I’ll never forget the rather amusing altercation between two of the monks at the monastery one day involving buckets of water! Giving and receiving praise and criticism can play havoc with our emotions if it goes unchecked. Both Brother Matthew and Brother Simon (names changed for anonymity) had been engaged in an ego-game of criticising each other over an extended period of time. Looking back I can’t even remember what the issue was – it was that insignificant and petty. However, as sometimes happens to most of us in these situations, the constant niggling and snide remarks can build up over time until we reach the last straw. Sometimes the effort of trying to put up with it can lead to an even bigger explosion, as was the case one day when the two monks were working together on the farm.
As I recall Brother Matthew was watering the shrubs around the yard, whilst Brother Simon was going back and forth with water for the donkeys that were in the adjacent paddock. I was working nearby and I had heard the two of them all morning complaining about the way in which each of the other was carrying out their task. The verbal exchanges consisted of complaints and “suggestions” about how it could be done better.
As Brother Matthew filled his watering bucket at the outdoor basin in the yard, voices rose louder and louder as their interchange developed progressively into an argument. With my back turned I could hear the sound of the tap running as it filled the bucket, with both of them half talking, half shouting simultaneously at each other. Then Brother Matthew stopped talking as Brother Simon’s voice overpowered his in volume (Brother Simon was a tall, well-built young man with a deep booming voice). Quite abruptly Brother Simon’s voice also went silent, cut off suddenly by the sound of a splash of water. I turned round and saw a shocked Brother Simon, soaking wet with a puddle of water around his feet, and Brother Matthew walking away with an empty bucket! I was momentarily stunned, and watched as the dripping wet Brother Matthew marched purposefully towards the sink, and, fuming silently, started to fill his own bucket.
As his bucket filled with water, which took a couple of minutes, I could see what was coming next and couldn’t help but laugh to myself (I was rather afraid of laughing out loud and incurring the wrath of both of them directed at me). With a determined and calculated expression of revenge on his face Brother Matthew carried his full bucket of water over to where Brother Simon was moodily tending to the shrubs, and from a distance of a couple of meters hurled the water at him before he had a chance to move out of the way. By this point I really couldn’t contain myself longer and was laughing out loud at the two of them acting like clowns! The fracas ended with Brother Simon storming out of the yard throwing nothing more than an angry glare at Brother Matthew (and me!).
Many of us experience praise and criticism at work or in our relationships. However, with many other complicating factors of stress, personality, responsibilities and life in general, it can be difficult to see how important it is to get the right balance in order to encourage growth. In comparison, life in the monastery was relatively simple (although not necessarily easy) and the every day drama of human emotions was reduced to it’s bare essential components. This had the benefit of making it possible to learn quickly about how the ego can manipulate things in order to feed on the energy of the emotions.
Often we think we are making useful “suggestions” when in fact we are criticising. Criticising is a highly effective way of feeding the ego and comparing ourselves with others in order to make us feel good. Our own lack of self-security can lead us to criticising the way others do things. Naturally this can have negative consequences, as in the case of Brothers Matthew and Simon. The receiving of criticism can in itself feed our ego and play on our insecurity. When ego meets ego, or water-bucket meets water-bucket, then watch out for fireworks!
Similarly, too much praise can feed our ego and make us feel better than others. In the spiritual life of the monastery the monks train to recognise and subdue the ego which can hold back spiritual progress. Hence praise was not a common thing in the monastic life. However, the right balance of praise can sometimes be necessary to give encouragement. Amidst the strict lifestlye of monastic life, praise was sometimes vital to renew the determination, especially for the novice monks who weren’t accustomed to the hardships of the monastery. The senior monks were experts in knowing when to give praise, having been through the process themselves. They were also full of love, which is the essential component needed in order to make suggestions for improvement without it becoming criticism.
In this way the monks were exposed to the optimum conditions for growth; clear examples of the negative impact of criticism; measured doses of praise; suggestions for improvement offered with love by superiors who have in their heart the best interests of those in their charge.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? These reflections are taken from my experiences in the monastery, but the same basic elements of human behaviour can be seen in any situation, whether it be in the office at work, or within relationships and family. Learning how to use praise and how to manage criticism is something that will turn you into a master at promoting growth and development in your own particular sphere of life.
By the way, Brother Matthew and Brother Simon were later able to laugh about their little bucket-throwing episode! As was often the case in the monastery, when we all came together for the evening meal we would relate to each other these funny stories. With the help of the perspective of the other monks we could realise how silly we sometimes are and learn to laugh at ourselves. And so we would continue our journey of growth and self discovery.
Want to see a different perspective on this topic?
This post is part of a blog hop series sponsored by a group of Coaches from different coaching specialities. After commenting on my post below feel free to hop on over to their posts and see what else you can learn about Living By Your Values:
Kick Ass Website Coach – Treat Praise Like Criticism
Living Consciously – Courage Expands Your Life Potential
Tiffany Manchester – Praise and Criticism: It’s All Yours
Bill Benoist – Appreciation: The Formula For Success
Jayde Gilmore, Wings Lifecoaching – Praise and Criticism
Brandy Morris, Illuminating Potential – Make Praise and Criticism Work for You
The visual of two sopping wet monks kind of made me giggle but it didn’t “drown out” your message. 😉 I especially loved the distinction of the intent behind specific praise and criticism, for growth rather than just random judgement. Thank you for sharing your story and your perspective!
Haha thanks Brandy! Yes that’s a good point about the intent behind praise and criticism… If praise is coming from an unconditional intent then it will be more beneficial.
I absolutely loved this story of Brother Matthew and Brother Simon and how you weaved it together into a wonderful moral. As you point out, demonstrating criticism is often nothing more than passing our own judgement onto another.
What I found fascinating was how senior monks had become experts in knowing when to give out praise. We can learn much from the simplicities of life.
Thanks Bill… yes knowing when to give out praise makes me think about your description of leaders in your post… how people follow leaders because they know how and when to praise, and not because of criticism.
Jamie, I love the visual you painted for us about the monks…so humorous! And I’m glad to know that life is very real in the monastery, you are dealing with emotions just as much as us people in the ‘real’ world, lol! I think what I learned most from this is the power of observation; you recognizing the insanity of it all and wanting to burst out laughing, and of course the older monks who recognize the emotions coming and going so frequently that they have learned when to allow things to just pass, and when it’s important to acknowledge the experience. Thank you for sharing this experience!
Thanks Tiffany! You summarise it very well in the context of regular, everyday life… acknowledging emotions and letting them pass; and it’s true that when you are an observer you can put things in perspective and realise that it’s not such a big deal after all.
So, monk’s laugh too? Great story telling here, Jamie! What I’m walking away with is what the elders do – notice and interact when needed – at the most impactful moment. It makes me think of what we coaches do – stand back and offer perspectives from a different, view.
Thanks Jenn! A monk’s life is surprisingly “normal”… the same basic trials and tribulations of human experience! Yes it’s remarkable how similar coaching is to the sort of guidance and counselling given by the senior monks. I often found myself coaching visitors about how to lead more fulfilling lives… of course at the time I didn’t know it was “coaching”!