Mark Coleman is a senior meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, as well as an executive coach and founder of the Mindfulness Institute. And he’s written a very rich, readable, and practical book on the practice of self-compassion.
Although we’ve never met, Coleman and I started our spiritual paths in similar places. Back in 1984, while I was throwing myself into Buddhist practice at the Glasgow Buddhist Center, Coleman was doing the same at the London Buddhist Center, both of which are part of the Triratna Buddhist Community. Our spiritual paths, even though they have diverged since then — I’m still practicing within Triratna while he embraced the Insight Meditation tradition — have also converged, in that we’re both deeply involved in the practice and teaching of self-compassion.
For both of us, there was an intense practical and personal need to do this. We were both angry young men, and full of self-hatred. We both now see the importance of compassion in this difficult world we find ourselves in — for ourselves and others.
The constant theme running through “Make Peace With Your Mind” is the “Inner Critic” — that all-too-familiar nagging voice that tells us over and over that we’ve messed up, that we’re not good enough, that things we did were idiotic, that we look bad in photographs, that people will judge us because we’re too fat, too skinny, too old, and so on.
Coleman explains over a number of chapters the problems that self-judgement causes in our lives, from the undermining comments we make about ourselves, to “imposter syndrome,” which causes very accomplished people to doubt their abilities. (No less than John Steinbeck wrote, “I am not a writer. I have been fooling myself and other people.” Wow!) He points out that self-judgement is universal. We all have this trait, and it’s a relief for many people to realize that they are not alone in suffering from self-criticism and doubt.
He helps us to understand the inner critic too, showing us that it has a role in protecting us from transgressing rules, or doing anything that might bring censure. “The problem,” as he points out, “is that it does not go away. It’s like a broken record, constantly repeating.” And this continues, sometimes, though our whole lives. We accumulate many such self-critical habits as we go through life. Each one has the function of protecting us, but the toll they take outweighs the benefits, and they can end up making our lives hell.
Coleman provides a lot of information about the inner critic, and it’s all useful. It’s a long time, however, until we get to the point where he explains how to work with our self-criticism.
We start with mindfulness, recognizing that our self-critical thoughts are indeed no more than thoughts and that we don’t have to take them seriously, practicing non-identification, and even learning to laugh at the inner critic’s antics.
Coleman also explains how to be kind to ourselves and stop treating ourselves as “the enemy,” and even to “befriend our own pain as much as we do with our loved ones.” This involves accepting and turning toward our pain, opening up to our vulnerability, and relating to our pain compassionately.
Toward the end of the book he takes us “beyond the critic” — beyond mere freedom from self-criticism, and into a positive appreciation of the good that is to be found in ourselves and others, and into a life in which peace and ease naturally arise.
This is a rich and comprehensive guide to the practice of self-compassion. It contains moving anecdotes and examples from the author’s own life and from the lives of others he has known in his capacity as a teacher. It’s particularly enriched by the inclusion of a practical guide at the end of each chapter. Even the more theoretical parts of the book conclude with us being asked to turn to our experience. And so my earlier comment that it takes a long time to get to the chapters on dealing with the inner critic should be tempered with an awareness that these practical guidelines foreshadow the later material, and give us plenty to do. The first chapter, for example, which is on the topic of recognizing how the brain can change and grow in response to our experiences, ends with suggestions to observe things in a public place that we dislike or like, and also to reflect on things in ourselves that we appreciate.
I’d highly recommend this book to anyone suffering from self-criticism or self-esteem issues. It offers a rich and varied selection of tools for moving from self-hatred and the suffering it brings, to living more lightly, joyfully, and self-compassionately.