Imagine for a moment that you are dreaming.
In this dream you find yourself standing on a stage in the middle of a large auditorium filled with hundreds of people. You aren’t sure how you got there, or what you are supposed to do. But as you look around, you realize that you’re the only one on stage and that everyone in the audience is looking at you.
They all seem to be waiting for you to do something, but you aren’t sure what that is. As you look into the faces of those in attendance, you realize that some are smiling, while others have stern or even angry looks, and still others look bored or apathetic.
Suddenly, those who are smiling start to encourage you to dance, sing, and act as music begins to play and a microphone lowers from the ceiling. Those who look stern or angry begin to yell that they don’t like that music, they want another selection and a new performer. Those who look bored begin to choose sides with the others. Some tell you that you’re no good at any of this and you should get off the stage. Others applaud your efforts and tell you that you’re the best. Many critique your appearance. One comments that you are a sloppy dresser; another claims you are cute. Everyone in the audience begins offering all sorts of advice as to what you should do next.
Before long, most are arguing among themselves while shouting directives at you. The noise of their shouts combined with the music becomes deafening. Everyone has an opinion of what you should do, and they are all vying for your attention.
Some of these opinions you agree with, and some you don’t. While some of the voices are helpful, many are not. You try to listen only to the voices you like, but it’s all so overwhelming. Terrified, you run off the stage, find a bathroom, and lock yourself in. Staring at your own reflection in the mirror above the sink, you settle down. You can see yourself. You begin to remember who you really are.
This experience sounds like a nightmare for which very few of us would volunteer. But, in a way, we have already been living a version of this scenario all our lives. Toltecs call this the mitote, the voices in your mind that bombard you with all kinds of conflicting messages and clamor for your attention. These are the voices that have domesticated you. One of the simplest and most obvious forms of the mitote occurs in commercial advertising, which constantly bombards us with the idea that if we just have this product or that service, we will somehow be attractive or successful or powerful or good enough, and that our lives will then be happy. Of course, these messages are only put out there because they work so well, which shows us that they are often the result of the conditioning we received in the early years of our domestication.
Without awareness, we can live our whole lives surrounded by this chaotic babble, basing our actions and feelings on the opinions, ideas, and beliefs of others, rather than finding out who we really are and what we really want for ourselves. Unfortunately for some, this type of tap-dancing to the beat of others’ tunes can go on well after their formative years. Eventually, attempting to live up to the expectations of others can become so natural that they don’t even notice that they’re doing it. They think it’s just how life is supposed to be.
In the Toltec tradition, this stage is called the Sea of Hell, and the way out of it involves moving away from yor internal fears and stepping into unconditional self-love and self-acceptance.
The Sea of Hell represents the part of the mind that is constructed by the external voices which were planted inside each of us, mostly in our formative years. Those who came before us made all sorts of rules, judgments, and agreements that, together, add up to what we call our culture. Of course, we then join them and follow the edicts of society almost unconsciously. Before long, we are trying to control and manipulate ourselves and others because we fear what will happen if we don’t follow these rules. When we do so, we become blind to the truth of who and what we are.
When our parents or caretakers started this process, it was almost always with good intentions. From the very beginning, the adults who loved us and cared for us set about sharing with us the knowledge they thought we needed in order to survive. They wanted to teach us certain rules and beliefs so that we would fit in. They wanted to domesticate us so that we could join the human family and survive and thrive within it.
The problems start when domestication becomes muddled with the emotional wounds of others. For example, one common and necessary act of domestication involves teaching children about the physical danger of fire. After all, children need to know about what is safe and what is not. We would be putting our children in grave danger if we didn’t teach them that fire can burn, suffocate, and destroy. So we teach fire safety from a very young age, and that’s good.
But then there is that other layer of domestication that relates to psychological rather than physical danger. In the case of fire, let’s say that, when you were a young child, your mother came into the garage and found you playing with matches—an understandably dangerous situation. She felt a surge of anger and fear, rooted in an emotional wound from her own past. Perhaps she lost something valuable or even a loved one in a fire, or was scared by her own parents about playing with fire as a child. Overcome with emotion, she may have given you the impression, or even told you outright, that what you were doing was “bad” or “wrong.” She may even have felt it was her duty to scare you into understanding the very real danger of fire.
