Judgmental Mind

A Talk by Ines Freedman (IMC, July 7, 2010)
(Transcribed and lightly edited by S.C.L. Eiler)

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When I first started practicing mindfulness, one of the first things I noticed was the constant nattering of my thoughts in my head, many of them, the great majority of them, were judgments. As I start this, I want to make sure we understand this isn’t like a dictionary definition, but it’s the way we define the word judgment in a useful way. We differentiate between judgment and being judicious or discernment. Judgment adds a quality of insult to it. Being judicious is what we want to do.

We want to discriminate between whether something’s helpful or not. For instance, it’s important to be judicious about whether somebody’s tall enough to reach the top shelf. Maybe I’ll ask this other woman to get something from the top shelf who’s taller than me. That’s just being judicious, but maybe I have this idea that they’re better than me because they’re taller. I might think that I’m less than, so that’s being judgmental. Often people have these crazy ideas that we’re supposed to be different than we are.

The Buddha said that there are three major conceits, and one of the things that we talk about in the process of becoming freer and freer, there are these ten fetters, and these are the qualities of our personalities that keep us from being free; and, as we get freer and freer, we let go of them one at a time, but the ninth one, which comes really late in the process of getting free, is conceit. Conceit is thinking that I’m better than somebody else, or thinking that I’m worse than somebody else, or thinking that I’m equal to somebody else. They’re all forms of conceit, and part of the reason why is because they all take us away from our immediate experience of what’s happening in front of us. For instance, we’ve all had these moments of really simple enjoyment in life. Maybe you like to dance, or you like to play music, or just the intimacy of being with another human being that you love.

There’s this very simple way of being, where you’re dancing around feeling really wonderful, and it feels good to move, and then the thought enters the mind, ‘I’m a great dancer!’ Now that simple enjoyment is really gone. Now what’s happened is the mind has contracted into this ego-based self that’s been created: ‘I’m the dancer;’ but while you’re actually dancing there is no ‘self’ dancing. You’re just dancing; there is no idea of self. The moment we start even looking at comparing ourselves, ‘I’m equal,’ we’re again separating ourselves from the experience. If we think we’re better than someone else, we don’t respect them. If we think we’re worse than somebody else, we feel insecure. In both instances we stop connecting with another human being; we stop meeting them in an intimate openhearted way.

Many of us live with, what we can call an inner tyrant, and one of my teachers said that he’s never had anybody in his whole life, and he’s in his 70s, treat him as badly and talk to him as harshly as he has to himself in his own mind. I don’t how many of you have experienced that, but one of the things that we can find in that inner tyrant is this incessant self-criticism. Now, some of it gets really subtle, and maybe some people have more of a personality of where you’ve been brought up a certain way, and where you criticize yourself a lot and say things to yourself about, ‘oh, I’m not good enough this way; I’m not good enough that way;’ but, even people who are very highly accomplished can be incredibly hard on themselves. In fact, we kind of fool ourselves. We say, “I’m a perfectionist,” instead of, “I’m continuously criticizing myself.” That’s what a perfectionist does, right?

The inner tyrant can actually be very subtle, even in meditation. Now, if you pay attention sometimes. Lets say you’re a little bit calm, but you’ve been calmer before, and think, ‘I’m not calm enough; this isn’t quite calm enough; I should be a little bit calmer; oh, look at that, I had a thought, I should be a little more concentrated,’ in a way that’s just absolutely not helpful, it just has the quality of insult, of criticism. It has a contraction around it. It’s okay to notice, ‘Oh, I’m kind of restless right now.’ That’s just discernment. You want to see, ‘yes, I’m being restless, this is what’s happening;’ but there’s a quality of, ‘I’m restless, I’m doing it wrong, I’m restless, I’m being wrong.’

Now, some people focus more on the outer tyrant, where we’re continuously judging the world outside of us. It’s very easy to look at our government, at the environment, and see that there are a lot of things that are really in bad shape out there; and, that’s wisdom. We see that there are problems that may be solvable, may need help, may not be solvable; but then there’s the part of our mind that just says, ‘it’s wrong and it shouldn’t be that way.’ The difference is, is that, there’s a contraction in us when we do that, when we get very invested in the fact that it shouldn’t be the way it is; because when, let’s say, they are spraying Malathion. I don’t know if any of you were around in the, I think, 70s or 80s, when they sprayed this whole area with Malathion for some kind of pest—I don’t even remember what it was—but I was very unhappy that they were doing that.

