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Transforming the Judgmental Mind

by Donald Rothberg

In 1979, when the Dalai Lama came to visit the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, he gave a talk and then responded to questions from retreatants that they had written on file cards. However, one question in particular seemed to stump him. In the question, the retreatant spoke of not feeling that he deserved love and asked about how to work with that. The Dalai Lama went back and forth with the translators several times, before he finally and somewhat brusquely asserted: “You are wrong! You do deserve love!” He later said that he was unfamiliar with the level of self-judgment and self-hatred evident in the question.

Other Asian teachers (and some Western teachers) have also been surprised by the strong negative self-judgments of many Western practitioners. Yet it is clear now to many Asian teachers, as well as most Western dharma teachers, that working with strong negative judgments of self (and of others as well) represents a major practice area for Westerners. In my teaching experience, the question of how to work with judgments is definitely on the “top five” list of issues that practitioners bring to interviews (along, not coincidentally, with relationships, anger, and other difficult emotions).

In my own practice and teaching, I have found that working with judgments has been a very powerful area of practice, permitting major transformation of deeply-rooted (and often unconscious) patterns, beliefs, and constructs of self, that are closely connected with suffering, making more possible the development and stabilization of awakened qualities. Just as Freud spoke of dreams as the “royal road” to the unconscious, so I believe that opening to and working with judgments offers, in our cultural context, a royal road of transformation for our individual practices, our relationships, and our social lives.

What Are Judgments?

By “judgment” I especially refer to reactive, negative evaluations of self or other, although there can also be reactive positive evaluations of self or other, such as "My daughter is clearly the cream of her elementary school class.” But we might ask, "What's wrong with judgments? Don't we need to make self-assessments, criticize people who act immorally or unjustly, or know what's good or bad music or food?" Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1967 sermon on judging others explored the famous saying of Jesus (Matthew, 7: 1-2): "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; becasue the judments you give are th judgments you will get." King acknowledged that it's very important to criticize racists and those who harm others, but that judgments (here, of others) bring many dangers — they are often based on very limited knowledge and understanding, and they may lead to self-righteousness and rigidity, self-deception (as when we judge others for what we ourselves might be judged for), hatred and polarization. He pointed to the importance of combining the insight of judgments (at their best) with love as a way to avoid these dangers.

In the context of our practice, an important key is whether and to what extent our judgments carry reactivity, a strong and at times compulsive aversion which can manifest in bodily tension, emotional charge, repetitive thoughts and quick reactions. Sometimes we use the word “judgment” to refer to a non-reactive, more neutral mental act — an observation, evaluation, or discernment, as would likely (but not necessarily) be the case with statements like “The contest judges judged fairly,” or “The leaders judged that the expedition required two guides,” or “The commission judged that the project was too expensive for the county’s budget.” We use such relatively non-reactive judgments continually.

But our reactive judgments are also pervasive, occurring along a spectrum of intensity. I may judge the driver who talks on her cell phone and doesn’t notice the light changing to green; I may simply grimace, curse and honk, and not think of the incident the rest of the day. Or I may judge myself very harshly and fall into months of depression following the end of a close relationship. I may have a harsh judgment of a co-worker, stemming from a difficult experience two years ago, and find myself continually contentious or avoidant toward him. I may judge what I think to be my acquaintance’s spiritual pretentiousness. I may internalize the negative judgments of my family or society about my gender, age, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity and find that I have to deal with internal as well as external barriers as I live my life. Or I may judge a political leader disdainfully and become cynical.

Actually, there are also reactive positive evaluations, linked with grasping and sometimes inflation (“my child is an incredible gift to Western civilization”), but the main focus of my own practice and teaching has been on the negative, reactive judgments, which are more obviously related to suffering and conflict.

Exercise: I invite you to bring to awareness a reactive judgment that’s fresh, that’s been around in the last 24 or 48 hours, and use as a reference point as we explore judgments further. It might be a judgment of yourself or of another (a friend, family member, co-worker, or public figure). As the judgment is present, be mindful of how it appears at the verbal level. What is the content, the “story line”? How does it lead to or connect with other thoughts? Is there a bodily dimension to the judgment, perhaps a contraction or movement? What emotions are triggered by the judgment and do they lead to other emotions?

