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Changing Our Habit of Judgment to the Practice of Compassion

How does judging our bodies mask our need for compassion?

A few days ago, I heard a wonderful interview on the National Public Radio program, "Speaking of Faith." The show's host, Krista Tippett, was talking with Karen Armstrong, a freelance theologian who is known for her passionate interest and scholarly expertise in the field of religion, as well as her down-to-earth way of articulating the common truths of diverse spiritual traditions. Although the conversation didn't focus on body image issues per se, it nevertheless reminded me of the spiritual needs that draw us to religious ideas and behavior-whether in the context of traditional religion or in the context of "secular" culture.

In particular, Armstrong emphasized the human need for compassion that religions are meant to address. Every human being suffers in one way or another, and each of us longs to be listened to deeply by someone who can empathize with our pain, someone who is capable of being present to our distress without trying to resolve or fix it. Those of us who are struggling (or have struggled) with eating problems are especially in need of people-friends, family members, teachers, doctors, therapists, coaches, co-workers, and/or, spiritual mentors-who can offer us their nonjudgmental presence. Having the encouragement and support of those who are capable of loving us compassionately and unconditionally-whether or not we appear to be making "progress" in our recovery and whether or not we can love ourselves-is crucial on the journey of healing.

According to Armstrong, compassion is not only a basic spiritual need, but also a fundamental teaching among different religions. Leading sages from diverse traditions have insisted that empathizing with the suffering of others is at the heart of spirituality, as seen in the various versions of "the Golden Rule" in traditions as different as Hinduism, Judaism, and Wicca. Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, and other spiritual giants insisted that being present to pain, whether one's own or that of another, is the true path of healing. It is when we stop running away from our suffering and develop the capacity to be with it-"compassion" literally means "to suffer with"-that it can be transformed and alleviated.

Despite their common emphasis on compassion as the way to deal with pain and adversity, religions have also been notorious teachers of judgmentalism-a perspective steeped in the twin assumptions that "right" and "wrong" can be easily distinguished and that there is only one correct path to "salvation." This view is apparent in The Religion of Thinness, in which only slender bodies are deemed "good," while all others are condemned to the realm of the "unattractive," the "unhealthy," or even the "immoral"-in short, the "unredeemed." Whether these judgments are voiced or unspoken, whether we hear them directly from others or apply them vigorously to ourselves, they only serve to deepen the pain that so many women (regardless of size) already experience around their bodies.

Judgmentalism is intrinsic to the thinking that fuels The Religion of Thinness. Those of us who have subscribed to this faith may not only judge our bodies as "inadequate" compared to other women we know or to the cultural ideal; we may also judge our recovery as "flawed" or "hopeless" compared to some idea we have about what health and healing look like. In addition, chances are that if we spend time judging our own perceived failures (whether in body or mind or both), we also devote ample energy to identifying and judging the "downfalls" of others.

Judging ourselves and others is an alienating habit, one that creates divisions both among us and within us. What's more, labels like "good" or "bad" tend to get in the way of real spiritual growth because they distance us from the suffering we want to transform. The judgments themselves function as buffers to the experiences we need to touch and be present to if we truly want to heal.

I think Armstrong's reflections resonated with me so deeply because replacing the habit of judgment with the practice of compassion is a basic goal in my own spiritual journey towards health and healing. The more I travel down this path, the clearer it becomes that if we do not find ways to practice compassion in our lives-both towards ourselves and towards others-we may continue to look for ways to escape our pain that are ultimately self-defeating. Learning to be present to suffering-to be with suffering-is essential for healing both the pain of our body image and eating problems and the deeper distress these problems mask.

To cultivate the bravery we need to transform our judgmental way of thinking into an empathetic approach to ourselves and others, we need some kind of practice that teaches us how to stay present in the face of difficult situations and emotions. For me, the practice of mindfulness has been very helpful in this regard, though after years of practice I still consider myself a beginner. In a future blog, I would like to share some of my experiences with this practice and how it has been a useful in my efforts to replace the habit of judgment with the practice of compassion.