First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
Earlier this year, I participated in the Aging with Grace program here at the church, led by Mary Schinhofen. In readings and discussion, we explored our experience and feelings about various issues of aging, such as, meaning, regret, solitude, and letting go.
On the topic of “letting go,” one participant identified “self-judgment” as what she most wanted to let go of in retirement. She recounted a high school experience, fraught with shaming and criticism, which she had internalized and continued to struggle with even decades later. I immediately identified with her story. I myself had an experience of rejection and criticism in high school and was tormented by self-judgment for years afterwards.
A short time later, in Sue Bender’s book, Everyday Sacred , I was introduced to the idea that self-judgment– the harsh voice of the inner critic – is a major impediment to spirituality.
It seemed that self-judgment was a common human experience, with spiritual implications, and a topic worth exploring.So, I chose it for my sermon today.
I immediately began to feel nervous and to second guess myself. Would people really want to hear about this?Did I have anything helpful to say? It was my own inner critic, speaking up.
Self-judgment and criticism are deeply ingrained in so many of us … encouraged at home and in school, and driven by “perfectionism,” which is often considered a virtue and something worth striving for.
My own definition of perfectionism came from the school psychologist, when my then 6 year old son was evaluated for the Gifted Program in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. “Your son is his own worst enemy,” the psychologist told me, “There are two categories in his life: Perfect and Failure.” I knew exactly what he was talking about.
Why are we so critical of ourselves? How have we come to believe that we SHOULD be perfect, and there’s something wrong with us if we’re not? Is it something we’re taught from an early age?
Perhaps it’s because we want to be perfect, or we want to believe that we can be perfect, if we try hard enough. Mr. Rogers has said that “The greatest loss that we all have to deal with is the loss of the image of ourselves as a perfect person.”
Similarly, in her book, The Spirituality of Imperfection, Katherine Ketchem tells us that “Our primary spiritual task is to accept our imperfection.”
Modern psychological literature describes how perfectionism and self-judgment can undermine our well-being and distort our relationships. The inner critic tells us we are unworthy or inadequate. Yet, judging ourselves rarely leads to positive growth and change. Instead, it causes emotional pain and can make it harder, if not impossible, to grow and change.
Indeed, there’s a principle in Gestalt psychology, known as “The Paradoxical Theory of Change,” which states, essentially, that our ability to change arises out of self-acceptance and regard, not self-judgment and criticism. According to this theory, positive change becomes possible only when we accept as true about ourselves, as though it’s going to be forever, what we want to change. That’s the paradox.
Accordingly, most psychological theory and practice suggest that we try to respond to the inner critic with kindness, understanding, and acceptance.Most especially, we are counseled to avoid criticizing ourselves for criticizing ourselves. This can be difficult, because the voice of the inner critic is habituated and persistent, seemingly embedded in our consciousness. It can feel hard-wired, like something we’re born with.
Hmm … born with? That begins to sound like Original Sin, and when I think about Original Sin, I think about my mother, who was raised Episcopalian, and was always troubled by the notion of Original Sin. She wanted to believe that human beings are born good.How could an innocent child be sinful? At the same time, my mother was very self-critical, as though afflicted with her own Original Sin.
So, what’s the origin of this doctrine of Original Sin?In Christianity, it starts with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But … I’m not going to tell that story, because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s just a metaphor.I believe that the stories in the Bible … and in the Koran … and in all the sacred literature of the religions of the world … I believe that these stories are metaphorical.They are meant to describe and explain the human condition, the mysteries of life, the existential questions: Why are we here? What does it mean to be human? What happens when we die? The questions that speak to the physical and psychological truths of human existence.
So, I asked myself, is self-judgment inherent in the human condition? Is it indeed “hard-wired,” something we’re born with? If so, might self-judgment be the existential truth expressed, metaphorically, in the Bible, as Original Sin? And, …
Might there be religious writings, stories from the sacred literature that speak to this idea of Original Sin as a metaphor for self-judgment?
I turned to the work of Elaine Pagels, a distinguished scholar and Professor of Religion at Princeton. In her award-winning book, Beyond Belief, I learned about an early Christian text, called the Secret Gospel of Thomas, part of the so-called “Gnostic Gospels” discovered in Egypt in 1945. These writings were excluded from what we now know as the New Testament, when it was compiled in the 2nd century, A.D.And they present a radically different view of Jesus and his teachings.
In the New Testament’s Book of John, only Jesus himself embodies God’s word and can speak with divine knowledge and authority. In the Secret Gospel of Thomas, on the other hand, Jesus is portrayed as teaching that the divine light is hidden within each person. This is a radically different view.
