12/03/2012 12:08 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

What's the Difference Between Praise and Blame?

"You know, most of the people who worked for you back then were afraid of you..." -- Patrick D., a former corporate work colleague of mine

These words hit me like a sucker-punch to my self identity, and continued to rattle around my consciousness for many days.

Leading up to them, I had the joyful fortune to go to a dinner party where I quite unexpectedly reconnected with someone from my past corporate work circle. As we traded stories about the old days and shared some laughs, he then said what is quoted above.

I had always prided myself on being a "good guy," and have a memory of myself as one of those bosses who was almost too friendly with the staff, blurring the efficient company beauracratic lines. But now, suddenly the wheels were spinning in my head. "Was this true?" "Afraid?" "How could that be?" "Sure, I was under a lot of pressure, and had things going on in my personal life. But I was so sure I kept that out of behavior around the office..." "They must have all been really thin skinned!" "I had some asshole bosses of my own; those people don't know how good they had it!"

Not surprisingly, when felt to be under attack, our self identities quite often get very defensive and go on the attack simultaneously. The sting we feel energizes the thinking that "they" must be flat-out wrong, or at least woefully unaware of the bigger context. And yet....

"What if he is right? I mean he must be, right? Wow, what a fool I am!" "What things have I done to create that fear but now conveniently forgotten?" "Oh now i feel like S@&#.... If I can be that wrong about myself, I need to stay away from people until I figure this out."

That feeling of wanting to disappear, to crawl into a hole, of hiding yourself. It can be a very strong feeling, an empowering feeling.... to your self identity! It gets to roll around in that pity, to wallow in it, maybe to bemoan about it with a few friends. It may "suck," but it still is all about me, and my importance, and how much other people must think about me ("bad news is still news").

My practice was to (literally) sit with these swirling thoughts and energetic body feelings, trying to pay more attention to the overall process and flow of energy than in trying to react to, or feed the me in any direction. In other words, to take some silent time to be present to the thoughts and feelings but also, in observing them, to dis-identify with the their content. This practice of mindful patience eventually allowed the reality of the situation to be clear. And the reality that I was reacting not to reality but to projections, my own selective memory and image of "Doug the executive," my own interpretation of the word "afraid," my friend Chris' projection of the perspective of the other staff, the staff's projections of me.

When all of these projections clashed, it started a new round of projections for me. Projecting an angry defense of myself to myself, battling against my own projected, pitiable self, keeping alive this dispute in my head so that I could keep thinking about myself.

My ego took a licking and was manipulating its way to keep on ticking.

The reality, the truth of the whole situation, was somewhere in the middle, was based on actions more than a decade old, and was something that no one was really thinking about anymore... except for me.

"At the yoga studio you used to teach at they started another yin class. One of your old students came out after the class and asked for her money back because she said, 'It wasn't nearly as good as when Doug taught.'" -- A former yoga colleague of mine

Ah. These words were received like tasty nectar, when at a recent Sunday service I unexpectedly bumped into someone who works at a yoga studio I used to teach at, and she passed on the above anecdote to me. This time my gut, heart, and head all swelled with pride. "Ah, yes, people do recognize how awesome I am!" "Aha, I do deserve to be a 'rock star' yoga teacher!"

Boy, now I had some wonderful material to roll around in and spin out some really pleasing self images. `I even considered this incident to be the antidote to the previous one: "Ah, so people used to be afraid of me, but now that i have done so much "spiritual" work, I am obviously now a better and more valued person! It took a little while but I was able to catch myself doing this. So I practiced mindful patience with this experience and resulting thoughts and feelings. I detected a lot of similarity to the effect of the two conversations, actually. They both gave me a chance to project myself into past situations and know that people were thinking about me.

And they both had little to do with the reality of the situation. A yin yoga master would be able to communicate the essence of the teaching, to help people to surrender to the present moment and release their hang-ups over things needing to be a certain way. Like having the exact same experience in a class. So maybe I'm not ready for rock star status just yet.

Situations of being blamed or hearing negative things about oneself are obviously challenging to the ego. And in waking up that beast, they present more subtle challenges to the development of our ultimate human potential. Situations of praise are obviously not very challenging to the ego, but awaken that beast in a different way, creating the same subtle challenge for our ability to grow.

."Words of praise or blame serve only to beguile us, so blow them away as you would blow your own nose." -- Atisha, the "Second Buddha"

Can we use the practice of mindful patience to take this advice? Should we even try?

Tell me what you think, or even better, what you've experienced. You can disagree or agree, think this piece was way off or feel it is a critical piece of the peace. I promise not to get too hung up on it, either way.


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