’d find myself constantly reliving arguments I had with others, breakups of relationships, disappointments in my career, and so forth.  The painful part of these memories was what I’d feel in my body as I rehashed them in my mind.  I would feel an unpleasant tension and heat in my upper back, right below my shoulder blades.

A disturbing part of my habit of reliving difficult events was the sensation that I was choosing to do it.  I had this feeling in the rare moments when my mind would be completely silent, undisturbed by thought.  When my mind would go quiet like that, I’d be able to tolerate it for a little while, but then I’d start feeling strangely uneasy.  To relieve my unease, I’d start searching my memories for something—anything—to break the silence.  Invariably, it seemed, I came upon memories of unpleasant events and replayed them in my mind, causing more physical discomfort.  It was almost as if I was addicted to mentally hurting myself.

How, I wondered, did I develop this habit?  Why would I want to dig up these unpleasant memories and create tension in my body?  The answer came to me one day when I was meditating.  When I meditate, I breathe without pausing between my inhalations and exhalations.  This approach gives me a warm, peaceful sensation in my abdomen and back.  The experience of feeling my body from the inside—of feeling the “inner body,” as some spiritual teachers call it—helps to calm me and hold my attention in the present moment.  It can also be quite blissful.

I noticed during that meditation that the warm sensation was filling the area right below my shoulder blades—the area that tensed up when I’d mentally rehash a painful memory.  This was interesting, because most of the time I was numb in that area.  It was only while meditating, and beating myself up over the past, that I felt sensation there at all.

Then an intuition hit me.  What if I was reliving painful memories because I wanted to have more feeling in that area of my body?  What if, by replaying difficult events, I was trying to access my “inner body,” and experience the peace and focus I’d felt during meditation?  Maybe I had such a strong, unconscious desire to access that peace, and to feel more of my body, that I was hurting myself to achieve those goals.

I decided to test this theory the next time I found myself replaying uncomfortable events from my past.  When I had one of those moments again, I closed my eyes and fell into my meditative breathing pattern.  After a little while, I connected with my inner body, feeling a warmth radiate out from my abdomen, through my chest, and into my upper back.  As I’d predicted, the difficult memories began to subside until they disappeared from my awareness.  When I accessed my inner body through meditation, I no longer needed to dredge up unpleasant memories to feel myself from within.

This was an exciting realization for me, as I’d wanted freedom from my painful memories for a long time.  I continued to practice entering a meditative state whenever I’d remember difficult events.  Eventually, I became so accustomed to quickly accessing my inner body that I stopped needing meditation to do it.  Whenever the bad memories came up, I could instantly connect with a deep sense of peace, and the memories would dissolve.  This helped me kick my addiction to rehashing the past.

If you’re constantly plagued by uncomfortable memories, I invite you to try a similar exercise.  Notice where you feel the pain or discomfort in your body when you relive the events.  Then, do an exercise or practice that causes you to feel sensation in that area.  As I noted, meditation using the “circular breathing” I talked about earlier—a technique I learned from Michael Brown‘s book The Presence Process—helps me connect with the part of the “inner body” that my difficult memories stimulate.  You might also try physical exercises that cause you to feel more inner sensation.  Qi Gong, which is specifically intended to put you in touch with the inner body, is a particularly good example.

You may observe that, when you take up more practices to feel your inner energy field, the need to dig up unpleasant events begins fading away.  And as you experience the inner body more often, you’ll find that accessing it becomes easier and easier.  You don’t need to rehash painful memories to connect with your inner body—you can do it in far more peaceful and empowering ways.

You’ve Never Been “Good Enough”!

Many of us are in the habit of telling ourselves we’re “not good enough.”  Whether it’s in our careers, our intimate relationships, our appearances, or some other area of our lives, we’re always convinced we don’t measure up to some standard of how we’re supposed to be.  Because it seems we can always find something to criticize about ourselves no matter what we achieve in life, this habit can be hard to break.

