Judgment Calls

Often, we blame ourselves or others when situations make us feel uneasy.  But if we learn to discern rather than judge, we begin to see our difficult feelings for what they really are.

By Sally Kempton, YogaJournal.com

Judgment is like cholesterol:  There’s a “good” kind and a “bad” kind.  My friend Angela calls the good kind ofjudgment “discernment.”  She calls the bad kind “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 that 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 to suppress for years.  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 hidden lawlessness in others.  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.

Toxic Judge
Of course, I’m being judgmental here, and what’s more, taking a certain satisfaction in it.  That’s the problem: Unleashing our inner judge can give us a quick hit of superiority.  We feel smart when we can wield a skillful insight or pinpoint our parents’ mistakes or the pretenses of our friends, teachers, and bosses.  Moreover, judgment fuels passions—a sense of injustice, sympathy for the underdog, the desire to right wrongs.  It gets us off the couch and into action.  For many of us, judgment and blame are a kind of emotional caffeine, a way of waking ourselves from passivity.

Recently, I was leading a group exercise to dissolve negative emotions in meditation.  One participant worked with her judgments about the Iraq war and then shared that when she examined the energy inside those feelings, she could feel its toxicity.  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 observation, and one that every one of us who decides to work through judgmental tendencies has to address.  After all, the critical intellect is indispensable.  The absence of critical feedback is what creates 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 it’s called in Sanskrit—is also the quality that will ultimately allow us to make the subtle spiritual decisions about what we truly value, what will make us happy, and which of our many competing inner voices are important.

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