criticism

The importance of emulation in compassion

concentric circles of bright colors

In some versions of the  lovingkindness (metta bhavana) meditation practice we start by calling to mind a benefactor — someone who has been kind to us. The significance of this is that we’re remembering what kindness is like, connecting experientially with it so that we remember what it’s like to be looked at with kind eyes, to hear kind words in a kind tone of voice, to see kind body-language, and to be on the receiving end of kind actions. This makes kindness real for us, so that we can become kinder ourselves.

The reason I think this is important is that in cultivating kindness and compassion we’re all limited, and we’re all in need of outside help in order to become less limited.

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We all have genetic and cultural conditioning that makes it hard for us to cultivate compassion. We might aspire to be kind and compassionate, and although sometimes we will succeed, we will often struggle. Sometimes we fail to notice suffering or respond compassionately to it. Sometimes we behave in ways that make people suffer. We have blind spots that prevent us from even recognizing that we are acting unkindly or harshly.

We often just don’t know how to act differently. I was brought up in a household where I didn’t witness many examples of kindness and compassion, but instead saw a lot of criticism and harshness, and where suffering was often dismissed. Those were behavioral patterns that were impressed into the substrate of my developing brain, just as they’d been impressed into my parents’ brains, and into their parents’. This kind of conditioning causes the very blind spots I was talking about.

People who had the blessings of a genuinely empathetic and compassionate upbringing have very different patterns imprinted in their neural pathways. They know what compassion looks like, sounds like, and feels like. They know how to behave when face with someone’s suffering.

Ultimately, we’re never going to figure out compassion all by ourselves. We can make a certain amount of progress on our own, but our most powerful breakthroughs and insights are likely to come from learning from other people. That learning might come from a book, course, or video, or perhaps more likely just from seeing examples of compassionate behavior in action. Witnessing compassion can be an “aha!” moment. We realize, “Oh, wow! It’s possible to act like that!” And in that way we begin to transcend the limitations of our conditioning.

So you might want to remember instances of others behaving compassionately toward you. This doesn’t have to be just in meditation. You can remember instances of forgiveness and understanding, even of someone just listening patiently to you. Repeatedly calling those memories to mind, you imprint those patterns on our neural pathways. You build the realization, Yes, I can act like that. You make it more likely that you’ll act compassionately in the future.

Compassion spreads from mind to mind through a slow virality: sometimes from parent to child, teacher to student, or friend to friend. This is why the world has, on the whole has been becoming a better place over the last few millennia. (Admittedly a pattern of progress with some ups and downs.) Compassion has been imprinting itself upon our minds.

It’s good if we remember that we are part of this process. We can be the examples of compassion that influence others, and make them realize, “Wow! It’s possible for someone to behave like that! Maybe I can do that too!”

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Relax, you’re going to be criticized

RickHansonThe title of this practice is a little tongue-in-cheek. What I mean is, most of us – me included – spend time worrying about criticism: past, present, and even future. Yes, try hard, keep agreements, “don’t be evil,” etc. But sooner or later – usually sooner – someone is going to point out the error in your ways. Often in subtle versions that still have an implicit criticism, such as giving advice, helping or teaching when you don’t really need it, making corrections, comparing you negatively to others, or focusing on the one tile in the mosaic of your actions that’s problematic while staying mum about the 99 other good tiles.

In other words, criticism is unavoidable. Sometimes we take it in with good grace, other times it stings, and sometimes both are true. As profoundly social human animals, it is natural for criticism to sting sometimes. But whatever sting is inherent, we add to this pain with the jabs we give ourselves.

This “bonus pain” – a self-inflicted wound – includes continuing the criticism inside your head long after the other person has moved on. Or pounding on yourself way out of proportion to what happened; on the highly technical 0-10 Messing Up Silly Scale (MUSS), what you did was a 2 but on the related 0-10 Fiercely Undoing Self-worth Scale (FUSS), you are lambasting yourself at a 5 or even 10: not fair at all. Or ignoring all your many other good qualities – the other 99 tiles – while ruminating about the criticism.

