Friday, June 28, 2013

Not Just Pumping Iron, Part Eighteen

Corpse Pose

Inner Critic

The second meditation I want to offer focuses directly on the musculature. In this case, one quiets the mental chatter by systematically directing one's attention to the relaxation of the muscles, one body area at a time. The particular way of doing this is one which I learned many years ago and have used on myself and with psychotherapy clients. It is based on an asana (body posture) of Hatha Yoga known as "savasana," the "corpse pose." I learned this first as savasana and years later in my doctoral study I was exposed to a Western version developed by Edmund Jacobson (1938) and known as "progressive relaxation."

 The progressive muscle relaxation techniques of Edmund Jacobson:
[opens as downloadable Word.doc]

What I am about to describe draws both on the savasana of Hatha Yoga and Jacobson's progressive relaxation.

Find a quiet, private place where you can lie down without discomfort. (Once the method is learned well, it can be practiced sitting, as well as lying. But while learning, and even after it is well known, for greatest benefit, it is practiced in a supine position.) Lie on your back, eyes closed, arms along your side, and your legs uncrossed. Breathe comfortably. In teaching this method of relaxation I give the following instructions, speaking slowly and pausing for a few moments after each sentence:

Imagine a wave of relaxation which is going to spread very slowly over your entire body. Feel the relaxation begin at the tips of your toes and spread up each toe. Allow the relaxation to continue spreading over the soles of your feet and the tops of your feet, up to your ankles. And, now, let the relaxation move up your lower legs to your knees. Over your calves. Over your shins. Feel the relaxation move deeply into your calves. And each time you breathe out, you can relax a little more and a little more. Allow the relaxation to move into your knees. Feel it deep down in the joints. Let the relaxation continue, now, up your legs to your pelvis. The backs of your legs. The outside of your legs. The insides of your thighs. The fronts of your legs. Each time you breathe out, you can let go a little more. Now, allow the wave of relaxation to move into your pelvis. Let your hips relax. Relax your genitals. Relax your lower abdomen. And, now, the wave of relaxation has spread from the tips of your toes to your waist. And each time you exhale, you can let go a little more and a little more. Allow the relaxation to move up your back now. Your lower back. The middle of your back. Your upper back, up to your neck. And let the relaxation move up your sides to your armpits. Allow the wave of relaxation to spread from your waist up over your upper abdomen and over your chest, up to your shoulders. Now, let the relaxation spread over your shoulders, and deep down into the joints. Let the wave continue down your arms, over your triceps to your elbows. Over your biceps. And now, down your forearms to your wrists. Allow the relaxation to spread into your hands. The backs of your hands. The palms of your hands. And down each finger to their very tips. Imagine even your fingernails relaxing. The wave of relaxation has now spread from the tips of your toes up to your neck, and down each arm to the tips of your fingers. And, each time you exhale, you can let go a little more, and a little more. Will you now allow the wave of relaxation to spread up your neck? Up the front of your neck, over your throat. Up the sides of your neck. Up the back of your neck and up over the back of your head. Feel the relaxation spread over your scalp. Imagine even your hair relaxing. Let your ears relax. And deep inside your ears. Allow the wave to move on down over your forehead. Let your eyebrows relax. And your eyes. Your nose. And cheeks. Let your lips relax. And your chin. Allow the relaxation to move inside your mouth. Feel your tongue relax. Imagine even your teeth gently relaxing in their sockets. Let your throat relax. And now this very comfortable wave of relaxation has spread over your entire body, from the tips of your toes to the top of your head, and down your arms to the tips of your fingers. And each time your exhale you can relax a little more. Feel the deep, comfortable relaxation.

The pacing of the instructions is very slow, at first. As one practices this method of relaxation one will become more efficient at it. This means both that one can reach the state of full body relaxation more quickly, and that the state reached will be of a more profound relaxation. When beginning this practice it may take 10 or 15 minutes to complete the covering of the whole body. It may help to work with a partner for a few times, having him read the above instructions to you. Once you get the feel for the process, you can do it alone, without the words. Rather than hearing the words, you can simply feel your body relax as you move through it systematically with your internal attention. There is a variation discussed both in the yoga and in the progressive relaxation literature which may be helpful of you have difficulty in relaxing your muscles by just thinking of it. The variation is to tense each muscle for a few seconds first, and then let go. One them moves through the body, tensing and relaxing each muscle group one at a time.

If you are in need of sleep when you practice this method of relaxation, you may well fall asleep. When I have had insomnia and used this method to sleep, rarely have I remembered getting past my waist!

Once the savasana is well-learned, as well as the mantra meditation discussed earlier, the two can be used together. These two methods used singly or jointly give one a great deal of help in being able to quiet one's mind. Until experienced, it cannot be imagined how very different life seems with a mind that is still.


As energy draining and distracting as mental chatter is, even more devastating are the critical things which one may say to himself. What I am referring to is the negative self talk in which many people engage. It is as if there were an internal critic who is constantly discouraging, depreciating, and, in general, undermining one's self-confidence and sense of well-being. This internal critic may be subtle, just planting seeds of self-doubt by saying things like, "You can't do it," You'll never be able to do that," or "That's probably more than you can do." Or, it may be more blatant and harsh, shouting inside, things like "You stupid idiot, why don't you give up?" or "You're making a fool of yourself." The essence of the internal critic is a voice which criticizes and discourages.

