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The power (and pitfalls) of criticism

From time to time people write to me with interesting questions or observations. Often, the less time they’ve been practicing Buddhism and meditation, the more interesting the questions are. As Suzuki Roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” (I don’t think Suzuki is entirely right here, but he’s certainly not entirely wrong either).

The other day a fellow called Boon wrote to me from England. He’d been reading the Dhammapada, which is one of the most ancient Buddhist texts, written in an archaic form of the Pali language. He’d been wondering about criticism, and its role in spiritual practice. He’d seen passages such as these:

One should pay no heed to the faults of others, what they have done and not done. Rather should one consider the things that one has oneself done and not done.

He who pays attention to the faults of others (and) is always irritable, his defilements grow. He is far from the destruction of the defilements.

Boon correctly understood that what’s been warned against here is getting caught up in criticism based on ill will. Our negative emotions are rather sneaky, and try to take over the more creative aspects of our life. So we take up Buddhist practice, which is about learning to eradicate ill will (plus craving and delusion) from our lives, but our ill will co-opts our spiritual practice. We take spiritual “rules,” and ideas about right and wrong behavior, and instead of using them as tools to help us develop more mindfulness and compassion, use them to judge others. We take the yardstick against which we are to measure our own practice, and use it as a rod to beat others. And so we’re neither mindful nor compassionate. We think we’re being “spiritual” as we criticise others, but really we’re just reinforcing our sense of separateness and superiority. This is the opposite of spiritual practice, disguised as spiritual practice.

But, Boon wondered, does this imply that we should “simply stand aside and watch [others] as they slide down the slippery slope, continuing with their unskilful ways without pointing out their faults or helping them?”

That doesn’t sound very mindful or compassionate either. Once a horse master came to talk to the Buddha and said that when he worked with his horses, sometimes they needed mildness, sometimes they needed harshness, and sometimes they needed both. If a horse reponded neither to mildness nor harshness, then he’d simply destroy the horse.

The Buddha said he did the same with his monks! Some needed encouragement. Some needed criticism. Some needed both. If a monk responded to none of these approaches, then the Buddha would destroy them by refraining from giving feedback at all. What the Buddha meant by this was that someone who isn’t open either to encouragement or to reproof is beyond saving. They’re headed on that slippery slope, and there’s nothing you can do for them. In reality, the Buddha didn’t destroy anyone; people destroy themselves. But we can take from this that it’s spiritually very destructive not to give people criticism when they clearly need it.

Boon said he’d also seen other passages in the Dhammapada suggesting that criticism was spiritually useful.

Should one see a man of understanding who, as if indicating a (buried) treasure, points out faults and administers reproof, let one associate with such a wise person. To associate with one like this is good, not evil.

Let him instruct, let him advise, let him restrain (one) from uncivilized behaviour, (and the result will be that) he will be dear to the good and detestable to the bad…”

We need to be open to criticism. What’s clear here is that the criticism that’s being described is coming not from ill will that has co-opted a person’s spiritual life, but from a place of clarity and insight. When someone can see that we’re engaging in actions that will cause suffering for ourselves and for others, then it’s helpful for us if they share their wisdom.

Intent is crucial. If the intent is to be helpful, and comes from genuine compassion, then this is totally different from ego-based criticism that causes separation and a sense of superiority.

Given how hard it is to avoid ill will, I do think we need to be very careful about offering criticism. And we should try using the carrot of encouragement before resorting to the stick of criticism. But sometimes is has to be done, and notions that Buddhism is “non-judgmental” can often be misleading.

The emphasis on the Dhammapada is on receiving criticism, anyway, not on giving it. Compassionate criticism is a blessing that we should be grateful to receive, but when it comes to doling it out, we need to be cautious.

So how can we skillfully give criticism?

  • Remember that your concern is with the wellbeing and happiness of the person you’re talking to. Even if you’re talking to them because they’re causing pain to others, they’re causing themselves pain as well. The aim is not to hurt the other person, or to impose your will on them, but to end up in a state of mutual harmony.
  • Ask permission. If you say, “Do you mind if I make an observation?” the person will be primed to receive your viewpoint, and it won’t come as a random bolt from the blue.
  • Be careful to distinguish facts from value judgements. Let’s say you tell someone they’re “irresponsible” or “driving badly” because at the speed they’re driving you don’t feel safe. Probably that person thinks they’re being perfectly safe. Presumably they’re not themselves feeling fear as they drive. There’s no point of contact between their experience and yours. They don’t think they’re “irresponsible” or “driving badly” and your criticism just seems like an attack. That’s because you’ve imposed a value judgement on them. What if instead you said, “Actually, I’m feeling anxious travelling at this speed …” [That’s a true statement of fact, not a value judgment.] “…I think I’d feel more relaxed if we were going a bit slower.” [That’s also a fact, not a value judgment].
  • Concentrating on facts (things any neutral observer, even your “opponent” can agree on) also means that you don’t focus on the person, but on actions. You’re not using inflammatory language, where you criticise the person as a whole. You’re just concentrating on one particular facet of their engagement with the world.
  • Know when to back off. When you get heated, or the other person gets heated, it’s time to cool down. At the very least, pause the conversation, even if just for a minute or two, so that both of you have time to regain some composure. When your conversation stops being a discussion and starts being an argument, it’s all become rather pointless. If it’s clear that you’re just going to fight, apologize for bringing up the topic at a bad time, and move on to something else.
  • There’s a lot more to skillful criticism than this, but these are things I’ve found useful. What have you found useful in giving constructive feedback or criticism?

    [Mea culpa: I don’t always have the mindfulness or compassion to practice these hints. That doesn’t detract from any validity they may have.]

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    About Bodhipaksa

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    Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and a published author. He founded Wildmind in 2001. Bodhipaksa has published many guided meditation CDs and guided meditation MP3s.

    He teaches at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. You can follow Bodhipaksa on Twitter, join him on Facebook, or hang out with him on .

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    Comments

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    Comment from Erik
    Time: November 8, 2011, 10:43 am

    Hello,

    I read your posting and was able to get something out of it. I have a question though. Can you give some suggestions how to receive ego-based criticism?

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    Comment from Bodhipaksa
    Time: November 8, 2011, 7:27 pm

    Hi, Erik.

    That’s a tough one, because we tend to take any criticism personally. In fact we often take non-criticism as criticism, and then take that personally!

    One thing the Buddha recommended was just to assess the criticism as true or not true. If it’s true, then you’ve learned something useful. If it’s not true, then it shouldn’t bother you. But it’s not always that easy, because our emotional reactions kick in and we get defensive and argue.

    I’ve found it very useful to bear in mind that everyone is a work-in-progress. I carry around in my head the verse, “All beings are, from the very beginning, Buddhas” to remind me of this. The verse is saying, in effect, that everyone you meet has the potential for Buddhahood. Everyone’s on a meandering path through suffering, although they genrally have no idea where they’re going. But if you can just bear in mind the idea that people are in process, then it’s easier not to take what they say personally.

    I just wrote an article today, in fact, on resentment, which might give you some other clues for how to deal with ego-based criticism. It’ll go live at about 8AM tomorrow (eastern time), at the following address: http://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/getting-rid-of-resentment

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