It’s not for everyone. But what a powerful weekend it was! Inner Critic weekend up on the hill.
I’m one of 20 enrolled in the first year of the three-year Hidden Treasure program at Light on the Hill retreat center in Van Etten, NY, near Ithaca. There’s not a certain “type” of person who participates in Hidden Treasure. We have a retired trooper, a kindergarten teacher, computer programmers, college professors, a minister – just to name a few. And there’s a very wide age range, as well, including parents, spouses, and adult children of former Hidden Treasure graduates. We’re all there to discover the “hidden treasure” of our True Self and to transform what gets in the way of that.
The Inner Critic, for instance.
On Saturday afternoon, we made a list of hurtful words our Inner Critic says to us and then starred the one that stings the most. I chose “Nobody is interested in anything you have to offer.” Ouch. There was a whole lot of ouch in the room. Then we did a dyad activity in which we sat facing a partner who read our selected Inner Critic comment to us in as harsh a voice as possible, repeatedly, to notice how it felt and where we felt it in our body. In my mind, I realized the unkind statement wasn’t true, but I became aware of a stabbing sensation below my ribs when the words were spoken and felt like a little child shrinking into a corner, not wanting to be seen.
As I worked with my partner, I heard the other pairs around the room and all the harsh words of my classmates’ Inner Critics expressed out loud.
Nobody likes you.
You’re an imposter.
You’re a hypocrite.
Nobody would like you if they knew what you’re really like.
On one hand, it sounded ridiculous because the people in the group are such lovely human beings, and I wanted to tell them not to listen to their Inner Critic because it lies! However, it also was powerful to hear all these silent voices in other people’s heads, unsilenced.
Actually, I hear the Inner Critic’s voice spoken out loud quite often in my part-time work at the library helping patrons with computer issues. There’s a lot of self-deprecating “I’m so stupid!” declarations, and I always assure people that no, they’re not stupid, and so many other people run into the same issues and feel the same way…because it’s true. Hearing my five-year-old kindergarten students exclaim, “I’m stupid!” broke my heart when I was still teaching. Such frustrated exclamations tended to be followed by tears, hiding behind their coat in their cubby, or pounding the table. The Inner Critic is formed early.
It’s something we all have going on to some extent, and my voice isn’t any more truthful than anyone else’s. We say things to ourselves that we’d never think of saying to a friend or anyone we care about. I can’t even imagine speaking such unkind words to anyone! It felt awful to have to say those words out loud to my partner. And at the end, she told me I was too nice. Too nice to others, perhaps, and yet, I still say those words to myself, especially when I’m tired or stressed.
Next, we repeated the activity, but this time, we replied by saying something like “…and I am a being of light” or “…and I am a seeker on the path”. It felt empowering and expansive, like I was so much bigger than that critical voice in my head and could rise above it. The words couldn’t penetrate like sharp arrows as they did in the first exercise.
We did a number of guided meditations and activities over the weekend aimed at transforming the Inner Critic. I recalled a recent conversation in which I wanted my daughter to realize how strong she is. I told her I know who she is. I was there when she was born and when she was a baby and experienced her radiance, which is still there beneath all the layers of conditioning that have accumulated around it during her lifetime. That’s who she really is – the hidden treasure – and that’s who we really are. Witnessing the birth of my two children and one grandchild showed me that this innocence and radiance is our true nature. We never lost it. We just lost our way to it because other stuff got in the way. Therefore, we don’t have to become more in order to “improve” ourselves. We just have to find our way back to our true nature and release or transform what is false. What a marvelous journey that is.
Our closing activity Sunday afternoon was incredible. We stood in two lines and faced the person opposite us. We held hands with that person, took a moment to get centered, and then looked into their eyes and said the words that sprung up from our hearts that described their essence. Then we switched roles. After each person in the pair had a turn expressing and receiving, one line shifted so we had a new partner in front of us. This continued until we had been with ten different partners. It was the polar opposite of the previous day’s exercise, and it was exquisite. By the end, everyone was shining, having been reminded of our beautiful qualities, our deeper essence that shines through the layers of personality and conditioning.
During the four-hour drive home, I voice-recorded the whole experience, to remember.
Then my thoughts turned to my parents. Realizing that so many people have histories of abuse and trust issues, I felt grateful for having parents who were so loving and kind. They were also my parents, and there were conflicts, misunderstandings, projections, roles to play, and things got messy. Although they could be rigid in their thinking and passive-aggressive in their actions, they were truly loving people. They both were sweet souls who never offended or argued with anyone! However, when they were alive, I didn’t notice their beautiful qualities much. I was fixated on their personalities and the roles we played together. In my mind, I criticized my mom for being too sweet and nice and wanted to be different from her.
