post by Theresa Braine
From the harsh realities of our own personal Maras, to a whirlwind tour of the Four Immeasurables, Jan Chozen Bays Roshi took participants of back-to-back retreats at Zen Mountain Monastery last weekend on a journey that left us laughing, raw and with a vision of how to make it all one.
The series of two one-day retreats unfolded at the Sangha House, beginning with the Inner Critic on Thursday, May 12th. First, Chozen Roshi, co-founder and co-abbot of Great Vow Monastery in Oregon and Daido Roshi’s dharma sister, helped us isolate own inner critic and showed us ways to defuse that voice while having fun getting to know it a little. On Friday, May 13th, she gave a condensed teaching on the Four Immeasurables, cornerstones of Buddhist practice: loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.
After Chozen’s overview of the inner critic and its partner in crime, the pusher (whose job it is to create a to-do list insurmountable enough to make us set aside our dreams), her assistant/teaching partner Charla “interviewed” Chozen’s inner critic. We were treated to a riotous tour of Chozen Roshi’s alleged deformities: springy, too-curly hair; beady, close-set eyes; a red, red nose, in all seasons (think Rudolph). And that was just her head. One participant noted that the exchange seemed exhausting—a hint at how much energy we spend on these things day in and day out.
Then we paired off and subjected a partner to our inner critic’s pronouncements—first speaking to them as if they were adults, then as to a child. By the time we were done yelling and finger-pointing harsh, vitriolic, acidic words at ourselves and each other, the sniffles were audible. “If you saw someone speaking this way to a child in the supermarket, you’d call the authorities,” Chozen said quietly, after we had settled back down.
The lesson was twofold: Not only did we each get to hear how we speak to ourselves, but we also absorbed how easy it was with just a few repetitions in a workshop, to internalize the negative messages. And that also made it a lesson in compassion: “You don’t know what just happened to someone you’ve just met,” Chozen said.
As the day unfolded, it became clear that this critic was merely trying to protect us from something that it perceived as a bigger threat than the ugly haranguing. But it often accomplishes the exact opposite: “the very thing it fears,” Chozen Roshi said. Its motive stems from a desire to protect with a “preemptive strike, but then it just goes neurotic. It doesn’t know when to stop.” That voice “thinks it’s loving us by ranting at us,” Chozen said, but in counteracting our underlying fear that we will die penniless, alone, unloved and under a bridge, it goes “from danger to death at lightning speed.”
The inner critic is the age that you were when it started and thus has a child’s limited understanding of how the world works. As such, it employs outworn, irrelevant strategies. It’s got a “Teflon ability” to deflect praise, attributing accomplishments to luck or good timing. The inner critic has no sense of the present, Chozen said, dealing only in the past and the future.
Effects range from general dissatisfaction with life and yourself to depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders and even suicide. Being alert to conditions that bring it on—loneliness, fatigue, hunger, disappointment, anxiety and fear (also, as it happens, risk factors for addiction)—is a way to see this critic before its voice takes over.
Chozen outlined strategies for deflecting the criticism while recognizing the underlying truth of what the critic is saying, keeping in mind that it’s a useful messenger but not the means to solve the problem. Drawing this critic—which we all did in another exercise—is one way to look at this voice more dispassionately. Take it lightly by giving it a name, seeing the absurdity of what it is saying, collecting cartoons and noticing the amount of humor that is based on the inner critic. Cultivate balancing voices, such as that of a kind parent or grandparent, the wise inner teacher, the cheerleader, or even a fairy godmother or avatar. Have fun, “and find a place where the inner critic does not live,” such as the zendo, Chozen said.
For the next day’s retreat on the Four Immeasurables, the Sangha House was set up as a zendo, and surreptitious scribblers and sippers were asked to leave their writing implements and drinks outside. First we had to shed the Western, romanticized idea of what happiness is—sitting at the top of the roller coaster, fireworks going off, screaming in exhilaration—and replace it with the much subtler sense of underlying ease. From there, we embarked on a whirlwind tour of practices related to each immeasurable—a CliffsNotes version of sorts, but one that gave us a wondrous overview and range of practice options to explore.
“Mind you, we’re going at 200 miles an hour,” Chozen said as she took us through a sampler of demonstrations and practices. She noted that a retreat—not to mention years of practice—could be spent on each one. We did kinhin, or walking meditation, outside “with kind feet,” then “with kind eyes,” then “with compassion,” and each one pulled up different references.
The day brought home afresh the degree to which our practice is uniquely our own, yet cannot be done alone, and on Sunday, Chozen Roshi brought all the threads together in her dharma discourse. “Nothing is broken,” she summed up gently. “No one is forsaken.”