Imagine a group of people who live under the rule of an oppressive king. This king cares little for the people's happiness. His sole concern is maintaining his rule. Life is difficult for the community.
One day the people reach a breaking point. Their meager existence has become intolerable. A group of them decide to approach the king and demand that he abdicate his throne.
They make a commitment to do this peacefully. They will not arm themselves or use violence — after all, they have heard stories of violent protests being crushed in the past. Instead, they will simply band together and insist that the king step aside.
The people approach the castle calmly but with determination. To their surprise, they don't encounter any guards. The castle doors are difficult to move, and it requires work to pry them open. But eventually they enter the castle.
They approach the king, who is alone in the throne room. He seems quite weary.
"King," one of them says, "our way of life has become intolerable. We spend our days struggling to get by. Surely this isn't what you want for us. It is time for you to step aside. You can live a peaceful life in our community. We have even prepared a home for you. But you need to step down."
The king looks at them closely. He considers their words. Then he says, "OK," steps off his throne, and exits the room.
The people look at each other. That's it? No violence? No battle?
They decide to appoint a wise healer from their community to be the new leader. She takes her seat on the throne, and ushers in a new era for the people. Although there is a great deal of work to be done, and many years of patterns to change, life begins to improve for the community. The process of restoration has begun.
In this story, the king, the people, and the castle are all aspects of the mind.
Each of us has a part of the mind that rules our lives like the oppressive king. This part acts without kindness, and is more concerned with strengthening its hold than bringing us peace.
Some people call this part of the mind "the inner critic." You can also call it "the inner blamer," "the inner shamer," and "the inner agitator." It is the part of the mind that generates a sense of conflict, powerlessness, and deprivation.
There comes a day when each of us has had enough of this king's rule. We decide that there must be another way to live. This is the beginning of the spiritual journey, or the psychotherapeutic process, or the path of personal growth. We say, "I want to find a happier way to live," and we begin the process of finding and replacing the king.
It may take some work to approach the throne room. There may be some heavy doors of emotional resistance to move past. But the king on his throne can be found. And as long as we approach this part of the mind without attack, we will likely find that it is far more amenable to change than we expected.
Let me give an example of the king's activity.
I recently conducted an experiment. I made a list of anything in my work day that caused me frustration and concern. At the end of the day, I planned to go through the list to see how many of my frustrations were "small stuff."
I only made it through ten minutes of this experiment before realizing that my mind was generating a near-constant flow of frustrated, concerned, and self-pressuring thoughts about my work life.
"Why isn't she getting back to me?" "I need this document signed!" "I worked so hard at that — does anyone care?" "I have to get this done!" And so forth. The stream of thoughts was unrelenting, though mild enough in intensity that it slipped into the background of my awareness.
It was helpful to see that stream so clearly. That flow of thoughts was the activity of the king on the throne. I realized that especially in my work life, that part of my mind had a fairly dominant rule. As I became aware of that, the doors to the throne room opened and the king sat unobscured and undefended.
Let me share another example that you may have experienced yourself. When many people begin a meditation or mindfulness practice, they often are confronted by the king on the throne.
These people sit down in a comfortable space, close their eyes, and prepare to center themselves in the present moment. But instead of settling into a place of peace, they are blasted with a slew of agitated, frustrated, worried, or guilt-ridden thoughts. Many people give up after a few minutes and say, "Well, I guess meditation just isn't for me!"
That's the king trying to maintain his rule. If we fight him, he becomes stronger and battles back. If we avoid him, he calms down but maintains his rule.
What we can do instead is calmly, firmly approach him and do as the people did in the story. We can say to the mind, "It is time for another ruler to take the throne. It is time to let a healing consciousness rule from now on. I am not going to attack you, but it is time for you to step down." And then we can invite the king to return to being an ordinary member of the community — not a tyrant.
This approach is the essence of many mindfulness-oriented therapies like DBT and ACT. In these therapy approaches, we don't battle against our frustrations, anxieties, shame, or anything else. Instead, we state our intention to move toward a new consciousness, and then allow the old patterns of the mind to float past our awareness like leaves on a stream, or clouds in the sky.
We don't attack the tyrant on the throne. We also don't hide from him. We don't fight or flee at all. We simply state that it is time for a new direction, and then calmly but firmly hold our new direction as we watch the old patterns pass by.
Now, in the story, the king quietly left to rejoin the community as a citizen. But quite frequently, the king will tend to slip back onto the throne over and over. When we find him back in the chair, we can calmly but firmly remind him that it is time for a new ruler, and then turn once again toward a self-supportive, healing direction.
When I began a meditation practice, I needed to engage in this process every day for months. Perhaps I will need to do the same in my work life. The effort is worth it. Each moment of practice helps us to strengthen our new direction.
Let me now share a question that I often receive on this theme.
Q: I've been aware of my inner critic for years. However, I can never seem to quiet it down. How do you actually change the person on the throne?
A: You can focus your attention on simply strengthening your "anti-critic" — strengthening the part of your mind that is self-supportive, self-accepting, and kind to yourself and others. As you strengthen your wise mind, the inner critic will fade.
Imagine that you're on a camping trip. The sun sets, and you're surrounded by the cold and the dark. In that situation, you don't attack the cold or the dark. Nor do you avoid them, and pretend that they don't exist.
Instead, you focus all your attention on building a fire. As the fire grows, the cold and dark are shined away.
So it is with the inner critic. It's important for us to become honest about this part of the mind so that it doesn't buzz in the background of our awareness unseen. But having identified it, we can then focus on strengthening a consciousness of self-acceptance, self-forgiveness, and self-respect, and allowing that light to shine away what ruled before.
How do you increase the presence of that light? You can generate some self-accepting thoughts, and write them down as reminders for yourself throughout your day. You can practice opening your heart to an inner feeling of being loved and cared-for. You can act in ways that are self-supportive, even if your feelings and thoughts try to pull you in the old direction.
You can also read through the "spiritual toolbox" section at the end of my Spiritual Path book. I've summarized some additional approaches there that you might find helpful, including the practice of joining with other people in your work.
In the end, though, your simple desire to have a healing consciousness replace the inner critic will lead the way. Continue to focus on your desire for the light, and rest in a willingness to let the change happen. Your mind will follow your intention.