A natural question is "Where does the internal critical voice come from?" The critical voice one hears inside one's head comes from having actually heard such things said when one was young. As a young, dependent child, parents and other parenting figures such as grandparents, other relatives, babysitters, and teachers are sometimes harshly critical. Regardless of their motivation, whether they are ignorant and believe they are helping build the child's character, are insensitive, or are intentionally cruel, the messages of discouragement are given. Sometimes these messages are taken in and believed. To use the psychological term, the critical messages are introjected. It is as if the person then splits inside, forming an internalized critic, which mirrors the external critics,alongside the healthy part of the personality. Sometimes the internal critic utters the exact words which the person was told many years before, as a child. In other cases the words are not verbatim, but reflect the essence of what had been said. When the critical message which the child received was nonverbal, then the internal critic provides the words, creating what might have been said if the external critics had used words. 

Those readers who suffer from a harsh internal critic know how bothersome it can be. Few people grow up in this society without such an internal critic. For many people, the critic voice is more than just a bother, and actually interferes to a greater or lesser degree with one's performance. For the lifter, this may mean that one discourages one's self from doing one's best, particularly at those times when the stakes are highest, in the contest. Most everyone knows that a cheering crowd can enhance athletic performance. And, a booing crowd, with its negative energy and insults can distract and discourage an athlete. When one has an active internal critic, it is as if one has brought along a hostile audience, bent on interfering with one's performance.

No matter how well trained and well prepared a lifter is, he will not perform at his best as long as his internal critic is operating. In addition, though not as dramatic, the internal critic will assuredly at times get activated even in training, thus detracting from the value of that training session.

Remember, the internal critical voice is not natural. It is the continuation of negative introjected messages. And, this is not the voice of constructive criticism. It is, rather, a voice that discourages and undermines. Its effects are purely deleterious.

In working with psychotherapy patients, I have had a lot of practice in helping people to learn to quiet the voices of their internal critics. So, I want to offer some guidelines which you, the reader, can use.

The first step in dealing with the internal critic is to become aware of it. Listen carefully to what you say to yourself about yourself. Listen carefully, and recognize the things which you say are "put downs," discouragements, or in any way statements which make you feel bad or feel like doing less than your best. Listen for insulting name calling or any depreciation of your worth or your abilities. Remember, the statements may be harsh and obvious, or they may be subtle and insidious.

Next, explore the statement and experience it. Listen to the statement word by word, carefully. Say it over and over, if necessary, from the vantage point of an observer. Let yourself recognize the negative intention of the statement. Notice its inaccuracy, its distortions of truth, and its nefarious purpose. Feel your reaction to it. Perhaps, imagine how you would feel if someone else said it to you. In the process of exploring and experiencing the statement, you may remember who originally gave you that message, and when. Making this historical connection can be interesting and it is usually helpful. It certainly expands one's understanding of one's self. It is not necessary, however, to make the historical connection in order to deal with the critical voice. And, making the historical connection does not in and of itself stop the voice. Anamnesis is not therapeusis. In other words, insight into the origin of the psychological problem is not the same as the resolving of the problem.

The next step is to let go of it. Even though someone else originally made the critical statement, at this time one is saying to one's self. As I pointed out earlier, it is as if the person splits into the internal critic who says the negative message and the other part of the self who receives the message. Since it is you who is now doing it, you can choose not to do it. You can choose not to say the critical words internally, just as surely as you can choose to say something aloud, or not. The critical message has power only insofar as you give it energy. If you say it, you are hanging on to it. But by not saying it, you are letting go of it. This is a solution by "not doing." Or, as some sage once advised, "If you are sticking your finger in your eye and it hurts, stop sticking your finger in your eye!"

As simple as letting go of something is, for now, do something else. The something else is to say to yourself something which counters the critical voice. Often, this means saying the opposite. If, for instance, your critical voice is saying, "Dummy!" you can say, "I am not dumb," to counter it. Or if your internal critic says, "Give up. You'll never be able to do it," you can counter with "I think I can do it; I'll try my best." Such internal counters may sound silly, until you actually try them and experience for yourself how effective they can be.

Eventually, having employed the counter messages enough times, one may find it easier to let go of the critical messages. It is the successful letting go of these messages which gives one freedom from the internal critic.

An example from training may clarify this process of dealing with the interference of an internal critic. Suppose a lifter finds each time that he approaches a training session, he feels a draining of enthusiasm. Somehow that special spark disappears as he reaches for the bar to start the session. Our lifter is puzzled by this. Having read of the method which I have just discussed, he decides to experiment with it. So, next training session our lifter takes the step of awareness. That is, he focuses attention on the internal voices as he approaches the bar. "Voila!" Our lifter hears an internal voice saying, "Why bother? You'll never be any good at this anyway." Perhaps our lifter recognizes that this voice and this message have a familiar ring. What had been going on outside of awareness is now in awareness.

Next: Exploration and Experience.

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