If you’re like me when you push back into your first down dog of the day, what accompanies the shoulder blades as they draw towards the tailbone and the heels as they move down towards the floor, is an incessant and often annoying inner dialogue.
Yoga practice isn’t, of course, unique in hosting this chatter—our occupied mind comes with us on most everything we do—yet, since yoga is a practice of entering stillness, our ineffectiveness gets extra annoying points when we fail to make any quieting progress on the mat.
A Habit of Self-Criticism
Usually, the primary thread of this ADHD-esque conversational rhythm is to notice and critique whichever parts of the body are not complying with the physical instruction. I’m sure you know the thread—“hips are too tight,” “shoulders won’t move,” etc.
We seem to be obsessed with finding “what’s wrong” with the picture before anything else. This won’t be the first blog, article, or piece that addresses the issue of criticism, but I’d like to take a different problem-solving angle to this malady of the mind.
Let’s be clear: this denial of self and labeling of “bad” is a problem, it’s just a problem with an unusual solution, one of which is to not see it as a problem. Here are three suggestions for quieting the critical mind.
1. Take Your Criticisms Out to Dinner
It’s time for you and your judgments to go on an epic,full-day, deep soul-quenching conversation into the wee hours of the night kind of date. When we know our judgments, our critiques, or our “bad” labels, intimately, we cultivate the awareness to transcend them.
Your “bad” hips aren’t going away. The evil you judge in society isn’t going away. The wrongness you feel from your boss isn’t going away either.
Every experience, thought, or expressed word is, as the Buddha (and many others) outlined, an opportunity for the individual to come to a place of acceptance, to a position of compassionate understanding. Even my staunch political views must be dealt with in terms of acceptance.
As is the bonding progression on a first date, the process through the judgment is inquiry. We must ask questions of ourselves. When we’re standing in the mirror and circling all the parts of ourselves that need improvement with a mental marker, we need to ask—what is REALLY wrong here?
This same inquisitiveness must be applied to all facets of our critiques, which will eventually lead us to the next place:
2. Take Personal Responsibility
We are adept at finger-pointing (perhaps because we take pride in having point-able fingers in the first place), but as proven by the pointing’s effectiveness thus far in human evolution, what we really need to do is hold the mirror back unto ourselves.
This is delicate territory because to the trained judge, taking responsibility can actually feel like adding layers of criticism onto the self. It’s easy to go from judging others to turning those judgments onto ourselves—which does nothing to transcend the judging.
Taking personal responsibility is like walking the tightrope between judge-mentality and acceptance. At first, doing so will likely result in splendid falls into the pit of criticism, but hopefully over time we learn to navigate our mind to a place of acceptance.
Getting to this place of acceptance, of mastering our personal responsibility, can be aided by the final suggestion:
3. Employ the Affirmation
If you’ve seen the early 90s Saturday Night Live Stuart Smalley skit (I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it—people like me), you know how the affirmation process can be slippery slope into cheeseball, cliché territory.
Using affirmations, aka the positive reflection of negative labeling, is also a delicate dance, but this one requires a high-wire act into the realm of authenticity. To use an affirmation effectively, the affirmation must be authentic.
To create an authentic affirmation, we will have had to traverse the first two suggestions: understanding our criticisms intimately, and taking personal responsibility. Once we’ve made it through to the affirmation, we should have an authentic affirming mantra to use when in need of a friendly reminder.
Dropping Needless Self-Criticism to Come Closer to Self-Realization
Our minds are constantly going—it’s what they do. Practicing yoga, practicing seated meditation, practicing anything that removes the layers of illusion and draws us closer to our true essence is a valuable endeavor.
As you make your way towards an enlightened state, it’s perhaps equally worthwhile to explore the complexities of the mind, of our tendencies and behaviors that, as Ganesha intimately understands, become obstacles on our journey towards self-realization.