Criticism

An Allegedly Annoying Thing That I Learnt to Love (Thanks to my Tibetan Language Training)

I’m sure it happened to you not too long ago at work: you’re quietly minding your own business, trying to do your best at whatever you’re doing, and then suddenly someone decides it’s high time to save the day for you.

How?

Telling you what you’re doing wrong.

Well, that happens to me more often than my current level of patience would like to. From time to time, someone just happens to pop inside my field of awareness and drop a line or two of indiscernible feedback about a thing that I was so sure to be doing right.

The result, of course, is that I start getting all worked up —whether feeling angry at the other person, desirous for their approval or just plainly bewildered about how to react. In my experience, any action that follows from this emotion is going to be clumsy at best, and deeply damaging at worst. 

I admit it: I feel some serious abhorrence towards criticism. And let’s face it: most people do. Even when I’ve received constructive criticism coming from the most skilled communicator who I respect, chances were high that an emotional storm within me would unwind shortly after. I always assumed this is an inevitable part of being human and my reactions were dysfunction ally normal.

As in so many other things in life, I may have been wrong about this one too.

The thing is, this year I had the great fortune to receive a complete teaching on Thogme Zangpo’s 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas. In fact, I received it twice (karma, anyone?) —once from Lama Rinchen Gyaltsen (my own teacher) and once from Loppon Tsondru Tharchin at Rangjung Yeshe Institute’s Buddhist Philosophical Discourse.

Each time I received it, I found the teaching to be deep and practical, but one little stanza jumped out at me like a punch in the gut. 

Can you guess what it was about?

Yup: dealing with criticism. It goes like this:

Even if others should expose my hidden faults or deride me

When speaking amidst great gatherings of many people,

To conceive of them as spiritual friends and to bow

Before them in respect—this is the practice of all the bodhisattvas.

Nice, right? It’s so direct, so severe and so I-don’t-wanna-do-it! that I felt stuck regarding how I could apply it to my life.

But fear not, for karma had in store a lesson that would help me make sense of it. So let me give you the context first.

September 2021. RYI’s Translator Training Program (TTP) begins. And I’m soooo excited to have the chance to receive such an intensive online training in the Tibetan language while still being locked in my home country because of the covid pandemic.

The average TTP day starts with Interpreter Training. There, a monastic teacher imparts teachings in Tibetan, and three students take turns to orally translate into English what he or she says. Throughout the entire session there’s also one more participant, and maybe the most important one.

The Corrector.

The Corrector is an experienced interpreter whose main task is to provide immediate feedback to the students about their performance —and especially about their mistakes.

In other words: The sole role of this person is to tell me what I’m doing wrong. (Ouch.) 

This sounded very practical in theory, but in the first weeks of the program receiving their feedback felt like a slap in my face each time.

Never mind The Corrector —they were extremely patient, kind, accurate and helpful professionals. The problem, as I soon realized, was within me: the old reactive pattern that viscerally rejects any kind of criticism, whether it’s constructive or not. That kind of attitude wasn’t helping anyone, except for my 100% delusional need for keeping a self-image of perfection.

Once I found myself forced to face my perceived enemy, Criticism, in the safe environment of my Tibetan class, I suddenly had the room to observe my reactions, not just react. And I wasn’t pleased with what I saw. That’s when I decided it was high time to change that self-defense-kind-of-like attitude. And how? Well, that earlier stanza would play a major role. Let me show it to you once again for the sake of clarity:

Even if others should expose my hidden faults or deride me

When speaking amidst great gatherings of many people,

To conceive of them as spiritual friends and to bow

Before them in respect —this is the practice of all the bodhisattvas.

Well, it wasn’t like The Corrector was exposing my hidden faults or insulting me, nor were there many people in the virtual meeting room. However, The Corrector was indeed acting as a spiritual friend. How?

Take this quote by the great 11th Century Indian master Atisha:

“The best spiritual friend is the one who attacks your hidden faults.”

Why? Because the only way to get better at anything —whether interpreting, skiing, singing opera or attaining Buddhahood— is to first identify what’s not working. Then you can fix it.

