Training Your Inner Critic
March 13, 2024


March 13, 2024

When the Buddha talks about fabrications, saṅkhāras, sometimes he talks about five types; sometimes he talks about three.

The five types are the five aggregates. For each of the aggregates, he says you take the potential for that aggregate and then you fabricate it into the actual aggregate. In each case, he says you fabricate them for the sake, say, of formness, or for the sake of feelingness… It sounds odd, but basically you fabricate the potentials so that you can have these things to use as you go through the day, as you go through life. You’re trying to find your nourishment, you need a sense of form, and feelings, and perceptions, and thought constructs, and consciousness to get your nourishment.

When the Buddha talks about three, he divides fabrications into bodily, verbal, and mental. You get those on two levels. On the large level, bodily fabrication is any intentional act you do with the body. Verbal fabrication is any intentional verbal act. Mental fabrication is any intentional mental act. These are the actions that give results in this lifetime and on into the next, and the next, and the next.

But then, he also talks about them on an immediate level: how you experience them here and now in your meditation. In this case, bodily fabrication is the breath. Verbal is directed thought and evaluation—as you pick up a topic and make comments on it, ask questions about it, evaluate it. Mental is perceptions and feelings. Perceptions are the mental labels you apply to things. Feelings are feeling-tones: pleasure, pain, neither pleasure nor pain.

It’s important to see the connection between these two levels. Every intentional bodily action is going to involve the breath. If you couldn’t breathe, you couldn’t move the body. Every verbal act is going to require that you pick a topic and talk to yourself about it before you decide what to say outside. And all your mental actions are going to require perceptions and feelings. So right here you’ve got the seeds of the things that will have a huge impact on your life for a long time to come.

When we meditate, we’re focusing on these seeds: how you breathe, how you talk to yourself, the perceptions and feelings you encourage and cultivate. You can look at the Buddha’s teachings as advice on how to fabricate all these three kinds of fabrication in skillful ways.

He even gives you instructions on how to breathe: Breathe in a way that makes you sensitive to rapture, sensitive to pleasure; breathe in a way where you’re aware of the whole body; breathe in a way where you gladden the mind; concentrate the mind; liberate the mind.

He gives you perceptions to hold in mind: Think of the pleasure going through the whole body. Perceive it as something that can happen. He even tells you what kind of feelings you want to cultivate. Learn how to breathe, learn how to pay attention to the breath in a way that gives rise to feelings of pleasure, feelings of ease.

Of course, there are other instructions in the Canon where he talks about the bodily, verbal, and mental fabrications that he advises you to follow on the large scale: the kinds of actions to avoid, the kinds of actions to develop.

They’re all instructions in how to put things together in a skillful way. As Ajaan Lee pointed out, one of our main issues is how we talk to ourselves—verbal fabrication. For the sake of the practice, on the one hand, you have to tell yourself that you can do it. Think about those verbs that they use to describe the Buddha’s teachings: He not only instructed people, but he also urged them, roused them, encouraged them.

There’s a passage where Ven. Ananda talks about how you should develop a kind of conceit as part of the path. Eventually you want to let go of conceit, of course, but while you’ve got it, learn how to use it skillfully. Skillful conceit is the thought: “There are other people who have followed this path, gotten results. They’re human beings; I’m a human being. If they can do it, why can’t I?”

Even when the Buddha was being critical of his students, it was for the sake of encouraging them, letting them know they could do better.

This is one of the roles that our sense of self plays on the path: We have the sense of self that, one, is capable of doing this; and then, two, will benefit from doing it; and then three, can comment on and suggest improvement in your actions.

That third sense of self, the commentator, is often a troublemaker because our inner critic can have picked up a lot of strange values from the world outside. We live in a world where we’re being judged by lots of different standards, and you can always find somebody’s standards that you’re not living up to.

Think of the Buddha himself: He got criticized by people when he was a young Buddha. He was criticized for not showing respect to older people. And people spread all kinds of lies about what he taught, measuring him against some pretty bad standards.

So, you’re never going to live in a world where you’re not judged as lacking something, someplace, in some way. You have to decide, whose standards do you want to live up to? We live in a world where people who make a lot of money are praised, but is that a standard you want to measure yourself against? Success in a lot of the areas of the world requires that you cut corners, that you cheat, lie, do all kinds of horrible things. Is that a standard you want to measure yourself against?

The Buddha recommends that you chose the standards of the noble ones. After all, your kamma is not going to be measured by whether you were successful in business or in whatever occupation you had. You’re going to be measured by how you held to the standards of skillful conduct, i.e., harmless conduct. That’s going to shape your future.

The noble ones want to see you shaping your future in a skillful way. They believe that you can do it. After all, the Buddha said that if people couldn’t develop skillful qualities and abandon unskillful ones, he wouldn’t have taught those activities. We can all do it. We have to see, though, that these are the standards that we want to adopt.

