Mark Coleman is an internationally recognized mindfulness facilitator who has guided students on five continents to find greater peace and fulfillment through nature-based mindfulness practice and mindfulness retreats. The founder of The Mindfulness Institute, Coleman is the author of several books, including Awake in the Wild and the recently published, Make Peace With Your Mind. A popular mindfulness consultant, he has worked in a variety of corporate settings, bringing the gifts of meditation to such companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Gucci, Prana, Dolce Gabbana, Gap, Responsys and others. He leads backpacking and nature-based retreats, and has a counseling practice in the Bay Area, where he integrates his Masters in Clinical Psychology and meditative work and works with people how to integrate their mindfulness practice into daily life. We talked about useful tools for stopping the battle within and confronting our inner critic and bullies.
Mark Matousek: How did you go from being an angry young man to someone devoted to mindfulness practice? Did you come to some life-changing moment of truth?
Mark Coleman: I was an angry young man, as you say. I was a punk rocker, blaming the government, corporations, and anything external, like my family, for my anger. I was pretty miserable, festering in my own mind. I began to think, there has to be a different way, there has to be another way out. I started unconsciously seeking, picking up books and looking at teachers, and I stumbled on this Buddhist meditation center at the east end of London. Back in the early 80’s, meditation, mindfulness, and Buddhism were pretty obscure. In any case, I went into the center and the people there seemed to have a certain presence and quality, stillness and purposefulness. I had the sense that they were on to something that I was intuiting but had no access to. So, I started meditating and as soon as I turned that lens of attention inwards, it was like, okay, game over. This is what I’d been looking for to resolve some of these inner conflicts and pains.
MM: With this new book, you’ve turned into something of an expert on the inner bully and critic, in fact. What do most of us misunderstand about the bully within?
MC: I think one of the misconceptions is that we need it to function, to get out of the bed in the morning. That we need it for our work, and to become a better person. So we listen to its voice in the guise of self improvement, or being better at our job, better at decision-making or ethical choices. In fact, the bully is a faulty mental construct, a habit that we look to that’s not so useful.
Think about ethical choices, for example. We have this beautiful thing called conscience where we feel and intuit what is right or wrong. Whereas the critic has a simplistic view of what’s good and bad. Conscience is all about using discernment, discrimination and assessment, rather than looking to the rather crude form of advice from the judge that’s mostly attacking our sense of worth or value, instead of giving us helpful information.
MM: How can we neutralize the bully without engaging with it? Obviously, we want to intercede on our own behalf, but we don’t want to get into a conflict with the bully. Can you describe that process?
MC: Yes. You know the subtitle of my new book is How Mindfulness Compassion Can Free Us From The Critic. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware, to note, to notice. When we apply that to our thoughts and mental habits, we bring a clarity of awareness in seeing what’s just an ordinary thought and what’s a judging thought that’s pejorative or putting us down in some way. So, we first bring that lens of awareness, and then we can do all kinds of different strategies. We can inquire.
Mindfulness is the primary tool in that we get a little space between ourselves and the thoughts and then we actually can be more responsive, as in: Do I want to listen to that? Do I want to ignore it? Do I want to say “no thank you”. Do I want to inquire if that’s really true or helpful? So we start with mindfulness and we’re not engaging, because as soon as we do that, we’ve given the critic authority. Instead, we want to notice the critic but not give it any attention, not really give it much value.
MM: That moment between thought and emotion is so split second, though. The body is already feeling emotions before we’ve even realized the bully has kicked in. How do we work with the emotions once they are in the gut? Or is it just about 'sitting with the discomfort'?
MC: We need compassion once the critics views have landed. Often we feel bad, unworthy, and deficient. And so, we need to have a kind response to that. In my own life, one of the first significant moments came when I was in meditation and the critic was really assailing me about something; for the first time I felt how painful it was in the heart. Seeing how painful it was and then allowing the response to the critic to come through from compassion and a fierce self protection. With mindfulness, we can be with the experience in more immediate way. When we find ourselves flooded with an emotion that’s come after the judgement, we’ve often missed the very judgment that triggered the emotion. It's possible to roll backwards and ask: so what’s the view or idea that I missed while doing something—writing or whatnot—that suddenly I went from feeling okay to feeling hopeless? You notice, oh, that’s when my critic came in and said it was pathetic, I’m not a writer. That's where I can say, "Okay, that’s the thought—is that true? Is that useful? Thank you [critic] for your opinion. Now go have a nice day."
