Being our own best friend is a challenging feat. In this excerpt from her new book Radical Friendship, Kate Johnson explains how meditation can help us get to know our inner critics and prevent them from hindering our path to liberation.
Meditation is making friends with yourself. It’s a statement that struck me as hokey when I first heard it, but the more I practice, the more profound it seems. Truth be told, there are things I’ve said to myself that I would never, ever say to a friend. I’ve flaked on my own self-care dates, broken promises of rest and quality time, and pushed myself too hard by telling myself that my best wasn’t good enough.
Meditating from the belief that we are broken and need to be fixed will only undermine our efforts to develop calm and ease.
I’ve forced myself to be silent when I wanted to speak. I’ve scolded myself for being sick or tired, and refused myself the opportunity to ask for help. Basically, I’ve had moments of treating myself like someone I didn’t even like, let alone love. What makes friendship with ourselves so radical is that we dare to do it in a world where the dominant culture would rather we be at war with ourselves. In The Body Is Not an Apology, author and activist Sonya Renee Taylor names this pervasive force of cruelty toward ourselves as a paradigm of “body terrorism” in the Western world. “Our economic systems,” she writes, “shape how we see our bodies and the bodies of others, and they ultimately inform what we are compelled to do or buy based on that reflection.”5 In other words, self-hatred is a big business. Radical self-love, Taylor proposes, can heal the harms caused by misogyny, ageism, fatphobia, and ableism, among other oppressive ideologies. If we think our bodies are actually OK, if we’re kind to them—feeding them when they’re hungry, accepting them even when they can’t do something they used to do, understanding that they sometimes get sick and eventually get old, dressing them in a way that makes us feel fabulous and happy anyway—then we don’t need to build our worth through products and services. So often, the things we buy don’t fill the void anyway.
Meditation is making friends with yourself. How many of us can truly say we are our own best friend? I know I mentioned in the introduction that meditation alone is not enough to undo the conditioning that has been perpetuated by systems of injustice. It’s also true that meditation can be a part of the healing process for those of us who have been deeply harmed by these systems. The key is not making meditation yet another way to beat up on ourselves for not being good enough. Meditating from the belief that we are broken and need to be fixed will only undermine our efforts to develop calm and ease. Self-aggression squeezes the mind, and discursive, aggressive thoughts spill out everywhere. Meditation, at its best, is an offering of love to ourselves. It gets even better with practice.
I learned this lesson in a big way once, while practicing on yet another three-month silent meditation retreat. I’d quietly decided before I arrived that I would do it “the hard way.” Which meant acting on a subtle belief that being mentally brutal with myself was the best way to swiftly spur myself toward enlightenment. At the end of each day, I felt mentally fatigued and physically sore. Still, I soldiered on, paying attention to mind moment after mind moment with obsessive dedication. After one particularly long and uncompromising day of following the retreat schedule to the minute and cramming in extra meditation sessions during mealtimes, I was crossing the threshold from the meditation room to the hallway when I heard an inner voice comment: Not good enough. It felt like a tiny jab.
Meditation, at its best, is an offering of love to ourselves. It gets even better with practice.
In the short walk from the meditation hall back to the dormitory, I noticed that voice chiming in at least a half dozen times. Walking: not slow enough. Stopping on the way to my room to get some tea: not focused enough. Putting honey into said tea: not hardcore enough. Every action I took seemed to provoke this harsh inner commentary. I realized that the internal criticisms had been coming for quite some time, only they were so subtle and familiar I hadn’t noticed them. I heard them, but they appeared in my mind as if they were simply the truth. Each comment only hurt a bit, like a pinprick. But, at the end of a day of being pricked every few moments, I was aching and full of holes.
When I shared this experience in a meeting with the guiding teacher on that retreat, he suggested that I relate to this inner voice as if it were coming from a cartoon character. Externalizing it, picturing the voice coming from something I could have a sense of humor about, might help me at least tolerate the experience, since I couldn’t control it. Because each criticism felt like a sharp jab, I nicknamed this inner critic “Jabba the Hutt.” I’d never actually seen Star Wars at the time (I know, I know), so I imagined Jabba looking something like Marvin the Martian—a tiny knight perched on my shoulder who jabbed me with a sharp staff from time to time.
My teacher advised me to be really aware of when the mind state I now called Jabba was present and to reflect on whether it had some purpose it was trying to serve. When I dropped that question into my mind—Is Jabba trying to help me?—the answer felt clear as a bell. Being hard on myself had worked so beautifully in so many other areas of my life; I’d managed to exceed society’s expectations, to be regarded in schools and workplaces as impressive, exceptional. Mastering Buddhist meditation, I thought, should be just like conquering any other obstacle that I’d blasted through up until this point.