How We Transform Judgments

What makes reactive judgments workable and a doorway to transformation is the fact that they are complex. There is both some kind of noticing or observation, a cognitive dimension, and there is reactivity; I sometimes speak of a judgment as being an observation linked with an emotional sledge-hammer. What I have found is that such judgments often, although not always, also carry what we might call intelligence and moral energy. I may discern something about the driver with the cell phone, my own relationship patterns, my co-worker, or the political leader that might be a problem, which calls for response. It is the reactivity, however, that can lead to suffering — to pervasive self-judgment that may manifest in depression, shame or guilt; to chronic difficulties, conflicts and frozen dynamics in relationships; to different forms of oppression and internalized oppression; to ineffective ways to respond to questionable policies, injustice and other social problems; or, in the extreme case, to violent conflict and war.

The very nature of judgments thus suggests how judgments might be transformed. To someone practicing in a meditative context, we might say: Become aware of judgments, particularly their reactivity. Inquire into and become aware of the roots of such reactivity, thereby, over time, transforming the reactivity. Then, make use of the intelligence and energy of judgments, freed up from their enmeshment in reactivity, and act, guided now increasingly by wisdom and by compassion for ourselves and others.

In other words, judgments are not ultimately the enemy, despite what we often hear. Rather, reactive judgments function as a kind of defense mechanism, typically covering over unacknowledged and often unconscious pain (in the case of negative judgments). When we touch the pain, there is a certain degree of healing and the very basis for the reactivity (motivated in large part by the need, often unconscious, to defend oneself from pain) diminishes. Then we can increasingly use the intelligence and energy of the judgment to help ourselves and others. In that sense, judgments bear potential gifts.

Sounds simple? In my own practice and in working with people, I have found that such transformation for most people takes considerable time, requires a range of tools and practices, and needs significant support. And even then the work typically is quite challenging, for it is, as Dr. King suggests, no less than the intention to bring love and wisdom to our areas of pain and suffering.

Practicing with Judgments: A Personal Account

In my own practice over some 30 years, judgments have been a major theme. In my first years practicing mindfulness, I would simply note when judgments were present: “In, out, in, out . . . Why did she say that? That was really rude [and five minutes of further comments]. Okay, just note, “judgment” ... in, out ... [planning thought] ... in, out ... The next time, I’m going to tell her ... Yeah, that was really rude [and ten minutes of further comments] ... Ah, another judgment ... Oh, my, I’m really judging a lot. ... Ah, a judgment about how many judgments there are ... in, out.” I began to get a sense of how frequently such judgments appeared in my experience. At times, I would deepen my mindfulness to be more aware in the actual moment when I was judging — to look at the somatic, emotional, mental and energetic experience of judging reactively. Loving-kindness practice for myself and others also seemed to soften the judgments at times, as did reflections on my own responsibility for a given situation or the complex set of causes and conditions, say, of a difficult interaction.

Around 13 years ago, I entered about a four-year period of intensive work with judgments. I had been working with a psychotherapist who helped me to build upon my earlier practice of mindfulness of judgments, in order to see more clearly the specific patterns linked with my main judgments. So, for example, I began to notice more clearly, in the context of regular interactions with a person whom I will call here an “authority figure,” that I was often very judgmental. When I studied, over many months, our interactions, I found a common pattern. I would typically feel misunderstood or not listened to and then withdraw emotionally to a stance of what I came to call “distanced moral superiority” (and many judgments!). As I tracked the experience more carefully, I learned to tune in to the moment of pain (initially covered over and not accessible) of not being listened to, and stay there, aware of the impulses to withdraw and judge, which I could notice in the moment. I also learned how to be with that pain, and to respond with much less reactivity, saying, “I’m not sure that you heard that point, but it is important to me, and I want to keep it as part of our discussion.”

About ten years ago, I supplemented that work with more sustained practice with judgments in a two-month retreat at Spirit Rock, guided especially by John Travis, which I began after a number of years of very active work in the world — especially teaching, writing and working extensively with Buddhist Peace Fellowship. We found some strong negative self-judgments and judgments of others right at the beginning of the retreat, some linked with my spiritual self-assessment as not having “practiced enough” in the previous years. So although my main practice at the retreat was based in the more general development of mindfulness, concentration and wisdom, I gave, with John’s guidance, a special focus to judgments when they appeared during the days.

After some time at the retreat, with my mind relatively quiet, I also carried out a separate practice at the end of each sitting of taking 5-10 minutes to evoke one or two judgments that had been recently present in the last day or two, or, initially, those judgments which I had brought to the retreat. After eliciting the judgment, I would first be aware of how it appeared in my mind, body and emotions for a minute or two. Then I would shift attention to my chest and upper body, simply “listening” without expectation for whatever appeared. Sometimes I would feel nothing; sometimes I would feel physical sensations (sometimes tightness) in my heart area; sometimes there would be memories; sometimes there would be sadness or anger or another emotion. After some days of doing this “dropping down” practice, both after sittings and when judgments arose at other times during the day, I began to notice and tune in more directly to the pain connected with judgments, to the sadness or grief connected with a sense of not having practiced as much as I wanted (as well as to a longing and love for spiritual practice). I also noticed pain that seemed to underlie “smaller” judgments, as when I judged with some reactivity that the cooks should have designed the food line differently on a particular day, so that there wasn’t such a long wait; I could notice my impatience and touch it, releasing much of the reactivity.

