I enjoy reading movie reviews. The people who write them are called critics.
When they criticize a movie, or streaming show, that I was considering watching, often I'll decide to see something else instead. So critics can be wonderful.
However, there's also a critic who is uncomfortably close to me. In fact, it is me.
Or at least, a part of me who isn't shy about pointing out my screw-ups, mistakes, and such -- often in a caustic manner that leaves me feeling bad about myself.
I don't mind getting feedback about things I could have done better, whether from myself or anybody else.
But that inner critic often goes overboard, constantly reminding me of mistakes from long ago that I'm already well aware of and which can't be undone because they're in the distant past.
So I perked up when I came to a section in Robert Wright's book, "Why Buddhism is True," that talks about how Wright was able to deal with his own inner critic through mindfulness meditation.
Here's what Wright said about this.
I've always been good at convincing myself I've made a mistake, at chastising myself for it, and sometimes at pretty literally hating myself for it. For decades people have told me I shouldn't be like this.
They've said things like, "Don't beat yourself up about it."
This has always annoyed me. My feeling has been that you should beat yourself up about things you do wrong. Otherwise you may keep doing them!
And let's be honest, isn't one of the big problems with the world how many people do bad things and then don't feel any need for self-chastisement?
...The experience I had that night wasn't a full-fledged hallucination. As I entered that weird visual space, I didn't lose contact with the real world. I was aware that I was sitting in a meditation hall and that intense concentration had put my mind in a place it had never been.
But where was this place? Only after looking around a bit did I realize that the place my mind had entered was my mind -- or, at least, my mind's representation of my mind.
The tipoff was that I "saw" -- and, I guess, "heard" -- a particular thought I've had many times after doing something arguably stupid or inept or wrong.
The thought was "You screwed up."
Actually, "screwed up" is a sanitized version of the phrase I tend to use and of the phrase that constituted the thought I observed that night. Anyway, the main thing is this: I now saw this thought assume a form I had never seen it assume before.
Come to think of it, I had never seen this thought assume any form at all. But it now looked as if -- literally looked as if -- one part of my mind was speaking the thought to another part.
There was even a kind of line tracing the path of the message, like an arrow on a diagram indicating the direction of communication.
I watched this intracranial conversation, watched the message travel from sender to recipient, as a kind of outside observer, even though I thought of the recipient as in some sense being me.
It's almost impossible to convey in words the power of this experience and its aura of significance.
...And what was the truth I was seeing? What struck me at the time was that, for the first time ever, this standard thought of mine -- "You screwed up" -- didn't seem to be coming from me.
It was just some guy in my head doing the talking. And it wasn't clear that he was worth paying attention to. Who the hell was he, anyway?
Now, more than a decade later, having thought about this stuff more and written this book, I might answer, "He was a module in my mind."
But at the time I was thinking less academically, and the lesson seemed to be that in the future I could treat my inner critic with some critical distance, if not outright disdain.
As much as I had resisted efforts to quit beating myself up, as much as I had minimized the toll it took on me, the prospect of living without this self-torture now seemed powerfully appealing. I'm not much of a crier, but I started crying. I tried to do it quietly, but I did it fully.
...And then I lived happily ever after.
Actually, no. Another line in that Foreigner song, right after "feels like the very first time" is "like it never will again." And, indeed, I haven't had a meditative experience that joltingly powerful since then.
My belief that I would be able to access this plane again and again and use it to orchestrate my own personal spiritual renaissance was naive.
So was my belief that I would quit beating up on myself, though the frequency and severity of the beatings seems to have fallen off a bit.
OK, Wright's meditation experience wasn't truly mind changing. Still, it benefitted him. Here's another excerpt from his book that's an overview of his attitude toward meditation.
In case all this sounds too abstractly philosophical, let me try to put it in more practical form, as the answer to this oft-asked question: Will meditation make me happier? And, if so, how much happier?
Well, in my case -- as you will recall, I'm a particularly hard case -- the answer is yes, it's made me a little happier. That's good, because I'm in favor of happiness, especially my own.
At the same time, the argument I'd make to people about why they should meditate is less about the quantity of happiness than about the quality of the happiness.
The happiness I now have involves, on balance, a truer view of the world that the happiness I had before.
And a boost in happiness that rests on truth, I would argue, is better than a boost in happiness that doesn't -- not just because things that rest on truth have a more secure footing than things that don't, but because, as it happens, acting in accordance with this truth means behaving better toward your fellow beings.
So that's why I'd say that increments of happiness that insight meditation may add to your life are especially worth working for: because these are increments of valid happiness.
This is a happiness that is based on a multifaceted clarity -- on a truer view of the world, a truer view of other people, a truer view of yourself, and, I believe, a closer approximation to moral truth.