A Buddhist‘s Way to calm down your Critical Inner Voice

I already wrote various times in this iPersonic blog about your critical inner voice (the part of your personality that is always busy confronting you with your faults in character or telling you what you did wrong), e. g. here and here.

Among our iPersonic personality types, especially Thinkers, Realists and Idealists tend to overdo their perfectionism. The Doers do not suffer from this problem as much as the other three personality groups which almost never are satisfied with what they have achieved. Of course one can partially benefit from perfectionism - after all, discontent often results in restless aspiration for improvement - but as always the right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy. Someone who constantly demands too much from him/herself, could easily end up with frustration, fatigue or burn out.
The motivation of being a perfectionist varies from personality type to personality type: Thinkers are obsessed with competence. They never get tired of accumulating more knowledge, more abilities, more expertise. By that, they want to excel in what they do and outperform any other competitor. At the same time, they criticize their own achievements (as well as those of others) mercilessly - they will always find the smallest fly in the ointment. Not a very good disposition to relax and enjoy your merits. Realists are driven by the need to make themselves useful, to help others wherever they can and to carry out their duty 150%. On the one hand that is because they are very reliable and responsible people by nature. On the other hand, Realists very much long - more than other personality types - for approval and positive feedback of others. They need the feeling to be indispensable and appreciated - and they would do nearly anything to get it. Idealists are perfectionists by nature: their most important goal in life is to bring everything they deal with to perfection, let it be their own personality or their ideal imaginations of how the world should be. Idealists want to stand out from the crowd, so they have to deliver outstanding performances, no matter the cost.

You will find several tips how to tame your critical inner voice a bit in my two articles mentioned above. These days I read the wonderful book „Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?“ by Ajahn Brahm - which I warmly recommend! - and found a charming little story about this topic which I would like to share with you. Ajahn Brahm lives as a monk in the forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism in Australia. In his book (again: totally worth reading!!) he presents a collection of many little stories, buddhist parables and anecdotes. They all deal with the second noble truth of Buddhism: the cause of happiness. As Ajahn Brahm writes in the preface of his book: „Each story carries many levels of meaning, so the more you read them, the more truths are revealed.“ I can only agree to that! I couldn‘t stop reading and the book definitely has became one of my all-time favourites. One of the reasons for this (but by far not the only one!) is the story about insane perfectionism I am going to share with you now (in a shortened form; you can find the full story in the free reading extract on the Amazon page, too).

Two bad bricks

After we purchased the land for our monastery in 1983 we were broke. We were in debt. There were no buildings on the land, not even a shed. Those first few weeks we slept not on beds but on old doors we had bought cheaply from the salvage yard; we raised them on bricks at each corner to lift them off the ground. (There were no mattresses, of course - we were forest monks.) (...)

We were poor monks who needed buildings. We couldn‘t afford to employ a builder - the materials were expensive enough. So I had to learn how to build: how to prepare the foundations, lay concrete and bricks, erect the roof, put in the plumbing - the whole lot. I had been a theoretical physicist and high-school teacher in lay life, not used to working with my hands. After a few years, I became quite skilled at building, even calling my crew the BBC („Buddhist Building Company“). But when I started it was very difficult.

It may look easy to lay a brick: a dollop of mortar underneath, a little tap here, a little tap there. But when I began laying bricks, I‘d tap one corner down to make it level and another corner would go up. So I‘d tap that corner down then the brick would move out of line. After I‘d nudged it back into line, the first corner would be too high again. Hey, you try it!

Being a monk, I had patience and as much time as I needed. I made sure every single brick was perfect, no matter how long it took. Eventually, I completed my first brick wall and stood back to admire it. It was only then that I noticed - oh no! - I‘d missed two bricks. All the other bricks were nicely in line, but these two were inclined at an angle. They looked terrible. They spoiled the whole wall. They ruined it.
By then, the cement mortar was too hard for the bricks to be taken out, so I asked the abbot if I could knock the wall down and start over again - or, even better, perhaps blow it up. I‘ made a mess of it and I was very embarrassed. The abbot said no, the wall had to stay.

When I showed our first visitors around our fledgling monastery, I always tried to avoid taking them past my brick wall. I hated anyone seeing it. Then one day, some three or four months after I finished it, I was walking with a visitor and he saw the wall. „That‘s a nice wall“, he casually remarked. „Sir“, I replied in surprise, have you left your glasses in your car? Are you visually impaired? Can‘t you see those two bad bricks which spoil the whole wall?“

What he said next changed my whole view of that wall, of myself and of many other aspects of life. He said: „Yes. I can see those two bad bricks. But I an see the 998 good bricks as well.“

Maybe you can think of this story about the two bad bricks in the future, when your critical inner voice becomes too dominant? And maybe then you will be able to see the many, many good bricks in your personal „wall“ as well instead of just focusing on the two bad bricks? I found this picture so impressive and clear that I try to remember it as often as I can. It does not only help me to be more patient and merciful with myself and my own faults and errors, but also with those of other people. I guess, Buddha would be pleased with this.

Here is the link to the full book again.