|IPVBM 2: The Value of...Criticism?
||[Jun. 30th, 2010|02:42 pm]
What I had thought would be the penultimate post this month has turned out to be the antepenultimate post. No matter...Special thanks to passionandsoul for giving me the final push necessary to finish my thoughts on this and get it out there for your consumption.|
Very few people in the modern world are comfortable with the word "criticism." It would be fair to say many people try to avoid it as much as possible, and indeed the fear of critique as a motivator for positive action can be in some circumstances a good thing (despite being a negative motivation). However, critique, critical faculties, and the basic value of criticism is something that is both important in spiritual work overall, something that has existed in many spiritual systems (even if under slightly different terminology), and yet it is also something that would strike many modern pagans as utterly incompatible with paganism. Not to sound too "critical" (!?!), but, it isn't.
The Greek word kritikós essentially means the ability to discern, or is related to the act of judging. "Judgment" here is not to be understood in the moralistic sense, but instead in the strictly mental sense--how does one choose? So, by the English words "criticism" (understood in a neutral sense), "discernment," and "judging," we can get a sense of what this Greek term meant originally, and how it can be relevant today.
First, let's take a look at what is found elsewhere, and under slightly different terms, as a critical methodology within spirituality. One of the most important human faculties, as outlined by Adi Shankara in the 8th-9th centuries CE, is viveka, a Sanskrit term meaning "discrimination." If "criticism" has a fraught history in English, then "discrimination" is even worse--and yet, outside of its usage in terms of oppressive actions by a majority against a minority (of whatever type), it is yet another means by which one chooses amongst options. As bad as "discrimination" in English might seem, it is often worse and generally pejorative to call someone "indiscriminate." So, an important faculty to develop in vedantic Hinduism (even despite some of its excesses, as I've outlined in earlier posts in this series) is essentially discrimination, or criticism.
Most famously, perhaps, is St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who built his entire spirituality on the principle of "discernment (of spirits)." This is a "good Jesuit word," used both seriously and jokingly by them and by those who have been educated by them, when one is engaged in any serious contemplative process of reasoning over a particular decision or issue; but, originally, it was a critical process used to evaluate one's spiritual experiences, and whether a particular "spirit" was an angel or a demon. To put it in more psychological terms, as understood by my spiritual direction professor, Fr. Bernard Tyrrell, discernment enables a person to determine whether a particular action or idea or decision will lead one toward integration or disintegration. (Let's leave aside for the moment whether the choice of "disintegration" can, at some points, be more productive, useful or appropriate.) Again, here is a designated spiritual process which advocates the use of critical faculties in not only approaching the challenges of life, but also in understanding one's own spiritual encounters.
But, again, this entire idea of criticism, of discernment, of judging, of discrimination, is one that sometimes gets slighted or confounded by our use of language within spiritual work. Helen Palmer, a major figure in the teaching of the Enneagram system of personality styles, advises that one should attempt to silence or ignore the "inner critic" and instead to cultivate the "fair witness" in terms of one's own internal processes. Yes, the latter is a very useful and important aim. However, this silencing of the inner critic often comes at the cost of jettisoning all critical faculties altogether, and critique of any kind getting a bad name. In my own Enneagram training, I heard one of my teachers, Fr. Bob Egan, describe the Type 1 personality as constantly plagued with these inner critics that are like Stadtler and Waldorf from The Muppets, always hovering there overseeing one's actions, ready to make jokes at the expense of the one doing those actions. This is a good way to understand certain aspects of the operating procedure of a Type 1. However, the difficulty comes when people generally imagine criticism of any kind as being of this same sort: a caustic "making fun of" and ridiculing, rather than an invitation to reconsider some actions or ideas and their possible outcomes.
At base, criticism is, I think, an interpretive process. There truly is nothing utterly and indelibly "given" in the world when it comes to life and its experiences, there are almost always possibilities for action and reaction that are positive and innovative and life-giving and productive rather than negative and destructive. If this is true of everyday life, then it is all the more applicable to spiritual life. I am always very suspicious when I hear someone attempting to justify their actions by saying "I had no choice but to..." Really? I think this is a post factum attempt to utterly silence any inner critic the person has, which in some cases obviously told them there were other options, but they made the choice they did and are now often living with the negative (or positive) effects of the situation.
