Exploring the nature of criticism…

I don’t put much store in astrology, but when people say Virgos are very critical, I can’t really deny it. All the Virgos that I know are – then again, I also know a lot of people who aren’t Virgos who are…

Ever since my post on the death of Margaret Thatcher and my criticism on the subsequent behaviour of those who downloaded Ding Dong I have been thinking about the criticisms that I hold on to in everyday life, and those that I feel I need to share with others.

In order to criticise something, there must be a sense of self, someone who is standing back and commenting.  Yet in Zen, the goalless goal is to integrate completely, so that the sense of self falls away and we are completely immersed in the here and now, in the environment, in life itself.  As a Druid this is so very appealing, for I long to release into nature to become a part of it; to stop distancing myself from it with ideas and notions of who I am, which are constantly changing anyway.  Pondering on the idea of self, Zen would offer that the sense of self is but an illusion that we create and cling to, for various reasons – out of security, fear and ego-driven desires.  Therefore, holding on to an illusion is a little bit of a waste of time. Criticising someone else’s is a total waste.  If it’s not real, there’s no point.

We have this idea about our selves, that we have created throughout our lives.  What if this sense of self was just those ideas that we repeat the most, the ones that we like the best (or hate the most), the ones that shout the most loudly in our heads? Ideas are not real things – they are abstracts.  Experience is the key here, for experience is not an abstract.

So, back to criticism – in a Zen Druid worldview, is it ever right or worth the effort to criticise something?  There’s that old adage – if you’ve got nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all. For me, this is not enough, for when something needs changing, when those who can’t speak for themselves need a voice, I will speak out against it.  The key here is to do so with respect, honour and integrity. I’m still learning.

Also, offering criticism when it is not asked for is an easy trap to fall into.  Our lives are filled with it – we are inundated with television shows like Big Brother, or more importantly other reality shows such as The X Factor, Dancing on Ice, Strictly Come Dancing, etc. where we are expected to criticise, where we are voting for who we wish to win.  The judges on these shows often criticise dishonourably, mocking and offering nothing helpful. Sometimes they are offering good criticism and are right (at least, we agree with them).  (Spot the paradox – I just criticised judges on reality shows J).  At any rate, what these shows may do is to make us feel better about ourselves, with an underlying fear that we could be that person being criticised.   What I am suggesting is that maybe we need to detatch from the world of dishonourable relationship, where criticisms are just plain mean, or mis-informed.  I know I’m still working on it personally, as per my Maggie post earlier.

In Zen Buddhism Right Speech is part of the Eightfold Path.  I remind myself of this every time that I can before I now offer criticism.  Yet Right Speech does not say “do not to criticise”, but rather to reflect on whether this criticism is beneficial to anyone.  Talking about people behind their backs, offering criticism when it is not asked for, or condemning people when you have absolutely no idea what their motivations are is not altogether “right”.  Yet Zen states that we will never fully know the motivations of others, and that reflecting on this is also a waste of time.  So before you say something about someone, ask yourself – “Is this beneficial to anyone? Is this making the world a better place?” If so, then go ahead – with love and compassion we certainly need to do this in our world.  If the answer is no, then keep it to yourself, or even better, let it go, seeing it for what it is – an illusion, in most cases.  We are not omniscient – therefore our opinions on most things are subjective, and indeed flawed in that regard.

In Zen there is a saying – “Do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish opinions”.  This really strikes a chord with me. It is not saying that we shouldn’t have opinions, but that we should hold to them lightly, for how often has your opinion on something changed?  My Thatcher post and subsequent discussion changed my opinion, certainly.  If we cherished opinions so highly, we could never learn new things, progress and really be in the here and now, in a state of true experience. We would be holding so tightly to things that shift and change, that are never constant. It’s like trying to hold water in your hands – no matter how tightly you squeeze, a little water always dribbles out.

So, next time I am about to criticise something, I will consider Right Speech. I will also question what or who it is that I am criticising, as well as just who I think is doing the criticising. Most likely, I will have no idea on either score, and therefore either keep my mouth shut or investigate further, delving deep into experience before coming to any conclusions.

Having a critical mind is a wonderful thing.  It can really help us to see what can be done in the world to make it a better place. How we use it is entirely up to us.  Also losing your critical mind can be a wonderful thing, being utterly absorbed into the natural world, at one with everything.  The paradox is delicious.