We also jab ourselves with needless pain when we brace ourselves against possible future criticism, or play needlessly small to avoid it. In many cases, the criticism is never going to happen or it’s very unlikely or even if it did happen it would not be a big deal. We tend to transfer into adulthood expectations we acquired as children, or as younger adults. Maybe there was a lot of criticism from someone back then but you’re probably in a different place today. I’ve spent way too much of my life hunkering down or over-preparing to preempt an anticipated shaming attack . . . that would not occur anyway.

And even if the criticism does come, will it actually be the terrible experience you dread? Usually not. You can roll with it, take what’s useful, form your own conclusions about the person making the criticism, learn and move on. Accepting criticism as inevitable and refusing to live under its shadow will free you up and make you happier.

How?
When criticism, even subtle, comes your way, pause and try to sort it out in your own mind so you’re sure you understand it. Sometimes criticism is narrow and specific, but often it’s vague, general, and has multiple things mixed up in it (e.g., some statements are accurate but others are exaggerated, tone, content, rationale, values). Slow down the interaction so it doesn’t go off the rails. The ancient emotion centers in the brain get about a two second head start over the more recent logical centers, so buy yourself some time for all the resources inside your head to come on line. Meanwhile, shore yourself up by thinking about people who like or love you, and by remembering some of the many ways you do good and are good.

Once you understand the criticism in its parts and aspects, make your own unilateral decision about it. A fair amount of the criticism that comes your way is flat out mistaken. The other person is wrong on the facts or doesn’t understand the larger context. Think of the many scientific theories that were initially scorned but have proven correct over time.

Of the criticism that remains, some is preferences or values disguised as thoughtful suggestions. For example, when you’re driving, suppose the passenger says you should slow down or speed up when actually you are perfectly safe and the other person just likes it slower or faster. Some people value closeness more than others; just because you like more cave time than your partner doesn’t make you cold or rejecting; nor is your partner smothering or controlling; it’s just a difference in values: grounds for inquiry, compassion, and negotiation, but not criticism.

Another chunk of criticism coming at you is thoughtful suggestions disguised as moral fault finding; now your passenger says you should be ashamed of yourself for endangering others when in fact all you need to do is back off another couple of car lengths from the car in front of you on the freeway; you’re not reckless but could be more skillful.

Then there is that which is worthy of healthy remorse. It’s up to you to decide what this part is. Feel what’s appropriate, learn the lesson, make amends if they’re called for, know that you’ve done what you could, ask yourself how much remorse or shame you’d want a friend to bear who did whatever you did, and then see if you can ask no more or less from yourself.

Knowing that you can handle criticism in these ways, let yourself be more open to it. Don’t stonewall or intimidate others who have a criticism for you; then it just festers or bursts out in other ways.

But also don’t walk on eggshells to avoid trouble (unless you’re in a dangerous situation, which is a different sort of problem) or obsess or over-plan to make sure you make no mistakes. A close friend is an extremely successful professor at a top-of-the-food-chain elite university, and I asked him once what led to his success. He said that while his colleagues/competitors were perfecting their one paper, he was finishing three of his own; one of these would be rejected for publication, one would come back with corrections he could make, and one would be accepted immediately; then when the inevitable criticisms did come down the road, he’d already moved on to his next three papers.

Mostly, just recognize that criticism in its various forms and flavors (and smells) is a fact of life. So be it. Our lives and this world have bigger problems, and much bigger opportunities. Time to live more bravely and freely.

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What are you bracing against?

atlas 01The title of this practice is a little tongue-in-cheek. What I mean is, most of us – me included – spend time worrying about criticism: past, present, and even future. Yes, try hard, keep agreements, “don’t be evil,” etc. But sooner or later – usually sooner – someone is going to point out the error in your ways. Often in subtle versions that still have an implicit criticism, such as giving advice, helping or teaching when you don’t really need it, making corrections, comparing you negatively to others, or focusing on the one tile in the mosaic of your actions that’s problematic while staying mum about the 99 other good tiles.

In other words, criticism is unavoidable. Sometimes we take it in with good grace, other times it stings, and sometimes both are true. As profoundly social human animals, it is natural for criticism to sting sometimes. But whatever sting is inherent, we add to this pain with the jabs we give ourselves.

