Growing a Kinder Voice

Befriending Your Inner Critics Through "Compassion Slogans"

When my 92-year-old mother was failing, we put on music to comfort her—dialing in a Catholic radio station broadcasting the rosary over and over, 24/7. It was my mother's favorite, and she smiled.

Many ancient traditions work with similar recitations, calming the mind and deepening meditative prayer. Protestants recite the Lord's Prayer. Jews chant phrases from the Siddur. Muslims prostrate themselves, repeating a prayer with each bow. Twelve Step members have slogans such as, "Easy Does It," that seep into their bones like a mantra.

Buddhism, too, has a form of mental recitation in spiritual practice, called lojong or "Compassion Slogans." These are pithy, but profound phrases that serve as sacred instructions, in the words of Zen teacher Norman Fischer, "to shape and illuminate our conduct and thought."

The sages probably sensed what modern scientists have now established: concentrating the mind through techniques such as mental recitation, anchors the sacred slogans in our unconscious. We literally rewire our brains, etching new neural pathways that transform our way of thinking; training the mind for happiness.

As a 20-something early in recovery from addiction, I traipsed off to Nepal to study meditation. It was there that I first learned about the 11­-century-old Tibetan practice of "Compassion Slogans," built upon the foundation of mindfulness meditation. The most celebrated of all the lojong teachings, The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind, is a collection of contemplative slogans that transform negative or critical thought patterns into loving-kindness and compassion for self and others.

For me, the results of this practice have been life changing. Like many Westerners, I'd long been plagued by inner critics—voices rooted in my past that said I was never quite good enough, that I wasn't lovable, that my efforts were insufficient. Those inner voices are still with me, but lojong training has, by and large, reduced their power—not by killing off the inner critics but by observing and befriending them.

In so doing, I've learned to better love myself just the way I am, at this moment. And during my career as a psychotherapist and retreat leader, I've become convinced that the same practice can produce the same benefits for everyone who's said to themselves, from time to time, "I am my own worst critic."

Transformation doesn't happen all at once, of course. Anyone in recovery knows that firsthand. Repetition is the key—when we meditate with slogans, we "keep coming back" to the phrase, holding it in our mind, rolling it around in our less-than-conscious self, until it becomes a part of us. Brain research shows that repetition calms the mind by reducing neural activity in the area of the brain that's engaged in self¬≠-critical thinking. Repetition creates memory traces in our gray matter. This is why the ancients recommended repetition. It works. The road to change is that straightforward, but we have to practice with our whole heart.

Consider, for example, the repetition of this seemingly simple compassion slogan:

Begin kindness practice with yourself . . .
Begin kindness . . .
Begin . . .

"Why begin with me? Isn't that selfish?"

Not in the Eastern view, which is that at a spiritual level, there is no separation between ourselves and others. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you? Of course, especially if, in fact, there is no "other" to project our hatred upon—no "other" different from ourselves, no "us" and "them." There is only the great "We," the first word of the Twelve Step program. We live in a universe of inter-being.

Our inner critics think otherwise. Even while treating others with kindness, they urge us to treat ourselves with sometimes unrelenting criticism, even contempt. And in this way, we're holding on to stories about "us" and "them" in our delusion of separateness. We become willing to do to ourselves what we would (hopefully) never do to others. To ourselves, we serve up harsh judgment, impatient demands, or undermining comments. And, it just seems "normal."

If we are mean to ourselves, we usually have a hard time being kind to others. His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes that without our own reservoir of loving kindness, we have no real foundation to engage with others. Our efforts are likely to be rooted in ego—wanting to do what other people expect, trying to act like a good person, or fishing for praise. In this case, we simply won't have enough inner resources to sustain being kind to others, especially if we are under stress. We may run on empty, become depleted, or feel resentful.

Instead, the Eastern teachings instruct us to begin by directing loving kindness toward ourselves. If we've erred, we promptly admit we were wrong, learn from the mistake, and resolve to make living amends. We bring our slogan back into awareness:

Begin kindness practice with yourself …
Begin …

By repeating a loving kindness slogan over and over again like a mantra, our intention soaks into the mind, into the depths of heart and soul. And by befriending ourselves, we simultaneously beget greater compassion and tolerance for others.

It's when we grit our teeth and "try too hard to be a good person" that we run into trouble with the ego. Resentment or exhaustion builds. We wonder why we haven't been appreciated more by others. By contrast, numerous meditation masters hold that if you truly love yourself, you'll more easily and generously love others.

We see this truth throughout nature. Say we want to grow tomatoes. We cultivate the soil and create the conditions conducive to producing fruit. But we do not actually make the tomatoes grow. They grow themselves once we fertilize, water and weed. Likewise, qualities such as loving kindness and compassion grow themselves beyond what we can imagine if we but sit in meditation.

Our part is to practice with slogans until they start to pray us. Then, we can smile. Loving kindness will grow itself.

Join Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart at the Dan Anderson Renewal Center for a retreat on "A Kinder Voice: Releasing Your Inner Critics," July 22-24, 2016. Register at Her newest book, A Kinder Voice: Releasing Your Inner Critics with Mindfulness Slogans is available now at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation bookstores.

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