As we begin to meditate we inevitably encounter the so called “monkey mind” – a restless inner voice jumping around uncontrollably. As we look closer, we see that this internal chatter consists of a steady stream of judgements.

You may recognise some of these:

“I can’t seem to control my thoughts, meditation is not for me”, “I feel really distracted, this is a terrible meditation sitting”, “I feel so present right now, I’m really getting the hang of this”, “I’m terribly bored, I wonder when the bell is going to ring”, “There is a tremendous sense of peace… How can I make this feeling stay?”.

As we become aware of these subtle judgements in our meditation, we also begin to notice that this process goes on all the time in our lives. This part of our mind polarises everything into likes and dislikes, good and bad, agreeable and disagreeable, “I want this”, “I don’t want that”.

Confusing judgements with reality

It is important to point out that this attitude does not suggest that we fight our judgements or attempt to give up our preferences. Trying to stop ourselves from judging is bound to fail and will just add another layer of judgment (“I should not judge”).

“Our mind secretes judgments like our stomach secretes enzymes.”

There is nothing wrong with judgements per se. In fact, we depend upon this capacity of the mind to differentiate, label and evaluate. The problem emerges when we confuse our judgments with the actual situation.

As an example, we label people based on their beliefs, nationality, political and religious affiliations, sexual orientation and so on. If we are not mindful of this process, we can get caught in this world of labels and judgements. We no longer see people for who they are, we see them through the lens of our judgements. We start relating to the labels rather than the actual person in front of us. This type of dehumanisation is the cause of tremendous harm and suffering – in our individual lives as well as collectively in the world.

By learning to differentiate the situation (what is actually happening) from the stories we add to the situation (what we think and feel about what is happening), we are less likely to blindly act out of our judgements. Mindfulness can help by bringing clarity to the confused monkey mind.

Interrupting a vicious cycle

When we are unaware of our judgements, they have a tendency to reinforce themselves, creating a vicious cycle.

Let’s say we find ourselves ruminating over something we said or did in the past. The mind starts telling stories about how we should have behaved differently, how we can never be trusted, how we always let ourselves or others down, how we never finish what we start… Simply put, rather than acknowledging the memory or feeling (“I made a mistake” or “I feel bad”), we turn it into an identity (“I am a bad person”). By “making ourselves bad” in this way, we add a whole new layer of suffering on top of an already painful situation.

Through mindfulness, we practice taking the role of “the witness” – a part of ourselves that is aware without reacting. It is like stepping back and watching the drama play out with a sense of curiosity. We clearly see how thoughts and judgements are added – and attached – to what is happening. Through this process of observation, we learn to differentiate between the first and the second arrow. When we abide in this place of non-reactivity we no longer add fuel to the flame, and the cycle eventually comes to a halt.

Avoiding spiritual bypass

Getting underneath the surface level of labels presents us with another interesting opportunity for insight and personal growth. Rather than justifying our opinions and behavior, we can view our judgements as a mirror pointing out our projections and biases. In short, we tend to judge in others what we don’t like in ourselves. If I get triggered by someone acting selfishly, there is probably a selfish part in me that I do not accept. I hold the belief that “selfishness is bad”, and in order to maintain my self image as a descent person, I become blind to my own selfishness. I project it outside and blame it on someone else so that I don’t have to confront it in myself.

So this attitude can serve as a type of “shadow work” that helps us integrate parts of ourselves that have been rejected and disowned. Without this integrity, our spiritual work can easily become an escape strategy from the the ugly and uncomfortable side.

Two wings to freedom

In conclusion, the attitude of non-judging is about increasing our awareness so that we are no longer driven by our subconscious judgements. By learning to distinguish between our interpretation and the actual situation, we can interrupt reactive and harmful behavior. To do this, we need two aspects of awareness.

First, we need “clear seeing” – an ability to observe our prejudice and judgements as they are without adding fuel to the flame. In order to do this, we need the company of the second aspect which is a gentle, compassionate, loving awareness.

These aspects correspond to the two wings of mindfulness. When we can meet our inner judgements with the wing of clear seeing and the wing of loving awareness, they no longer drive our behavior. This is how the two wings of awareness brings sovereignty and freedom in our lives.

Go deeper through these related Frames:

The “inner critic” and superego
2 wings of mindfulness practice; insight and love

For more information about reactive patterns and practical guidance on breaking the cycle:

Coming back to our senses

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