Normally, our mind is like Velcro. Everything sticks. When we shine the light of awareness on our thinking, thoughts can be seen more clearly and lose their sticky quality.
In contrast, mindful awareness creates a sense of space. When we bring awareness to something, it becomes enveloped in a spacious clarity, just as when we shine a light on something in the dark we see the object but also notice all the space around it. In the light of awareness, thoughts can be seen more clearly and lose their sticky quality. Awareness is like the sky, and from this perspective thoughts are just clouds passing through the sky. They don’t stick to it. They float, they move. They don’t obscure the sky.
Mindful awareness is essential for learning to not identify ourselves with our thoughts. This non-identification means we no longer believe the thoughts or take on board what they are saying about us. We see they are just conditioned processes that are no more objectively true than anything else. Non-identification allows us to detach, disengage, and not get caught.
When we experience our inner and outer world with awareness, we become like the conductor of an orchestra, aware of all the components that make up the symphony, but not caught up in any individual part. Or like a calm grandparent with a child who’s throwing a tantrum—the child can yell, cry, kick, and scream, but the grandparent knows it will pass and so isn’t ruffled by it.
Defeat the Inner Critic by Listening to It
The second essential factor that supports non-identification is an understanding that what comes from the critic is, for the most part, neither accurate nor helpful. The more we examine the arguments of the critic, the more likely we are to detach from them. The more we understand there are much wiser, clearer, and kinder places within our psyche to turn to for clarity and advice, the less we will listen to, or even care at all about, what the critic has to say. Rarely does the critic offer anything that is original or that could not be ascertained from a more reliable source.
Another example of how non-identification works can be seen in emotional reactivity. Think of a time when you were emotionally attached to a particular point of view in an argument. What happened when that point of view was challenged? You may have become emotionally reactive—defensive, swept up in anger, with a sense of righteous indignation. Sometimes in this kind of scenario, in the midst of your reaction, it may dawn on you that the other person’s point of view is correct, or you may see the limitation of your own position. At that point, you dis-identify with your position for a moment, step out of your own way, and suddenly find more space, greater ease, and sometimes a tad of embarrassment at seeing how caught up you were. Again, it is the awareness, the knowing, that allows the disengaging to occur.
A similar process can happen when judgments arise. The more we look at them with mindful awareness, the more we can see them for what they are, and the more we are able to dis-identify with them. We come to see they are just thoughts, just points of view, each with its particular bias and limited perspective, often a very old and distorted one.
Don’t Take Some Thoughts Personally
One of the things I encourage people to do when the critic is hurling judgments at them is to say, “Thank you for your opinion” or “Thanks for your point of view.” There need not be defensiveness; you merely need to see the judgments for what they are—just a bunch of opinions, like a cluster of clouds in the sky. That allows you to let them go much more easily and to find space again. Then the judgments can fall from your mind without sticking, like rain against a windowpane.
One last crucial tool for cultivating the attitude of non-identification is ceasing to take ownership of the thoughts, judgments, and criticisms. Mark Epstein, psychiatrist and meditator, titled one of his books Thoughts without a Thinker. He was pointing to an age-old philosophy that understands that thoughts think themselves, that there is no one behind the curtain pulling the strings, thinking the thoughts. The thoughts are happening by themselves, based on causes and conditions that bring them into existence.
Julie, an accountant in a course I was teaching at Esalen in Big Sur, reported struggling with her critic. She noticed that whenever she was doing her personal bookkeeping and the books didn’t tally correctly, she was immediately judgmental of herself and her accounting skills. A critical thought was instantly triggered: “If you can’t even manage your own accounts properly, how do you expect your clients to trust you with their books?” She says it was like an automated response. She had heard it countless times.
Did Julie think this thought? Did she will it into being or invite it in? Or did it happen by itself, triggered by her conditioning and layers of fears about needing to be accurate, and worries about her clients’ reactions if she miscalculated? Doesn’t the brain just do that automatically? Most judging thoughts just happen in this knee-jerk fashion, in the same way that the brain labels a stimulus “bird” when we hear a bird’s morning song outside our window in spring. The more we see that thoughts think themselves, the less we need to feel the unnecessary burden of responsibility for our thoughts, and the more we can see them as an impersonal process that will continue to twitter, in the same way the birds will chirp outdoors.
It is precisely this process of not taking our thoughts so personally that makes nonidentification possible. We can see the judging thoughts from the perspective of a third-person observer and not feel so burdened by them. This is when we really begin to feel a sense of spacious ease and peace.
Mindfulness Practice: Not Identifying With Your Inner Critic
For this practice you will do a reflective meditation. Try to do this practice outside — for example, while sitting or lying down on a hillside, on the beach, in a park, or in your backyard.
- Gently close your eyes and visualize your mind as a vast, open, blue sky.
- Now open your eyes and look up at the sky, and imagine or feel how your awareness can mingle with that space so that you feel as vast as the space of the sky above you.
- Imagine your thoughts are like clouds passing through that vast space of sky.
- Now picture one of your recurring judging thoughts floating on a cloud above you. Focus on that cloud for a moment, and see if you feel any constriction, any narrowing of your perspective.
- Notice how the sky holds the cloud-like thought without sticking to it, without being in the slightest way perturbed by it. See and feel the spacious sky all around the cloud. This is the space of awareness. Remember that even if a large storm cloud arrives, it only temporarily obscures the openness of the sky.
- See the cloud that is carrying your judging thought drift away softly and notice again the vast sky.
- When you feel ready to end this meditation, slowly open your eyes, and gently move and stretch.
See if this exercise helps you feel that quality of the Teflon mind, where the thoughts simply don’t stick in the same way, where you reside merely in the knowing of the thoughts, in the awareness of them, rather than wrestling with them.