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The Power of Spiritual Courage

We tend to think that criticisms come from other people. But in truth, all things that we perceive as criticisms originate internally, born from our constructed self-image -- how we like to think of ourselves and how we want others to see us.
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A confession: I tend to react poorly when I believe that someone is criticizing me, often getting defensive or trying to make the other person wrong. This is not exactly a Rabbinic response, but to be fair, few of us react well to a perceived criticism, and our responses can range from denial ("I didn't do anything wrong"), to annoyance ("Why is he always on my case!"), frustration ("Why can't I get this right?"), depression ("There's something wrong with me"), shaming the messenger ("You are the problem here, not me") and anger ("How dare he say that after all I've done!")

We may believe that these reactions are natural and inevitable, but there is a complex and destructive dynamic underneath. We tend to think that criticisms come from other people. But in truth, all things that we perceive as criticisms originate internally, born from our constructed self-image -- how we like to think of ourselves and how we want others to see us. We -- usually unconsciously and at a very young age -- created our self-image in order to feel safe and appreciated. Thus, most of us are strongly attached to this image and will vigorously fight anything or anyone that threatens it. We do this to avoid looking at the parts of ourselves that we've labeled as "bad" because these provoke fear of rejection and abandonment. When someone seems to challenge our self-image, then, we may react in one of the ways described earlier. The severity of the response relates to the level of attachment to our self-image and the fear of discovery that this image may not be true.

The difference between a criticism and a simple observation is in how it is received: The tone of a response to an observation is inquisitive, mature and nuanced, while the tone of a response to a perceived criticism is one of derision, childish emotions and blank and white thinking. In this way, a criticism may be defined as an observation that carries a perceived challenge to our self-image. This is a very human dynamic that can lead to much pain and abuse. The defense of our self-image leaves us living on-guard, dampening our creativity, distancing us from others, stopping us from facing life honestly and keeping us imprisoned in denial. In its extreme form, it is the cause of most of the evil in our world, as some people, groups (yes, including religious factions) and even nations are so militantly committed to defending their self-image, and so afraid of being discovered and proven wrong, that they will actively silence, and if deemed necessary kill, others who present a challenge to it.

There are spiritual practices that promise relief from this painful dynamic by encouraging us to move away from the discomfort toward calm and quiet, or by telling us that the inner voice of criticism comes from outside ourselves. Such practices may bring us a feeling of peace. Like a nap in the sun, this can be relaxing and rejuvenating. But we awaken to find that the pain has actually increased. When a root cause is ignored, it digs in and spreads deeper. This is why spiritual practices are not about momentarily easing the pain, but are designed to heal the illness; they are meant to awaken us, not make our sleep more pleasurable.

Spiritual healing begins when we look at the difficult realities of our lives with honesty, compassion and, most of all, courage. Powerful spiritual practices like awareness meditation teach us to become sensitive to our interior psycho-spiritual landscape and to identify the blocked places that do not flow with clear light. These places may appear as thick, swirling, gray, spiky, raw, solid or sensitive -- the energies that cover the rejected parts of ourselves, manifested in our reactions to perceived criticisms. Then, instead of indulging our temptation to turn away and find relief in a place of calm, these spiritual practices tell us instead to move toward the points of turmoil and dive in. This takes tremendous courage because here we face the parts of ourselves that we have worked so hard to avoid ever seeing or being seen. It is crucial that this be done with inquisitiveness and compassion, not judgment and condemnation. This requires that we love ourselves enough to find out what hurts and resolve to heal it, without the tired, old, childish fear that we will be abandoned. We do this so that we can live freely and truly be a blessing.

With spiritual courage we ask ourselves, "What is the most painful thing that someone could say to me, or that I could tell myself?" We might answer, "You are a negligent parent," "You are selfish," "You don't matter," "You'll never amount to anything," "No one loves you," "You are incompetent," "You are ordinary" or "You are an insensitive jerk." Next, we must go toward the emotions that this generates, inviting the critical voice to speak and committing to listen. We continue to explore with the tone of observation -- going deeper, feeling the emotions that arise with an open heart and, most importantly, staying longer than is comfortable. Just like lifting weights, we only grow when we lift more than we thought we could, and more than we did yesterday. This practice builds spiritual muscles that allow us to face our most difficult challenges with more strength and courage.

Soon, if we stay long enough, we find that the critical voice is spent. As the emotions begin to dissipate, we see that this place is not so scary after all; as a matter of fact it is a new landscape that is fascinating because we see that the things we had rejected are simply another component of our, and everyone else's, humanity; so many of the rules that we thought governed life are our own fabrications. Here, the fierce grip of our self-image softens as we begin to mature in forgiveness for ourselves and for others.

If we are truly diligent and fortunate, we may reach the bottom of the turmoil and discover an unexpected and amazing gem that we buried when we were children, having discarded it as we built our defensive self-image. This essential part of ourselves that we labeled "bad" has remained unexposed, pristine and pure, since it was hidden there so long ago. Perhaps this is our true passion, our strength, our optimism, our sexual desire, our confidence, our gratitude or our generosity -- anything that we thought, if expressed, would lead to loss of love. And now we can reclaim it without shame and fear. This reclamation brings a tremendous surge of power as it dissolves our defenses and reunites with our consciousness.

At the deepest level, then, the agitation provoked by perceived criticism is actually a protection to keep these tender and powerful essences safe. With courage, we realize that the things we once saw as criticisms are in fact our warning system, pointing to areas that need exploration and healing -- the only way out of the pain is in and through it. From this perspective, we know that criticism is a gift for which we are grateful. If we are mired in defending our self-image, we will resist feeling and expressing gratitude -- an emotion that flows outward toward others and requires the confidence to let go of our need to be perceived in a way that makes us feel safe. With spiritual courage, though, we discover that this journey, which we had avoided for so long, brings us to who we truly are in power, maturity, freedom, empathy and wholeness.