I used to say this sort of thing to myself all the time, until I had a realization that transformed my understanding of what being “not good enough” really means.  One day, I was beating myself up for not having published a book yet, telling myself that my work would never be good enough and that no one identified with or understood it.  (This, by the way, is a testament to the fact that you’ll never run out of ideas if you’re determined to beat yourself up.)

For some reason, it occurred to me that I used to torment myself in similar ways many years ago, when I was nine years old.  When I was nine, I entered some sort of essay contest for kids and didn’t win, and I didn’t let myself hear the end of it.  Hey, I noticed—I’m criticizing myself for exactly the same stuff, and in exactly the same ways, that I did when I was nine.

This realization prompted me to wonder:  when and why did it all start?  When was the first time I said “I’m not good enough”?  And what prompted me to do that?  Interestingly, I couldn’t recall a period of my life when I wasn’t under some sort of mental attack.  Beating myself up had been a pretty consistent theme throughout my life.  Maybe I’d never been “good enough” in my own eyes.

But somehow, that didn’t seem to make sense.  I’d always believed the reason I didn’t feel “good enough” was that I’d done something inappropriate or immoral, or failed to do something I should have done.  And this is consistent with the way that, for better or worse, we typically judge ourselves and others.  If we judge someone else as “bad,” it’s normally because they did or failed to do something.  “This politician is bad because he supports policies I don’t like,” we say.  “My ex-boyfriend is bad because he left me.”  And so forth.

If I haven’t been good enough all my life, however, it can’t be because I did or failed to do anything.  When I was two years old, I’d hardly “done” anything at all in the world—and yet, as far as I could remember, I didn’t feel “good enough” even then.  Apparently, I was “bad” before I even had the opportunity to do anything bad.  But believing I was bad before I had a chance to act badly was kind of like calling a tree or a rock bad.  A tree doesn’t “do” anything but grow and absorb nutrients, and a rock simply sits there.  The idea that an object that hasn’t done anything—and can’t really do anything—isn’t “good enough” seems absurd.

This realization gave me a sudden sense of freedom.  I didn’t “deserve” my feelings of inadequacy at all.  In beating myself up, I wasn’t “serving my sentence” or atoning for some past sin.  I wasn’t sure how I acquired the conviction that I wasn’t “good enough”—maybe it was my genetic makeup, an early-life experience, or something else.  But the point was that, because I saw there was no good reason why I should suffer, I became able to let go of that suffering.

Further, I understood the mistake I’d been making in addressing my sense of inadequacy.  Before, when I’d have a negative thought about myself, I’d assume I could eliminate that thought by improving in a certain area of my life.  Thus, I’d pursue more achievements in the world—I’d look for ways to make more money, get invited to more social occasions, publish more articles, and so on.  However, nothing I did seemed to shake that core conviction that I wasn’t good enough—my mind would simply come up with more ways my life needed fixing.  Now, I recognized that seeing that core conviction for what it was—not adjusting my circumstances in the world—was the path to peace.

If you’re constantly plagued by thoughts that you’re inadequate, I have a mental exercise for you.  Forget, for a moment, about the specific ways your mind is criticizing you, and the areas in which it’s saying you need improvement.  Instead, ask yourself whether there’s ever been a time in your life when you’ve been free of mental criticism.  No matter what you’ve accomplished, has your mind ever given you a break?

If your answer is no, consider the possibility that changing your outer circumstances won’t address your mind’s concerns.  For whatever reason, your mind has been convinced for most, or all, of your life that you’re not good enough.  You don’t “deserve” the criticisms your mind levels at you, and nothing about you needs to be changed or fixed for you to be a complete human being.  This realization may make you feel free to release your sense of inadequacy, and to access the peace and wholeness available to all of us.

Are You “Addicted” To Your Inner Critic?

If you’ve read self-help literature, you’ve probably heard about the “inner critic”—the mental voice that constantly tells you that you’re not good enough, and bombards you with memories of difficult events and visions of nightmarish possible futures.  There are many schools of thought on how to deal with the critic, and most focus on developing more positive beliefs about oneself or using techniques to quiet one’s mind.

