One of the greatest sources of pain I’ve witnessed during the pandemic is the perception of restricted freedom. There have been some measurable restrictions on our freedoms, like the freedom to gather in large groups, the freedom to enter stores without a mask on, or the freedom to have an open business. There have been some virtual restrictions too, like the freedom to do everyday activities – touching your face, hugging people, shopping, etc. – without the worry of contracting a serious disease.
We have control over some aspects of the hardships of pandemic life but not others; I’d like to address what we can control. In my opinion, the majority of this pain comes from illusions of constraint. And one of the main ways we perpetuate such illusions is through judgment.
There are micro-judgments and macro-judgments. They’re not really different, but the macro judgments tend to be bigger, more conscious stances you’ve taken on people, events, issues, etc. If someone were to ask what you think about Donald Trump or Star Trek or cilantro, your judgments would probably be evident. Micro-judgments are harder to see and generally harder to change since they’re part of the fundamental nature of the mind, they’re happening constantly, and they’re often subconscious. The mind labels and judges as good or bad nearly everything we experience.
“This habit of categorizing and judging our experience locks us into automatic reactions that we are not even aware of and that often have no objective basis at all,” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn in Full Catastrophe Living. “These judgments tend to dominate our minds, making it difficult for us ever to find any peace within ourselves or to develop any discernment as to what may actually be going on, inwardly or outwardly.”
We’re rarely aware of how much we judge and how this impacts us. For each thing we judge as bad there tends to be some form of closing, aversion, or resistance. We might experience this as a subtle (or not so subtle) bodily feeling of tension. The judgmental thought might give rise to other contractive thoughts such as: No. I don’t like it. I’m not that way. That’s not fair. Life / the world shouldn’t be this way. This is wrong / bad. I can’t tolerate this. To the extent that these judgments fill our consciousness (and go unchallenged) we experience that much less freedom.
Even the things we judge as good can spur a similar kind of constraint as subconscious thoughts arise like: I want it always to be like this. I don’t want this to end. Why can’t it always be this way? What’s wrong with me that I’m not enjoying this as much as I think I should? Thus, even encounters with things we like can have a contractive effect on us when judgment takes hold and we give ourselves over to it.
When it comes to our experience of freedom, imagined restrictions might as well be metal shackles.
The good news is that our judgments can be challenged, transcended, or compassionately witnessed without letting them influence us. The bad news is that this takes work and most of us are in the lazy habit of letting our mind run the show.
My mentor Matt Garrigan used to say, “You are not your mind. You have a mind.” Like so many spiritual truths, it’s basically worthless as an intellectual concept to chew on. It only works when you start living it, and then it’s life changing.
You might begin with an openness to the possibility that what your mind has to say is neither true nor important. But most minds will argue strongly against not being the center of your attention, so it’s often best to lead with awareness itself rather than thoughts about thoughts. You just sit, breathe naturally, and watch your thoughts – many of them judgments – come and go. If you don’t attach to them, don’t engage with them, don’t try to stop them, don’t judge them, and don’t resist them, you eventually begin to experience that you are not your mind. And this is freedom.
It’s often called cultivating the witness state. I like to call it practicing innocence.
The basis for making judgments is the assumption that we know. If we’re going to judge every facet of life, we must believe we’re qualified to do so, and this feeds our sense of self-importance and inflates the ego, making it all the more judgy.
Innocence is relinquishing our position as judge, admitting we may not have the qualifications, and being open to a reality that we haven’t predefined for ourselves.
Innocence doesn’t imply naivety, and non-judgment isn’t a lack of discernment. In fact, it’s only when we drop all our prejudices that we’re able to see the truth. If anything, it’s naïve to always think we already know. It’s arrogant to believe we can hear the truth if we only listen to our own inner commentary. And it’s foolhardy to put more stock in our mind – a device we created – than in pure experience.
When we’re scared or stressed it’s more difficult to practice innocence, and we can get even more judgy than usual. Right now there’s a lot of judgment about whether people are wearing masks or not, about social distancing, about how everyone is dealing with racism, about the great uncertainty of the future. I invite all of us to notice these judgments, to take a deep breath, and to let them go for now. Can you feel the slight increase in “breathing room” that happens? Imagine how much freer you’d be if you released judgments all the time and the habit of automatically believing them began to disappear.
What’s your experience with judgment and innocence? What happens when you let your inner judge direct you? What happens when you just notice these judgments and your reactions to them? Who are you when you expand into that Awareness that witnesses and contains the mind? Share with our community in the comments section below.