At different stages in my practice I have found it very useful to use a mantra – a sort of slogan, aphorism or catchphrase – to anchor me and remind me of my intentions. A mantra that has been particularly useful to me is, “neither praise nor blame”. It reminds me that both accolades and censure are highly subjective, fleeting, and subject to change.
Great tranquility of heart is his who cares for neither praise nor blame. – Thomas à Kempis
If we begin to observe ourselves and our reactions to experience, we may notice how impacted we are by our perception of others’ approval or validation on the one hand, and their criticism, disapproval or rejection on the other. The unexamined mind is constantly weighing, judging and comparing. Someone may express their deep disappointment in you one moment, and in the next moment, another person may let you know how much they appreciate you. This can make for quite a rollercoaster ride when we care deeply, but are not fully present to the subtle workings of the mind. A knee-jerk reaction to this is often to seek more praise and avoid blame, resulting in a series of starts, stops and overcorrections that can send us careening. In addition, the emotional residue from these interpretations of events can bleed out into subsequent experiences, coloring our perceptions and causing us to act unskillfully.
By using this mantra in everyday life, I am not implying that feedback from others is without value. This type of input can be a useful reality check if we are able to take it with a grain of salt. The grain of salt is an awareness of the ways in which we tend to grasp at things that feed the ego and recoil from things that appear to threaten it. Understanding the role of ego allows us to respond to others with greater wisdom.
Ego is our sense of identity or self-concept consisting of values, beliefs, assumptions, ideas and theories about ourselves. It is neither good nor bad, but we can become slaves to it if we aren’t conscious of its tendencies. We can find ourselves working overtime to grow and protect cherished concepts about the “self”. The bigger the ego grows, the more energy and investment is needed to feed and maintain it. We become increasingly averse to perceived threats to it and crave experiences that reinforce it. On some level, we believe that if we are getting positive feedback, we are “okay” and negative feedback means we’re “not okay”. Or, we might feel empty, unimportant, or alone when there is no response.
“Neither praise nor blame” helps interrupt this cycle of grasping, clinging and aversion. When I notice myself feeling inordinately uplifted, proud, discouraged or ashamed by feedback I think I’ve received, this mantra reminds me of the essential emptiness of both praise and blame. The result is greater equanimity. I am better able ride the relationship rollercoaster without flying out into the sky or crashing down into the earth. I am also able to face ambiguity and uncertainty with less discomfort.
You who know the world, take gain and loss,
Or bliss and pain, or kind words and abuse,
Or praise and blame—these eight mundane concerns—
Make them the same, and don’t disturb your mind.
-Nagarjuna, Letter to a Friend