Judgment is like cholesterol: There’s a ‘good’ kind and a ‘bad’ kind. My friend Angela calls the good kind of judgment “discernment.’ The bad kind, she calls ‘the enemy of love.’ “It doesn’t matter what situation I go into,” she once told me while suffering through a spell of the bad kind, “I can always find something wrong with it. If it’s not the weather, it’s people’s clothes, or the way they’re talking. Whatever it is, I hate it.” You can’t win with your inner judge: it even judges itself for judging. Sometimes that judgmental state feels like a sword driven right into the delicate fabric of your consciousness. Any feelings of love or relaxation or peace you might have been nurturing are chopped to bits. Whether you’re judging others or yourself, it’s impossible to aim negative judgments in any direction without experiencing the sharp edges of judgment within yourself. Doubly so, in fact, since the faults we judge most harshly in other people usually turn out to be our own negativities projected outward.
Linda, a gifted and intelligent woman, has a rebellious streak that she’s been trying for years to suppress. When she was in graduate school she was caught shoplifting and nearly lost her job as a teaching assistant. In later years, she liked to engage in sexual brinkmanship-intense flirtations with much younger men, many of them her students. Nowadays, she prides herself on her ability to spot the hidden lawlessness in others, and because she rejects it in herself, she rejects it in them. She once drove a colleague out of her teaching position by spreading rumors about the colleague’s affair with the father of a student. She’ll say, with a straight face, that her sense of purity is so powerful that it will always point out the impurity in the people around her. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that the ‘impurity’ she sees in others mirrors behavior she rejects in herself.
But of course, I’m being judgmental here, and what’s more, taking a certain satisfaction in it. That’s the problem: unleashing the inner judge can give us a quick hit of superiority. We feel authoritative and smart when we can wield a skillful insight, pinpoint our parents’ mistakes, the faults of the current administration, the pretenses of our friends, teachers, and bosses. Moreover, judgment fuels passions-the sense of injustice, sympathy for the underdog, the desire to right wrongs. It helps us get up off the couch and into action. For many of us, in fact, judgment and blame offer a kind of emotional caffeine, a way of waking ourselves out of passivity.
Recently, I was leading a group exercise about dissolving negative emotions in meditation. One of the participants chose to work with her judgments about the Iraq war and shared afterwards that when she examined the energy inside those feelings, she could feel how toxic it was. Judgment, she realized, could actually make her sick. “The problem is,” she said, “that I don’t know how I’ll generate the passion to do my political work without those feelings of judgment.”
It’s a good question, and one that every one of us who decides to work through our judgmental tendencies has to answer at some point. After all, the critical intellect is indispensable. The absence of critical feedback is what makes tyrants, dictators, and bad decisions. Without discernment, we mistake emotional heat for real love, and states of mindless trance for meditation. Discernment-or viveka, as its called in Sanskrit-is also the quality that will ultimately allow us to make the very subtle spiritual decisions about what we ultimately value, what will make us happy, and which of the many competing inner voices are important.
Discernment vs Blame
So here’s the question: How can we discern when something is wrong without being judgmental, without disliking the perpetrators, without filling our own mind with negativity? On the inner level, how can we change our own difficult personality traits, our fears and tensions and resistances, without judging them or judging ourselves for having them? Is it even possible to eliminate the ‘bad’ kind of judgment, without losing the good kind? The No-Fault Perspective Let me mention one thing at the beginning: despite our tendency to confuse them, judgmental blaming and discernment have as little to do with each other as dogs and cats. In fact, they come from entirely different levels of our psyche.
According to traditional yogic psychology, discernment is a quality of the buddhi, a Sanskrit word that is sometimes translated as intellect but which really means the higher mind, the seeing instrument that our inner Self uses to observe the play of our inner world and make decisions about what is of value and what is not. Discernment is an awareness, often wordless, a clear insight that is prior to thoughts and emotions.
Judgment and blame, on the other hand, are products of the ahamkara, usually called the ego, that part of the psyche which identifies ‘me’ with the body, personality, and opinions.
Ego has its uses-after all, if we couldn’t create a boundaried sense of ‘I’, we wouldn’t be able to engage as individuals in this fascinating game we call life on earth. The problem with ego is that it tends to extend its portfolio, creating structures that block our connection with the inner Self, with the joy and freedom that is our core. When that happens, we find ourselves assuming what is sometimes called the false self.
Not to be confused with our natural personality (which, like the structure of a snowflake, is simply the unique expression of our personal configuration of energies), the false self is a coping mechanism. Usually devised in childhood, it is a complex of roles and disguises cobbled together in response to our culture and family situation. The false self claims to protect us, to help us fit in with our peers, and to keep us from feeling naked in a potentially hostile world, but actually functions like badly fitting armor, or like a costume that is always threatening to fall off. Because it is fundamentally inauthentic, when we’re inside our false self we often feel clueless, as if we’re getting away with something and at any moment will be unmasked.
Discomfort as a Signal
Blame is one of the smokescreens that the false self throws up to keep itself from facing the pain of our human fallibility. Blaming, like anger, creates drama, movement, action – it is, as politicians know, one of the greatest of all diversionary tactics. If you look at what happens inside you when you feel unhappy, confused, or threatened by a situation, you may be able to catch the moment when blame arises. First, there is the discomfort, the sense that something is wrong. This feels unpleasant, and the ego doesn’t like unpleasantness. So it squirms, looking for a way to resist or avoid the feeling. At this point, you start to explain to yourself why you feel uncomfortable, and to look for how you can fix it. Often you do this by looking for someone or something to blame for the situation that has created discomfort. You may blame yourself, thus creating guilt. You may blame someone else, feeling like a victim or perhaps like a potential hero coming to the rescue. You may blame fate, or God, which usually creates a feeling of nihilistic despair. In any case, you will have created a screen to separate yourself (at least momentarily) from the initial feeling of discomfort.
