One evening Milarepa returned to his cave after gathering firewood, only to find it filled with demons. They were cooking his food, reading his books, sleeping in his bed. They had taken over the joint. He knew about nonduality of self and other, but he still didn’t quite know how to get these guys out of his cave.
Even though he had the sense that they were just a projection of his own mind—all the unwanted parts of himself—he didn’t know how to get rid of them. So first he taught them the dharma. He sat on this seat that was higher than they were and said things to them about how we are all one. He talked about compassion and shunyata and how poison is medicine.
Nothing happened. The demons were still there. Then he lost his patience and got angry and ran at them. They just laughed at him.
Finally, he gave up and just sat down on the floor, saying, “I’m not going away and it looks like you’re not either, so let’s just live here together.” At that point, all of them left except one. Milarepa said, “Oh, this one is particularly vicious.” (We all know that one. Sometimes we have lots of them like that. Sometimes we feel that’s all we’ve got.)
He didn’t know what to do, so he surrendered himself even further. He walked over and put himself right into the mouth of the demon and said, “Just eat me up if you want to.” Then that demon left too.
– Pema Chödrön
Who are they?
You have let literally thousands of opportunities pass you by because of them: you let the girl of your dreams walk by without stopping her to ask her name; you didn’t go after your dream job because he told you you weren’t good enough; you were quiet around your friends last week because you didn’t think you had anything valuable to say.
‘Just accept it – you’re not good enough’, a voice says.
Self-doubt is one of these dark forces, sitting on your right shoulder, whispering in your ear that you aren’t good enough, intelligently outlining all the reasons not to take a risk, pointing out all of the flaws in your logic.
The difficulty is that he tends to win, drowning out the quiet, supportive voice on your other shoulder.
It’s a natural human tendency to be over-cautious, as we wouldn’t have survived particularly well on the open Savannah 10,000 years ago if we took big risks to get every meal. Better to go hungry than be eaten ourselves.
Academic research also supports this theory.
It is therefore not something to beat yourself up about – you will inevitably be over-cautious. The important thing, though, is that you do something about it.
Harnessing the inner critic
The battle between your monkey mind (i.e. the one still trying to keep you alive on the open savannah) and your rational pre-frontal mind (the ‘modern human’ brain) is a perpetual one.
However, you can start with two simple techniques to ensure rationality comes out victorious:
1. Write a simple list of pros and cons on a single blank page
This will allow your inner supportive voice to shine through. You will likely see that the negatives are not that serious and that there are more more advantages to you making this decision than there are negatives.
The simple act of writing it down stops the maelstrom of confused thoughts in your head being dominated by your inner critic
Writing the pros and cons is a good way to rationally determine why you should do something and whether it’s feasible, but it still doesn’t remove the irrational fear preventing you from taking action.
Spending 5-10 minutes writing out the ‘What ifs’ to taking action should make you realise that your inner critic’s arguments are flawed, irrational & entirely over-exaggerated.
When deciding to start this business, this fear-setting exercise was the main catalyst in making the decision to start it. When I first considered it, there was an endless list of reasons to not do it: secure, well-paid job; enjoyable work; I was friends with my colleagues; it wasn’t particularly stressful; etc.
However, just one of the points in my list of ‘pros’ outweighed all of the others: ‘I am not fulfilled by my current job’. It was still a job.
Without fear-setting though, I think my inner critic would have got the better of me & kept me living an unfulfilling life for a few years longer, at least.
Fear-setting made me confront and break down my main fears: what if I run out of money? What if I fail? What will others think of me?
When I actually broke these down, there was really nothing to be fearful of. The worst case scenario would be a failed business and no money, but what would I lose there?
I could move back to my Mum’s house in London, find a new job with my UX Design experience & start again. Not only would I have learnt a huge amount about myself, but a huge amount about entrepreneurship & life lessons that would enrich me for the rest of my life.
You will never escape the inner struggle, but you can mitigate the consequences of it significantly. Accept your inner critic as part of your life – even welcome him into tea – and you will find yourself happier and more at ease with his existence.
Once you have accepted him, you will tend to find that his voice diminishes.
By simply listing the pros and cons of a decision, coupled with ‘Fear Setting’ in order to break down your fears, you will find yourself empowered to try things you never thought possible.
Imagine a life where you actually started that business you always wanted to start, asked the love of your life out for a drink, pursued the career you’re most passionate about.
It’s not as hard to achieve as you think.