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Marieke van Vugt

The practice of receiving criticism

The practice of receiving criticism http://www.carcabin.com/lego-cartoon-hd/10/

I recently attended a retreat with Sogyal Rinpochein Amsterdam. One of the main themes of the retreat was about how to take the blame. Now this may seem like quite a strange concept: why should we be willing to take the blame in situations? It definitely was something to think about for me, which is why I am writing this blog.

As a scientist, I meet a lot of criticism, because such is the academic world... And I am also pretty bad at dealing with it. Whenever I see an e-mail from a journal that I have submitted a paper too, I wait a while before I dare open in (because the message of such an e-mail is rarely "your paper is accepted for publication," and more often "we reject your paper and will not consider any revisions" or if you're lucky "we reject your paper in its current form but if you fix the huge laundry list of criticisms from the reviewers below, we may publish it."). The surprising message from Sogyal Rinpoche was: criticism is in fact your best friend. Not only because that is what makes you improve your work, but for a much deeper reason.

Over the course of our whole life, and even previous lifetimes if you believe in that, we have done all kinds of things that make us suffer. While some part of us believes it makes us happy to take all the praise for ourselves and talk bad over others, this will eventually only lead to suffering, because other people will start to dislike us. Being self-absorbed and taking everything you can get will work for a while, but in the long run it backfires. And what is it that keeps promoting our self-importance like a bad commercial? Something that Buddhists call our "ego." This is not who we really are, but it is some identity that we latch onto, something who we think we are or we think we should be. It is often something much prettier than real life, and takes a whole lot of effort to maintain. For a scientist, this may be an image of being always right, and making no mistakes in your work. If you believe this is you, then when someone attacks that, you feel very hurt. But in fact, this is the greatest gift someone could give, because this self that we latch onto, and the concomitant self absorption is what causes all our suffering and problems. If someone helps to destroy it, it can only make our life better.

Now here there is an important trap that you can fall into: if you take the criticisms to mean that you are a bad person, a bad scientist, a bad dancer, or a bad whatever (I am speaking for myself here), that doesn't help either. Then in fact you latch onto yet another mistaken identity. The trick is to let go of all of these expectations: to put in your 200% into life, but to let go of the results. The criticism is just telling you how you can do better and be more helpful to the world, but it is not telling you you are a bad person. Sogyal Rinpoche often says "it's a haircut, not a skin cut." Another beautiful image is given by the title of the text he was teaching from "The wheel of sharp weapons." That doesn't sound very Buddhist, does it? But in fact what was meant was that all the blame, suffering, loss that we incur is merely a wheel of sharp weapons that helps us to get rid of the thing that caused our suffering in the first place. We can use the suffering to turn it into something good. Now that is a transformation!

Needless to say, this is a long process that takes a lot of practice and patience and reflection and contemplation. But isn't it amazing that there always is a way to turn whatever happens around so it becomes of benefit?