Book Review: Make peace with your mind by Mark Coleman

Mark Coleman, mindfulness teacher and psychotherapist has gifted us a powerful set of directions that liberate from that most insidious part of ourselves: the inner critic. In Make Peace with Your Mind (New World Library), the inner critic is revealed in its history, purpose and misguided intentions and Coleman makes it completely accessible. So let me start with what I usually reserve for the last line:

Get this book.
Devour it.
Don’t apologize for stopping conversations, meals or entire relationships in order to consult it – mid-sentence, mid-thought, mid-kiss.

About the book

Make Peace with Your Mind is set up to encourage practice. Don’t be daunted by the thirty-one chapters. I timed them and each took about 15-20 mins to read. But I was impatient to get to the practice section so take at least 30 mins to savour the words. Then spend a goodly time with the practices. Some are written reflections, some require wandering out into your world. Either way, these are crucial. As I often say in the mindfulness groups I run: Practice is who you become. It may as well be someone you want to be.

Reading Coleman’s perceptive insights into the inner critic – who it really is, how it came to be, how it is embedded in our mind and body – is like turning towards an aspect of ourselves with which we are deeply intimate yet see through blurred eyes. He begins with a big sky view inviting us to see the breadth and depth of this inner process in a way that is, at the same time, immense and safe. After sketching out “The Big Picture” (the first section), he dives into the intricate nature of the inner critic: Self-judgment and How to Work with the Critic. Then ironically, it gets tough: Love and Compassion for ourselves. How can we learn to love ourselves after years and years of being gaslit into no longer trusting our experience of who we truly are. But it’s only when we can connect with ourselves without the filters of fear and anxiety that we can also reach out to others and offer them the same safety through love. Coleman walks us through these stages of understanding and steps to freedom with kind attention and a gentle nudge.

Who’s afraid of the inner critic?

One of the first practices in this book invites us to take a few moments observing people (while sitting in a public place) and noticing all their faults. Then we are asked to notice what we feel internally. Then we observe people and look for their goodness and again, notice what we feel. It doesn’t take a stretch to see that the former leaves us feeling rather negative and the latter feeling good. Coleman points out that this latter feeling is really where he – and any of us – would prefer to be. Subtly, he also frames it as a choice we have – and, I would add one we made routinely without awareness.

Becoming aware of our inner voice that is harsh and critical can be a challenging and somewhat scary journey. After all, that process of singling out missteps, mistakes and misdemeanors is one way we believe we stay honest and can be motivated to try, try harder, try hardest of everyone. It’s an age-old training, likely hard-wired as a survival strategy, keeping us in social herds and adhering to their rules. Of course, over time, these self-judgments can become derogatory commentaries that run like a 24-hour transmission from some personal hell radio. But it’s all we know.

The practices invite us to hack these sound waves. First and what I really resonated with in this book, is that we are all the same in having a mantra of self-deprecation (he calls it the “not enough” mantra) and we are all unique in what that is in its specifics. Mine is the “I never try hard enough.” That inevitably gets me on the train to “the Rideau Street Bridge where I’ll be homeless, living in a cardboard box!”

Coleman populates his book with examples offered by people he’s trained or treated. My favourite is the image offered by someone who spoke of having an entire boardroom in her head. Being intensely averse to sitting on boards, I can see that my own boardroom is crowded with nay-sayers, scowlers, nit-pickers and ghostly figures of failures past. After reading this section, I decided to dissolve this board of mis-directors and turn the room into a meditation space!

Finally, my favourite quote in the book:

(T)he fact that something is true does not justify the critic’s using it as ammunition to undermine our self-worth.

It complements Hafiz.

“Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I would like to see you living
In better conditions.”

About the author

Mark Coleman is a mindfulness and meditation teacher in the Insight tradition. He teaches at Spirit Rock in California and, with Martin Aylward, offers a year-long program that trains mindfulness teachers. He is an executive coach and a master teacher for the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute developed by Google. His previous book, Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in nature as a path of self-discovery, brings the practice of mindfulness into nature.