Since I was their daughter, I experienced other sides of my parents – their fears, the ways in which they wanted to control me or change me. At the time, it felt like judgment and disrespect, but in hindsight I realize they just cared about my welfare so much and wanted me to be happy and successful and had different ideas about how I should go about it. I’d always wanted my parents to be different. More spiritually open-minded and inquisitive, more encouraging of my creativity, less fearful. That’s the personality stuff that got it in way, which was very different and so much smaller than their essence.
When my mom was dying, there was a softening of her personality and the roles we played, and I felt her essence come through more strongly and clearly than ever. It was really beautiful, and I was in awe of it. When we stopped playing our roles, it felt like we could really be present to each other. That was perhaps the greatest gift of that difficult and anguishing chapter: interacting as two rays of light rather than as mother and daughter.
Now that she’s gone, I can let my light shine even brighter because I’m not trying to suppress the qualities I associated with my mom that are also very strong in me.
So I did that amazing exercise with ten people I’ve only known for a few months and realized I’d never really allowed myself to see or express to my parents their spiritual essence – the rays of light they emanated in the world. Reflecting on their lovely qualities brought me to tears. Gratitude tears. I appreciated them so very much and felt so connected with their essence – their hidden treasure. The “…and I am a being of light” part of the human experience. Now that my both my parents have passed on, that’s all that remains. How wonderful is that?
Being aware of my parents’ essence helps me to realize that anything they did that hurt me was not done with an intention to do so. That realization helps me to liberate myself from my Inner Critic, which they unknowingly and unintentionally helped to create. One of the gifts of not having them on this earth anymore is how easy it is to acknowledge their divine qualities – the greater energy and pattern of their lives. I have so much gratitude for my parents, even though we were so different in terms of our interests and how we viewed the world.
What about the people who are still in my life?
The Islamic religion recognizes 99 Names of God (Allah), taken from the Koran and the hadith. In Sufi circles, I’ve heard them commonly referred to as the “99 beautiful names”, and I really love this idea. So many different divine qualities to celebrate! When aspirants are initiated to the Sufi path, they are given a spiritual name. Many Sufis have names derived from the 99 beautiful names. However, some are given names from other religious traditions – in my case, Tibetan Buddhism (Tara, associated with the quality of compassion). So the list of 99 names is not exhaustive (in my opinion) but is a wonderful starting point to appreciate the different qualities of light each human being brings to the world.
As I reviewed the list of the 99 names, I considered my loved ones and myself and which rays of light we emanate through the prism of personality.
Each of us is a unique ray of light in this world. Nobody can express light and truth the same way. Our ideas and wisdom might not be anything new that nobody else hasn’t said or offered before. However, the words, energy, and personality we use to convey them is uniquely our own. Nobody can speak in exactly the same voice or communicate it in quite the same way.
So back to the words of my Inner Critic that stabbed the deepest: Nobody is interested in anything you have to offer. First of all, it’s not true. It comes with a hook that I can get caught on if I’m not mindful. However, it’s not true. I can think of plenty of examples that indicate otherwise – and this is part of the work of transforming the Inner Critic. I know better than to allow my Inner Critic to silence me and send me into hiding. It can’t be an excuse not to share my voice, talents, and wisdom. The light we shine in the world has the power to heal and transform others. You can hear the same idea over and over from different sources, but it doesn’t really speak to you until you hear it a certain way – perhaps from a certain personality, using certain examples, or expressed in a language you resonate with.
Let’s not let our Inner Critic silence us or convince us to keep our light to ourselves. (I did that for far too long!) The world needs us to honor and express our essence, truth, and wisdom. It is worthwhile to transform the layers of accumulated “stuff” to find the hidden treasure. And to share that treasure – our True Self – with the world.
Post Script: Alice McDowell, my beloved spiritual director of 30+ years who leads the Hidden Treasure program, recently published a wonderful book based on the work we do in the program. It’s called Hidden Treasure: How to Break Free of Five Patterns that Hide Your True Self and has received all five-star reviews on Amazon.
© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (River-Bliss.com) is a contemplative photographer, writer, and educator who lives on the Hudson River. Her work combines her passion for photography and writing with her deep interest in the nature of mind and perception and her love of the natural world.