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The role of nonjudgment in mindfulness

Can we judge our thoughts without judging our selves?

 Akio Yamada, used with permission
Source: Source: Akio Yamada, used with permission

We are active thinkers. Our minds are constantly chattering. When someone wrongs us, it is easy for us to conjure up a list of reasons why we are right and they are wrong. When we have a bad interaction at work, we replay each moment and analyze it. Far too often, we over-attach meaning to our thoughts and we judge ourselves as well as others.

One time my friend went through surgery and I received an email to sign up for meal-rotation. It was during a tough season of my life and I could barely take care of myself. I wanted to bring her a home-cooked meal, but I didn’t. I felt like I failed as a friend. Soon I found myself caught in this web of negative thoughts and self-judgment, which impacted my subsequent interactions with her because I was so self-conscious.

Mindfulness teaches us that thoughts are just thoughts. One of the mindfulness practices is to learn to be open to whatever thoughts that may come up in our mind and to let go. Visualize each thought as a leaf as it floats down the stream. No need to pick up the leaf or analyze its intricate patterns. Or as clouds that drift past the clear blue sky.

Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, nonjudgmentally.

For me, I notice and acknowledge the thought that “I was not able to help out my friend the way I wanted.” I refrain from judging myself as a terrible friend.

As I create distance from my thoughts, I create space within myself. I become less reactive, and more thoughtful. And I can live more fully in the present moment.

That’s mindfulness from a psychological perspective.

However, I argue that this perspective may not paint the full picture.

Some of our thoughts cannot be entirely void of judgements. If a monk has lustful thoughts towards a woman, those thoughts would be inconsistent with the lifestyle he has chosen to live or the vows he has taken. Similarly, thoughts of jealousy, envy, or greed in general create more harm than good.

Mindfulness is helpful in that it separates the thoughts from the person. You are not defined by your thoughts. Having an envious or lustful thought alone does not mean that you are a bad person. However, I argue that you can judge your thoughts without judging yourself as a person.

In many spiritual traditions including Buddhism and Christianity, mindfulness is the remembrance of something that is outside of yourself – e.g., of God, Buddha’s teaching, etc. (The literal translation of mindfulness is “remembrance” or “recall.”) The focus is not on ourselves, but something external of us. You are anchored in something that will not change based on your mood or the time of the day.

A monk who simply acknowledges his lustful thoughts and refrains from judging himself will likely find himself in the same position soon. However, if the monk recalls the set of values or vows he has chosen to live by, he can evaluate whether his thoughts are consistent with his moral compass. He does not judge himself as a good monk or bad monk based on his thoughts. He does not beat himself up with self-deprecating thoughts or self-judgements, “I can’t believe I failed again.” But he also does not shrug off his lustful thoughts because they are indeed considered morally wrong given his religious commitments. Remembering who he is and his core values, he is motivated to act in ways that are more consistent with his values the next time.

As a Christ follower, in addition to using mindfulness to help me slow down and be more connected with my own thoughts, I engage in meditation to be more aware of and connected to God’s presence in my life. When worry about the future arises, I gently focus my attention to how God has been faithful to me in the past. When work does not go well, I remind myself that my identity is firmly rooted in Him and not in my career.

For those who do not have a religious background, you may value virtues such as generosity, kindness, or courage. Mindfulness may help align your thoughts with your values.

As with many other ancient practice and disciplines, mindfulness was never meant to be a self-help tool. Rather, it is meant to help one connect with the deeper purpose or meaning of life.

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