This “bonus pain” – a self-inflicted wound – includes continuing the criticism inside your head long after the other person has moved on. Or pounding on yourself way out of proportion to what happened; on the highly technical 0-10 Messing Up Silly Scale (MUSS), what you did was a 2 but on the related 0-10 Fiercely Undoing Self-worth Scale (FUSS), you are lambasting yourself at a 5 or even 10: not fair at all. Or ignoring all your many other good qualities – the other 99 tiles – while ruminating about the criticism.

We also jab ourselves with needless pain when we brace ourselves against possible future criticism, or play needlessly small to avoid it. In many cases, the criticism is never going to happen or it’s very unlikely or even if it did happen it would not be a big deal. We tend to transfer into adulthood expectations we acquired as children, or as younger adults. Maybe there was a lot of criticism from someone back then but you’re probably in a different place today. I’ve spent way too much of my life hunkering down or over-preparing to preempt an anticipated shaming attack . . . that would not occur anyway.

And even if the criticism does come, will it actually be the terrible experience you dread? Usually not. You can roll with it, take what’s useful, form your own conclusions about the person making the criticism, learn and move on. Accepting criticism as inevitable and refusing to live under its shadow will free you up and make you happier.
How?

When criticism, even subtle, comes your way, pause and try to sort it out in your own mind so you’re sure you understand it. Sometimes criticism is narrow and specific, but often it’s vague, general, and has multiple things mixed up in it (e.g., some statements are accurate but others are exaggerated, tone, content, rationale, values). Slow down the interaction so it doesn’t go off the rails. The ancient emotion centers in the brain get about a two second head start over the more recent logical centers, so buy yourself some time for all the resources inside your head to come on line. Meanwhile, shore yourself up by thinking about people who like or love you, and by remembering some of the many ways you do good and are good.

Once you understand the criticism in its parts and aspects, make your own unilateral decision about it. A fair amount of the criticism that comes your way is flat out mistaken. The other person is wrong on the facts or doesn’t understand the larger context. Think of the many scientific theories that were initially scorned but have proven correct over time.

Of the criticism that remains, some is preferences or values disguised as thoughtful suggestions. For example, when you’re driving, suppose the passenger says you should slow down or speed up when actually you are perfectly safe and the other person just likes it slower or faster. Some people value closeness more than others; just because you like more cave time than your partner doesn’t make you cold or rejecting; nor is your partner smothering or controlling; it’s just a difference in values: grounds for inquiry, compassion, and negotiation, but not criticism.

Another chunk of criticism coming at you is thoughtful suggestions disguised as moral fault finding; now your passenger says you should be ashamed of yourself for endangering others when in fact all you need to do is back off another couple of car lengths from the car in front of you on the freeway; you’re not reckless but could be more skillful.

Then there is that which is worthy of healthy remorse. It’s up to you to decide what this part is. Feel what’s appropriate, learn the lesson, make amends if they’re called for, know that you’ve done what you could, ask yourself how much remorse or shame you’d want a friend to bear who did whatever you did, and then see if you can ask no more or less from yourself.

Knowing that you can handle criticism in these ways, let yourself be more open to it. Don’t stonewall or intimidate others who have a criticism for you; then it just festers or bursts out in other ways.

But also don’t walk on eggshells to avoid trouble (unless you’re in a dangerous situation, which is a different sort of problem) or obsess or over-plan to make sure you make no mistakes. A close friend is an extremely successful professor at a top-of-the-food-chain elite university, and I asked him once what led to his success. He said that while his colleagues/competitors were perfecting their one paper, he was finishing three of his own; one of these would be rejected for publication, one would come back with corrections he could make, and one would be accepted immediately; then when the inevitable criticisms did come down the road, he’d already moved on to his next three papers.

Mostly, just recognize that criticism in its various forms and flavors (and smells) is a fact of life. So be it. Our lives and this world have bigger problems, and much bigger opportunities. Time to live more bravely and freely.

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The power (and pitfalls) of criticism

wrathful deity

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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