For another year or so after those two months on retreat, I regularly maintained these practices in everyday life and on retreat. I found myself able often to tune in more quickly to the pain underlying judgments, whether in my own experience or that of others. And of course, there was a lot of compassion that arose, for myself and for others. For that year, I even found myself drawn in a way to be around judgmental people, more aware of the pain that was in part driving their judgments and much more compassionate and non-defensive! (This wish to be around judgmental people faded after a while.) In doing this, I found myself much less hooked by my own and others’ judgments, even when the judgments were directed at me. Near the end of that year, I had a dream in relationship to my own self-judgments that suggested a transition in my work with judgments: I noticed the “Wanted” poster in my bedroom — of myself as a Wild West outlaw—and said, “It’s time to take that poster down.”

In the years since that more intensive period of work on judgments, the practice that we call “dropping down” to the body has become an invaluable tool. With mindfulness alerting me to the presence of judgments, that practice has helped me both to avoid getting too caught in repetitive judgmental thoughts and to touch the pain underlying the judgments, thereby tending to release the reactivity of the judgments and permitting a more compassionate use of whatever intelligence and energy they were carrying.

Methods of Transforming the Judgmental Mind

Around seven years ago, I brought together in a systematic way a number of these perspectives and tools and offered a daylong at Spirit Rock for the first time on “working with judgments.” After the daylong, I thought that it had gone well. But afterward people gathered around, saying, “Could we continue with this?” I agreed to a follow-up evening. At the end of that evening, I thanked people and prepared to say good-bye; I heard further requests to continue the next month. And a month later, there was a similar request! Since that time, I have had continual monthly groups, with people staying anywhere from a few months to a few years. I have witnessed some profound changes in individuals, working with patterns that have dominated them for years. I have been surprised at times at how working with judgments can be such a powerful “dharma door,” how such work can transform some of our core, usually unconscious, limiting beliefs and their related self-structures.

The groups have also been very helpful for clarifying different methods that together help to transform judgments and how they can work together. I have come to organize this work through two basic distinctions.

First, I distinguish more inner work with one’s own judgments (of self or other) from more outer work with others (concerning judgments and related concerns). Such outer work can be linked with practices of wise speech, skillful approaches to conflict, and a number of other ways of connecting our dharma practice with our relationships, our organizational and community lives, and our participation in the larger society. In the monthly groups and daylongs, we have, however, mostly focused on the more inner work, with some attention to skillful speech and working with judgments in different kinds of relationships. Ideally, of course, in a relationship, each person is doing both inner and outer work!

Secondly, I’ve distinguished two complementary forms of inner work. A first approach is more direct. It is to be aware of judgments and, increasingly, the roots of judgments, through the different forms of mindfulness mentioned above; through inquiry and reflection (for example, examining the emptiness and impermanence of judgments, or looking at the causes and conditions of a particular situation); and somatically-based practices such as the “dropping down” practice. Through this approach, we gradually access and touch the pains, small and large, typically linked with judgments, revealing more clearly the associated underlying beliefs, self-images and stories.

Over time, with the length of time depending very much on the nature and depth of what drives the judgment, such opening to and touching the pain, typically through the repetition of many relatively short periods of compassionate awareness, tends to heal the “wound,” as it were, and uproot what is causing the reactivity. Needless to say, this process can be at times very challenging, as our old patterns melt or fall apart and new ways of being slowly emerge. As this occurs, we are freer to use the discernment and energy formerly linked with the judgment for compassionate purposes. Of course, with many judgments, this may take a considerable amount of time and much courage and determination, and require significant support from such resources as dharma teachers, therapists, loved ones, friends and the wider community.

A second approach is more indirect. It is to cultivate what we might call awakened states, particularly states of the awakened heart — states of being and qualities which are nonjudgmental, which in a way take us beyond judgments to experience a nonjudgmental way of being that increasingly gets stabilized. I’ve especially used what we might call the meditative “heart practices” — loving-kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, tonglen, joy, and being with beauty, among others — and generally recommend that anyone doing sustained transformative work with judgments have a regular daily heart practice, even if just for ten minutes a day. (A number of my students have found James Baraz’s “Awakening Joy” class a wonderful resource in working with judgments.)