However, I recently had an idea about the critic that hasn’t received as much coverage:  what if we actually created what we call the “inner critic” to please ourselves?  What if, on some level, we actually enjoy the suffering it causes us?  What if the critic were like an addictive drug, and we could stop using it, go “cold turkey,” and kick the habit completely?

I’ll start explaining this by observing that many of us seem to enjoy feeling like we’re “right” and others are “wrong.”  We crave the sense that we’re more assertive, convincing, prudent, logical or moral than someone else.  For this reason, many people seek out and create conflicts in their lives—whether they be adversarial business negotiations, shouting matches between spouses, or, in extreme cases, physical fights.

Many of us crave that feeling of “rightness” so strongly that we’ll use even the most minor mistakes by others as opportunities to loudly proclaim how much better we are than them.  We see this on the highway, where people scream obscenities at and threaten to kill each other for driving too slowly; or in crowded places, where people will take someone slightly bumping into them as the gravest and most personal of insults.

Not everyone seeks that feeling of rightness by putting others down.  Some of us feel uncomfortable with telling others they’re wrong or attacking them in some other way, but we still want to experience the high “being right” gives us.  Thus, we create someone to fight with in our minds.  We create a mental adversary, an “inner critic,” who constantly attacks us for our perceived shortcomings, and we fight back against it.  This is very convenient.  We don’t have to look for an “outer critic,” an opponent in the outside world, to fight against—we’ve got one right here in the comfort of our own heads.

We can recognize this in the ways we respond to the inner critic.  Many of us shout down the critic, telling it to shut up or yelling profanity at it.  Others debate the critic, reminding it of all we’ve accomplished in our lives and defending ourselves against its accusations.  Still others complain about the critic—“oh, if only I didn’t have this mental voice keeping me from getting what I want!”  People whom our society considers “mentally ill” may physically attack themselves, trying to beat the critic out of their brains.  In each case, we’re trying to feel like we’re more “right” than the critic, or that we’ve “defeated” it in mental combat.

Unfortunately, just as picking fights in the outside world can get us hurt, constant battle with the inner critic can wear us out.  Putting the critic down, reasoning with it, complaining about it, and fighting it in all the other ways we do is physically draining and creates tension in our bodies.  When you’re locked in constant battle with the critic, you feel like what rock band Blue Oyster Cult called “the veteran of a thousand psychic wars.”

The key to stopping this inner conflict is to kick your addiction to feeling that you are “right,” and that someone else, even if it is a mind-generated entity, is “wrong.”  You can do this, I’ve found, by staying alert for those moments when you start craving conflict.  The habit of conflict-seeking has probably been an unconscious one for most of your life, but if you hold your attention on it, you can see it for what it is.

As I described in an earlier article, in those moments, you experience a sensation as if your mind is an attic through which someone is rummaging.  The attic contains embarrassing pictures, letters and drawings from your childhood, and the person rummaging through them is looking for something to humiliate you with.  Eventually, the person finds something, and shows the embarrassing document to you.  This is when the criticism or difficult memory pops into your head, and you start fighting against it to feed your conflict addiction.

If you watch this mental process carefully, you’ll likely come to the surprising realization that you have at least some control over it.  You are the person rummaging through your mind, looking for compromising information to use against yourself.  You are searching for a memory or other thought to resist, to fight with.  But you probably don’t feel that you’re in complete control of this process.  Your search for conflict has become compulsive—much as a smoker just can’t seem to quit.

When you feel that craving for conflict, see if you can simply allow it to be.  Just acknowledge that your mind is seeking something to fight against, without looking for something to satisfy that urge with.  If you’re unable to keep yourself from seeking out thoughts and memories to attack yourself with, bring the same acceptance to those thoughts and memories.  Simply allow them to be, without suppressing, belittling, or arguing against them, and you will not feed your hunger for internal strife.