How could this occur in a positive situation? "I saw that burning building, and heard the barking of that dog, and I realized I had no choice but to go in and rescue him." We'd call that heroic, most likely, so this seems pretty positive. But, I'm almost certain there was a process--no matter how fast it might have been--in which that person thought "It's just a dog," or they thought "Dear me, this is the stupidest idea I've ever had." Those types of thought, whether justified or cold or even negative, are also the actions of the inner critic, which can often be thoughts that make the difference between our safety and security and being in danger. The idea, found far too often in our culture, is that to be heroic, one must suppress all instincts to the contrary and act in the best way possible without regard to consequence, when in reality heroism is in the acts themselves. It is all right to "show courage" despite still being worried or afraid. In that same sort of situation with the dog in the burning building, how many bystanders might there have been who didn't rush into it? Why didn't they? And because they didn't, does the person who acted heroically, or the owner of the dog, or anyone else, then stand them up and berate them for not having rushed into danger on behalf of the canine? Of course not! We may come in the end to admire and even envy the heroic person all the more because they suppressed those fears and reservations, but we probably also think "Yeah, that really was pretty stupid of them." And, if one were to attempt speaking rather objectively on the matter, it probably was pretty stupid to do that (not just because of the fire, but because a panicked dog being picked up and carried away by an unknown person could end up being a danger in itself).
Too much and too vociferous an internal critic is certainly a bad thing, and can lead to a paralyzed feedback loop in which thought overpowers action, reaction, emotion, and even physical sensation as a motivation for any sort of decision or movement at all. However, ignoring or suppressing the internal critic altogether is also not a very good idea. Not all internal critical voices are neurotic, and in the average person, these internal critical voices often speak up when something seems awry. Spiritual teachers who advise suppressing the internal critic often do so in order to take advantage of their potential students, and to hoodwink them on a lot of matters that might not seem to be "sensible" when first proposed. Part of a good and developed sense of criticism and discernment is to be able to know when to be restrained and when to restrain restraint; when to be critical and when to ignore criticism; when to be detached from thought and when to detach from detachment from thought.
A field that is quite fertile in many religious and theological circles (though far from all) is the discipline of textual criticism. This is not just questioning the propositions in religious texts, but also examining them for the clues they give about the historical context in which they were produced, how different voices and linguistic styles often distinguish themselves within a text, and a variety of other matters that end up having an impact on how the text is understood and interpreted. While biblical criticism is nearly two centuries old at this point for Christians, and more than two millennia old for Jews, Quranic criticism is still considered heretical by many Muslims. For pagans of a reconstructionist bent, textual criticism of our primary sources is just called "the study of literature" in most collegiate settings. It's something we're quite comfortable with, and that is important in evaluating what a text says, what is relevant for today and what is no longer applicable to our modern situation, and so forth. Doing textual criticism in these disciplines as pagans does not mean there is less respect for the text, the cultures that used them, the traditions that produced them, the gods detailed in them, or the authors that wrote them. Textual criticism is one of many tools in the toolbox which allows an individual to encounter and evaluate a religious text (which is a record of the religious phenomena that occurred with an individual or a tradition) and to dialogue with it, engage with it, and hopefully to come away from it enriched because of that interaction. Pick up a book of any kind, and that sort of dialogue will be taking place on some level or another, whether it is the most erudite academic treatise on verb-forms or the most low-brow piece of hack romance fiction.
And, I guarantee that if a person examines their general life, they'll find this sort of process is a part of their interactions with many other beings (their pets, their friends, their family) and media (television, film, art). The entire world and our interactions with it are an unfolding process in criticism and interpretation. And just as it is possible to like a certain television show but not like all the characters on it, or not like the writing in one scene's dialogue, or to enjoy a writer's style but not like a certain story they wrote, it is possible to have these types of mixed interpretations of people. How many friends do you have that you genuinely love, but you don't agree with all of the decisions they've made in their life? Probably more than a few, if you're honest with yourself. But, it is possible through interpretation and through criticism (internally certainly, and occasionally externally) to understand someone or something without necessarily agreeing with it.
Criticism, as I said above, is an interpretive process, a manner by which data is interpreted by the mind, and then deemed useful or irrelevant, appealing or appalling, and so forth. Whatever one might think of the overall theory of the "collective unconscious," a particular caveat on dream interpretation by Carl Gustav Jung is perhaps useful here: "The individual is the only reality. The further we move from the individual into abstract ideas about homo sapiens, the more likely we are to fall into error." This is as true for dream interpretation as it is for the interpretation of spiritual phenomena by an individual, whether that is a text, an experience, or the claims of a spiritual teacher or author. One must never take any spiritual idea--ideas which are meant to either express the very essence of reality and of the most valuable things within it, or that are meant to transform and shape one's approach to reality--without a serious process of discernment as one does so, without a thorough interpretive examination, without judging its validity, without discriminating its positive aspects from its negative aspects, and without a serious critique of its appeal and applicability to one's own actual as well as desired reality and engagements with it.
To undervalue criticism and critical faculties as pagans is to undervalue the integrity and inviolable will of the individual.