You’re queuing at the supermarket checkout and the person in front is putting their shopping on the conveyer belt. Suddenly up pops a thought criticising their eating habits, drinking habits and state of health. You overhear some people chatting, up jumps another thought criticising their accent, vocabulary and conversation. You’re walking home and thought is running wild, criticising the way people look, their weight, their clothes, their hair, make up, nose, ears, mouth, teeth, smile!
And what is the pay off for all this rampant criticising? A dose of superiority, a hit of self-satisfaction, and the comforting feeling that we ‘know it all’.
But once we get wise to what’s going on, then comes perhaps the most vehement criticism of all: the self-criticism for having been so critical! Then our seemingly cast iron smugness instantly morphs into a deep sense of embarrassment, guilt and shame.
This is the cycle that plagues many of us; we wish it wasn’t so, yet nothing seems to change and we’re left feeling tormented and frustrated.
But what exactly is this separate ‘self’ around which all our ‘self’ righteousness and ‘self’ reproach revolves?
A collection of thoughts, feelings and sensations.
But hold on, our thoughts are continually changing, and sometimes there are none at all. Our feelings are always coming and going, and the same is true of sensations—just clap your hands and the stinging in your palms immediately begins to fade; and what of the image of the body? If we simply close our eyes, is it anywhere to be found?
In our actual experience we find no fixed, permanent self whatsoever.
When we invest our entire identity in appearing and disappearing perceptions, we become the very definition of insecurity. That’s why we judge and criticise, that’s why we manipulate the truth, that’s why we tell disparaging stories about others: to try to substantiate and aggrandise our imagined ‘self’, to try to escape the restless discomfort of feeling utterly insecure.
So what is it that sees this whole drama playing out?
This aware presence that we truly are, that never comes and goes, that is the only real security there is; that is expressing itself as everyone and everything, unchanging yet ever-changing, like clay shaping and reshaping into an endless variety of forms whilst never becoming anything other than clay. This knowing presence, that has no quarrel with the critic the criticising or the criticised, just as the paper has no preference over the story that fills its page.
Of course that doesn’t mean that if we’re being treated in an unreasonable or unloving way we should never complain. On the contrary! We can be absolutely direct in taking a stand, in naming what’s unacceptable, since that movement comes from a natural, impartial discernment and not the need to uphold our precarious sense of self. Appreciating the difference is something for us all to continually explore.
And yes our heart will still bleed when we see cruelty to children or animals, when we see humanity’s inhumanity to humanity and the environment. But in understanding that our judgements are only ever aimed at ourself, our criticism of ‘others’ turns into compassion, for all these actions are generated by the deep ignore-ance of our real abiding nature—our indivisible unity.
When the critical thoughts start to roll, this is not about trying to stop them, wishing them away or punishing ourself for having them (but if we do, what if that’s ok too?!).
Instead they come as love’s special envoys, inviting us to see the mechanism of separation at work, to see through our literal self-centredness, to see that this creation called life is woven together with strands of love, unravelling and refashioning in ever changing patterns and forms, that every experience, every conversation, every character—in all their colours, shapes and sizes, with all their quirks and eccentricities—are really our essential nature shining in a multitude of ingenious disguises, inviting us to delight once more in the glorious majesty of being.