This practice seems difficult at first, but it rapidly becomes easier, and the potential gains are tremendous.  Abandoning the habit of seeking mental conflict, of creating an “inner critic,” can bring you closer to the inner peace you’ve desired but may have had trouble achieving.

A New Perspective On Procrastination

At some point in your life, I’ll bet you felt like you weren’t getting enough done.  You wished you could keep your attention on your work, and stop “procrastinating” by doing frivolous or unimportant things, but it just didn’t seem possible.  I used to have this problem myself, until I had a realization one day that transformed my understanding of what procrastination is and how to deal with it.

At work, I would sometimes have trouble staying on task.  After working on a project for a little while, I’d find myself losing focus and finding ways to avoid being productive.  I would deal with low-priority work issues, read the news, or get antsy and pace around the room.  I’d try to get back to my project, but I’d feel like every cell in my body was resisting my will.

My normal reaction to this experience was one I think most of us identify with—I shamed myself.  “Come on, get a work ethic,” I’d tell myself.  My belief was that I procrastinated because I was fundamentally a lazy and selfish person, and that I only cared about doing what I wanted to do instead of helping others achieve their goals.  The only way to change this mindset, I figured, was to punish myself until I became willing to change my evil ways.  Unfortunately, beating myself up only seemed to strengthen my body’s resistance to getting work done.

One day, however, I made an interesting observation while I was having trouble focusing.  I noticed that, while I was reading the news, checking e-mail, or doing some other unproductive activity to avoid work, I wasn’t actually enjoying myself.  Even as I procrastinated, I was thinking to myself “this is boring.  I want to do something else.”

This observation didn’t support my theory that I procrastinated because I was lazy and only cared about having fun.  If that were true, you’d think I would have enjoyed my frivolous diversions.  But in fact, while I was in “procrastination mode,” I didn’t like doing anything.  Procrastination, I recognized, was just a symptom of an overall attitude that sometimes overtook me—an attitude of refusing to accept the situation I was in, regardless of what it was.

For whatever reason, I had moments when my mind basically decided it wasn’t okay with any aspect of reality, and became determined to reject anything the world gave it as inadequate and “boring.”  I call this mindset one of non-acceptance.  Some spiritual teachers call it “saying ‘no’ to the present moment.”  I procrastinated when I was in this state.

Happily, simply recognizing that I was in a place of non-acceptance had the effect of liberating me from that place.  If I just admitted to myself that I was saying “no” to my situation, without punishing myself for it, I’d find my refusal to accept reality dissolving, and a peace and alertness pervading my body.  Once in this state, I could concentrate on my work again.

If you find yourself procrastinating at times, and you want to improve your ability to focus, I have two suggestions for you that build on the realization I described.

First, be aware of, and acknowledge, when you’re in a state of non-acceptance.  To start doing this, notice that, when you find yourself procrastinating, nothing seems to satisfy you.  You can try doing a few different activities to prove this—you can read the news, play solitaire, call a friend or loved one, and so forth.  You’ll start to see that, when you’re in a state of non-acceptance, everything you do seems to be inadequate, boring or unfulfilling for one reason or another.

The central lesson here is that, when you are in this state, looking for something better to do won’t help, but recognizing that you have this attitude will get you back on track.  Once you see that your mind is generally rejecting reality in that moment, admit it to yourself.  Saying it out loud, for me, is the quickest way to dissolve my state of non-acceptance.  “I don’t like anything right now,” I’ll say to myself.  “Nothing is good enough.”  Normally, when I say this, I find myself laughing, and the boredom and discomfort I had been feeling disappear.

Second, start noticing what events tend to put you into a state of non-acceptance.  In other words, what usually happens right before you lapse into that state?  Maybe it’s a communication with a certain person at work; a particular type of document you have to prepare; a certain hour of the day; or something else.  For example, I would start “saying no” to the world whenever I’d get an e-mail from a colleague checking on my progress on a project.  I’d feel like they didn’t appreciate the quality of my work or how much effort I put into it, and I’d start getting resentful.  For at least a few minutes after I got that e-mail—and perhaps a few hours—nothing I would do would seem enjoyable or meaningful.