MM: Let’s talk about the negativity bias. As you write about in your book, we’re actually born with this hardwired tendency toward negative thinking. Negative thoughts and experience impact us more powerfully than the positive do. How can this knowledge affect our relationship to the critic or bully?
MC: To some degree, the critic arises out of that negativity bias in that our brains are oriented towards threat and toward survival. The critic really started as a survivor mechanism in early infancy and childhood when we were trying to navigate our early family system and culture; when we’re learning how to fit in so we could optimize that flow of love and affection. It was an internal voice telling us to shut certain patterns and reactions down, that negativity bias that’s always looking for what's wrong, looking for the threat. That tendency gets dovetailed into the critic, so that we don’t just notice what’s wrong. Instead, the critic comes in and nails us, slams us for it.
For example. Let’s say you grew up in an very unstable family and as a result have an anxious disposition. Your brain is orienting toward anxiety, then the critic comes in and says, “Well, you shouldn’t be anxious. Here you are in your home, what's your problem, get over yourself. You’re really pathetic for being anxious. All the successful people are not anxious." This voice just dovetails onto the already skewed lens we have and judges or ridicules or belittles us for that. We live with that sense of not being enough, and it causes a very painful state.
MM: As a teacher of mindfulness, do you find that anger has its purposes in the process of awakening?
MC: That's a very topical question at the moment, isn't it? There are a lot of people pre- and post- election who are feeling a lot of outrage and anger and a need for a much more active response—especially from the spiritual, progressive community —to election results, appointments and possible things coming down the pipe that may be impactful for many communities. In the Buddhist tradition, where mindful meditation comes from, anger is regarded as a somewhat unhealthy,unskillful emotion because we can be blinded by it. We don’t see clearly and tend to do things and say things that are harmful out of the anger because we don’t have clarity.
But I do believe there’s a place for anger in spiritual life. Just as a mother protects a child, as parents protect offspring under threat, we need a place for the conscious use of that fire. The positive side of anger as fierceness. There are plenty of times we need fierce compassion, fierce love. Just like when a child does something that is very harmful and we say "No!", we need some kind of fierceness. There’s a certain kind of fierceness that can look like anger and has that fire of anger, but the difference is that it’s not blinded with reactivity.
MM: How can we transcend the polarizing force of our politics through mindfulness? Counter the external bullies? Move past us versus them?
MC: Well, of course, that is the million-dollar question. How do we get beyond the polarity, the division, the otherness? One of the tools I like a lot is the Just Like Me practice. It’s one of the empathy practices where we put ourselves in the other’s shoes. Rather than get caught up in the difference in the ideologies, we actually come back to the fundamental idea: just like me, this person on the opposite political spectrum wants to be happy, wants to be safe, wants to thrive, wants to be healthy, wants to find peace of mind. For the most part, we can generalize in that way. If someone is acting out negatively, I can say, "Just like me, I can also go unconscious, I have my biases. Just like me, I get reactive." So we’re not neutralizing or equalizing or saying we’re the same, but we’re not as different as we think we are. I often think people on opposite sides of the political spectrum may have similar values around care, around thriving or around independence, or around helping the disadvantaged, but they have different ideologies, different ideas and philosophies about how to go about that. It’s important that we start to see each others humanness, while at the same time not losing sight of those differences, views and speeches and actions that do cause harm, that we’re clearly taking a stand against.
MM: Isn't that the essence of forgiveness?
MC: Yes. Seeing our humanness and seeing that we all have our limitations and follies. But again, forgiving is not about condoning an action that causes harm. That’s really a key distinction. There’s a lot of critique of the spiritual, meditative, Buddhist world, that it can lend itself to too much passivity. It’s important that we see clearly with wisdom and awareness, but also take action. We don’t just sit quietly on the side line: that’s not necessarily what’s going to be useful at this time. We need to forgive—but mindfully. We need compassion that powered by wisdom. That's the way to address our bullies.