Today's Daily Tip
Judgment is like cholesterol: There's a "good" kind and a "bad" kind. My friend Angela calls the good kind of judgment "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.
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.
So how can we discern when something is wrong without being judgmental, without disliking the perpetrators, without filling ourselves with negativity? How can we change our own difficult personality traits, our fears and tensions and resistances, without judging ourselves for having them? Is it even possible to eliminate the bad kind of judgment without losing the good kind?
Despite the tendency to confuse judgmental blaming and discernment, they 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 that really refers to 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 and is not of value. 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 that identifies "me" with the body, personality, and opinions.
Ego has its uses—after all, if we could not create a boundaried sense of "I," we would not 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 joy and freedom that is our core. When that happens, we find ourselves assuming what can be 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, help us fit in with our peers, and keep us from feeling naked in a potentially hostile world, but it actually functions like badly fitting armor. Because our false self is fundamentally inauthentic, we often feel clueless when we're inside it, as if we're getting away with something and at any moment will be unmasked.
Blame GameBlame is one of the smoke screens 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. The ego doesn't like unpleasantness, so it squirms, looking for a way to avoid the feeling. At this point, we start to explain to ourselves why we feel uncomfortable and to look for a way to fix it. Often we do this by looking for someone or something to blame. We may blame ourselves, thus creating guilt. We may blame someone else, feeling like a victim or perhaps like a hero coming to the rescue. We may blame fate or God, which usually creates a feeling of nihilistic despair. In any case, we create a screen to separate ourselves (at least momentarily) from the discomfort.
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