One way to have more happiness in your life is to decrease doing the things that cause unhappiness. Sure, you can argue that the absence of unhappiness is not the same as having more happiness, though if you are making that argument, then consider stopping and asking yourself, “who is arguing?” If you ask this question sincerely, and examine carefully, usually you will discover that there is no who that is arguing, instead there is simply a familiar pattern or habit expressing itself, a pattern that Buddhists and psychotherapists like to call the judging mind. What does the judging mind like to do? It likes to categorize experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, better or worse, and it tends to do so with inexhaustible zeal. And it serves us well, as it helps us make decisions about safety, companionship, nourishment, and so forth. But it is also the habit of mind that tends to cause the most unhappiness to ourselves and others, particularly when we believe every opinion the judging mind says, and then especially when we share those very opinions with those around us.

Often, the judging mind shows up in relationship as the should. As in, “you should really do things differently,” or “or you shouldn’t do that,” or “you should be more _________ [fill in the blank].” Even when the word should isn’t spoken, its energy still lurks, such as when a parent tells their child, “you’re being too loud!” or “stop throwing such a tantrum” or “say you’re sorry!” Say your sorry is a particularly messed up thing to tell one child to say to another, particularly when the child isn’t the least bit sorry – here is the big adult, not only having just told the child how they should behave, but how they should feel! And if you don’t feel the way you should be feeling, then lie and say you do! And yes, my writing that it’s messed up for parents to say that to children, that too is the expression of the judging mind.

One way in which judgments cause so much suffering in relationships, is that shoulds do not arise from universal law, but from one person’s perspective, value system, and point of view, all of which are woefully at the mercy of the person’s emotional state in the moment. Judgments have an absolute quality to them, while reality is in fact quite nuanced, and that’s why people often get so upset when they feel “judged” by another. I invite you to reflect on the last time your opinions caused some strain in a relationship. As I do this reflection right now, several conflicts come to mind from just the past few days! Now reflect on when the last time you judging yourself – or shoulding on yourself – caused unhappiness to you. Unless you are an extreme narcissist, you will find that this has occurred quite recently. (The extreme narcissist judges themselves incessantly and harshly, but simply isn’t aware or refuses to admit, that shame underlies their outward bluster). Okay, now think of someone in your life who annoys the hell out of you with their opinionated nature. We all know someone like this, and we love to hate these people. These individuals have such a robust judging mind and such an inability to hold their tongue, that people flinch when they speak and family members try to avoid them at holiday gatherings. They only seem able to listen to someone else, just long enough so they can come up with a good opinion/retort/judgment to share in response.

Once, I tried to share news about a scientific finding with a relative. I started by saying, “so NPR did this interesting science piece on this research discovery,” but before I could even share what the news was about, this relative blurted out, “NPR does lousy science stories,” and then launched right into lecturing me about all the bad reporting and science out there! Likely, as you’re reading this, you are thinking of a few people in your life as opinionated as this. Indeed the phenomena of the uber-opinionated human has been a long standing problem, and 2,500 years ago the Buddha commented:

“Those who cling to perceptions and views wander the world annoying people.”

A word of caution here – it can feel good to think about how annoyingly opinionated someone else is. This too is a long standing human attribute, out tendency to temporarily feel better about ourselves by thinking badly about someone else. The truth is, if that’s happening to you right now, you’re just as much a jerk as the uber-opinionated person you were trashing in your mind! Really? No. I just threw that in for comic irony.

Okay, here’s the real truth, that all of us struggle with the judging mind, as it’s a ferocious and unrelenting energy in our psyche from which only the most enlightened of beings are free. So here’s a great psychological practice: instead of judging another for being so judgmental, notice instead all the moments when you’re negatively judging others or negatively judging your experience. When you’re driving and someone cuts in front of you, or is tail gating you, or does something dangerous, or is driving too slowly, notice if your judging mind starts sharing opinions about these strangers, like “what a jerk,” or “what the hell is wrong with that person?” or “don’t you know how to drive?” If you see someone driving 90 mph on a rainy day and you think, “that seems dangerous,” this is discernment. However, if you think, “what a jerk!” then that’s judgment. If your waiter places your dish in front of you with a loud clatter, and you think, “what a lousy waiter,” that is judgment. If instead you just notice, “that’s louder than usual,” this is discernment. And if then you ask, “I wonder why that was loud? I wonder if my waiter is okay? Maybe he is in pain? Maybe something bad just happened to him,” then this is discernment coupled with curiosity, which can lead to the wonderful mental state called compassion.

This practice of noticing what thoughts are arising in our minds, and making a mental note to ourselves when the judging mind appears, this is the practice of mindfulness. And mindfulness, is the first step towards being free from the suffering caused by the judging mind. Many people don’t even realize how much they judge themselves, others, and the world they inhabit, until they start to pay attention in this mindful way. So first we much become aware that this is happening. Then we must dis-identify.

