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The Inner Critic

#74 - 11/30/-0001

"The choice is simple: between now and the inevitable end of our days, we can choose either to live or to die. . . We cannot expect anyone to help us live; we must discover how to do it for ourselves." - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Finding Flow

I sometimes wish I could give a speech without any words. It's a difficult admission for a writer, speaker and appreciator of fine language, but words are too much with us, I think. They have become so enmeshed in the fabric of existence that it feels as though they are existence. We build our world with words the way my little daughter builds her play world out of toys, convincing herself that these dollies are genuinely her babies. Words are woefully inadequate to make a world. They are much farther from concrete reality than Elizabeth's dolly is from an actual baby. And yet we talk our way through life as if it were the only way to live - with our "monkey minds" chattering away, filling every gap, every tiny instant, with chatter - uttered or not.

Have you ever known someone who just could not shut up? There's a word (of course) for that: logorrhea. It's a sad and irritating condition whereby a person seems to be allergic to silence. Every instant must be commented on, or at least filled with some sort of verbal packing – like excelsior – to insulate everyone in earshot from the actual experience of living that moment. Many people suffer under the illusion that it is only those moments which are described, judged, and turned into verbal narrative, that are really being experienced. In fact, the opposite is true.

Words are abstractions of the world. They are the symbols and surrogates we have created to pass the world around from one head to another. While it may seem to us that they describe the here-and-now in an instantaneous way, they are always at some remove from the suchness of the world. The play-by-play is not the baseball game.

There is a saying: "you are not the voice in your head, you are the hearer of the voice." I think that 'voice' part of our mind, the left hemisphere, the super-ego, is trying to get control, and it just can't seem to manage it. Why? The words set us apart from our existential present moment just a bit, a tiny fraction of a nanosecond, while we write a quick critique of the movie we are living. Isn't that so? Isn't the substance of these word-filled thoughts often a bunch of judgements and frets and worries and regrets, casting back and forth between the past and the future, distant and near? Mind-chatter is a sort of mono-logorrhea in our brain's left hemisphere where that critical, parental-sounding voice in our head just won't shut up.

That nagging inner critical voice can be deadly for speakers and performers of any stripe. I remember working in an acting class led by Frank Corsaro, the great director, writer and teacher. After I had finished acting a scene he told me: "We can see you battling with your inner critic. You are so eager to be good, you cannot permit yourself to simply be, without judging it good or bad at the same time. Acting is the ultimate act of trust in your self. Good, bad or otherwise, you are the character and therefore everything you say and do is perfectly appropriate. Furthermore, if somehow, you were able to succeed in being the perfect performer that your inner critic is demanding, the performance would be dull and dead. What makes any performance compelling is its human-ness. The flaws and vulnerabilities that your inner critic finds objectionable are in fact the interesting and exciting aspects of any performance."

This wise counsel applies equally well to speakers and anyone else who must perform for others. The moment of the performance requires a commitment to self-trust. Bad acting is almost always bad because it is self-conscious. Is that not also true for speakers? We can see when the performers are divided from the performance, watching, judging themselves, and it undermines our belief.

To neutralize the critical voice, we need to learn how to empower the 'hearer of the voice' don't we? We often neglect the right hemisphere of our human brain because it is mute - completely non-verbal. The question becomes: can you live in that mute, silent half of yourself? I submit that you can, and do – and that it is a great benefit to do so as often as possible. How? By becoming so absorbed in some project – gardening, carpentry, cooking, making music, any sort of work with the hands – that you lose all track of time. When you come to the end of such a task and are startled to find that hours have elapsed, then you know you have been living in the timeless moment, on the right side of the brain.

If you examine that experience, you may realize that there was little or no mental chatter happening then. You were in a state of 'Flow' as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author and psychologist, has described in his important books on the subject. This special state, Flow, is only accessible from the right hemisphere of the brain, from that part of the human mind that is always and only alive to the present moment. The 'Hearer,' the genuine you, your actual self, resides there. The more value and attention you give to that part of yourself, the more available it will be for the crucial performances of your life, like speeches. For some exercises on developing that part of your mind I recommend studying the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards. You will discover astonishing abilities in yourself, see the world with new eyes, and, as a bonus, learn to draw.

I do not mean for you to throw away the left side, which has many vital skills and abilities. The ideal is to combine the talents of both the right and left so that harmonious integrated activity ensues. Peak performances always display this undivided concentration of skills from every aspect of the self. We need our entire mind, balanced and equalized like the magnificent stereo system it is. Then we can bring forth the music from the whole orchestra of our creative potential.


A Thought to Ponder

"It is in order to really see, to see ever deeper, ever more intensely, hence to be fully aware and alive, that I draw what the Chinese call 'The Ten Thousand Things' around me. Drawing is the discipline by which I constantly rediscover the world. I have learned that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle."

– Frederick Franck - The Zen of Seeing