Monthly Archives: July 2014

Black & White

Black & White

My main motivation throughout life was always a search for meaning; wanting to know the meaning of my experience. It’s what made me an avid reader, an ‘ex-pat’, and a life-long student. And of course I wanted to acquire specific skills and qualifications, but I’ve realized it is the process of getting them that counts, not the certificates and references that go with them. Which is why I am interested in mindfulness, and want to share my interest with others.


What I’ve discovered is that meaning arises in the present moment, from moment to moment. There is no ‘Meaning’ sitting out there, waiting to be attained. Meaning happens in the moment, and is appropriate to the moment – but of course you have to be here! That’s why the sages and enlightened ones talk about being in the Now. Because if the mind is busy all the time reliving the past, or trying to control the future, we miss the present – and the present is where it all happens. If we’re not here in the moment, everything we’re looking for is actually overlooked. We’re living in a dream, which has no solidity, no reality.

Cockroach enlightenment

Being in the moment doesn’t mean having to forget the past. In fact, the more presence there is, the more the past can inform our understanding, as I recently noticed. Enquiring with a friend, a memory was triggered of a spontaneous experience about 20 years ago, at a workshop. I had felt like a blob, unstructured and almost formless, all I could do was observe what was happening. My teacher at the time later sent me a copy of a cartoon. It showed two cockroaches, standing beside the nozzle of a garden hose with a drop of water falling from it. One cockroach was describing its experience to the other. “There I was in the darkness, when suddenly there was a great whoosh! and a burst of light. And then I found myself here.” The title of the cartoon was ‘Cockroach enlightenment’. At the time, I thought it was a very funny cartoon – but it wasn’t until my recent enquiry that I fully realized the meaning of it!


Meaning is not fixed and rigid, because the true nature of things is a constant unfolding, moment to moment. It’s not black and white, and it is not at all chaotic, because everything is part of a unified whole –that butterfly in Timbuktu really is connected to a volcanic eruption in Iceland! And we get to watch it all unfolding from our own individual vantage point, moment by moment. Miraculous, really.


What has this got to do with mindfulness, you ask? Firstly, for those moments when we succeed in actually being in the moment, we’re aligning ourselves with reality. It’s not that it is always fun or enjoyable, but the fact that it is real is inherently fulfilling. It’s because it’s our life that it has meaning.

This is of course not to say that planning and preparing, or reviewing and analysing, are not useful. These are necessary and essential parts of life too. My experience is that these activities too benefit from being in the moment. More focused attention becomes possible when you become aware of the internal pushing and pulling that often starts when anxiety or doubt raises its head. It takes some time for the inner critic – as I’ve explored in my previous couple of blogs – to get the message that he (or she) is out of a job. That’s what can happen when you take the time to look more closely at your experience, and enquire into how your life got to be the way it is. And how it can change.

Explore mindfulness.

Kind hearts

Kind hearts

The discussion of the inner critic – see my blogs on Critiquing Criticism – often seems to have a reverse effect. Instead of relief at last, freedom from the difficult and often hurtful impact of criticism – or ‘faint praise’, which can be a cousin of criticism in disguise – it may appear to have become a constant companion. This is what I call the ‘purple BMW with pink spots’ syndrome: once you see one, you start seeing them everywhere! In other words, when you become more aware of some of the ways the superego is sabotaging your experience, it can seem that its attacks have increased, rather than simply been uncovered.

Love it to death

One of the best suggestions I’ve ever heard for how to beat the inner critic at its own game is to love it to death. After all, it meant well. It was a part of you that thought it was looking out for your wellbeing. It seemed like a good friend, trying to protect you – and others – from harm, or making mistakes. So if the holiday you sent it on seems very short, and it still doesn’t leave you in peace, turn around and look at it. Listen. See if there’s something to learn from it, perhaps an insight into false assumptions or beliefs you hadn’t realized you were holding on to. Love it for its good intentions. And then let it go. It’s the kindest thing you can do.

It’s difficult to talk of kindness or compassion, faced as we all are at the moment by continual anguishing news bulletins about disaster, hatred, war and thuggery. But if we have to start somewhere, then plain, everyday kindness to yourself seems like a good place. Kindness leaves no room for the inner critic, which in turn makes it so much easier to be more objective.