When I figured out that I’d start rejecting reality whenever I would receive this type of e-mail, I became mentally prepared for, and able to stay productive in, that situation.  Whenever I’d get an e-mail checking on my progress, I would simply acknowledge to myself that I was about to enter a state of non-acceptance, and that, once I was in that state, nothing would be able to satisfy me.  Admitting to myself I was about to say “no” to the world would dissipate my resistance to reality and help me regain my focus.

Why do certain situations cause us to reject reality?  In my view, we say “no” to the world when we feel that the world doesn’t love or appreciate us.  Saying “no” is our way of telling the world “you don’t care about me, so I’m not going to enjoy you or do anything for you.”

Often, the situations where we react this way resemble moments from our childhoods when we felt rejected or neglected by our parents.  For instance, after some reflection, I recognized that, when a colleague would ask how my project was going, I would feel the same way I did when, as a kid, one of my parents asked whether I was done with my chores yet.  In those moments, I felt like I was only appreciated for the quality of my work—as though I were a machine, or something less than human—and I’d feel the vindictive urge to shut out the world.

Overcoming procrastination is about becoming aware of those situations where you tend to reject reality.  Simply gaining that awareness, and acknowledging—without beating yourself up—when you’ve said “no” to your circumstances, is an effective method for dissolving that “no” and getting your productivity back.  Just accepting the fact that you’re in a rut, without blame or judgment, is often the fastest way to pull yourself out of it.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Engaged Spirituality, located at http://virtualteahouse.com/blogs/beth/archive/2008/05/05/2nd-carnival-on-engaged-spirituality-engaging-resistance.aspx.)

Is Guilt Good For You? (Part Two)

A little while back, I wrote an article on the function guilt performs in our lives and the limiting ways we tend to perceive it.  Today, I want to expand on a particular point I made in that piece, which is that the amount of guilt we feel seems to depend on the time of day.  For instance, I’ve observed that, right after I wake up in the morning, my conscience seems to be spotlessly clean.  However, at around 10:00 a.m., I start shaming myself about things I did or failed to do in the past.  The volume of my self-blaming reaches a crescendo at around 1:00 p.m., after which it tapers off again.

In my earlier article, I suggested that, if guilt were actually your conscience condemning you for your past wrongs, you wouldn’t expect the degree of your suffering to depend on the time of day.  After all, the amount of scolding you deserve from your conscience shouldn’t vary based on what time it is.  Instead, you’d think your conscience would keep up a steady level of punishment throughout the day, until you’d suffered enough and “served your sentence” for the wrongs you’d done.

I want to take the inquiry I began with these comments a bit deeper.  Perhaps the fact the severity of our guilt depends on the time of day suggests that guilt is not simply what we experience when our consciences reprimand us.  But what does that fact say about what guilt really is?  To my mind, it suggests that guilt, like hunger and fatigue, is a natural, regularly occurring biological process.

In other words, just as you get hungry at around your regular mealtimes, and you get tired at around your regular bedtime, your body has regular times of day when it naturally feels most guilty.  One way to put this is that, just as we have mealtimes and bedtimes, we also have “guilt-times.”  The main difference between guilt and other regularly occurring physical sensations like hunger and fatigue lies in the way we perceive guilt.  We take our feelings of guilt as a sign that there’s something wrong with us, but we don’t interpret hunger and fatigue that way.

Put differently, when our stomachs growl, we interpret it to mean we need more food in our stomachs.  But we don’t view our need for food as proof that there’s something wrong with us.   We don’t perceive ourselves as bad people because we happen not to have enough in our stomachs.  By contrast, when we start ruminating on painful past events from our lives, we do tend to interpret it to mean there’s something wrong with us—that we are bad people.  Or, perhaps, we spend time and energy defending ourselves against our guilt, devising reasons why we aren’t so bad after all to try to make the unpleasant sensations go away.  Either way, our interpretation of guilt causes us to suffer, while our interpretation of hunger does not.

