How to Calm Your Critical Mind (And Why You Should)
How often do you engage in criticism, judgment, and opinions about others? Fess up!
I bet it’s often because that’s what we learned when we grew up, at least most of us. And because we live in a competitive culture, it may seem the norm to find fault with others, discuss their shortcomings behind their backs or even to their face, and believe with complete conviction they should change.
Even if you consider yourself a good person, even if you are a good person, unless you train your mind to do otherwise, it probably goes into judgmental mode many times throughout the day.
But does it help you in any way? Have you ever considered how a critical mind might actually harm you?
Break Out of the Criticism Game
Recently, I came across the following pithy advice on the topic of criticsm from the Buddhist teacher Penor Rinpoche — relevant for everyone, I feel. In essence, he says to look at your own faults instead of pointing out the faults of others.
That might sound goody two shoes at first take. But if you know that mind is the creator of happiness and the creator of suffering, you’ll see that criticism, judgment, and tittle-tattle only keeps you in a negative loop and off the happiness track.
Let’s take a look at Penor Rinpoche’s advice, first as a whole and then piece by piece. Penor Rinpoche says:
"It’s very important to keep examining your mind at all times and be aware of what occurs in it. We have this habit of criticizing others; we are very good at pointing out their faults, but we have a hard time being aware of our own flaws. Examining the faults of others will not benefit anyone and only leads to more disturbing emotions, blocking our path to liberation. Whatever anyone else does, let them do it. It’s not your business to find other people’s flaws, and even if you do point them out, there is no way for you to correct them. On the other hand, it is very important to watch your own mind and train in subduing and reducing your own disturbing emotions. Analyze your mind, constantly watch your thoughts, recognizing whether they are positive or negative, and become aware of your faults. If you constantly observe yourself and analyze your thoughts, you will eventually be able to tame your mind. Since we haven’t been able to purify our karmic and emotional obscurations, our gross disturbing emotions can come up anytime, and whenever these emotions come up, we should apply the antidote by looking into our mind and trying to understand that all phenomena are emptiness. If you leave your mind in a relaxed state without contriving anything, disturbing emotions will cease."
Does this advice resonate for you? At first glance, what fits, what feels hard?Does any part feel untrue?
How Criticizing Others Hurts You Too
Now, let’s look at Penor Rinpoche’s advice step-by-step.
He starts by saying:
"It’s very important to keep examining your mind at all times and be aware of what occurs in it.”
Most people don't pay attention to what goes on in their mind. They just let it roll. They might even believe it’s out of their control.
Then they wonder why they’re not happy.
But if you indulge in negative thought patterns or unruly emotions without restraint, happiness will drift further and further away. To find a more lasting peace of mind, you need to be self-aware, and make a commitment to work with your thoughts and emotions instead of letting them rule you.
Of course, you won’t be able to be aware of your thoughts and emotions "at all times." That's a lofty aspiration and worthy to aim for. But it takes practice to stay in the now, aware of what passes through your mind and heart. So for the moment, just do the best you can.
“We have this habit of criticizing others; we are very good at pointing out their faults, but we have a hard time being aware of our own flaws.”
In a sense, if you always focus on others you’re protected from facing yourself - your flaws, shadow sides, and unhealthy emotional patterns. I know, it can be scary to face yourself.
But you need to know and work with the painful stuff if you want to heal and grow. So pay attention to what’s going on in your own mind and heart instead of focusing too much on the faults of others.
“Examining the faults of others will not benefit anyone and only leads to more disturbing emotions, blocking our path to liberation.”
What kinds of emotions arise when you focus on the faults of others? Do those emotions make you feel good?
You might feel self-righteous or smug. That might feel good mometarily, but those kinds of emotions don’t generally lead to real happiness. On the other hand, you might feel frustrated or angry. Why doesn’t this person listen to your wise advice?
As Penor Rinpoche points out, examining the faults of others usually stirs up more disturbing emotions for you. And that only reinforces your propensity to repeat those same emotional patterns in the future.
“Whatever anyone else does, let them do it. It’s not your business to find other people’s flaws, and even if you do point them out, there is no way for you to correct them.”
