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Give the shadows room to speak

April may be the cruelest month, but November is surely the gloomiest, at least in my corner of the world.

As November slides into December, we wait for snow to brighten the short but endlessly dreary days and the long dark nights. Not the little sprinkling of snow that melts during morning rush hour.

We wait for a decent snowfall, snow that stays. For that moment of pristine brilliance before all the salting and the plowing and the noise, that sacred hushed moment of endless diamonds glistening in the lamplight.

[Ed.: Well, I'm posting later than expected, we've had the big snowfall, the glistening moment has come and gone, and so have the plows, and then it rained. Right now December's looking pretty dreary too.]

As the planet moves into the final stretch before the light comes back, I’m aware of great waves of energy pulsing around me and through me, as if the goddess herself were preparing to labour long and hard to bring forth the sun at the Solstice.

There’s something about the feeling of this power flowing quietly through me, with neither fuss nor fanfare, that is a powerful antidote to the voices in my head that chatter and whisper all day, every day, about the various ways I’m wrong—I said the wrong thing, laughed too loud and at the wrong time—and utterly inadequate, never enough.

They say the same things over and over, all of them some variation on “you suck.” They usually start with things like “why can’t you ever…” or “why do you always…” “if only you’d just…” what? Essentially, be someone I’m not.

This internal chorus of criticism extends to all areas of life, but nowhere is it more visible and vicious than in my writing life. For most of my life, I’ve believed the things the chorus says, allowing it to stop me in my tracks over and over again; to nip in the bud any thoughts I might be thinking of having, burying them under a steaming pile of shame.

The things they say sound so reasonable, so “helpful,” it’s no wonder I’ve been sucked in so easily: “Oh look, there’s a much better way to say this!” or “Oooo, this word really belongs over there!” or “That’s not relevant, that’ll have to come out!”

Next thing I know, they’ve graduated from “helping” to berating me: “Who do you think you are anyway?” “Nobody cares what you think.” “You’re a stinky writer anyway, so why would anybody want to read this?”

I’ve spent years and no small effort unhooking myself from these voices. And still, after all that, they can still catch me unawares.

I’ll be tumbling through a first draft when I gradually become aware of a quiet, ever-so-helpful inner editor (who would, if it were up to her, still be rewriting my master’s thesis, which I finished in 1987) (and passed) (with distinction).

She sneaks up on me, slowing me down with a constant stream of “helpful” commentary that causes me to second-guess nearly every word, so quietly and seamlessly that she’s there for a good 10 minutes before I notice what’s going on and put a stop to it.

There. Now I can write my first draft of what I’ve finally figured out after two weeks of trying.

Oh look! Even now, the critical barb buried in the quietly reproachful “finally.”


Here’s the thing, though: All those voices aren’t really “me.”

I remember feeling absolutely gobsmacked when I first came across the notion that the committee in my head isn’t me, even if it sounds like me. That committee is actually an accretion of repeated criticisms that originally came from outside of me.

I remember standing in the self-help aisle at my favourite bookstore, the Singing Pebble, flipping through There Is Nothing Wrong with You, one of the many books of self-help-through-secular-but-ancient-Buddhist-wisdom written by Cheri Huber, the Zen monk who has made foundational Buddhist teachings accessible to so many North Americans.

The book opened itself to a page that said something like this: those voices are not you.

What now?

How is that possible? They sound just like me!

When I got that book home, I barely stopped in the bathroom before diving in, reading it cover to cover in practically one sitting. I was thunderstruck to discover that dammit, she was right!

There was a whole party going on in my mind, quite independently of “me,” cooking up ways to derail me, sabotage me, keep me small, keep me scared—all in aid of something that poses as “telling me the truth.”

Even more confusingly, there was more than one voice, with designated good guys and bad guys who were systematically gaslighting me. Good Cop would tell me to stay small and not do (or write) this or that (for my own good); then Bad Cop would come along and berate me for not doing it. It was crazy-making!

The good news is that these voices of self-criticism can’t stand up to scrutiny. I’ll never be rid of them, but whenever I lift up a rock they’re hiding under, they scuttle away from the light back into the shadows.

The single best way I know of to bring light to the shadows of self-criticism is to write the words down. That’s right, give them space. Let the committee air argue themselves to death, right there on the page.

When I write down everything that moves in my mind, I can see it on the page. When I can see everything on the page, I can discern how different the critical voices are from what I perceive of as “my own voice” in my writing.

My own writing voice has strength and depth and truth; it’s calm even when I’m writing about difficult things. The critical voices just say the same things over and over and over again. They may be drama queens, but they’re predictable, stale and unimaginative.

Allowing all those critical voices to bubble up, and then writing down what I hear them say, is an act of self-compassion.

Writing it all down is a way of saying, I see you. You don’t need to hide. You’re welcome on the journey. But you’re not driving. No, you can’t have the keys.

When I write down what I hear in my mind, it feels like something is expanding inside me. It feels like the space between my lungs is opening wider.

It feels like those glorious moments that arise—ever so very rarely—in sitting meditation practice, when everything goes still for a fraction of a nanosecond, and in that fraction, my consciousness perceives the smallest whisper of a tiny gap between thoughts. Once I’m aware of that tiny space, I can feel it nudging gently against the limits of my preconceptions.

It's subtle. It doesn’t ever bust wide open, but when I turn and look back, I notice that it’s spreading, and the thoughts that were taking up all the air in the room are now nothing but pinholes in a vast field of consciousness, each pinhole taking up a much smaller part of the whole as the available space expands.

When the thought recedes, as thoughts do, the space remains.

And then I can breathe better. Even the bullies can rest in this new spaciousness, within a container of love.

In writing as in meditation as in life, acknowledging a thought, giving it voice, giving it space, allowing it all—these are steps on a

path of self-compassion.

I see you, I hear you, I thank you. (And you still don’t get to drive.)

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