The irony here is that if we could let ourselves feel the discomfort without assigning blame, that very discomfort would connect us to our real source of wisdom and strength. The feeling that something is wrong is actually a signal. At the deepest level, it’s a direct communication from our inner self, our authentic self. Feelings are expressions of the life-force-the inner power that the yogic tradition calls shakti. If we can catch them when they first arise,-before we start to assign blame or find fault or rush to judgment-they will often give us the information we need to understand any situation. Not only that, they will, when we acknowledge feelings of discomfort without trying to escape them, we automatically put ourselves back in touch with our authentic self, which is the source of real discernment.
Of course, when we’ve pushed away our feelings for a long time, they become hard to recognize and even harder to interpret. That’s why it so often it takes a crisis, a meltdown, to get the false self to abandon its defenses long enough to hear the messages our feelings want to give us.
The Fault Lines
When I was in my early twenties I was married to a man who worked in the film business. Making films involves months of 18-hour days, often in strange places, and since I was a journalist, and my profession was theoretically portable, it seemed to make sense that I should travel with him. In practice, however, that meant that I often found myself sitting in hotel rooms, waiting for my husband to come home. I hated the powerless feeling this gave me, but at the same time, I was too emotionally dependent on my husband to stay away. In my conflicted state, I would pick fights, and the fights would escalate, and eventually we would find ourselves locked in a struggle to prove the other wrong.
One day, I had to leave for an interview right in the middle of a particularly intense argument. Mega waves of anger were running through me, and what was even worse was my confusion – the issues behind the conflict were so murky that I couldn’t figure out which of us was wrong!
But I didn’t have time to obsess about it. I had to do the interview. I watched myself slip out of the emotions that were consuming me, and slip into my professional self. As I considered the questions I was going to ask, I actually forgot about my anger.
When the interview was over, I noticed that I was still standing outside my anger. At that moment, I realized that I had a choice. I could re-enter the zone of anger, the zone of he-did-this/I-did-that, or I could stay in this zone of relative objectivity, and consider the situation from a different perspective.
I chose objectivity. I asked myself, “Why does it matter so much that you be right?” Almost immediately an answer arose: “Because I don’t believe that I can change. So if I admit a mistake, it’s like admitting that I’m permanently flawed.” “Why is that so terrible?” I asked. There seemed to be no answer to that question-only a feeling of fear and despair. That feeling felt huge, primal. As I let myself feel it, I saw that in some way it was controlling my life, and that I did not want to live inside that feeling any more. Whatever it took, I knew I had to pull myself out of this swamp of pain.
That realization was a true turning point in my life. In hindsight, I’d say that it marked the beginning of my inner journey, starting a process of self-questioning that led me, two years later, into meditation. At the time, though, the most immediate result was a feeling of compassion both for myself and for my husband. There was no longer any question of blame. We were just two human beings on different life trajectories, struggling to stay together when it was obvious that we were moving in nearly opposite directions. My problem, I saw, was not him. It was the fact that I was out of touch with my real self.
Over the years, as meditation and inner practice have made me familiar with my own ground, the self that lies behind the masks, it’s become much easier not to blame. That choice is always there presenting itself, of course. When the feeling that ‘Something’s wrong’ surfaces, I can let the discomfort propel us into the old scripts (“Who’s fault is this?” “What have I done wrong?” ‘How can these people act that way?”). Or I can stop, recognize the discomfort as a signal to pay attention, and ask “What am I supposed to understand here?” or “What is this feeling telling me?” or simply, “What’s behind this feeling?” If I take the first road, I inevitably find myself saying or doing something that comes out of the ego’s fearful need to prove itself right. The result is often painful and always ineffectual. If I take the second road, I experience a clarity that lets me act intuitively, with a clarity that seems to come from beyond my personal self. When I act with discernment, it’s often because I’ve resisted the tendency to blame.
So, here’s a principle: If you want to switch channels from blaming to discernment, start by paying attention to the feelings that arose right before you started the blame spiral. Find out what they have to show you.
Think of it as a process of retracing your footsteps. When you find yourself blaming-either yourself or someone else-ask yourself, “What was the feeling that started all this?” Be patient, because it might take a few moments to become aware of what the feeling was, but when it does, let yourself stay with it, focus in it. Then turn inside and ask, as if you were asking the feeling itself, “What perception lies behind this feeling? What is this feeling telling me?” The perception might be something totally unexpected–an insight into yourself, a realization about a situation. It might be that there’s something you need to handle, something you’ve buried which is now surfacing through feelings of anger or sadness. You might realize that its time to act in a situation that you’ve been letting slide., or that you need to stop struggling and let a problem resolve itself on its own.
After you’ve sensed an answer, look again. Notice whether or not the perception you’re experiencing feels clear, or whether you are experiencing another layer of the judging mind. The way to do this is to notice the feelings around your perception. If you still feel confused, angry, self-righteous, unhappy, over-excited, full of desire, or any other hot or swampy emotion, you’re still in judgment. In that case, ask yourself, ‘What is the root perception behind this? What does this feeling really have to tell me?”
This process of self-inquiry, if you stay with it, can give you practical solutions to questions about your life. It can also shift your inner state quite radically. Real discernment, I’ve always found, starts with the willingness to ask questions. If we keep asking those questions, we often get to the place where there are no answers at all, the place where we are just?present. Judgments dissolve in that place. Then we don’t have to strive for discernment, discernment is as natural as breathing.