Non-judgement

Do you also sometimes notice how this tiny voice in your head can be surprisingly critical–especially, but not only, towards yourself? It turns out that for most people, their inner monologue is often a running commentary along the lines of “I like this, I don’t like that, I’m an idiot for having done this…” And furthermore, we often act on those judgments more or less instinctively, without any reflection whether they’re true or not.

To give you an example: Just this morning, I happened to knock over my freshly filled cup of coffee. And literally the first thing that popped into to my head was along the lines of “What a clumsy fool you are!” Obviously, this verbalized thought was in itself totally unnecessary; After all, I had witnessed the mess I just made first-handedly, and additionally blaming me for causing it did help nothing to rectify the situation. It would have been more helpful had I just accepted what had occurred and started to clean up, instead of thinking about my perceived clumsiness.

In this chapter, we’ll continue where we left off last time when we began to investigate our own thoughts, but add a bit more nuance and detail. We’ll attempt to meet more and more things which arise during meditation practice, regardless if we “like” it or not, with an attitude of non-judgement. And we’ll get to know a specific technique that can help to treat distressing situations in our daily life a bit more wisely and skilfully.

Let’s begin this session again with a round of seated meditation practice.

The technique we’re going to give a try this time is called labelling or noting your thoughts.

Just like in our previous sessions, first of all sit comfortably, with the back straight and the eyes closed, if you like.

Take a few deep breaths to get settled.

Then, slowly, concentrate your attention on the breath. Take a few seconds just to get your mind centered on that particular sensation, and simply observe what’s happening.

Every now and again, a thought, or an image, or a memory will come to your awareness.

Whenever this happens, take a moment just to acknowledge the existence of that thought. Investigate it a bit: How does that thought make you feel like? What type of thought is it? If you will, give it a name or a label.

“Planning.”

“Worrying.”

“Anticipation.”

“Judgement.”

Then, settle your attention on the breath again. Let the thought go. And wait for the next thought to arise.

Try not to overcomplicate or even overthink the process of labelling itself. The point is not to accurately classify each and every thing that comes to your mind. Keep the categories rather broad, if you like. You can start with simply using “past” and “future,” and expand your repertoire of labels over time.

I’ll be quiet now for a while so you have a chance to try this out for yourself.

Have you ever come across the quote “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”? It’s from Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet. What the protagonist is referring to here is, in fact, a very profound realization of the human condition: Our judgement (“good”, “bad”, “like”, “dislike”, …) of a situation dramatically influences our perspective. And thus, how we respond to it, as well as our outlook on the future.

To give you an example: The other day, while I was sitting in meditation, my next door neighbors dog suddenly began barking really loudly. At first I was okay with that. After a while though, I became slightly irritated. Then I became annoyed. Then angry. I mean, I was trying to do some serious meditating over here and couldn’t concentrate because of all that noise! Couldn’t hey shut up their damn dog for once? I had never really liked that dog in the first place. Or the neighbor for that matter. They also never cut their trees at the right time, so my garden gets flooded with a ton of leaves that I have to rake up, and also…

You get the point. But to add a counterexample: Another time, also during meditation practice, I noticed the little birds outside going crazy. They were chirping and tweeting and fluttering around, also creating a lot of noise. But somehow, I enjoyed that particular kind of noise. I felt like it actually helped me concentrate better during meditation.

So, what’s going on here? Clearly, the noise itself isn’t what makes the difference, is it? It’s really mostly our own thinking that “makes it good or bad.” That process is what we call “judgement,” and it’s very instinctive: Our mind has this tendency to quickly decide whether we “like” or “dislike” any sensation, regardless if it’s a sound, a sight, or even a thought. Of course, there’s an evolutionary basis to that: For hundreds of thousands of years, it was a tremendous benefit if one could instinctively distinguish between a threatening sound (say, a hungry wolf somewhere in the woods) and one that could safely be ignored (the chirping of few anxious birds). The faster, and the more automatically, the mind was able to do this, the faster you could react to it–run away from the predator, for example.

Of course, in our day and age, these instinctive reactions based on unconscious judgments are often quite unhelpful. When that person, that always manages to trigger you, enters the meeting room, your heart rate spikes, your mood sours, and your muscles tense up. Even though that person has said and done nothing yet. In that case, it would be a lot better–for everyone involved–if you stayed calm, relaxed, non-judgemental and focused, rather than immediately jumping into fight-or-flight mode. Right?

One benefit of a sustained meditation practice is that you become more mindful of your own thoughts, and learn to recognize moments when a kee-jerk reaction announces itself. What we’re trying to do instead is to pay attention to whatever is happening, investigate it, and meet it with an air of non-judgement first and foremost. Thus, we create a space in which we can decide what a thoughtful response, rather than an instinctive reaction, would look like.

To strengthen that ability, I’d like to introduce you to a technique called “RAIN,” originally established by Michelle McDonald and popularized by Tara Brach. The acronym stands for “Recognize,” “Accept,” “Investigate,” and “Non-identification.” It’s a process that you can apply to any thought, emotion, or situation throughout your daily life. Of course, it’s most valuable in the face of troubling or distressing thoughts, but it’s also the hardest to do it in the heat of the moment. Therefore, it’s a good a idea to practice it in formal meditation, like we’re going to do right away, so that you can rely on your familiarity with the technique whenever you need it in the real world.

RAIN technique (originally by Michelle McDonald, a senior mindfulness teacher, further developed by Tara Brach)

  • Recognize
  • Accept
  • Investigate
  • Non-identification