It felt very wrong to me, but the pain of having that happen in our lives here is one thing, and then adding the insult of saying, “the world shouldn’t be this way; this shouldn’t be happening,” and getting all upset about it, actually adds a lot more suffering to a situation that’s already difficult, and adds nothing useful. So what we’re looking at is how do we take it when things aren’t the way we want them, and respond to it if we can. Now with the Malathion, we couldn’t do anything about it. We tried writing letters. We tried making phone calls. We couldn’t do anything about it. We did everything and so we had to surrender to what was.

Now, but that’s on issues we often can’t do much about. The environment, it can feel very, it’s so big, all the things that need doing; but we get this way over really insignificant things. I’ve gotten, hopefully not recently, but gotten very caught up in arguing about the merit of a movie. It’s like, ‘no, no, that was really, this is really what it meant!’ It’s fine being enthusiastic, but there’s a certain contraction when our opinion becomes so important.

We’re judging something as being so important, and we start identifying with it. You know, ‘my opinion is me,’ as opposed to, ‘that was a movie, this is what I thought about it.’ We can get invested in a lot of things, and the problem is that we get invested in things that change, and everything we can get invested in goes away. In the same way that maybe we were a great ballerina when we were young, that ain’t going to last. The great restaurant we’re raving about is the best restaurant in the Bay area, and it closes down next month. So everything that we tend to invest our opinions in doesn’t last.

The key about working with judgment, which we all do, and we tend to do a lot, is to really begin to recognize how our judgments cause us suffering. The process of doing that is to first recognize that we’re judging, and sometimes it gets tricky because it gets entangled with discernment, with when we have to be judicious. For example, let’s say I’m the boss and I have an employee who has very poor listening skills, and I have to be aware of that, and I have to work with them in relation to the skills they have. Now, if I’m being discerning, I still see them with a lot of respect and respond to them with compassion, and see maybe I can place them somewhere, or maybe I fire them with compassion if needed; but if I’m being judgmental I start disrespecting them.

So, one of the things that we notice when those two things get entangled, because maybe I definitely see they have poor listening skills but I’m also very judgmental; and when it gets entangled it creates a lot of suffering. And how do you feel when you’re being judgmental? How does your heart feel, and that’s really the question; if you look at someone, and you go, “God they’re stupid,” how do you feel inside yourself when you’re having that kind of judgment? That contraction, that lack of openness; it might be mild but it’s a form of suffering.

Sometimes it’s tricky to see because often when we’re being judgmental it gives us a sense of power, and when we’re being very critical. I don’t know if any of you ever have the tendency to be righteously indignant. Have any of you been that way, you know, ‘oh, I know better,’ type attitude; and it gives you a sense of pleasure. There’s a certain little bit of power there. So that power can mask the actual pain underneath it. Because when you see somebody else being kind of arrogant, you don’t like them, right? How many of you like somebody who’s being arrogant, right? Somehow that little sense of power—some of us let us see that in ourselves—but if we really look what’s underneath the righteous indignation, we can see that underneath that there’s a certain level of suffering.

So, in terms of working with judgments: they’re going to happen. We don’t want to add insult to injury by judging ourselves for being judgmental, especially since we do it so much. One of my teachers, he said that he was on a long retreat, and this was Joseph Goldstein, for those of you who know him, and he said that he was judging so much. He became aware of how much he was judging while he was meditating, and in between he just sat down during the walking period, in a spot where people kept walking by, back and forth, and he just counted how many judgments he was making. He was at a few hundred before the walking period was over, and he just, ‘that person’s too this, that person’s too that; oh, I like those socks, oh, I like that, I don’t like this, I don’t like that;’ just over, and over and over again. His mind just kept doing that. It was a really interesting process, ‘oh, the mind is doing that,’ and that’s what it does.

So, the key to working with judgments is to recognize that they’re there. I do that by labeling them. I like labeling judgment because it really gives me an immediate space around it. Accepting that, ‘oh this is just a judgment,’ it doesn’t mean I’m a terrible person for judging; and then really noticing the suffering involved in doing that. It’s only when we really recognize that the judging ourselves, or another or a situation, that it causes us pain, when we really see that clearly, does it drop away. It takes that real recognition of that, of the fact that that’s causing us suffering, that’s causing us separation, lack of intimacy.

It’s time, so I’ll stop there.