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Mindfulness Is Judgmental

Why judgments matter

Last night, Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz and I gave an exciting and informative presentation at UCLA's Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. In it, we talked about our new book, You Are Not Your Brain, discussed why habits are so hard to break, reviewed the controversy raging in the neuroscience community regarding whether anything more than the brain exists (i.e., is there a mind?) and described the research foundation upon which our Four Step method is based.

During the Q&A, one audience member told us he understood the rationale of Step 1 (Relabel) and Step 2 (Reframe), but that he had more difficulty with Step 3 (Refocus your attention on something healthy and constructive) and Step 4 (Revalue the entire experience as nothing but the feeling of a false thought or unhelpful urge bubbling up from your brain that you do not have to act on or take at face value). He felt that those latter two steps seemed judgmental, which appeared to fly in the face of most people's concept of mindfulness. Isn't mindfulness non-judgmental, he asked. And, who decides what is healthy or destructive?

Although we had not planned to talk about this, we felt fortunate to have the opportunity to clarify this often misunderstood point about mindfulness. Without delving too deeply into Buddhist philosophy or neuroscience, I will show you in the next few paragraphs why mindfulness is both non-judgmental and judgmental and how you can begin to make decisions that are in your long-term best interest.

Mindfulness is Non-Judgmental

The brain is a sneaky character - it seemingly wants to help, but often ends up creating more problems than solutions. It's a fact that our brain generates all kinds of false, inaccurate or destructive thoughts, urges, impulses or desires (what we call deceptive brain messages). They bubble up into our consciousness and we have no control over the fact that they emerge. Often, when such deceptive brain messages arise, they create a sense of unease and discomfort in us that can cause us to experience anxiety, depression, self-doubt or strong urges to do something so we feel better immediately. As this happens, the Habit Center in our brain churns out automatic responses that help us feel momentary relief. The problem is, the more we seek out this short-term relief with unhealthy habits that are not ultimately in our best interest, the stronger we wire those unhelpful automatic habits into our brain.

Note the word automatic here - in most cases, these habits are occurring below the level of your conscious awareness. Rather than thinking about how to respond, your brain does the work for you and often ends up acting against your long-term best interest. When we operate in this mind-less mode for the majority of our waking hours, we essentially become slaves to our brain. That's right, our brain is then running the show, not us!

When your brain is operating on autopilot, there's little you can do unless you begin to pay more attention. Even more to the point, no matter what the context, you are not responsible for those initial thoughts, urges and impulses that bubble up outside of your awareness and without your consent. Let me say that again because it is so important: you cannot control or in any way influence which thoughts, urges, impulses or desires unconsciously appear. This is the very reason why you should never judge or shame yourself for the mere emergence of these deceptive brain messages. Accept that they are present and that they likely will emerge again, but remind yourself that they are not representative of you, your values, goals or the life you will lead.

This, in essence, is why mindfulness is non-judgmental. As Bhante Henepola Gunaratana notes in his fantastic entry-level mindfulness meditation book, Mindfulness in Plain English, it is impossible for us to be aware of what's going on inside us and in our environment, "if [we] are busy rejecting its existence." That very act takes us out of being mindful. He goes on to say, "Whatever experience we are having, mindfulness just accepts it... No pride, no shame, nothing personal at stake - what is there is there."

When dealing with the initial thoughts, urges, impulses and desires (i.e., deceptive brain messages), mindfulness clearly tells us that we must be non-judgmental. This is precisely why the term non-judgmental appears in most discussions about mindfulness. Taking a non-judgmental stance allows people to approach and observe these negative thoughts, urges and impulses from a compassionate perspective so that they do not beat up on, shame or berate themselves for the uncontrollable initial thoughts and urges that inevitably appear.

Mindfulness is Also Judgmental

While it's essential to approach our initial thoughts and urges from a non-judgmental viewpoint, think about what it would mean if we took a non-judgmental attitude toward our behaviors. It would imply that anything goes and that no matter what we do, mindfulness will simply accept whatever happens as perfectly fine, appropriate and legitimate. Clearly, that's taking things too far.

For example, what if we had thoughts to intentionally use someone for our own gain and we actually followed through on that impulse? Mindfulness and the philosophy underpinning it would not look at this from a neutral position. Rather, mindfulness (via the concept of Right Action), would decry such behaviors and assertively label them as harmful and destructive.

Luckily for us, we have the ability to stop ourselves from acting on our impulses. Known as Veto Power, some intriguing, though controversial, research done by Benjamin Libet has proven that there is actually a short time period between when an impulse to move is generated and when we begin to act. That time in between impulse and action is where we have the ability to halt almost any action (though, we can't veto things like reflexes) even though the desire to perform the action is generated by brain mechanisms entirely outside of our conscious awareness.

What this means for us is that mindfulness will instruct us to pay attention to our intended actions and make sure they are aligned with our true goals and values in life. If for any reason they are not, we should veto that action. This is why mindfulness is judgmental - it helps us evaluate and judge our intended actions prior to proceeding with any self-destructive or harmful behavior.

Who Decides? The Wise Advocate

What was so insightful about about our audience member's question is that he took it to the next level by asking who decides what's healthy or unhealthy, constructive or destructive? As we explained last night, you can't rely on your brain to help you out with this. Due to the nature of deceptive brain messages and how they are wired into the brain, we often have a hard time activating the parts of the brain that can help us make those very evaluations when deceptive brain messages are present. In essence, when your brain is running the show, it becomes extremely difficult to decide which thoughts are true or false and which actions are good or bad. This is because your sense of self and who you are has been fused, to some extent, with the assertions of your deceptive brain messages.

As this fusion takes place, specific parts of the brain that focus on you (what we call the Self-Referencing Center) become more active. Although this part of the brain can be very helpful in certain instances, the unhelpful parts of the Self-Referencing Center can cause you to see things through a very personal, and often distorted, lens. More specifically, it can partially block your ability to evaluate yourself and life from a more rational perspective and take other vital information into account before making important decisions.

If this is how you are wired, what can you do to alter your brain such that you begin to challenge and refute the deceptive brain messages and veto unhelpful intended actions? By using the Four Steps in conjunction with the Wise Advocate. We coined this term to help people step outside themselves and their unhelpful, deceiving brain so that they can evaluate themselves, other people, situations and their deceptive brain messages from a more caring, loving and realistic perspective. The most important aspect of the Wise Advocate is that it knows what you are thinking, understands how you feel and is aware how destructive and unhelpful your patterned, automatic responses have been for you. In essence, it's your friend within. We've heard of people imagining their best friend, grandparent and, for kids, even their pet dog! The main goal is to envision someone or something that wants the best for you and encourages you to honor your true goals and values in life so that you make decisions in a rational way based on what is in your overall long-term best interest.

The Wise Advocate, we told the audience, is who is making the decisions in the beginning about what is wholesome or unwholesome, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. By using the Four Steps and integrating the Wise Advocate into your decisions, you begin to activate the parts of the brain associated with rational assessments (what we call the Assessment Center) and start evaluating your self-worth, the people in your life, situations and your future from a more compassionate and accurate viewpoint.

So, the bottom line is this: many of our thoughts, urges, desires and impulses simply bubble up from the brain in an unconscious way and no amount of mental effort, good intention or wishing for things to be different will change that fact. You cannot control them and, for that very reason, you should not shame yourself for their mere emergence. Accept that they are present, but do not act on them (or habitually overanalyze them) and do not let them define you. Use your Wise Advocate to help make assessments and remember that no matter what bubbles up from the brain, you do have control over your actions and you are responsible for what you do.

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