Turns out, I couldn’t just put my head down and bulldoze my way to nirvana. When I tried to flick Jabba off my shoulder and go back to my breath, or when I spent an entire practice period inwardly yelling at him to push off, he just came back. Jabbing with a flourish, he whisper-screamed a defiant Not good enough! inside my mind.
At some point, I said to this inner voice, Listen. I understand that you’re trying to help me. But what you’re doing—it’s not helping right now. I’m already doing the best I can. So, why don’t you just come sit with me while I watch my breath? I imagined pulling the angry little guy into my lap, tucking him under my arm, and putting a blanket over him. From time to time, Jabba would stir and get rowdy, and I would soothe him again: It’s OK. We’re doing fine. Just a few more minutes, just like this. One breath at a time.
Sitting with Jabba seemed like such a humble use of this meditation retreat. I wasn’t busting through any new dimensions of consciousness, I thought, or dissolving my ego into pure bliss. I was just sitting there, calming an imaginary enemy that wouldn’t let me get into the real meditation. Oddly enough, when I gave in and treated myself and Jabba (who was, of course, also me) with kindness, I found that I did not end up plagued by a dumb cartoon character for the remainder of the retreat. I spent a good few days offering friendship and understanding to the voice inside me that told me I wasn’t good enough, and after turning to face it with love in my heart, it started to soften and subside all on its own. It was as if, by committing to making friends with that cranky, critical part of my own mind, it no longer had anything to poke at or stick to. The experience also yielded great insights into the nature of self and consciousness, by the way. Insights I don’t believe I ever could have found if I hadn’t given up fighting my experience and started allowing it to be, dropping the struggle and trying my best to love it even when I didn’t like it.
The reason why making friends with ourselves is so essential on the path to liberation is that the forces of privilege and oppression are not just out there in the world somewhere. We’ve all inhaled harmful societal messages and unknowingly integrated them into the most intimate structures of our bodies and minds, where they manifest in a seemingly personal way. Perfectionism is just one example. In their classic manual Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, anti-oppression trainers Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones wrote about the perfectionism that manifests in unjust systems as “the failure to appreciate our own and others’ good work.” We can recognize it, they suggest, through the presence of a “harsh and constant inner critic” that points out our faults, failures, inadequacies, and mistakes in a way that makes it nearly impossible to actually learn from them.6
Okun and Jones identified chronic perfectionism as just one of the characteristics of “white supremacy culture”— the expression of which isn’t limited to skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a set of ideologies that can be perpetuated by anyone acculturated within societies that systematically advantage white people to the disadvantage of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Their complete list of characteristics of white supremacy culture also includes:
• Perfectionism: identifying self and other with mistakes, little appreciation for assets
• Sense of urgency: the drive for quick and visible results
• Defensiveness: an inability to tolerate feedback or criticism
• Valuing quantity over quality: if results can’t be measured, they have no value
• Worship of the written word: little respect for other ways information is shared
• Paternalism: lack of clarity around how power is held and decisions are made
• Either/or thinking: oversimplifying complexity and creating false binaries
• Power hoarding: little value around sharing power at the level of leadership
• Fear of open conflict: those who raise issues are seen as problematic or inappropriate
• Individualism: a culture of competition instead of collaboration, leads to isolation
• Progress: bigger and more: an appetite for growth without considering impacts of continuous expansion
• Belief in objectivity: a premium on logic and reason, privileging what can be known through the mind, invalidating expressions of emotion
You probably see where I’m going with this. So many of the norms of white supremacy that are observable in our organizational and community cultures can also be seen at the microlevel in our meditation practices—because, if you’re like me, you probably learned to meditate within the dominant cultural paradigm. This culture reinforces a sense of urgency to get somewhere in our meditation practice. Valuing quantity over quality by competing or comparing with others about how many minutes we meditate for. Engaging in either/or thinking by approaching the practice as if there is only one right way or obsessing about which lineage is the best. Reinforcing individualism by approaching spiritual practice primarily as a solitary pursuit, preferring an app over a relationship with a teacher and a community. The sad fact is that these values, so normalized and even prized within white supremacy culture, actually undermine our spiritual progress, and they usually make us miserable in the process.
Here’s the good news though: in our meditation practice, we can hardly help but see these characteristics arise in us if we’re willing to honestly look. Recognizing them for what they are (forms of suffering) and establishing a new relationship with them (the wish to let go) sets us firmly on the path to dismantling them for good. Meditation itself is a practice that can help us to heal these tendencies and develop new ones that don’t rely on violence and domination to help us grow.
Liberating our bodies, hearts, and minds from internalized oppression takes time, energy, and lots and lots of love. We need to believe we are worth the effort. And, we need to find others who are in it for the journey too. Liberation is not, and was never meant to be, a solitary path. So, let’s talk a little about what it takes to accompany each other on the journey.
From Radical Friendship: Seven Ways to Love Yourself and Find Your People in an Unjust World by Kate Johnson © 2021 Kate Johnson. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. www.shambhala.com