When I was a child my father would take us fishing. I still remember sitting at the end of a pier, my feet hanging over the edge watching for the slightest shadow in the water that might indicate a fish might appear. The water would rise and fall in flattened waves from motor boats far off shore. I watched and watched, noticing every nuance in the water holding tight to my little pole with the worm squirming at the end. Hours would go by, mesmerized and hopeful that soon there would be a nibble. My father was smart, he always brought us out to the pier early morning and close to sunset, when the sunfishes hid under the dock. We didn’t keep the fish, they were small and squirmy. My dad would appear whenever one of us shouted, got one, got one. Then he’d carefully take the hook out of the fishes mouth and throw them back in the water. The only part I hated was when he weaved a squirmy worm onto the hook. I remember thinking, at least the little fish got to eat the worm.
As an adult I recognize that fishing at the end of the pier at sunset might have been my first mindfulness exercise. Childhood teaches us how to notice, to pay such close attention to our bodies, what we see, hear, touch, smell and feel. It’s all so vivid and engrossing, even entertaining. It isn’t until later in life that our personal inner critic bursts onto the scene, stealing the wonder and acceptance away. Catch and release, the words still echo in my mind. I didn’t know what they meant at five years old, only the joy I felt when my father said them because those words meant I would get to sit at the end of the dock watching the water move dappled with light or shade, waiting and watching for the shadow of a fish.
Recently I’ve begun to use the words catch and release to banish my inner critic. I’m tapping back into my earliest memory of watching that water, paying attention and noticing so that I’m ready when the fish appears. The fish in this scenario is the critical voice that judges what I’m doing, saying, thinking in a way that deadens the experience just a bit. The critic that steals your joy and steals the moment with a thought that in one form or another says this isn’t good enough, you aren’t good enough, you could be better. Maybe your inner critic appears with a different message; this isn’t fun, why am I doing this, it’s a waste of time, it won’t turn out, this person doesn’t like me, I’m not going to get this job, my husband is so annoying, I wish my daughter were as outgoing. Any message, or self talk that deadens your joy, that is the fish you’re trying to catch. But you have to pay close attention to the waters of your life, for the shift and the light so that when the self critic floats into view, you can catch it, recognize you have a fish on the line, unhook it and throw it back.
In the book, The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer suggests visualizing your critic, to close your eyes and give your critic a face and body. Then imagine inviting that person into your home, to sit on the couch and watch a movie, to make dinner with you, attend a class. If that critical person were real and actually in your space, would you let her say those negative judgmental things to you, or would you ask her to leave? Would that person be in your life at all? Probably not, and yet, we thoughtlessly hand over our life and experiences to a critical entity whose taken up residence in our minds. Once you start noticing how often your inner critic, the worrier and judge, takes over your thoughts, you’ll be shocked at how often this uninvited guest appears.
To catch and release your inner critic, you may have to start with a defined time; one hour. A surefire way for the critic to appear so you can practice releasing him, is to do an activity you think you’re not good at. For those of you who say you can’t draw—draw, can’t dance-dance, can’t write-write. You get the idea. For that one hour while you do that activity, you’ll be on the lookout for the inner critic’s voice. It might sound like; this is too hard, I suck at this or I hope nobody sees this. But you’re going to keep doing the activity catching the critic. When you do you’ll say, “aha, there you are you sneaky critic, I see you, I’ve caught you, I’m going to unhook you and throw you back.”
Catch and release. Then you’re going to replace the critical thought with another, one that praises your effort. Take a deep breath as you release the critic, close the door to your mind and be present in the moment to what you’re actually doing. If drawing, watch the pencil on the paper, hear it glide, appreciate the dexterity of your fingers. If cooking, smell the food, think about the plant that produced the vegetable, be there and be present. Focus on that moment and refuse your inner critic a seat at the table. It’s your table, your life, your pier, your job, your hobby, your domain. Only you can invite your inner critic in. It’s time to refuse admittance to the critic by standing at the door of your mind. Don’t let him sneak by, catch and release. Catch and release.