Building Safeness: How to get intimate with our inner critic

chive heart

We all want to feel safe. It’s important. When we feel safe, we feel confident and more willingly open ourselves to new experiences. In fact, feeling safe leads to the willingness to take risks – to risk being known, being seen, loving and feeling loved. As we encounter the world in all its various ways of showing us what being safe means, we learn to open and close our hearts (and minds) when we feel respected or rejected. Paul Gilbert¹, the developer of Compassion Focused Therapy, uses the term “safeness” to describe the experience of being safe. It’s different from “safety” or “safety-seeking” which tend to be what we do when we are engaged in the threat evaluation/response processes.

There are many things in our environment that we have learned are safe and many we have learned are unsafe. Hot stoves, fast-moving traffic, dark alleys and the like are easy to discern in terms of their safety. Emotion-cued environments are harder to figure out. Our childhood experiences are a fruitful ground where we learn many of our lessons about safeness and safety. Angry voices, certain words, patterns of relationships and other features of interpersonal relationships can become cues for safeness. We typically know the degree of safeness from the language and tone of the person speaking to or interacting with us. Safeness with respect to our inner dialogue is no different from our external experience.

Most people, when asked about their inner voice, smile sheepishly and confess it’s not a pleasant one. But almost immediately, they will begin to defend their not-so-silent partner. “It’s how I motivate myself.” “I’d never know how to avoid mistakes I make if I didn’t remind myself that I can screw up.” While all this is true, the sad fact is, our inner critical voice is often what keeps us from engaging with life. More than that, the inner critic leaves us feeling threatened rather than safe.

Like all relationships, our relationship with our inner critic is complicated. We suspect it’s trying to help but it sure doesn’t feel like it at times. We’d like to turn it off but we’re afraid without it we’d become a lazy lump on the couch. We want it gone forever but it’s a hard-wired part of who we are. We’d like to make peace with it but we’re not ready for that inner group hug. We think it just wants us to be careful and wise but it sounds like it’s telling us can’t do anything right, ever! And to add insult to injury, no one knows us better than that inner critic. It knows all the buttons to push to get us to start or stop. It knows our vulnerabilities and strengths, often over-emphasizing the former and diminishing the latter. It is like being inseparable from an unruly, impolite friend who has really good intentions to keep us safe but can’t create safeness. It is intimate with every aspect of who we are and that also makes it primed for self-compassion²‚³.

However, befriending a person like that is a challenge at the best of times; befriending ourselves in the worst of our times can be daunting. That’s why we need to take slow, quiet steps towards engaging with the inner critic.

Step 1. Mindfulness. It’s hard to be in the presence of harshness, so mindfulness practice helps us stay grounded and aware when the inner critic begins its monologue of dire warnings. Mindfulness of our emotions helps us stay connected with the impact of the words. It also tells us when we’ve had enough and need to get off that nasty train of thoughts.

Step 2. Acknowledge we heard its message. This sounds strange because it may feel like we’re agreeing with it. Notice we are saying, “I hear you,” and not “You’re right.” Everyone has a perspective and the point of view of the inner critic is just one perspective on our life. As we become more comfortable with acknowledging its voice, we can try to acknowledge its attempt to help. Eventually with practice, we may get to say “Thanks for alerting me. I’ve got this!” Remember we can’t fight the inner critic with brute strength; we have to soften around it.

Step 3. Strong back, soft front: respect the partnership. The inner critic is really our attempt at feeling solid in our life; that’s the strong back. We have opinions, ideas, feelings and a reality that is meaningful. We are also of a softer nature that is attentive and giving, accommodating and caring. We feel our vulnerability and openness in relationships. The balance between the strong back and soft front helps us be flexible and available emotionally.

Meditation practices you can try:

1. Lovingkindness and compassion meditations help us develop less fear of being wounded. The inner critic tries to toughen us up against external criticisms and that subtly makes these criticisms seem more threatening than they are and the wounds deeper than they might be.

2. Giving and receiving compassion meditations can help to create space and calm between ourselves and our inner critic. Although the meditations are intended to give compassion to another person in our life who needs it, we could see the inner critic as an aspect of ourselves that needs compassion too.

3. Compassion Breaks and “Soften-Soothe-Allow” meditations help to develop presence in the face of the monologue we heard internally.

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With notes from Glynn, Brittany, Mindful Self-Compassion 8-week program, Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic

¹Gilbert, Paul (2009). The Compassionate Mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. New Harbinger Publications: CA

²Germer, Christopher (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion:Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. Guilford Press: NY

³Neff, Kristin (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. William Morrow: NY