Thomas’ Gospel quotes Jesus as saying: “For whoever has known himself has simultaneously achieved knowledge about the depth of all things.”
Thomas’ Jesus goes on to say:“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Let me say this again… “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
This passage convinced me that Jesus could very well have understood aggressive self-judgment and harsh criticism as Original Sin. Jesus seems to be saying that we, imperfect humans, are called upon to develop our talents and share our unique gifts with the world, to actualize who we are and what is within us.
The judgmental mind hinders the expression of our true and best selves, so that our gift to the world is denied and destroyed. What could be more sinful than the suppression of the divine light within one’s own person?
And (parenthetically) what could be more threatening to a hierarchical church structure than Jesus teaching that the divine light is to be found within each person?
Following the death of Jesus, Thomas traveled to South India, where his teachings were well-received and incorporated into the indigenous practices of devout Brahmins.So-called “St. Thomas Christians” are still to be found today in Kerala, South India.
I believe that Thomas’ teachings were well received in East Asia because, dating back to the mid-5th century, B.C.E., Eastern spiritual tradition has offered a view of the individual person as fundamentally whole.
Buddha taught that the most basic dimension of our minds is completely free of fault or defect.This “natural mind” is clear and uncluttered.Harmful actions, disturbing emotions and confusion are considered incidental and temporary, not some intrinsic deficiency.
Just as Jesus recognized that “what is within us will save us.” Buddha recognized self-awareness as the foundation of spiritual growth. Buddhist cosmology teaches that Basic Goodness precedes being; we are born out of basic goodness. It is the core of our being and remains inviolate even when we behave badly or make mistakes. In Buddhism, criticism and self-judgment are considered forms of aggression and violence against ourselves, against our own inherent goodness.
In the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, as we sit quietly in meditation, we are encouraged to make friends with ourselves; to meet everything that arises, in our bodies, in our thoughts and in our emotions, with friendliness, gentleness and curiosity, substituting friendliness for criticism, and gentleness for harshness and curiosity for judgment. Friendly, gentle and curious.
This is quite a different way of being with ourselves, a powerful shift in perspective: Curiosity instead of judgment. And not just ordinary interest or attention. When self-judgment arises, to meet it with a deep and abiding inquisitiveness, patient, observant and caring.Staying with the uncomfortable feelings and gently inquiring: “What’s happening here? What is there to learn? What if I just wait? And breathe? What would be the friendly response? In this way, the habit of self-judgment may begin to loosen its grip. We may soften that initial, habituated impulse to criticize and blame ourselves. Being friendly, gentle and curious, I believe, we are better able to accept ourselves, as we are.And, just as important, to accept others, as they are. The two go hand in hand.We are not perfect, not any of us, but we are all fundamentally whole and basically good.
This has been the “great leap of faith,” for me. Not that “there is a God”, but that “I’m OK, just as I am.” I’m not perfect and I make mistakes. There’s certainly room for improvement. But my essential being is basically good, not because of what I do or don’t do, but because of my inherent worth and dignity.
Which brings me to William Ellery Channing, the great Unitarian theologian of the mid-19th century, who also looked upon self-awareness as the basis of spiritual growth.”In his Discourse on “Likeness to God,” Channing defined the true religion as “a spiritual system intended to turn men’s minds upon themselves … to establish in them an intimacy with their own souls.” “We see God around us,” he declared, “because he dwells within us.”
The “unbounded spiritual energy which we call God,” he continued, “is conceived by us only through … the knowledge of ourselves.” This “likeness to God” has its foundation in the “original and essential capacities of the mind.”Even so, Channing recognized that ”the mind may betray itself; God’s image may be obscured or effaced …” In other words, we’re not perfect.
The Minister’s function, according to Channing, is “to cherish a reverence for his own nature and awaken in his congregation the heavenly treasure within them …”
The heavenly treasure within us. Reverence, not judgment is the spiritual path.
So, with guidance from psychology and Jesus, from Buddhism and William Ellery Channing, let us hasten to let go of self-judgment, to quiet the inner critic, and accept our imperfection ...
First: by treating ourselves with kindness and understanding, and accepting our imperfect selves, just the way we are.
Second: by bringing forth what is within us – our heavenly treasure– and sharing it with each other and with the world;
Third: by embracing our inherent goodness, and meeting everything that arises with friendliness, gentleness and curiosity; and
Finally, as Unitarian Universalists: by cherishing a reverence for our own nature, and affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, including ourselves.