two faces, one happy one angry behind a gavel

Taming the Judging Mind

two faces, one happy one angry behind a gavel

Digital collage by Tracy Ochester

Non-judging is one of the fundamental beneficial attitudes we can cultivate in our mindfulness practice. Yet, judging is a built-in human survival strategy. There’s evidence that some of our preferences develop even before we are born. This capacity for liking and disliking is encoded into the very strands of our DNA, reinforced by what we are exposed to throughout our lives, and influenced by others around us. What if we could harness this skill so that it better served our individual and collective wellbeing?

Is Judging Good or Bad?

Judging can be adaptive, guiding us toward beneficial relationships and circumstances, steering us clear of harm, and as a mental shortcut freeing up attention for what is most important. We form judgments very quickly and automatically – like radar that’s always sweeping our experience for pings – this is good, this is bad, I like this, I don’t like that… Because of this, we tend to be very practiced and efficient at doing it.

Like playing the slots in Vegas, judging pays off sometimes. Sensing into the experience of judging, you might notice a quick burst of relief or satisfaction when a judgment arises. This is because it often provides us with an immediate sense of certainty, control, or safety. It also absolves us from the work of staying open to experience and continuing to consider deeply. Once judged, we feel the matter is settled because we think we already know. Fueled by doubt, fear, and desire, our judgments often serve to validate comforting feelings and beliefs we have about ourselves and the world.

The judgments we make are based on many factors beyond the object of our judgment, and sometimes outside our immediate awareness. This may include subjective preferences and tastes, momentary internal states and moods, personal history or past experience, cultural and social norms and conditioning, and the context of the situation.

If we’re not mindful of this tendency to judge, it can cause us and those around us much suffering. The temporary relief we feel comes at the cost of a sense of separation from our fellow beings and the natural world. Comparison can also create feelings of shame and unworthiness. The constant comparing that forms many of our judgments makes us feel better than, worse than, or same as, rather than inseparable from. It makes us feel like there’s always something to be fixed.

Once we make a judgment, we tend to stop gathering information and discount data that challenges our pre-existing beliefs. A feeling of constriction or a “closed-offness” arises in the mind and body. When we misjudge, we may:

  • try to avoid the unavoidable or sidestep things we would be better off confronting
  • develop addictions to things that give us immediate gratification, but have longer-term harmful consequences
  • ignore or disregard things as irrelevant that actually require our attention
  • lump people or things into broad categories leading to stereotyping, bias and prejudice and weakening our capacity to appreciate differences
  • become very rigid and inflexible when we insist things must be the way we want them to be
  • have trouble accepting what is and what cannot be changed, struggling to adapt to new experiences

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which one liked trait or aspect affects our global judgment of a person, place, thing or experience. In order to make sense of the world, we tend to make causal attributions for things that don’t really have a cause and effect relationship. The more novel or obvious a factor is, the more likely we are to focus on it and possibly give it more weight in our judgment than it actually deserves. For example, humans have a mental heuristic in which we judge people we deem attractive as healthier, more successful and courteous, having higher moral standards, and possessing greater social competence.

We also tend to judge people based on first impressions due to primacy effects. When the halo effect is in place, any subsequent “bad” aspects we later encounter are more likely to be justified to support our original belief. The horns effect is the opposite – a bad first impression creates a global judgment of badness.

What can we do about judging?

Like the farmer in the famous parable, “Good or bad, who can say?”, a dedicated mindfulness practice can help create a pause between judging and reacting, making space for choicefulness. The first step is to become aware of judging. Then we can respond more skillfully to this human tendency by:

  • Cultivating beginner’s mind – recognizing that just like the townspeople in the parable of the farmer, we don’t always see the full picture right away
  • Training in compassion for self and others – we are often the subject of our harshest judgment, creating feelings of shame and unworthiness. So, our own inner experience is the ideal training ground for creating a new habit of compassion. When we notice self-judgment and accompanying shame or self-blame, we can acknowledge “this is suffering, I’m not alone in this – its part of being human – may we all hold this human entanglement with kindness”.
  • Practicing lovingkindness or sending and taking (tonglen) meditation
  • Setting an intention – upon waking each morning, we can vow to be aware of judging when it arises and meet it with kindness and compassion
  • Lightening things up – there’s more space to see things clearly when we’re more open and less constricted. Bring in a little humor by choosing a nickname for your inner critic and welcoming them by name whenever they visit your mind. Make it a game by seeing if you can achieve a high judgment noticing score for the day. Add a silly phrase to your judging thoughts. Insight meditation teachers Jack Kornfield and Sally Armstrong add “and the sky is blue” or “and chipmunks are cute.”
  • Find a slogan – We might take a cue from the Third Patriarch by saying to ourselves, “not two”, “nothing is separate”, “nothing is excluded”, or “the burdensome practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness.” Alternatively, you could create your own slogan that reminds you of the longer term costs of judging.

Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
nor in inner feelings of emptiness.

Be serene in the oneness of things and such
erroneous views will disappear by themselves.

…the burdensome practice of judging
brings annoyance and weariness….

…the ten thousand things are as they are,
of single essence.

To understand the mystery of this One-essence
is to be released from all entanglements.

Excerpts from Hsin Hsin Ming (Faith in Mind) by Seng-T’san, The Third Patriarch, Translated from the Chinese by Richard B. Clarke


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