As a result, you may have expanded on this parental message and formed certain beliefs based in the context of this experience. For instance, as you played, you may have been imagining yourself running a scientific experiment or engaging your curiosity about the seemingly magical way matches “create” fire. But since your mother scolded you and said this was bad, you may have begun to unconsciouly equate this kind of curiosity with a feeling of fear and shame. And those feelings may have followed you into adulthood Now, when an opportunity arises that requires curiosity, creativity, or exploration, you may become fearful, but not remember or know why. This kind of mixed emotion happens at the subconscious level, and as a result you may begin to lose trust in yourself and your own judgment.
In my previous book, The Mastery of Self, I tell a story about a child who is eating lunch with his grandmother. In an earnest and well-meaning effort to get her grandson to eat all the soup in his bowl, she tells him that wasting food is sinful. At first, he refuses to comply, but as she continues prodding, he relents and finishes the soup. When he is finished, she rewards him by telling him that he’s a good boy. There is no malicious intent behind this
punishment/reward system, but in his mind, the child now agrees that not eating all the food in front of him is a sin. He is domesticated to that idea, so he grows up approaching all of his meals through the lens of that agreement. This has the unintended result of him often eating all the food in front of him, even if his body tells him he is full, and even if eating the extra food makes him physically uncomfortable.
Both of these examples make it clear that, when we are young, we listen to external voices like those of our parents and other caregivers, but very soon those voices become our own. Domestication becomes self-domestication. As my father says: Humans are the only creatures on the planet that self-domesticate.
Once an agreement is formed in our minds, the original domesticator no longer needs to be present. We simply begin to reinforce our own domestication by developing our own internal dialogue. This is why domestication is so effective; once we buy into an idea, we no longer need anyone else to enforce it.
Very often, these internal voices add a chorus of negative beliefs to our constant self-talk, and they contribute to the mitote within us.
The first and often the loudest negative voice in our heads—often the embodiment of all those good intentions in the process of domestication-gone-wrong—is what the Toltec tradition calls the voice of the parasite. The parasite takes the experiences of your past and amplifies the negative aspects of them, turning them against you in the form of self-judgment, self-rejection, and other forms of self-inflicted suffering.
The parasite’s most powerful weapon is an idea that many of us have come to accept in one form or another—the idea that we are not enough. The parasite delights in repeating this mantra over and over. You are not smart enough, not attractive enough, not rich enough, not talented enough, not creative enough, not spiritual enough. You are not enough to warrant or deserve love, or acceptance, or belonging. It’s uncanny how many humans believe this idea at some level.
The parasite feeds on your psychological fear. It uses your past experiences, the judgment of others, and any other negative memories or emotions it can find to keep you small, obedient, or otherwise towing the line. The parasite is the voice inside your head that reminds you of past mistakes. It is the voice that convinces you that, if you show people who you really are, they won’t like you, so you had better be agreeable and keep your mouth shut and your head down.
While it can be hard at first to recognize when you are being motivated by the parasite at any given moment, with time and practice you can learn to spot it. The fact is that anytime you hear a voice inside you that is using fear, shame, or guilt—even subtly—in an attempt to influence your actions, that’s the voice of the parasite.
Like any physical parasite, the one in your mind feeds off its host. In this case, the parasite feeds on your past traumatic experiences, your domesticated fears, and the fears and negativity of others. Left unchecked, it eats away at your energy and power. If severe enough, it can actually begin to disable you. This is the case for people who have been living unhappy and unfulfilled lives for years, afraid to pursue what they really want and often not even knowing what that might be. The parasite within their minds has taken over and is running their lives. What could have been a beautiful dream has instead become a nightmare.