That doesn’t mean you should allow people to harm others. Buddhist teachers, especially traditional ones, can sometimes sound black and white. They don't always consider the way Westerners take things literally and tend to self-flagellate.
The point is to stop giving away the bulk of your attention and energy to the foibles of others. You need your attention and energy to focus on transforming your own emotional patterns. You can’t correct, fix, or heal anyone else.
Most people don’t want unsolicited advice. If they feel criticized, they tend to retract, not grow. And, if you dish it out often, they may pull away from you permanently.
Let people heal themselves, in their own way and in their own time. Be a support, listen, offer your love, that's how you can help, but refrain from finding fault and expressing outright criticism.
“On the other hand, it is very important to watch your own mind and train in subduing and reducing your own disturbing emotions. Analyze your mind, constantly watch your thoughts, recognizing whether they are positive or negative, and become aware of your faults. If you constantly observe yourself and analyze your thoughts, you will eventually be able to tame your mind.”
Turn your attention within. Happiness comes from learning to reduce your own disturbing emotions. That doesn’t mean denying or repressing them. Instead learn to feel them in your body, with a sense of self-kindness and spaciousness, and then let them go.
To learn how t do this, read: How to Free Yourself from Emotional Reactivity
Again, Penor Rinpoche isn’t telling you to indulge your inner critic, become obsessive about your faults, or to get down on yourself. Bring self-compassion, self-kindness, and self-acceptance to any exploration of your own flaws. That way you’ll grow instead of contracting further into yourself.
If you commit to working with your own mind - with your own thoughts and emotions - you’ll be able to tame your mind, meaning you’ll have fewer disturbing emotions over time. So of course you’ll be happier too.
And as you find more and more emotional freedom, you’ll become a light for others. You’ll positively impact others simply through your being.
“Since we haven’t been able to purify our karmic and emotional obscurations, our gross disturbing emotions can come up anytime, and whenever these emotions come up, we should apply the antidote by looking into our mind and trying to understand that all phenomena are emptiness.”
Because we’ve planted and watered the seeds of suffering through repetitive behaviors in the past, we're prone to repeat the same self-defeating patterns (e.g. karmic and emotional obscurations) again and again. Our emotional propensities can manifest unexpectedly, in any moment, when particular triggers appear.
It’s not enough to practice self-awareness for a week or a month. Even if you do well for a while, chances are, when certain causes and conditions come together, you’ll get triggered once again. This practice requires a lifetime, but soon enough you'll begin to catch your reactions faster, and in time, you’ll be triggered less and less.
Applying the antidote of emptiness is an advanced practice, I won’t go into it here. But consider this, the fact that you can change your response proves that it’s not permanent, it’s not you, it’s just transitory emotion. Whenever negative emotions arise, remember they are not the real you.
“If you leave your mind in a relaxed state without contriving anything, disturbing emotions will cease."
This is the power of mindfulness and more advanced forms of meditation.
Instead of creating one thought after the other, you can learn to relax your mind and allow thoughts and emotions to pass by like trains at a train station. They might stop for a moment, but they don’t linger too long. The trick is to remain aware and relaxed at the same time, without adding more cars to the train.
Want to know more about mindfulness and meditation? Read: 21 Meditation Tips You Need to Know As a Beginner
Decide to Stop Finding Faults In Others Now
I found this advice so powerful, I placed it in a commonplace book as my first entry. A commonplace book is a way to collect knowledge in one place so it’s easier to remember.
I don’t want to forget this quote. I plan to revisit it many times. It’s easy to be inspired by a piece of advice like this, but to change your life for the better, you have to remember it and put it into practice everyday.
How do you want to be in a year? Five years? Ten years? If you just let your mind run wild with criticism, judgments, and opinions in regard to others, you'll pretty much be the same.
Take this moment now to decide to stop criticizing others and work with your own mind and heart instead.
Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious! Don’t forget to sign up for Wild Arisings, my twice monthly letters from the heart filled with insights, inspiration, and ideas to help you connect with and live from your truest self. And if you would like to support Always Well Within, buy my Living with Ease course or visit my Self-Care Shop. May you be happy, well, and safe – always. With love, Sandra