The Corrector was doing exactly that:

  • showing me the weird grammatical structure I hadn’t understood
  • repeating thrice the same word I still hadn’t managed to memorize
  • telling me how to interact with the speaker in a respectful, yet straightforward manner

This was pure gold, and without The Corrector’s interventions, I couldn’t even dream of learning such valuable lessons. Therefore, once I got that notion clear, I reminded myself about it every time The Corrector would start feedbacking me. And then, after a few more weeks had passed, the don’t-you-dare-criticize-me-feeling eased off. Instead, I started looking forward to their feedback —even before The Corrector would start talking.

The feedback now was just as critical, but I started being able to rewrite its meaning.

“Great”, you may reply, “so how can we take this insight into the spiritual path?”.

“Thank you for your constructive lick-icism”

“Thank you for your constructive lick-icism”

Well, this is how I have attempted to integrate it:

First, if we go around arrogantly thinking that we’re already flawless beings and that the only thing that we need in any area of our life is just a teeny weenie little final push and then that’s it, we’ve reached Perfection —well, I believe there’s no better way to to self-sabotage our spiritual endeavors.

Therefore, since all of us are reluctant to looking straight at —or even consider thinking about— our faults, great teachers (aka spiritual friends) are immensely valuable. Because they do that job for us. They show us what we don’t what to see but we urgently need to fix. The very best teachers do such fault-exposing in a very skilled, adapted-to-your-emotional-reactivity-level way, and entrusting ourselves to their guidance is the quickest way to improve in our spiritual path. However, since that kind of teacher is not always easy to find nor stay in close contact with, we have to find a parallel way to discover our areas of improvement.

That’s where unsolicited criticism comes in.

Whether it’s actually true or not, whether it’s the right time for someone else to say it or not, whether the phrasing was in accordance with the highest standards of assertive communication or it was a plain “That’s utter rubbish” —at the end of the day, they’re all nothing but invitations.

Invitations for what?

Invitations for us to think twice about something. And then, if it actually needs improvement, actually improving it. No drama. Just a purely logistical issue. Are they actually right? Cool, then how nice that they let us know and gave us the chance to improve it.

“But they were so rude and untimely!”


Well, let’s take that as the price to be paid for an otherwise free lesson. Because you know people actually pay for someone (coach, advisor, counsellor, you name it) to tell them what’s wrong with them, right?

And if the criticism is not right? Good, then no need to worry about it. Let’s move on. Just because they set it down doesn’t mean we have to pick it up.

“But they were not right! How dare they bother my peace of mind?”

Oh, then what a great opportunity to empathize with them and try to realize why they came to the conclusion that we were wrong. We may learn a lesson or two on the fascinating topic of Human Psychology —and again, without having to share our credit card number with anyone.

Isn’t that a great deal?

Now as a final note, let me tell you: this is a gradual process and I believe we’ll only be able to perfect it when we’re in the first bodhisattva level. Until then it’s a constant practice, and one that requires some willpower. Criticism is hard to bear and most of us are carrying some deep-rooted emotional habits about it. These days I still cringe when someone at work tells me I’m doing something wrong or that I had a terrible idea. Of course I do. But the point I want to make here, the one that I’d love for you to take home after this oh-my-goodness-it-got-quite-long-isn’t-it article is this.

We always have a choice.

Right there, after the initial cringe, we have a choice to reframe the event in a manner that is constructive for us. To look for and actually find perfectly valid reasons to find the enriching side of it. And then, of course, to find a way to make our spiritual growth profit from it. This takes time, effort and many failures, but I’ve discovered I can choose to walk a path in which criticism is not an enemy, but a precious ally.

By the way, teachings like that stanza from the 37 practices are a very useful tool to remember at times of need. Eventually changing our minds to be what we want it to be —that’s just a matter of time. So my very best wishes for you in such an amazing inner transformation process, thank you for reading and happy cringing.

PS: I’m grateful to RYI for their scholarship for the Translator Training Program, as well as to my friend Jamie, who kindly reviewed this article and suggested many useful improvementsshowing me, once again, the paramount importance of Correctors.

~Damcho Gyaltsen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.