What do we mean by non-judgment in the context of mindfulness, why is non-judgment part of the attitudes of mindfulness?
It is perhaps easier to begin with what non-judgment is not, it is not lack of care, or distancing yourself so far from a situation that it cannot touch you. Being non-judgmental does not make you reckless and choose not to heed sensible safety precautions. It is not becoming cold or lacking in compassion.
Non-judgment is about being aware of the judgments that we make every day, all the time. Take a moment to be aware of the thoughts in your mind right now. How do you react to them? Often, we will respond with judgment to our thoughts and feelings – ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad’; ‘this is right’ or ‘this is wrong’. Over time our responses become habitual and form an automatic response to specific thoughts or feelings.
This is one of the hardest concepts that mindfulness suggests, because we are programmed to judge from our earliest experiences. It’s not just what we think and feel, we also make judgments about taste, smell, texture, sound and sight. Some people are optimistic, preferring to look with a positive perspective on any situation or thought. We all have preferences and judging is deeply engrained into our psyche. From the word go people are judged and evaluated: good boy, good girl, and so on are the responses adults utter when children manage a new skill.
Jon Kabat-Zinn uses non-judging as part of his definition of mindfulness:
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.
Awareness of our own thoughts and feelings is one of the approaches of mindfulness, but simply being aware of them is not enough to reduce their impact on us. Non-judging brings in the concept of acceptance (another mindfulness attitude) enabling us to live with our thoughts and feelings.
Consider for a moment the process of grieving. You may have experienced this for yourself or witnessed someone else going through it. There is no set timescale associated to the process, but it is generally recognised that there are various stages of grief that most people will endure. These are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This article is not trying to address those stages, but the concluding stage, acceptance, is when we achieve peace and are able to live with the grief that will be part of our lives forever. Having personal experience of the loss of a parent whilst I was at a vulnerable age, I recognise that I will always miss my mother, be sad that she is not in my life, and indeed, missed so much of my life, but I am able to continue with that feeling as an accepted part of me. We readily accept that someone who has lost a loved one will be able to live with their feeling of grief, assigning no judgment to it. But we do not apply the same approach to any of our other emotions. We apply judgment to our other emotions, calling them good or bad. Anger is bad, joy is good, irritation is bad and so on. But these emotions are no more positive or negative than grief. We are making judgments about them based on the reactions we have and the situations we are in when we feel those emotions.
So how can we apply non-judgment, and what benefit does it bring to our lives? Mindfulness allows us to recognise emotions and be aware of the sensations they create in our bodies. Once we are aware of the sensations that these emotions create, we can be alerted to their presence and be prepared for the impact they have on us.
Awareness can act as an early warning system so that we can engage with our emotions through choice, instead by of habit or judgment. It is not always a bad thing to feel angry, however if our reaction to anger is always to be violent, that is unacceptable. If we can separate the emotion from the automatic response, we may be able to choose the response we make. In a situation where anger may cause violence, it may be easy to see that separating the emotion from the action is a benefit. What could be the benefit of separating other emotions from their response? Anxiety can cause our stress response to trigger unnecessarily, which is not healthy for our mental or physical well-being. If we can manage our reactions, we may be able to remain calm and choose our behaviour.
Most importantly, non-judgment is about accepting that it is all right to have feelings and acknowledging them, experiencing them and then being able to let them go. Thoughts and feelings are transient, they are our response to a situation, not the situation itself. Just as we can learn healthy eating habits or unlearn unhealthy habits, we can learn to have healthy thoughts and train our minds to make those habitual.
“We are what we repeatedly do.” Will Durant
“As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” Aristotle
This is why mindfulness is referred to as a practice, it is a journey of self-recognition, self-awareness, enabling us to build our self-esteem. Developing a non-judgmental mindset can help us to remain calm in a stressful situation. It can also help with everyday tasks, enabling greater focus, concentration and attention to our undertakings.