In the monastic community, giving and accepting criticism of each others’ behavior is a standard part of the training. In lay life we tend not to welcome any indication that we or our views are not perfect. However, we rarely notice our own flaws, even when they are obvious to others. In MN 15, Ven. Mogallana, one of the Buddha’s most senior disciples, gives a long description of the characteristics of people who do and don’t accept correction from others.
A small part of the sutta goes like this (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation):
Now, friends, a monk should review himself thus: (1) ‘Do I have evil desires and am I dominated by evil desires?’ If, when he reviews himself, he know: ‘I have evil desires, I am dominated by evil desires,’ then he should make an effort to abandon those evil unwholesome qualities. But if, when he reviews himself, he knows: ‘I have no evil desires, I am not dominated by evil desires,’ then he can abide happy and glad, training day and night in wholesome qualities.
“Having evil desires” is the first of sixteen qualities that Ven. Mogallana lists as characteristic of a monk who will not accept criticism. Some of the others are:
2. Praising oneself and disparaging others.
3. Being angry.
5. Being stubborn.
7. When reproved, resisting the reprover.
8. When reproved, denigrating the reprover.
10. When reproved, prevaricating [evading], leading the talk aside [changing the subject], showing anger, hate, and bitterness.
12. Being contemptuous and insolent.
16. Adhering to his own view, holding to it tenaciously.
We probably recognize some or all of these strategies used by people who can’t bear to be corrected or shown any indication that they may be behaving unwisely. Unfortunately, in our public life, we often see senior figures deploying these tactics.
If we agree that accepting correction from others can be a pathway to spiritual and psychological growth, then we might be willing to review our own reactions to those who challenge us. Can we listen to others who disagree with our positions? Do we bristle at any suggestion that our view is incorrect? Do we immediately doubt the integrity or intelligence of the questioner? Does criticism make us dig in to our position deeper than before?
We all have a profound instinct for self-preservation. At one time in human history this quality protected us from real, physical dangers, so in an evolutionary sense, it’s essential. However, now that we don’t live in savannahs populated by wild animals, the instinct has morphed into (sometimes hyper-) sensitivity to “ego threats”. If someone expresses an opinion different from or opposite to our own, what is being threatened? If someone points out that we’ve inadvertently caused harm or inconvenience to someone else, why do we sometimes react as if there is danger?
This is a specific situation in which mindfulness can lead to understanding. When feelings of resistance rise up, can we look inside and observe our reaction? Can we wait, reflect, feel the physical sensations involved, and calm ourselves enough to listen to what’s actually being said? Can we consider another point of view?