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On being non-judgmental

There is a well-known definition of mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn:


Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to things as they are.


In short, we mean to be awake and embrace whatever is happening here and now. While we know that our past and future have an effect on 'things as they are', we do not fret about them.


But what does he mean by ‘non-judgmentally’? And why use such an unwieldy word? Would simpler words not serve as well?


Let us draw out what it means to be judgmental. gives a two-fold definition:

  1. involving the use or exercise of judgment.

  2. tending to make quick and excessively critical judgments, especially moral ones


The first suggests a beneficial capacity. Exercising judgment is after all an essential skill in navigating life’s challenges. But the second is quite the opposite. We know that it is unpleasant and unhelpful to find ourselves judged. Especially when the criticism is premature, excessive or even harsh.


I would like to suggest he wished to draw attention to the word judgment in particular. This is a heavy word; it imprisons us and denies the possibility of escape. But, adding the prefix 'non-' suggests we can, through being mindful, be free of its constraints.


We experience being judged by the people around us and, indirectly, from views we pick up throughout our lives. We internalise these judgments. We make them our own and in turn judge others. Whether explicit or implicit, negative judgments always hurt. It is this second, painful and personal sense of the word to which Kabat-Zinn is referring. There are two main components to this negative side of being judgmental:

·       First, there are the views we hold in making judgement. These reflect beliefs about how we should, or should not, behave or think. How we should or should not be. Such views are often unconscious. Many we adopt early in our lives and may never examine.

·       Second, there is an element of hostility in being judgmental. The person or thing being judged is wrong! They are bad. This results from a sense of separation, from ourselves as well as from others. We become polarised; one side unable to accept the other. Being non-judgmental cuts through this by simply not recognising separation.


Both of these elements show that to be judgmental is the opposite of the qualities we seek in being mindful. We wish to see the world with clarity rather than through the lens of assumptions and prejudices. And we seek to meet experience with kindness, patience and compassion.


Use of the word non-judgemental in Kabat-Zinn’s definition helps us to be more aware of this territory. Reflecting on our actions, thoughts and beliefs, we can notice our tendency to judge. Though uncomfortable, this is one of the most useful aspects of mindfulness. In noticing how we judge; we are already less caught up with the underlying attitudes.


But we need to be careful here or we end up judging our own judgments, telling ourselves we must not be like that! There is a fine line between honest self-critique and harsh self-judgment. Positive self-critique acknowledges our imperfections and asks us to be kind to ourselves. We can even bring a sense of humour to the absurdity of judging ourselves for being judgmental.


Kindness is an essential attitude in mindfulness practice. It is about having a sense of kinship - to ourselves, other people and the world around us. We lose the harshness of separation and are more able to feel love and compassion. Kindness, love and compassion are essential companions to mindfulness. They draw out its warmth giving underlying meaning to being non-judgmental.


One of the benefits I have gained from mindfulness is of patience in the face of my own faults and weaknesses. This helps me be more forgiving with myself and others: we are none of us perfect. Yet we wish to be! Self-judgment has its roots in the desire to be a better person. The belief is that the harder we are on ourselves the better. But this inner harshness makes us stressed and unhappy. The strain spills over into our relationships with others. Being less judgmental can be a kinder and more effective way to become a happier, wiser person. 

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