Dis-identify? What?

Yes, this is also a difficult practice, but one that is greatly facilitated by the mindfulness. Dis-identification means that we don’t believe the judgments that bubble up from the messy depths of our own minds. We don’t give these opinions preference. We don’t ignore them. We notice them, and consider them, but we do not identify them as “mine” or “me”. Our tendency of course is to believe our judgments. The thought “what a jerk” comes to mind, and since the opinion is in our mind, we automatically believe it. Believing it, a whole series of events quickly unfolds, including negative emotions, more negative thoughts, and perhaps even hostile words and actions. That is called identification, and that automatic process is what happens when mindfulness is absent. But when mindfulness is present, the awareness of judgment automatically creates a little space between “me” and “these thoughts,” and it is that space that allows for the freedom to not go down that unhappy, well-worn mental-emotional path. When we no longer assume our judgments are true, we have much more flexibility in our minds, and we can consider other perspectives and slip out from under the weight of absolutes. When the judging mind thinks, “that person is such an asshole,” or “they need to that differently,” our wise mind has a chance to ask, “really, is that so?”

The 17th century Zen Master Bankei famously advised his students, “don’t side with yourself.”

Wonderful advice then, and liberating advice today, particularly in a world increasingly engrossed in a war of religious and political and social opinions. But not siding with yourself doesn’t mean you are some wimp and you just go along with what someone else says and believe them. The stinky swamp from which their opinions arise is unlikely to be less smelly than your own. Whomever it belongs to, the judging mind is the judging mind, and is good at producing bull shit. Neither does Bankei’s advice mean that we become boring people unable to make any decision or have any preference. It’s usually quite the opposite – people find that the less they identify, believe, share, and attach to their judgments, the easier it is to see that reality is infinite shades of color (and not black and white), and the more at peace they feel. From this place of mindfulness and calm, they find that they are better able to make wise decisions for themselves, and that they tend to have more harmonious relationships. Less consumed with seeing what’s wrong in themselves and others, they find something else bubbling up from the depths of the mind, a certain something, called happiness.

Mindfulness of the Judging Mind

If you would like to work with habit of judging, go ahead and pick a certain period of time in your day where you set the intention to be mindful of judgments as they arise. This might be at work, at home with the family, walking around the park, driving in traffic, etc. When you notice a judgment, make a mental note, “judging, judging.” Then notice how it feels when you have this judgment, and how it feels to let it go. Does the judging lead to happiness or to more suffering for you and for others? You may want to try and count them as they arise, as described by Joseph Goldstein (1). Or you can practice silently asking yourself the question, “is that so?” after each judgment. If the thought arises, “this is so stupid,” or “I am really bad at this,” remember to note this as more judgment, and return your attention to the present moment experience of whatever it is you are doing.

Many people find that by cultivating mindfulness of what can often be an automatic and subconscious process, i.e. judging, that their hearts naturally open to receive the world with greater tenderness and kindness.

1: Joseph Goldstein, Insight Meditation, The practice of freedom, 2003: “I experienced this discomforting pattern of judging thoughts very clearly once when I was doing intensive meditation practice in a retreat. I found myself sitting in a place in the dining room of our meditation center where I could watch everyone come in and take food. Although I was ostensibly being mindful of eating, out of not-quite-the-corner of my eye I saw everything that was going on. I was quite amazed to see how my mind had a judgment about every single person who came in.
I did not like either how people walked (not quite mindful enough), or how much food they took, or how they were eating, or what they were wearing. It became quite disconcerting to watch that overflow of judgments in my mind. Does this sound at all familiar?
I reacted to this new awareness by becoming quite upset, first condemning all these judgments as “bad” thoughts, and then judging myself as bad for having them. Over some time it became clear to me that judging the judging was not helping at all.
The first skillful method for dealing with judgment is the old, tried-and-true, traditional method of clear mindfulness. I made an effort to notice specifically how the pattern was manifesting, noting the cascade of judging thoughts with clear awareness. By cultivating mindfulness in this way, I experienced less identification with the thoughts.
But extraordinary circumstances sometimes call for extraordinary measures, so I also evolved two other, less orthodox ways of working with the judgments. First I started counting the judgments as they arose. Every time a judging thought came into my mind, I would count: “judging one, judging two, judging three… judging five hundred.” At a certain point I started to laugh. I began to see these “bad” thoughts in a much lighter way, not particularly believing them and not reacting against them. A judgment arises, we can see it, we smile, and we let it go. What a breath of fresh air for the mind!
The second technique I use when these thoughts proliferated was to tack on to the end of each judgment the phrase “the sky is blue.” “That person takes too much food – the sky is blue.” “I don’t like how they are moving – the sky is blue.” “The sky is blue” is a neutral thought that can just come and go without any reaction in the mind. By adding it to the end of every judgment, I got a sense of what it would be like to let the judgment go through my mind in the same way “the sky is blue” goes through.