In Part 1 of this article I explained why a narrow focus on the so-called present moment may create unnecessary difficulties and limitations when practicing mindfulness. In this second part, I’ll endeavor to explain why a non-judgmental attitude can be equally problematic.

You’ll recall from Part 1, that mindfulness it usually defined something like this:

the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.

Of course, there are hundreds of variations, but the two most common characteristics of such definitions are that:

  • mindfulness occurs in the present
  • mindfulness is non-judgmental

Let’s look at this second aspect. Here are some examples of this non-judgmental attitude in common usage.

This first, from a very popular meditation and mindfulness app I was listening to recently, offered the following advice: “The only way we can be more aware of it [our resistance] is by repeatedly learning to watch the mind, free from any judgement.”

And another example, from a recent tweet: “Listen to your thoughts without judgment. Let them come and go, whether good or bad. You will be more peaceful and happy.”

Is this good advice?

Dictionaries define judgmental as:

  1. involving the exercise of judgment.
  2. tending to make judgments, esp. moral judgments.
  3. of or denoting an attitude in which judgments about other people’s conduct are made

and diving a little deeper, judgment is defined as:

  1. The act or process of judging; the formation of an opinion after consideration or deliberation.
  2. An opinion or estimate formed after consideration or deliberation, especially a formal or authoritative decision: awaited the judgment of the umpire.
  3. The mental ability to perceive and distinguish relationships; discernment:Fatigue may affect a pilot’s judgment of distances.
  4. The capacity to form an opinion by distinguishing and evaluating:His judgment of fine music is impeccable.
  5. The capacity to assess situations or circumstances and draw sound conclusions; good sense

Judgment then, by these definitions, seems like an important function, a useful skill; perhaps even something essential, a trait we may wish to develop rather than abandon. Why then, are we instructed, in mindfulness practices, to adopt a non-judgmental attitude?

I suspect that the assumption being made is that, as beginners, we may not have developed the necessary skills or experience to make good judgments. For instance, it’s probably true that our habitual reactions, our snap-decisions (in other words, our automatic judgments) are often made hastily, automatically and largely unconsciously. In other words, our minds make decisions for us, based on old habits, assumptions, projections and generally faulty logic. Furthermore, by default, we may accept these judgments without question, without a full consideration for their consequences.

If we are new to mindfulness, and perhaps prone to anxiety and / or self-criticism, we may habitually berate ourselves, or assume that we are incapable or deficient in some way. We might judge our emotions as bad or intolerable or inappropriate. We might judge ourselves flawed on account of small-minded or mean thoughts. We might judge our experiences in meditation; concluding that we’re hopeless or incapable on account of our inability to find the calm and quiet we crave. These kind of judgments are not helpful. They are not ‘sound conclusions’ made on the basis of careful discernment. Rather, they are knee-jerk reactions; beliefs and opinions that we probably haven’t examined, and that may only reinforce dysfunctional views we hold about ourselves.

A non-judgmental attitude then, might be preferable to such snap-judgments. It’s certainly a useful starting point. Instead of immediately assuming that we are deficient or incapable, or that a thought or emotion is threatening or dangerous, or that certain things that we experience during meditation are wrong or somehow inappropriate, we can temporarily suspend our belief. We can pause, open to the idea that things may not be quite as they seem. In this way, we give ourselves space to experience things differently. We have the opportunity to notice how things unfold when we don’t immediately label them negatively. This can be a source of significant relief, and deep insight. For example, someone who has for years been unable to sleep, due to traffic noise, or unable to concentrate due to distracting sound, may suddenly discover, that simply by refraining from repeating habitual judgments (that infernal noise is unbearable, I can’t sleep with that racket going on) they can relax quite effortlessly.

In this way, a non-judgmental attitude can be very beneficial. But what if one adopts a non-judgmental attitude towards a deep longing in the heart, or to severe back pain, or to repetitive thoughts that spiral one into depressive states of mind? Is this helpful? I would argue not. Judgment, discernment and wise evaluation in these instances are essential. To be non-judgmental is to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Let’s explore this a little further.

Mind the GapThe word Mindfulness, in common English usage, and also within traditional Buddhist contexts (from where mindfulness is largely derived) means more than simply paying attention. It doesn’t mean just to see (non-judgmentally). It means to pay attention in order to evaluate something. We practice mindfulness, in order to make good judgments. For example, you MIND THE GAP, in order to avoid accidents.

In fact, strictly speaking, we can’t attend to anything non-judgmentally. Whenever we pay attention we automatically evaluate: as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. This evaluation usually occurs beneath our awareness, and registers as a like or dislike, as an impulse to avoid or approach. Mindfulness can help us to correct these automatic evaluations, when necessary: is it really a good idea to have that extra beer, or piece of cake?

So, by paying attention we can gauge the appropriateness of our thoughts, emotions and actions. If we fail to make a conscious, or mindful decision, our automatic impulses take control. We’re not responding to our experience, we’re merely reacting according to habit.  In such circumstances, a non-judgmental attitude is not what we need at all.

Ideally then, mindfulness serves an advisory role. It helps us to make good decisions. According to Eric Harrison mindfulness means:

“to hold an object in mind in order to accurately evaluate it prior to a response. By pausing before action, one will be able to seize that decisive but brief moment when mind has not yet settled upon a definite course of action, but is still open to receive skilful directions. Mind has to choose, to decide and to judge. The aim of mindfulness practice is that this clear seeing will gradually become a wise regulatory response to any activity, be it bodily, verbal or mental.”

In summary, you will naturally and spontaneously judge what you experience — good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, as long as you’re alive.  You can’t stop this happening. But you can become more aware of these knee-jerk reactions, and choose to modify them.  And you can let any judgment you make remain provisional, a temporary viewpoint, rather than a fixed strategy or belief. These, I believe, are useful functions for ‘mindfulness’.