I’ve come to believe we can transform our experience of guilt by treating it more like hunger and fatigue.  The next time you feel guilt, try saying to yourself “oh, it’s guilt-time again”—just as you might think “oh, I guess it’s time for lunch” when your stomach growls or “it’s time for bed” when your eyelids start feeling heavy.  Try perceiving guilt as a routine bodily function that, regardless of what you do or think, will recur again and again.  Recognize also that, in a sense, guilt is easier to deal with than hunger and fatigue, because you don’t have to do any activity—such as eating or sleeping—to cause your guilt to pass away.  Instead, guilt simply arises at certain times of day, and subsides during others.

This practice has changed the way guilt occurs to me.  Before, when my mind would dwell on the ways I felt I’d screwed up in the past, I would feel ugly sensations in my body.  My upper back would tense up, and a prickly feeling would creep across my skin.  My perspective on guilt—my view that my guilty feelings proved I was a bad person—was actually causing those physical sensations.  When I changed my perspective, and started to view guilt as a natural biological process, those painful feelings began fading away.

I haven’t addressed one question that may be on your mind, which is:  what is the function of guilt?  It may be a natural process of the body that occurs at certain times of day, but why does it need to occur?

I don’t know for sure.  I certainly have theories, but they’re not important for the purposes of this article.  The important point is that the fact that we don’t know what guilt is for doesn’t set it apart from other body functions like sleep.  Scientists still don’t fully understand why we need sleep, but the fact remains that we do, and no one questions that our need for sleep is part of our bodies’ recurring daily cycle.  We don’t need to know exactly what function guilt performs to understand that it’s a routine aspect of the human experience.

The perspective I’m suggesting here has implications that aren’t limited to guilt.  When you experience a “negative emotion,” or an emotion you’d rather not be feeling, take a look at the way you’re interpreting that feeling.  If you’re taking the feeling as a sign that something is wrong with you, I invite you to experiment with a different view.  Try saying to yourself “oh, it’s time for this emotion,” just as you’d think to yourself it was time for lunch in response to a noisy stomach.  You might say, for instance, “oh, it’s anger-time again,” or “oh, it’s sadness-time.”

With this way of thinking comes an acceptance of the emotion that’s arising in you as a natural part of human life.  When you simply accept the emotion and allow it to move through you, without shaming or judging yourself, you eliminate the suffering the emotion used to create.  This acceptance is key to changing your emotional life for the better.

Is Guilt Good For You? (Part One)

Human beings have a seemingly endless capacity to feel guilty.  We can condemn and attack ourselves for the stupid, wrong or inappropriate things we’ve done, again and again.  We can even continue feeling guilty about events that happened many years ago.  From the sensations we feel in our bodies when we think about those events, you’d think they happened just yesterday.  We can still cringe and bury our faces in our hands when the old events surface in our minds.  And we can still feel the ugly heat and tension in our torsos, necks and shoulders that we experienced in those old incidents.

We often have mixed feelings about whether guilt is helpful to us.  On one hand, guilt is obviously very unpleasant and distracting to experience.  On the other, however, we have the nagging sense that our guilt plays an important role in our lives.  Isn’t guilt the feeling we get when our consciences punish us for the immoral things we’ve done?  And if our consciences are disciplining us, isn’t that probably because we deserve it?  Moreover, isn’t guilt what prevents us from acting wrongfully to serve our interests, and thus keeps our society from descending into violence and chaos?