Hot & Cold

Objectivity is often seen as being cold, uncaring or uninterested. There is indeed coolness to it, which I think is more disinterested than uncaring. Objectivity requires being in the present moment, because old beliefs and fixed ideas tend to block freedom – freedom to be yourself, freedom of thinking, freedom of expression. Because the expression of truth allows freedom of choice.

With a little ordinary human kindness, there is always warmth. And where there is kindness, there may be objective analysis and recognition of mistakes, but there’s no harsh inner critic. Enquiry and meditation are great ways to explore the differences.

Try it!

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Critiquing criticism, Part 2: Creative blocks

Critiquing criticism, Part 2: Creative blocks

When you think about it, it’s amazing that any of us ever survive childhood. There’s so much we have to learn! Exploring the world and acquiring skills are not the problem. Learning to read, write and ride a bike is the fun stuff. What is much more complex – whether we realize it or not – is the process itself of becoming socialized. Learning what earns us approval, and what doesn’t. What brings punishment and pain, and what works to defend against that. What attracts friends, and protects against foes. How to get what we want, and how to deal with disappointment.

Regardless of how supportive and encouraging the environment we’re born into may be, or how many difficulties have to be surmounted, most of us generally develop the ability to make our way in the world. In the process, the inherent wonderful qualities available to human beings tend to become adapted to living in the world we know. Along with maturity, we develop a conscience – and this too is subject to adaptation, according to circumstances. Objective conscience becomes overlaid by the inner judge, the inner critic; what Freud called the superego.


Whether someone else is expressing their inner critic in their criticism – or indeed approval – of you or something you have done or said, or whether they are expressing an honest opinion, doesn’t really matter. If your inner critic is active, you will hear it as a negative comparison, or rejection. When criticism – whether from outside or inside – hooks right into the inner critic, the result can be hesitation, uncertainty, confusion, and painful self-doubt. Most painfully of all, we may even take it for granted! The impact can be devastating – limiting, repressive, and depressing. The worst kind of creative block.

The inner critic has an impact on our thinking, our feelings, our emotions, our attitudes – and even our instincts. It may seem to know what is best for us, but it relies on memories, conscious and subconscious, of the rules and regulations that governed our upbringing, right from the beginning. As children, of course, we did what seemed necessary to us at the time; we fit in with society’s rules and regulations. We did this by internalizing what was said – or implied – by our role models: parents and grandparents, older siblings, teachers, heroes and heroines, or society at large. Sadly, this meant cutting ourselves off from the awareness of our true qualities, our full vibrancy and aliveness. This is why criticism from ‘outside’ is so tricky – as discussed in my previous post.

Know thyself

The ancient Greeks, as so often, had an aphorism for it: ‘Know thyself’ is inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. And to know your self, it’s important to be able to differentiate between a healthy critical ability and the inner critic.

Identifying the inner critic is not always easy. It’s typically comparative: you are not as good as others, you could have done better. Put into words, it often uses phrases like ‘you should’ or ‘you shouldn’t’, ‘you have to’, ‘you mustn’t’ or ‘you can’t do/say that’. It tends to be alive and thriving in the work environment, in terms of qualifications, status, power, and salary – we take it with us everywhere, of course! People battle to survive in competitive environments, from home to school to college to the workplace. It shows up around appearance and possessions, too. What brands do you wear, drive, carry around with you? How big is your house?

Take a holiday!

Dealing with the inner critic calls for effective measures, and different tactics work best for different people, and in response to different attacks. Enquiry helps to discriminate and find out what the content of an inner attack is, so that you can find an effective way to defend against it. It’s good to experiment. I find one of the most effective ways to send the inner critic packing is to use humour. Now that it’s the summer, a good suggestion might be to tell it to take a holiday. Permanently.

Try it!


Critiquing criticism (Part 1)

Critiquing criticism (Part 1)

Isn’t it interesting how criticism is both highly valued, and greatly detested?

