I recently was on a silent meditation retreat. Nine days of listening to my inner nag — or nags,  sometimes it feels like a whole committee is in my brain. Some refer to this as the inner critic (or critics, in my case). On this retreat, I observed (once again) just how mean my inner critics can be and how much they limit me.There’s one critic that goes on and on about what a bad meditator I am, how I have terrible samadhi (concentration), and how all my insights are shallow. This script inevitably leads me to greater striving. The striving leads to frustration (because, go figure, ease and freedom don’t come from grasping). In my frustration, the critic starts all over again about me being a failed meditator. He’s such a jerk. But I’m the one who keeps listening to him…

I have learned over the years with my inner critics not to encourage them, not to believe them, and, here’s the trick, not to hate them (that one’s hard, see jerk comment above).

Inner critics develop in us initially as survival strategies, monitoring and prescribing ways of behaving that allow us to stay safe, get love, and find wellbeing. I conformed to my family dynamics by not speaking up or expressing needs. To keep the domestic balance, my inner critics kept my anger and upset in check (and helped keep the peace). This strategy is no longer useful — now it just leads to me bottling up emotions and running resentful scripts in my head. As an adult, I have had to learn (still learning) how to skillfully express what was for so long the inexpressible.

But these judging voices don’t only develop from our home environments, they also demand we conform to society’s precepts. For years, I’ve been followed around stores by security (yes, it still happens) and once was chased out of a health food store by an owner accusing me of shoplifting (I dumped my bag out on the sidewalk in a fit of rage in response). Growing up, my inner critics prescribed and monitored a code of behavior in mostly white public spaces that, yes, still includes always purchasing something in a cafe even if I’m waiting for a friend. #StarbucksWhileBlack #ColonizedMind

This retreat, I decided to finally give my inner critics names. I wanted names that exemplified the nagging persistence of these voices but also acknowledged that I was internalizing the messages I was receiving from society. I have a favorite quote that sums up this dynamic. It comes from the great teacher Krishnamurti, via Jane Fonda (because, the sixties):

You think you are thinking your thoughts, you are not; you are thinking the culture’s thoughts.

Or as the quote above from Sadhguru says: Your mind is society’s garbage bin.  

So, I’d like to introduce you to my inner critics: Chikko & The Man (millennials: google Chico and the Man).

Chikko is an Amharic word that can be translated as a nagging or persistent person (the consonants are glottalized or explosive which makes it sound that much better). When I was little, my mom would lovingly use it when I asked a question too many times or repeated something over and over — anchi chikko (You nag).

Chikko, my inner critic, sounds like me, which means she can be logical and erudite, funny and charming. She presents good arguments and has little tricks for getting me to listen to her. Often she seems to be protecting me from potential danger or disappointment. She “just wants me to have a fruitful retreat.”

The Man? He’s often writing the scripts that Chikko reads because it’s his culture I/we swim in. As the great psychiatrist–philosopher Frantz Fanon said,  To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. We are shaped by the culture around us and it shows up in, well, how we show up (parce que, le colonialisme). It can be really difficult to determine what’s our own intention, and what’s the cultural script. Am I doing something because I have a wholesome longing or because I crave the attention and validation taught to me by our competitive culture?

As I alluded, this can show up in my meditation practice in the form of striving or trying to get somewhere — in the name of spiritual development, I beat myself up for my lack of achievements. Sometimes it is incredibly difficult for me to untangle my aspirations and motivations from our larger culture of comparison and competition. This makes getting clear on my intentions really important — for my practice and for my life. I constantly remind myself that I practice and live not just for myself, but for the benefit of all beings everywhere without exception. For me, sharing blessings every day helps.

This is just the beginning. The process of untangling ourselves from our inner critics is, well, a process. Noticing them is the first step. Understanding — not hating — them is good. Naming them can help. Mine have been around for a long time. As much as I try to hit mute, interrupt the broadcast, cancel the show… they’re still on the air.

With love,

P.S.   R.I.P. Freddie Prinze and Jack Albertson

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