The attitudinal foundation non-judgement, is a significant component of Jon Kabat Zinn’s definition of mindfulness.
‘Mindfulness is paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, to moment-to-moment experience, non -judgementally and with acceptance.’
Is non-judgement even possible? As human beings we are endowed with the critical faculty of judgement. The Oxford English Dictionary defines judgement as ‘The ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.’ The capacity to make judgements is important for our survival, as well as allowing us to direct our lives in in meaningful and beneficial ways. I need to judge whether a pan is too hot to hold with my bare hand or to notice a suspicious looking person on the street at night. These judgements allow me to care for myself, to keep myself safe. In relationship, in conversation, judgment plays a crucial role in timing, what will be said, and when. In major life decisions, making changes at work, in relationships, in home life, sensible decisions are based on sound judgement. Why then, in mindfulness practice, are we encouraged not to judge?
When participants encounter the invitation to non-judgement on an eight- week course, they often experience inner conflict, berating themselves for not being able to stop judging. As a result, and after years of teaching MBSR, I have taken the liberty of refining the definition of mindfulness. Instead of non-judgement, I use suspending judgement. It seems to me that this is more realistic. We cannot stop ourselves from judging any more than we can stop ourselves from thinking, but we can suspend judgement.
As with many things in life the question of judgement is not a black and white one. Judging can be both helpful and unhelpful. In the context of the inner work of living mindfully suspending judgement is crucial. Mindful attention is often described as a penetrating beam of light illuminating what is present in any moment. What is illuminated will be pleasant and it will be unpleasant. Pleasant and unpleasant experiences are a fact of life. I sometimes describe the experience of beginning to mediate as similar to going into a neglected room. Inevitably, the room is going to be quite dusty and full of cobwebs. If we open the door and say, ‘ Oh my, there is so much to do, and I don’t want to get my hands dirty,’ nothing changes. We need to be willing to go beyond the judgement and face into the work that needs to be done, regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant.
The dust and cobwebs we find in a meditation practice may be our anger, our restlessness, our anxiety or perhaps sadness. Accessing the capacity to suspend judgement allows us to be able to look, and see more clearly, to get to know these experiences a little better, to begin to gently clean up our internal environment. We do this, not to get rid of these feelings, but to attend to them, to give them space, allow for some ventilation, so that they can begin to organically shift and unfold. We do this patiently, kindly, moment-by-moment.
The humanistic psychologist Carl Rodgers considered ‘unconditional positive regard’ to be one of the core conditions needed for a healing, therapeutic relationship. In many ways our work in our mindfulness practice is to cultivate this quality of relationship towards ourselves. Whether our experience is pleasant or unpleasant, agreeable or disagreeable, it is here, can we meet it and suspend judgement. Can we honour it’s reality in the present moment. Can we meet ourselves in both our human brilliance and our brokenness? Sometimes, I am unkind, or selfish, or mean, I am human. To be human means to experience a whole range of mental and emotional states. Can I forgive myself, and resolve to be a little kinder, more giving in the next moments.
When we judge ourselves, we reduce ourselves to a passing thought or emotion. Instead of anger or meanness as fleeting mind states, we define ourselves as an angry or mean person. If we can learn to suspend these judgements and get curious about our experience, we may find that underneath the anger or mean feelings are sadness and fear. When we judge we close the door on ourselves and cannot learn any more. This judgemental way of being is not limited to ourselves, we project this way of being out on to the world. We judge others and in this judging separate ourselves in painful ways. When we suspend judgement of ourselves, when we cultivate kindness towards ourselves, we develop the capacity to do this towards others. Our world desperately needs people who can harness these capacities.
Suspending judgement respects the judging faculty, however it allows us to make decisions about where we will place our energy. This brings us to another aspect of judgement, discernment. The Oxford English dictionary describes discernment as ‘the ability to judge well.’ What does it mean to judge well? When we suspend judgement we have the opportunity to see clearly how we are behaving and its consequences. We observe cause and effect in the context of own experience, and we learn from it. We then have the opportunity to choose behaviours and ways of being that are for the benefit of ourselves, and for the benefit of others. Judging well, discernment, is a form of wisdom. When we meditate, when we are mindful, we develop the capacity to perceive ourselves and our experience more clearly. We make better judgements, we behave more skilfully, we live wiser lives.
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