My friend, Susan, recently read my book on walking the Camino and told me in an email how “the Confessions” in the book had woven their way into her life. I had mentioned to her that they were almost edited out at one point, but they survived the final cut. She wrote,
“And as to the Confessions in your book, I’m so glad you left them in, Marcia! I am benefiting from them even now. Lately, as I ride the Coastal Trail every day on my bike, I have started thinking of it as a mini-Camino, and doing my own Confessions. Biking that trail is such a joy and also the place where my most judgmental self often comes to the fore where I can SEE it: “Why can’t they share the trail?” / “They don’t care about safety enough to wear a helmet.” / “There is a leash law, for God’s sake!” and on it goes. So now, when I hear myself thinking those unkind things I make a Confession. It’s a help!”
Her story intrigued me and opened me to consider how my Camino pilgrimage was still being walked in this way. It led me back to my own Confessions on the Camino, also wondering what little Caminos are continuing in my life. What is it about confessions that are indeed “good for the soul” as is often touted?
Susan didn’t exactly say so, but something about her awareness of her judgment of others on the coastal trail led her to confess what she called an unkindness of thought. And that it was a help. I didn’t ask in what way it was a help, but putting myself on her bike on that trail, I could imagine those same thoughts easily; I had so many judgments of others on my Camino, and confessed them, particularly regarding the Germans.
It is a courageous act to SEE, as Susan said, where we are less than gracious. Having the humility to see it and “confess” it, is a mysterious cleansing. It is a returning to ourselves. Even if Susan had some justification in her judgment–there is a leash law, for instance, and loose dogs are a hazard for a biker–I sensed from what Susan wrote that in her core, it was her truer nature to forgive and to be kind. She could feel the discord and confession “helped” her remember. As she alluded to, there are so many chances in a day to consider oneself on a mini Camino, walking with awareness of what is going on inside as well as outside. And being opened to look at where it is hard to love.
In the book, I confess not only to the judgment of others, but often to the judgment of myself as well as I see my prejudices. Since writing the book, on this continuing “Camino,” I would write something more; I would write about being kind to myself as well, even as I will, no doubt, continue to have these relentless judgments. Compassion has to include ourselves in equal balance. If we not only confess, but also condemn ourselves, we have only shifted the unkindness, not eliminated it. Our prejudices and views of what is “right” in the world were shaped when we were very young, some of those beliefs even before what we can remember. By the age of six or so, psychologists say we have created an inner judge that tries to rule our behavior and thoughts, to keep us “in line” and to keep us alive (as the young one sees it.). And it’s one heck of a tough judge. Inner critic might be a good term that is used as well. Psychologists call it the Superego. I call it the Shamer.
I became aware of this tough judge over thirty years ago through the work of Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Greater Creativity. While her perspective was focused on all the ways we diminish our belief in ourselves as artists through inner criticism, skepticism and doubt, the message was loud and clear that healthy awareness is far different from any beliefs that make us feel “less than.” My understanding of the prevalence and the destructive nature of the inner critic was blasted open to me when reading the book, Soul without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself From the Judge Within by Byron Brown about seven years ago.
It was sobering to say the least to become even more aware of my self-criticism, pretty much from the moment I awake. “You shouldn’t have slept in. You’re so lazy.” Not true, but a remnant of my father’s voice. To looking in the mirror. “Gosh, you look old. Isn’t there something you should do about those wrinkles?” The voice of culture, not Love. To “Well, what are you going to do today that is worthwhile/helps others/isn’t selfish/gets something done/produces a result? My father, my mother, my church, my Midwest culture voices from my early life. I’m going to say that if I am aware, that voice has a subtle commentary going all day long. All cause me some level of shame and deficiency. And all cause my body to contract and tense. As Brown writes,
” The heart’s direct antidote to judgment is compassion. Because the judge sees only what is wrong and what needs fixing, you know you will get no compassion from it. You will therefore be wary of exposing painful, scary, or negative parts of yourself, for you can be certain the judge will make you wish you hadn’t. Everything you think or feel is used against you. Its job is to maintain the status quo to protect you by maintaining a restricted sense of self.”
In my spiritual work, I have come to believe that this Judge is the primary barrier in the development of my soul into its fullness–and its freedom to create and to love. So I pay a LOT of attention to recognizing and defending against that voice. As one of my spiritual teachers once said, “So do you want a six-year old with a loud mouth running your life?” I laughed when I heard her say it, but I took it very seriously. No, I don’t! It is too young to have any wisdom for my life as a woman. It’s always afraid. It’s always trying to keep me without boundaries that as a child I saw was a way to get loved. But those boundaries are so false. I am loved and I love and am limitless.
And I also have come to know and trust that I need to stop that self shame or I will project it onto others. I heard in a psychology class way back in college that the thing you most hate/despise/avoid in another person is the very thing you most hate/despise/avoid in yourself. That sat me back in my seat. My first reaction? That’s not true. My second reaction? Guilt that it could be true. My reaction now? Hmm, better get curious about that. (not jump to self-judgment again), but have the openness to look at that and see if it’s true. To wonder. There’s tenderness there, compassion. Maybe I can learn to project that onto others.
So many little Caminos, as Susan has opened my eyes to see. So many opportunities to simply wonder about my judgment, instead of condemning others or self. Getting to know myself more deeply for the soul that I am.
At a conference I attended in May, I heard Coleman West speak for the first time. It will not be the last. (Was I living on a different planet not to have heard his wisdom until now? ) I may write a blog just on his presentation, but for now, I will end with the way he ended his talk.
“Find out what is GOOD–and you will be found; everyone will want a piece of your birthday cake.”
I’m considering many little Caminos of confessing the GOOD I find every day in me and in others to balance with confessing judgment.
Yes, I like the sound of that pilgrimage. I’ll start packing.