Yet there is good news. You can transform the voice of the parasite into the voice of an ally. This involves a monumental shift in perception, but the result is that you can use unconditional love instead of fear as a motivating force in your life. This is indeed a big part of the mastery of life—learning to heal the mind with love and acceptance. Through this work, and through the power journey outlined in this book, you can make the parasite your ally. You can teach it to thrive on creative imagination and joy instead of feeding on suffering and negativity.
In order to make this happen, you must understand the strategies of the parasite so that you can challenge its demands and make different choices, thus building up your personal power. Simply knowing that the parasite exists and feeds off negative energy and fear in your life can provide new insights for combating this fear and changing your relationship to it. By looking at how the parasite communicates with you and controls you, you can come to a better understanding of it.
The two voices, or manifestations, of the parasite are what the Toltec tradition calls the judge and the victim.
Most of us are familiar with the voice of our inner judge. This judge, a master of self-rejection, speaks in both big and little ways. For instance, if you make a simple mistake like forgetting an appointment you made with a friend, your inner judge may prompt you to feel guilt. I’m such an idiot. What’s the matter with me? How could I be so forgetful? These are small examples to which most of us don’t give much thought, but it’s important to note them as examples of the inner judge.
The larger ways in which you judge yourself are often easier to spot, but can be harder to let go. That’s because they run so deep emotionally. For instance, if you get divorced or lose a treasured relationship, if you “fail” at a particular career or educational path, or if you made significant decisions when you were younger that you now regret, these can all be fertile ground for ongoing self-judgment. I’ll never recover from this hurt. No one will ever love me because I am unlovable. I’ll never be able to make a living and support myself. My dreams are unachievable now. I am worthless. And these self-judgments can poison you from the inside out.
Here’s another important point: the judge has an audience without whom it couldn’t exist—what the Toltecs call the voice of the victim. While your inner judge is the voice that lashes out at every opportunity, the victim is the part of you that hears the voice of the judge and believes that what it says is the absolute, unshakable truth. The victim may even be silent when the judge speaks, but it is the part of you that feels all the emotions the judge creates—guilt, shame, worthlessness, and, of course, fear.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t situations in which you truly were a victim, but your goal is to get to a place where the fear of the past no longer controls you—a place where you can think of the past without being overcome with negative emotions that cloud your present. This means you have to recognize both the judge and the victim in your inner mitote. This can be some of the most difficult inner work to do, but your personal freedom lies right on the other side of it.
Another thing to notice about the inner judge and the victim is that the debt is never paid. In the outside world, in the legal systems of almost every place on earth, once a court case is decided (or finalized by the highest court in the land), the matter is closed. There may be consequences or punishment, but not more judging. In the court presided over by the inner judge, however, there is no such thing as a final verdict. Even the smallest cases can be re-litigated, forever and ever, and the victim within continues to feel the pain of those judgments over and over.
For example, if I asked you right now to call up a tender memory of a time when you felt acute embarrassment, made a mistake, or hurt someone you cared about, could you think of one? Of course you could! No doubt, after recalling the circumstances of the event, even if it happened years or decades in the past, you will clearly hear the voice of the judge inside you, vivid and alive. You will probably even feel the emotional reality of the event all over again, complete with clammy hands, a quickening heartbeat, or an ache in your gut. The judge and victim work together in this way, and they hold enormous sway over both your physical body and your mental state.
When you give your attention to these voices long enough, you begin to agree with them and use their unhelpful banter to form your very identity. Over time, you come to mistake these ideas and beliefs for your personal truths, and accept them as a part of who you are. You may even begin to see yourself as someone who “is just a failure,” or someone who “will always be scared.” Rather than seeing these judgments as false beliefs, you now accept them as facts.
Once you begin to recognize the voices in the mitote—including the judge and the victim—you gain a powerful tool for mastering awareness. You can look around your own personal Sea of Hell, the chaos of swirling voices and judgments that follows you everywhere, and you can breathe in, then breathe out. You can say to yourself, or even out loud: “This is a lie.”
To return to our dream, this recognition and decleration amounts to you dropping the microphone and walking off the stage. You realize that the voices of others don’t matter, and that the only voice to listen to is your own.