A few years ago I was taking the dog for a walk in the park when I noticed something I’d never seen before. It was so quick, I almost missed it. Except I didn’t.
It wasn’t something ‘out there’ amongst the grass and trees. It was in myself. Only it wasn’t myself — that’s what was so disturbing about it. The best way to describe it is that it was as if I’d caught a compulsively secretive and elusive creature by surprise, before it could hide. Like a snake that has slithered out from under a rock when it thought nobody was about, and then tries to swiftly retreat before it is noticed.
But that’s only a metaphor. I didn’t see a creature sliding back under a rock but there was something about the experience which was like that. What I saw was a form of awareness — I don’t know how better to describe it than that — which lived, usually very well hidden, underneath my everyday consciousness. And what I saw shocked me to the very core; it was perhaps the most disgusting thing I have ever witnessed, how I imagine it must feel to find a tapeworm dangling out of one’s anus. I saw how this form of awareness — and that really isn’t a good description — produced a constant state of anxiety. And I realised at once that it was the principal factor in the feeling that we’re never achieving enough, that others are doing better than us, that we need to be always striving for something: that we’re not good enough.
I realised immediately that this had never not been present in my mind. But somehow it managed to remain out of sight. It was so quick at disappearing from view when the focus of my attention changed that it was effectively invisible. Only on this occasion it wasn’t quick enough. The disgust came from the immediate recognition that it was completely alien to me: a hostile parasite, just like a tapeworm. And the damnedest thing was that I could sense its rage at being caught out.
Needless to say, I was very taken by this incident. What I had seen made sense of so much of my experience of life, in a way that I would simply never have never suspected. And nothing that I had ever read or heard about prepared me for it. However, I thought I had let it get away.
But that’s where our way of thinking, our categorisation of experience, can get things wrong. If it had been a snake, it would have escaped and remained on the loose. What I came to realise only much later, however, was that — whatever this thing was — that momentary lapse had proved fatal for it. I can’t say I recognised this immediately, but over time I came to realise that the feeling of perpetual underlying anxiety (like a kind of low-grade psychic nausea) was no longer there. Perhaps, like the old tales of Rumpelstiltskin or Tom Tit Tot, it was simply enough to ‘name it’ to seal its demise?
Even more significantly, I noticed that something else had also ceased to be there. One day, again while I was in the park with the dog, I realised I no longer had an ‘inner critic’. This must have been at least three years ago (unfortunately I didn’t make a note at the time). And since then it has never returned.
That’s a big claim to make, I know. But it’s the truth. The critical voice which had accompanied me for as long as I could remember, which everybody must surely also experience, wasn’t there any more. And I hadn’t even noticed it go.
Incidentally, it’s not necessarily an easy thing to get used to, not having an ‘inner critic’. My reactions are much different these days. I’m still just as capable of doing stupid things, of course, but when I do there is no: ‘Oh, you’re so stupid — you’re always making stupid mistakes! Stupid, stupid, stupid!’ I’m perfectly able to say to myself: ‘you’re really stupid!’ but it doesn’t have any moral force — there is no sting. It’s just another thought (and, to be honest, not one I generally find myself thinking). In fact, if I do something stupid, I have to make myself recognize it. “I guess that might not have been the smartest thing to do”. We come to depend on the ‘inner critic’ as a motivator; it’s no friend to us, but it spurs us into action. Without it, we become strangely amoral and unmotivated.
And that’s another thing I have noticed, that there are two kinds of conscience. There is a false conscience which belongs with the critical voice and the underlying sense of unease, which is sharp and reactive. Like beating ourselves with a stick. But generally this masks another form of conscience which is far more subtle, and unemotional. This kind of conscience, which is the only kind I have access to any more, is volitional — we have to choose, and make an effort, to consult it. And, as we visualise choices, it colours them. Or we could say it imbues them with a certain taste. Or that the ‘right thing‘ resonates in a positive way, with a feeling of harmony, of wholesomeness, of possibility. Again I can only walk around this subject with barely satisfactory metaphors. We’ve all known this form of conscience through our lives, but it is usually rendered invisible by the sheer force of false conscience — like the stars at midday, obscured by the brightness of the sun.
In recent years various writers have explored the idea of psychic parasitism. Doris Lessing used the image of the depraved planet of Shammat, feeding off darker human emotions, in her novel Shikasta. Carlos Castaneda painted a picture of Succubi-like ‘flyers’ encouraging and devouring our flares of emotion. Olga Kharitidi discussed the idea of ‘spirits of trauma’ inhabiting the interstices of our memory. It’s an age-old theme; a way in which we human beings have tried to get to grips with how aspects of our behaviour can be so much opposed to the best interest of our species. In the absence of any certain knowledge on my part, I think these images are probably best employed as a metaphor for something we don’t understand. But it is odd how we resist the idea of psychic parasitism (even though it is clearly enough described in our ancient texts, such as the accounts of Jesus casting out demons). Human bodies are susceptible to parasites at every level, from the microscopic mitochondria we have learnt to partner with to twenty-foot tapeworms. So why not our minds?