As many a wise person has pointed out, many of our problems stem from the duality inherent in our language, and in our thinking. Situations, emotions and thoughts tend to be judged as either good or bad, right or wrong, pleasing or horrible, moral or immoral, helping or limiting. From a Freudian point of view, we choose or reject according to the pleasure principle: if it gives pleasure, it’s good; if it causes pain, it’s bad.

In some circumstances, however, we learn to accept pain as a kind of necessary medicine. People often say: ‘Don’t hold back. Give it to me straight. Tell me what I’m doing wrong. Don’t be too gentle.’ Why do so many people believe that if the feedback is negative, it must be honest? Or discount positive feedback as someone ‘just trying to be nice’ or being afraid of hurting our feelings?

In most companies and organizations of all kinds, periodical role and activity reviews are directly linked to salary levels, opportunities for promotion, or access to sought-after positions. Critical reviews can be necessary and useful, of course, when feedback focuses on identifying what strategies have been successful, investigating the possible causes for not meeting goals, and defining the possible need for new skills. When a review is the source of great anxiety and fear of dismissal, however, it’s time to question its usefulness. Because when criticism only serves to block or limit someone, it could be a signal of the need for more discrimination.

Beyond black & white

With discrimination, any kind of judgement or assessment becomes more useful. Objective comparisons reveal more options. Asking questions brings more information to light. And information is helpful when it leads to greater understanding. Painters and poets are good at discrimination. They know that what looks black is not always black, it may be very dark blue, or purple, or green, or a melange of several different hues. And white is rarely pure white. It can be ivory, cream or magnolia. Pearly white, or a translucent lightness that reflects whatever is nearest. Hints of the palest pink, blue, yellow, or grey.

Critics – both inner and outer – very often mean well, which can make it difficult to ignore them. (I’ll be talking about the inner critic in my next post). It can be helpful to remember that criticism is usually based on someone’s personal opinion – and that opinion may be out of date, or simply out of touch with reality! The difference between judgemental criticism and useful feedback is that criticism tends to assume there is only one right way to do things. Reality is much more creative than that. That’s something that enquiry can bring to light. Want to try it? Contact:

Life Stories

Life Stories

By an odd coincidence, I recently came across a video interview of an old colleague – a man now acclaimed ‘the most successful Dutchman in Silicon Valley’, apparently. He had something very interesting to say about how products – he was speaking about technological products, but I think it applies equally well to anything – become successful. What he said was that a product doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s not their inherent quality or perfection that makes them successful, it’s how good a story is told about them. It’s the story that sells them.

What’s your story?

I think the same is true of people. Our experience is the result of our story. For example, if your story is one of happiness and success, that’s more likely to be what you encounter – and the reverse is also true. The real issue lies in whether you believe the story, whatever it is.

For example, at a certain point in my career, about 18 years ago, I decided I was no longer inclined to ‘follow the job’, and turned down a posting to another country. This time, I decided I wanted a more radical change, and began working for myself as a marketing communications consultant and writer. Over the following 3-6 months, I thought about how to do this, took a couple of skills courses, registered with the Chamber of Commerce and changed my status at the tax office, etc., and told everyone I knew about my decision. One of the people I spoke to was a salesman who visited a lot of companies in the course of his work. One of his customers told him of an opportunity that might suit me, and he passed on the name to me. That contact became my best customer, and continues to be a respected colleague and great friend to this day. The point here is that my ‘story’ was credible. And because I believed in it myself, it found resonance with others.

Within the overall story of our life we tend to have ‘sub-plots’: one for career, another for partnership, one for financial status, and so on. We may be more or less aware of these sub-plots. So finding out what our stories are is an interesting feature of enquiry. Also interesting is finding out where and how they may be limiting us, and ultimately realizing that we have choices. And most interesting of all is being open to all the choices that present themselves, when we haven’t already hemmed ourselves in with old stories.

It is no easy task to see through the blocks and obstacles that limit our potential. It can be challenging to investigate the empty spaces that show up in the cracks between sub-plots, the space that appears between self-images and stubborn beliefs. It’s good to remember that we’re all creators, the makers of our own stories. When we look closely, we might discover more interesting options. We need to be adventurers, and engage in a little space travel!

Try it sometime.