These heart practices help us in at least three main ways. First, they seem necessary to help us generally balance our being and develop more confidence as we explore sometimes difficult and wounded territory, as we touch pain and at times sadness, grief, fear and anger — the yucky stuff. At times, when we feel somewhat unbalanced by the difficulties, it may be appropriate not to attend for a period of time to the painful material but instead to invoke states of being which help to balance, nourish and strengthen us.

Heart practices are also vital as antidotes when judgments are too strong, or when we are too vulnerable, or when we can’t be relatively balanced with the judgments. When our loving-kindness practice is well developed, for example, and we find ourselves awakened at three in the morning by a familiar, intense, negative self-judgment, it may be wise to use loving-kindness to help us shift away from the judgment. (At the right time, when we are more balanced, we may want to come back to mindfulness and inquiry.)

Thirdly, such practices also teach us, as it were, a new way of being. As we develop loving-kindness or joy, as well as the factors of awakening (mindfulness, inquiry, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration and equanimity) and other awakened qualities such as courage, generosity, ethical grounding or wisdom, we shift our neural patterns, researchers tell us. The simple presence of mindfulness when judgments are present, and if they are rather strong, will tend to disrupt the old pathways. We grow more familiar with non-judgmental states of being, with our wonderful, amazing qualities, and as these qualities become stronger, judgments, whether of self or other, have less hold. For those of us who tend to focus on the negative, practices like gratitude and mudita (sympathetic joy), which guide us to tune in to the positive, can be wonderful balances, helping us eventually to connect the gifts of our judgments, particularly discernment and moral energy, with the heart, with love, compassion and appreciation of what is good or positive.

The first, more direct approach develops wisdom that leads ultimately to wise compassion. The second, more indirect approach grounds us in the heart so that we may have the resources to continue to grow in the wisdom that learns from pain and suffering and that ultimately becomes the wise and courageous heart. In being willing to work with and transform judgments, we ultimately become peacemakers, in our hearts and homes, and in the world; we stop the cycles of suffering leading to further suffering. As Albert Camus once wrote: “We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.”

Five Practices to Help Transform Judgments

1. Mindfulness of judgments: Begin to note when judgments appear, including judgments about how many judgments there are. Begin also to explore what judgments feel like in the mind, body and heart when they occur, especially when they stay for a while. Be interested and curious!

2. “Heart practices” such as loving-kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, joy and being with beauty: Cultivate a heart practice regularly, even for ten minutes a day, and use it as an antidote when judgments unbalance you.

3. Inquiry and reflection concerning patterns leading to judgment: As you continue to investigate, also begin to notice the patterns involving judgments (both your own and those of others), the web of causes and conditions leading to judgments and how judgments arise and pass away. Become interested in studying the ways that you and others get stuck.

4. The “dropping down” practice: When your mind is relatively quiet and balanced and you are not dealing with traumatic material, you can at times deliberately invite judgments (not initially the most difficult ones!) to be present. Let them play out verbally for a short time, and then shift attention to your chest and upper body, “listening” for what appears without expectation or an attempt to “figure things out,” as much as possible. (See a fuller account of this practice above.)

5. Combine inner work with skillful speech when there are judgments: Explore the practice of wise speech with its guidelines of being truthful, helpful, and kind, and having good timing (very similar to guidelines given by Dr. King for working with judgments); explore the discipline of nonviolent communication (NVC). Find ways to keep some inner awareness in interactions involving judgments and track what occurs inside. Develop as best you can skillful ways of interacting and acting non-reactively and speaking non-judgmentally when you experience judgments (which at times involves not acting and not speaking!).

Donald Rothberg, PhD, has practiced Insight Meditation since 1976, and has also received training in Tibetan Dzogchen, Mahamudra practice and the Hakomi approach to body-based psychotherapy. Formerly on the faculties of the University of Kentucky, Kenyon College, and Saybrook Graduate School, he currently writes and teaches classes, groups and retreats on meditation, daily life practice, spirituality and psychology, and socially engaged Buddhism. An organizer, teacher, and former board member for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Donald has helped to guide six-month to two-year training programs in socially engaged spirituality through Buddhist Peace Fellowship (the BASE Program), Saybrook (the Socially Engaged Spirituality Program), and Spirit Rock (the Path of Engagement Program). He is the author of The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World and the co-editor of Ken Wilber in Dialogue: Conversations with Leading Transpersonal Thinkers.

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