poison naming

The (inner) voice … poised to prey upon your insecurity and guilt…does not require answering.  Naming is enough.  The moment you hear this voice, you must identify precisely who it is – a voice that is dedicated to undermining your newly-achieved (and bravely fought for) commitment to write.

Gail Sher (pg 89), One Continuous Mistake

The external obstacles of practice may be numberless but the internal voices of the critic, the trickster, the false friend, the colluder, the enabler, the fearful are legion.  Some derive their power from their historical presence, some from an insidious compassion, and some from a voracious feeding off our fear, desire, and confusion.  We aren’t used to naming these because for the most part they are deep physiological sensations and also because the experience is a lightning flash with little time to fit words to it.

Sher uses the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood to illustrate her point of naming the disingenuous presence.  The wolf would not have got too far if Red Riding Hood had named it for who it was.  She doesn’t develop the metaphor much but it opened an area of inquiry for me in terms of my tendency to want things to be what I think they should be.  That particular delusional tendency slices both ways: I’d prefer wolfie was granny and I fear that granny is actually wolfie.  Sometimes I’m right – when my practice of discernment is strongly informed by my intuition that something is not quite right about the picture.  Sometimes I’m wrong because I can only see part of the picture and I’m fixated on protecting myself.

I like this quote from Parabola (Facebook):

“There is a part of everything which is unexplored, because we are accustomed to using our eyes only in association with the memory of what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the smallest thing has something in it which is unknown.”- Gustave Flaubert

This is a challenge – to name the poison and the panacea outside of memory.  In practice, it shows up in those moments when I can speak to what is holding me back or propelling me forward.  Yet in order to see the unknown in something as familiar yet ineffable as the un-named, I need a new lens.  In a different context, Sher uses the mantra “without memory, without desire, without understanding.”  This helps.

To approach practice without memory is to be released from the old stories of failure or success.  To be without desire is to let go of the need to influence the process.  Sher suggests that to go without understanding means there is the possibility of something new to arise.

For me, however, to go without understanding is to watch the arrogance and greed unable to take hold while service and gratitude arise.

Thank you for practising,


3 thoughts on “poison naming

  1. I am enjoying following you through this book. Yes the inner critic is much more insidious than the outer circumstances. And good reminder to avoid the “Red Riding Hood” trap. I like that.

    This line resonates with me particularly: “To be without desire is to let go of the need to influence the process.”

    Your post also reminds me of something my friend, the Zen monk always would say, “we all have blind spots”.

  2. I’ve found two complementary process useful in working with these “inner” voices, which are echoes of the past.

    The first way, of course, is formal meditation – which trains us to remain steady and unshaken with what appears in the moment. This is very important, because these past echoes/voices often serve to help us avoid what is directly in front of us. I can’t tell you how many mountain cabins I’ve built while sitting in retreat. After a while, we learn how the mind uses the past (or the future) to escape.

    The second strategy (and this is not part of the Zen tradition, per se), is to reflect regularly on life experiences and how we use them to wreak havoc. A teacher once said to me: “You’re like the drunk driver who runs down a child in the crosswalk. When you’re arrested, you say, “It wasn’t my fault! I had an awful childhood.””

    The point of this statement is that we tend to, but cannot, use our past experiences to justify our present behaviors. We may have, indeed, had an awful childhood. But so what? *This* moment calls upon us to be responsible and act with kindness and maturity. The world calls upon us to manifest wisdom and compassion. We cannot hide behind the past.

    So I often reflect on my life, examining the ways in which my attachments to the “past” (and the “future”) result in failures to stay fully present. Although it’s not quite the same as formal practice, this method has helped me become more fully acquainted with myself.

    And yet . . . another voice will soon appear. Count on it!

  3. ZDS: It’s a good little book and has me feeling more reassured about writing as dharma practice.

    Barry: wow. Thank you. As I read your comment, I thought that constantly going back to my past to justify my present actions (or rationalize the consequences of them) is like writing one of those cookie-cutter-plot serial novels. The first one is captivating but the rest are a yawn.

    Good writing like strong practice is about seeing what is not always caught by the eye-consciousness, hearing what is not… and so on. A sutra of authoring our life!

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