This means that your inner critic has to be trained. Sometimes it can act like those squirrels we have around here: They get scared by something and they just chirp, chirp, chirp. And they can do it for hours—long after the danger has passed, long after it’s even a useful thing to do at all.

All too often we get caught in a loop like that. It’s like those Zoom meetings when somebody has two microphones on in the same room, and they pick up each other. They take a sound and they repeat it again and again and again.

You’ve got to learn how to cut the loop. For instance, say, you’ve been criticized: Okay, criticism may be painful, but then you have to ask yourself, how long do you have to hold that criticism in mind? If it’s a useful criticism, where someone has pointed out an area where you have been unskillful and you could do better, think about it long enough to reflect that, Yes, that’s something that you really want to improve on. But then you have to learn how to cut it off so that it doesn’t drive you crazy. If it’s something that’s not useful at all, you cut it off right away.

But we do have this tendency to feed on things that are bad for us. So just as the inner critic has to watch and train the other selves in your inner committee, the inner critic has to be watched and trained. Here it’s useful to see that it’s not just one critic. It’s a whole team. Sometimes they’re arguing among themselves about which standards to use, and sometimes they’re ganging up on you, but each critic has to be able to submit to some criticism.

In other words, when you see that your inner critic is getting out of hand, you pull away from it and identify with a part of the mind that’s more intelligent, that thinks about the Buddha’s instructions on how to talk to yourself. Just as he would instruct, rouse, encourage, and urge you, you should learn how to instruct, rouse, encourage, and urge yourself. After all, that’s the whole point of your inner conversation—if you want to use it wisely to figure out how you can improve yourself and to figure out which areas are worth focusing on, which ones are not.

The Buddha said that the secret to his awakening was being discontent with regard to skillful qualities. I mentioned that a couple years back in a Dhamma talk. The talk got transcribed, and someone wrote in and said, “This must be a typo. The Buddha would never say to be discontent.” Well, the Buddha did say to be discontent with skillful qualities. If they’re the things that really do make a difference in your life, making you less harmful to yourself, less harmful to others—and there’s area for improvement in them—well, work on that. Don’t just say, “Well, that’s good enough,” or compare yourself to people who are really sloppy and really bad, and say, “Hey, I’m much better than them.” Try to set some high standards for yourself.

A couple months back I was on a Zoom meeting with some people in a company. Their Buddhist group said that anybody who was interested in coming could listen to what a Buddhist teaching would be. There was one middle-level executive who was complaining about how he tended to throw temper tantrums. He was trying to hold his workers to high standards, and it was a constant battle. He was expecting me to say, “Well, learn how not to hold them to such high standards after all. Be a little bit more lenient.”

But that’s not the advice I gave. I mean, the company made a product, and in fact, I have one of their products myself and I want it to be good. So I told him that the trick is not so much lowering your standards. The trick is making your standards attractive, so that people will want to live up to them.

After all, that’s how the Buddha taught his students. We’ve heard about Ajaan Maha Boowa being really harsh with his students. Well, he was harsh with a sense of being helpful. If he felt that they couldn’t do better than they were doing, he wouldn’t be harsh with them.

I visited him one time and got yelled at three times in the course of half an hour. The monk who went with me, who had visited Ajaan Maha Boowa many times before, was jealous. He said Ajaan Maha Boowa had never criticized him, and he felt that Ajaan Maha Boowam basically, had given up hope on him.

The criticism is there to remind you that, okay, you can do better—and you will benefit from doing better. So have that kind of inner critic in mind: The one that criticizes with the confidence that you will benefit from the criticism, who’s not just trying to put you down or discourage you. You want a critic that looks at your actions and says, “Yeah, you can do better.” Take that as a compliment and not as a death sentence. Your critic should be looking at your actions as a work in progress, with the purpose of making the work progressively better.

So, look at the examples of how the Buddha talked to himself, and how he advised his students to talk to themselves: It’s always: This can be done; this is what a human being is capable of.

Now, the Buddha’s standards may not be the standards of the world around us, but the standards of the world are really undependable. As Ajaan Lee would say, “The truth of the world is that it’s not good. The goodness of the world is not true.” In other words, it’s not true in the sense that it’s not reliable. A lot of it is just the fashions of the day, and they’re going to change.

But there are certain Dhamma principles that are true across the board and for all time. This is why the Buddha had some teachings that he said were categorical—in other words, true in all circumstances—and others that were not. They were true for specific problems, specific places, but not others. One of the teachings standard across the board is that: Anything that is unskillful, you want to abandon it; anything that’s skillful, you want to develop it. You can do it, and you will benefit from doing it.

Train your inner critic in those principles. And take the criticism based on those principles as a sign that you can do better. You’ve got this potential and you want to make the most of it.