Where does judgment come into this, for you? Judgment and non-judgment?

Judgment is a difficult term, because there are times where judgments are helpful. I would prefer to call that kind of judgment, discernment. In order to be able to discern how to respond to a situation, we need to be able to understand it and to have the skills to be able to act on that discernment, to act wisely.

In that sense, a skillful judgment. Often where judgment is used in mindfulness training is to describe the kind of judgment that comes from setting standards for ourselves and, indeed, for others, which maybe, aren’t helpful. To be continually looking at, where am I trying to get to, which takes me back to, what do I want, the next meal, for example, and what am I trying to avoid, to get away from. We make judgments about what we imagine to be good for us and bad for us. It turns out that, in some situations, what those standard-setting judgments do, is they create, in our minds, a discrepancy between what’s happening and what we want to be happening. That discrepancy, if it can’t be resolved by an action, will often lead to stress, because we’re stuck in a middle place of, I can’t fix this, I can’t avoid this, but I’m still experiencing it and it’s not what I want.

This often turns up as self-criticism. Judgments such as, I’m not good enough, I wish I were better at X, Y or Z, I wish this wasn’t happening, so judgments of a situation. Criticisms of others, as well. When judgments are in service of taking skillful action, which we can sometimes do, then they can be helpful. Discernment.

But when they actually trap us into being in this middle place between reality – what’s actually happening – and what we would like to be happening, we get stuck in the gap and that’s a stressful place to be.

If I could ask you to tell us a bit about non-judgment and how it fits into the picture?

Non-judgment is a phrase that is often used in mindfulness training. There is, perhaps, a slightly longer definition of mindfulness, which is paying attention, on purpose, with full presence and non-judgmentally. Sometimes, there is a critique that comes up that says, “If I pay attention, non-judgmentally, I’ll never make any decisions.” What this is pointing to, rather, is to meet our experience with a quality of friendliness, with a quality of interest and, if you like, of not being the judge or not being judgmental. When we say, being judgmental, that perhaps, gets us closer to what these phrases of judgment and non-judgment mean, in mindfulness training.

Judgmental implies a bringing of old perspective, old habits, harshness, criticism in, perhaps, an unhelpful way. By paying attention on purpose, which means deliberately, so we can really see what’s going on, fully present and maybe we might come to what that means, in a moment, and non-judgmentally, meaning with an attitude, a particular way of meeting our experience, of friendliness, warm-heartedness. Of not being the harsh critic that we often are, because we are in that doing driven mode, which is a sort of survival mode, rather than a mode which leads to our well-being.

What you hear often, in speaking to people about this, is that people will say that self-criticism actually helps me improve. How would you look at a statement or view like that?

Well, I would agree that self-reflection can help us to improve or it can help us to understand ourselves and make wise choices. The part that doesn’t seem to be helpful is the hardness and the harshness that comes in from self-criticism. There’s a difference between acknowledging the reality of a situation and then placing an attitude of, in some ways, an attitude of violence, towards ourselves. An attitude of, you’re not good enough. It’s a flagellating quality that seems to get added to the self-reflection.

Actually, I would argue that that driven part is not very helpful for us to flourish and develop and be the best people we can be, because it’s exhausting. If you imagine you’re flagellating, hitting yourself with a whip, every time that we buy into a harsh opinion of ourselves, that’s an addition to what’s happening. There is what’s happening and what is actually going on. Then there’s all of the stuff that we add onto it, which is not actually necessary. If you’re beating someone up the whole time, then the chances are, they’re not in a good state to be the best person they can be. They’re going to be exhausted; they’re going to be hurt. You’re injuring someone and then saying, “Go out and be the best person you can be.” It’s not likely to happen.

So the self-reflection part of the process, which is very much there in mindfulness, paying attention to what’s going on, with full presence, that’s there and is a reflection of the situation and learning from that. But if we add, and judgmentally, harshly, unforgivingly, then we’re adding something that becomes unskillful.

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