By Thomas McConkie, adapted from an episode of the Mindfulness+ podcast.
My experience is that most definitions of mindfulness include something about not being judgmental. I wholeheartedly agree with this definition — with a caveat.
The truth is that when we really look closely at our experience what we find inevitably is that we're extremely judgmental. We find that the mind is constantly evaluating the environment, analyzing, assessing, and judging. Do I like this, or do I not like it? Is it interesting, or is it not interesting? Is this situation dangerous, or is it safe? There's no end to the judgments.
What I've found after years of practice is that we can potentially run into a pretty significant mindfulness pitfall that goes something like this: We notice when we sit still and really observe our own minds that we're incredibly judgmental, but we suppose that mindfulness is all about not being judgmental. So we do our best to mask our judgment. We start to speak in really soft tones. We talk about how mindfulness is all about being in the present moment and being really happy.
But in reality, sometimes we're really pissed off. Sometimes we're really stirred up; sometimes the waters are really muddy. So we practice in life, and we get activated. And because we have this notion that we're not supposed to be judgmental, we have a tendency to try to suppress judgment and at worst, when we really fall into this pitfall, we start to don a spiritual mask and talk about mindfulness as though it's a practice of being soft-spoken and not being angry ever, ever, ever.
We run into a big problem because we start to suppress the very activity of the body-mind, and the body-mind doesn't like to be suppressed, repressed, depressed, or any kind of pressed. It likes to flow, it likes to really move.
When our mindfulness practice is vibrant and expansive, we're able to occupy a greater and greater spectrum of human experience, ranging the whole spectrum of human emotion, human expression, and human thinking. But we can't get there if we have this limiting notion that we're not supposed to judge.
The point is that there's a paradox here where if we want to be less judgmental in the mindful sense, we have to actually judge more — which is to say we have to notice how judgmental we are and be really honest about that fact.
To do this, there's a critical piece of awareness that we need to develop. Namely, we need to start recognizing that our thoughts — our judgements — are not ultimately who we are at the deepest level. When we identify with the thinking mind, we're very much disturbed by the judgments that arise because it makes us feel like a judgmental person.
But with time and with trust, what we recognize is that as these judgmental thoughts come up there's a part of us that's deeper than the thinking mind itself. We might call this the witness. We might call it awareness itself, or spirit, or intelligence — there are lots of words for it. But when we recognize that we're not just the judgmental thoughts but we're actually this awareness that is aware of all the experience coming up in the space moment to moment, we can actually just allow the activity of our body, mind, personality, to happen. To flow.
What's more, when we get into this flow-state — when we're not judging the judgement or berating ourselves for not being more mindful — but instead just letting the activity and the experience of life come up and inform us fully without denying it, without suppressing it, without sugarcoating it, then experience can fully inform us and allow us to show up in a more appropriate, fluid, compassionate way.
We want to be less judgmental. And with the best of intentions we notice how judgmental we are when we actually sit still and start practicing mindfulness. And at worst we start pretending like we're not judgmental, and wearing a spiritual mask and convincing people how mindful and spiritual we actually are. And that practice creates a lot of tension and wreaks a lot of havoc on us over time.
What we're going to work with here is just being more judgmental. Or better said: we’re going to practice being as judgmental as we actually are. And rather than suppressing, rather than fighting, rather than pretending and telling a story about how things are, we're just going to attempt to appreciate things as they are, make a little more space for the judgements. Not struggle with the struggle so much and see where that leaves us.
Take a moment to settle in, trusting your body to organize in a way that allows you to deeply relax, but also be alert and present. Allow the face to relax, unwrinkling the forehead, softening around the eyes, behind the eyes. Letting the jaw drop slightly. Relaxing the back of the neck. Letting the breath drop deeply into the belly. Letting the breath flow through you like a wave. Good. Keep breathing. Just trusting the rhythm of your body to soften, to settle. Not trying to settle, just letting nature settle you. Letting life meditate you.
And notice in this very moment how you're feeling. Notice how you feel in the body, how you feel in the mind. Notice any judgement you have around it. Positive, negative, neutral. Maybe you sense that this practice is going amazingly well, in which case you can notice that judgement. Maybe you're frustrated with yourself because you're not settling in quickly enough, deeply enough. Why isn't todays meditation as good as yesterdays? Maybe I'm just not cut out to be a meditator. Notice if you have any judgements like that. And whatever the case may be, I want to invite you to radically include the judgement in this experience in this moment. Include the judgements without buying in to them. Without believing them, absolutely. Without identifying with them.
Open up your awareness to your entire life and notice what judgements you have around your life. Maybe the judgement that you're very successful. That you're a good person, that you're doing well - I can't believe I've accomplished this much at this young age - or whatever it is. Or on the other end of the spectrum: I thought I would be much more successful at this late age in life. I thought I would know better who I am, what life actually means, what it's all about. Just notice what judgements come up. And you can let these judgements come up in awareness as naturally as the rains fall. As the winds blow. See if you can allow these judgements to just ebb and flow like the tide. Not reifying them, not buying into their meaning absolutely, but just letting them come and go as something deeper. Deeper than the physical body, deeper than the thinking mind, deeper than the personality remains present. Aware. Awake.
Notice judgements you have towards another person in your life. Positive judgements: this person is absolutely amazing. I admire them, I hope to become more like them in time. Or negative judgements: how does that person live with herself? How does she get away with the things she does? How does he lie, cheat, and steal? Whatever it is, notice. Notice judgements coming up and, again, just be open to these judgements coming up not as a final truth on the matter on who this other person is, but judgements as a product of your own mind. These judgements are you. They're yourself. They're coming up in your experience. They're nobody else's. See if you can just let them come up, let them inform you, and let them go. Staying open to just this moment. Open mind, open heart, open will to be led. As surely as the heart beats, the lungs breath, muscles expand and contract, the mind secretes thoughts; the mind churns out judgement. And you don't have to stop judging any more than your heart needs to stop beating. But you don't have to invest in the judgement, you don't have to identify with it, you don't have to believe it. it can rise and pass like the coming and going of the breath. And as you allow thoughts to come and go, judgements to come and go, you judge maybe more than you're used to, and become infinitely less judgmental in the process.