She’s at it again: my Inner Critic.
Constantly chatting, taunting, tormenting.
Today she sounds like this: You can’t possibly be a writer if you’ve never read a book on writing before! Who do you think you are? Who’s going to want to read anything from YOU?
And of course I listen, and agree with her. I don’t want to believe her, but I do. But in the hopes of having more bargaining power with her, I finally pick up Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones.
And in the first pages, I already find hope and solace, for she addresses this universal condition of the inner critic. She hints at a realm that lies beyond the grip of this ruthless “censor.” She writes:
“First thoughts have tremendous energy. It is the way the mind first flashes on something. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first fresh flash.”
It makes me reflect on how much of my life has been spent swimming in the sea of second and third thoughts, far from the shores of those “first fresh flashes,” quiet whispers, or gut feelings.
We live in a world that does its best to castrate our direct connection to those first thoughts and the source from which they spawned. From religious institutions that insist we need mediators (priests, clerics, bishops) between us and the Divine, to the media, that bombards us with ads and sound bites to mold and manipulate our thoughts and perceptions.
These first thoughts, according to Goldberg, “are unencumbered by ego, by that mechanism in us that tries to be in control, tries to prove the world is permanent and solid, enduring and logical.”
In fact, I chuckle at the example she gives of a first thought that shoots through her mind during a writing practice:
“I cut the daisy from my throat.”
It sounds absurd, of course, to our censor, who as Goldberg puts it, is “carefully tutored in 1 +1 = 2 logic, politeness, fear and embarrassment.” So the second thought intercepts it: “You sound suicidal. Someone will think you are crazy.” And instead, the censor intervenes and writes: “My throat is a little sore, so I didn’t say anything. Proper and boring.”
When we hold those first thoughts hostage, not only does our writing end up proper and boring, but our lives end up proper and boring.
The first thought of “I feel stagnant in my marriage,” gets intercepted by the censor and becomes “that’s just the nature of marriage after many years.” Or “I want to wear orange on my wedding day” becomes “Your Italian mother-in-law would never speak to you. The whole village would be scandalized. In fact, Roberto wouldn’t marry you!” (You get the point.)
I am reminded of children who are excellent sources of first thoughts for they’ve not yet made that handshake with the censor. Yet by adulthood, if we’ve been good students, we’ve mastered “proper and boring.” Primarily because we’ve learned that those first thoughts or flashes can be too unsettling, especially in families, societies, and nations where truths are inconvenient.
I can remember blurting out a question to my babysitter, Maria, when I was around five or six: “When will your baby come?” I still remember the look of shock on her face. Not only did she have no outward signs of pregnancy, but she had never told me that she was pregnant. As an unwed Catholic teenager, her “condition” was a secret.
I have no idea how or why that “first thought” found me and made its way through my lips. My mom, who was a nurse and worked with Maria, a receptionist in a local health clinic, told me later that Maria had felt betrayed, thinking that my mom had given away her secret. But she hadn’t.
So we are obliged to tame children, to instill the censor at a young age so they do not utter inconvenient truths. We do our best through our education systems to steer them away from that dangerous realm beyond rationality and toward the “solid,” tangible realm of logic, where formulas prevail and answers are hailed.
In spite of the myriad of mechanisms in place to close the window where those flashes enter, it sometimes stays ajar into adolescence. I remember another “first thought” that intruded when I was 16. I was an exchange student to Greece and had gone with my Greek host family to meet some of their relatives. We sat down for our 3 p.m. lunch, and I looked across the brown birch table into the warm, brown eyes of their first cousin Marios, age 21. Before I could concoct a thought, a voice in my head asked, I wonder if your mom knows that you are eating lunch with the boy who is going to give you your first kiss?
It startled me. Where had this absurd question come from? It was unfounded. Not logical—at all.
Quick, call in those logic censors:
1. He’s much older than me.
2. He’s too cute to be interested in me.
3. I’ve never even spoken to him.
4. (Here’s the clincher) We don’t even speak the same language!
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 could not possibly add up to this rogue thought.
Well, Marios did end up giving me my first kiss. But that’s not the juicy part. (Well, it was back then.) What seems juicy to me now, in hindsight, is pondering just how often these rogue thoughts or flashes knock on that window, before they are successfully spurned by our censor? By a mind schooled to live only in the realm of second and third thoughts? How much tastier might life be if we let them in when they knocked? Or better yet: If we did so with the appreciation that they carried “tremendous energy” and guidance?
Perhaps by this point, you’ve already thought of the cliché: always trust first impressions. We could easily argue that adage, admitting that first impressions may be riddled with biases and judgments. But I’ll never forget what an intuitive reader told me years ago when I’d consulted her about my relationship. I was engaged and wanting to break up. But my censor was telling me to give it more time.
“You had all the information you needed on your first date,” she told me.
And as I reflected on that, I knew she was right. I had heard the tiny whisper and felt the little niggling in my gut, even before we went out. I’d met him in the café where I worked as a barista during grad school. He was a regular. Rather cute, but cocky, was my first impression. When he called to ask me out, he put it this way: “How about if I let you treat me for drinks tonight after a long day of work?” I laughed at what I thought was his cute joke. “Sure, I’ll just have to raid the tip jar at work.”
When the bill came for the margaritas that evening, and I began counting out the 22 singles (yes, from the tip jar), I truly didn’t expect him to let me buy, given that he was the one with the good job, the house, the dog, and the brown, non-picket fence. But he did.
Those first thoughts had knocked at the window that night, but I turned them away. They weren’t convenient.
Of course, none of this is new. We all know about those intuitive hits that guide us and that thing called “inspiration” that creatives pay homage to. But I think we too often remain deaf to those first thoughts that don’t arrive with a big bang. We wait for the VIP guests known as Inspiration or Creative Genius. But what if the guests are humble and unassuming? Not the kind that determine your fate or save you from death by whispering, “Don’t get on that plane.”
But what if it’s a whisper as simple as, “Go for a walk now”? Far more often, those quiet knocks at the window are there to invite us into the present moment. While these would-be guests are not as glamorous as the big bang thoughts, they can be the ushers that lead us toward living a more vibrant life—to a life beyond the censor.
For it is only in the present moment that we can call bullsh*t on our censor and cut through the illusion of our old, fear-based agreements. It is the present moment that is the portal to the connection with our inner god. And without fanfare, it can lead us to the field where all possibilities live, ripe for the gathering.