You know how they say awareness is always the first step toward change?
This is annoying to me, not because it’s inaccurate (oh, it’s accurate all right), but because—as the adjective “first” implies—additional steps will be required. Ugh! You mean awareness is not enough to create change!?
Anyway, despite my intellectual distaste for admitting that a cheap truism is in fact 100% true—yes, I’m on board. Cultivating awareness is indeed the first step toward a change.
Are you talking to me?
Here’s the change I’ve been occupied with since my 20s when I discovered the presence of actual Buddhists in my neighborhood: Getting a grip on my self-hating self-talk. That’s not Buddhism’s main project, of course, but it does seem to be one of mine. Because the thing about this type of self-talk is that it causes intense psychic pain. The kind that can prevent us from watering the plants or experiencing love.
The kind of psychic pain that Buddhists consider literal Hell.
Now some people think that if you’re in hell, the less awareness of your home address, the better. But not if you want to draw yourself an accurate map of the way out. If your destination is love and kindness, the project becomes turning the awareness up to 11.
It’s not complicated. Awareness of self-talk is just putting some attention on what we’re thinking about, and doing that again and again and again.
And I don’t mean shutting down genuine insight or fresh ideas. I mean zeroing in on the drone of that unkind voice.
The Voice: You know it well.
The thing about insight and invention is that we have them in volcanic quantity. Or we would if we could just get that windbag the Inner Critic/Hanging Judge to shut up for a minute.
In contrast to fresh thinking, the Voice only has a few ideas. I know them well. They are, essentially:
- You suck
- These people suck
- Everything sucks and we’re all gonna die
In one word: hate. For my poor brain, the bulk of Voice-originating thought—not including fresh insight and inventive notions—seems to roll up into just a very few categories, and hate is the biggest one.
The others are fantasy and recycling. Some of the fantasy is hateful and it all gets recycled. Repetition is the Voice’s whole strategy.
If you’re interested in detail, I’ve catalogued:
- Fantasy, worries (some minor disaster, but mostly full apocalypse)
- Fantasy, revenge
- Fantasy, future glory (includes life makeovers; staggering riches; and fluency in multiple languages, spoken and written)
- Hate, self (name-calling, berating)
- Hate, othering (name-calling; critiques of speech, behavior, and appearance)
- Repetition, total nonsense (so embarrassing!! Hope I don’t start talking to myself in my later years because it will definitely disconcert the people…)
- Repetition, all of the above
See how boring? What about your categories? Let’s compare Voices!
This is all leading to good news though! And since I’ve already revealed my little repetition habit to you, I will repeat that awareness is the first step.
And tell you that the second step is looking that disembodied voice of hate straight in its lying little heart‡ and sticking up for yourself by saying:
“INACCURATE! I am not a complete dumdum.* Here is the evidence.”
And then I skim a few pieces of evidence right off the top of a very tall pile, which is what my mentor Martha Beck taught me to do.
And here is the other thing Martha teaches: You do this every single time. You train your awareness to catch the voice bullying you, and you never, never let it go. You make that bully back down. You stay resolutely on your own side, with kindness.
This is a challenging project for sure. But very worthwhile. Heaven awaits.
Let me know how you go.
- Podcast: Martha Beck on Hardcore Kindness
‡ If you’re wondering, I acknowledge that many people believe the Voice “just wants to keep you safe.” I don’t think that’s accurate. Any voice that speaks the way my voice speaks has long since left the precincts of guardianship and is now running with a very bad crowd.
*Yeah, that’s not the word the Voice uses; it has a whole ‘nother lexicon for Internal Use Only.