I actually question the notion that, when we feel guilty, we are getting what we “deserve”—that our consciences are rightfully punishing us for the bad things we’ve done.  I don’t think guilt serves that purpose at all.  In fact, I believe that, most of the time, guilt doesn’t serve any useful purpose, and we’d be better off without it.  To show you why I feel this way, I want to take you through a few observations about the way guilt manifests itself in our lives.  As you read these observations, notice whether they change your perspective on the role of guilt, and whether you begin feeling more freedom from guilt in your life.

The guilt never stops. It seems that you can keep feeling guilty about the same incident indefinitely.  Even ten or twenty years after an event, you can still find yourself reliving the event in your mind, with the accompanying discomfort in your body.  Sometimes, you can forget about an old guilt-inducing event for a while, but when something happens in your life that reminds you of the event again, you return to the same old pattern of suffering over it.

But if guilt is your conscience punishing you for doing something wrong, wouldn’t you expect your conscience to understand the idea of fair punishment?  That is, wouldn’t you expect it to have a sense of when you’ve “done your time,” enough is enough, and you don’t deserve to suffer anymore?  The fact that you can continue suffering indefinitely over the same old episode suggests that guilt isn’t simply your conscience giving you your just desserts.

If you are continually agonizing over the same events from your past, I invite you to try this exercise.  Consider how many times you’ve suffered over the same event before.  If you have trouble remembering how often you’ve relived the incident, start keeping a journal or just marking a piece of paper to record how often it comes up.  I think you’ll find that you’ve been recalling the event at least once per day, and that you’ll be more than a little disturbed by the possibility that you’ve been anguishing over the event every day since it happened.

Now, ask yourself whether you really deserve this amount of punishment for what you did.  I think you’ll find it difficult to answer yes.

Guilt is stronger at certain times of day. Another strange feature of guilt is that we tend to remember more painful events, and the guilt surrounding those events seems more agonizing, at specific times of day.  My own “guiltiest” time of day is between 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning.  If I find myself waking up at this early hour, I know I’m in for a tour of the shameful and embarrassing events of my past.  Now that I have this awareness, though, I’m more prepared for the mental onslaught and it doesn’t hit me as hard.

Take a look at your own experience.  Is your guilt stronger and more painful depending on what hour of the day it is?  If you answer yes, as I think you will, consider a few more questions.  If guilt is really your conscience condemning you for your sins, why would your conscience punish you more severely at particular times of day?  Are you more deserving of punishment, say, early in the morning than you are late at night?  Wouldn’t you expect your conscience to simply reprimand you when you did something wrong, regardless of the time of day?

You feel guilty even when you haven’t acted wrongfully. If you pay close attention to the situations in which you experience guilt, you’ll notice that you feel guilty even about events in which you did nothing morally wrong.  I used to feel the sensations I associate with guilt when remembering many such incidents.  I would remember a significant other breaking up with me, and feel the tightness in my chest and shoulders that—for me—signal the presence of guilt.  I would feel guilty about making a joke at a social occasion that nobody laughed at.  I would feel guilty about times when I played poorly in a sports game.  And so on.  Although it would be hard to characterize the things I did in these situations as unethical, I was plagued by guilt over them nonetheless.

If guilt is a sign that your conscience is punishing you, why does your conscience discipline you even when you’ve done nothing wrong?  Why does it attack you when you simply embarrass yourself or make a minor mistake?  These experiences suggest that, when you are being ravaged by guilt, you are not simply suffering for your transgressions.  Something else is going on—guilt is playing a different role in your life.

And how about that idea that guilt exists to keep us acting ethically?  Let’s seriously examine that for a moment.  Is the threat of guilt really the only thing preventing you from going on a crime spree right now?  Do you ever think to yourself “you know, I’d really like to go out and commit lots of murders and robberies, but I’m afraid of how guilty I’d feel if I did?”  I don’t think you do.  I think you understand that murder and robbery are simply wrong, regardless of what feelings doing those acts would produce in your body, and that is why you don’t do them.

I’ve talked a lot about the misconceptions we tend to hold regarding guilt, but not about what guilt actually is and the function it performs.  I’ll offer my thoughts on those issues in the next part of this article.