Dr. Gregory Sazima (author of Practical Mindfulness) says judgment is a normal, natural part of meditating and that we can work with it.
- An unrealistic aspiration for states of bliss can trip up early meditators.
- Learning how to observe and manage judgments that occur in response to mind events is an important aspect of practice.
- Judgments as distractions are common, as are secondary self-judgments and self-criticism about those distractions.
One of the allures for newbies in meditation is an aspiration of a blissful, completely calmed, even empty mindscape. This favored state is both elusive and fleeting, even as the prospect of moments of it becomes more common with sustained practice.
It’s also arguably not the most beneficial aspect of meditation, at least off the cushion. That’s less about blissful states and much more about calmer adaptation to daily stresses and cultivation of self-understanding.
Another state, and even more common one, co-occur with this humble reality of inevitable, serial losses of attention during meditation. It’s judgment. And it’s actually OK, a sneakily beneficial part of the process that we should prepare new meditators for and anticipate, even embrace, in our own sitting. Let me explain, and perhaps get myself in a little trouble for doing so.
One pithy definition of mindfulness comes courtesy of one of the godfathers of the movement in the West, Jon Kabat-Zinn. That definition: mindfulness is “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness.” Short, sweet, powerful… and aspirational, if not downright impossible for mere mortals in any sustained way.
Judgment, additional thoughts radiate from the apprehension of any event or experience in that moment-to-moment are just what minds do. In my book Practical Mindfulness, I nickname this production of the mind: “spin.” Think of the scrabble that occurs after every campaign debate. We rarely attend to something in our awareness without some spin on it; again, it’s really OK, normal mind-in-action stuff.
With all respect to Dr. Kabat-Zinn, when we up-define mindfulness as a state of awareness utterly power-washed of any quark of additional spin, well, that’s a kind of set-up. Actually, it’s set-up for (irony!) additional judgment… that we suck at meditating. We can call this “backspin”–judgments about our having judgments. This may sound complex or arcane, but it’s a big, early speed bump in getting a sustainable practice going. Unrealistic expectations bloom about poorly reacting to experience and then can get spun up in distorted self-judgment, critique really, about our meditating prowess and potential.
So, instead, we can prepare for judgment as a common distraction in any sitting. We can absolutely get better at observing and identifying the judgments that come and go and not just accept them as valid.
And… we can watch how our reflexive “spins” can quickly generate additional “backspin”–especially emotional reactions to our automatic judgment–”I feel [bad/mad/sad] for reaction.” We get better at handling these additional phenomena in mind as more stuff comes and goes, rather than distortions “owned” without scrutiny.
Pure, mindful bliss is, well, blissful. But meditation is so much more than that if we accept (and work with) judgment as a regular part of the landscape.
Sazima MD, G.(2021) Practical Mindfulness: A Physician’s No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners. Miami, FL: Mango Publishing.
A Physician’s No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners
Training exercises that work. Practical Mindfulness approaches mindfulness and meditation from a hands-on, how-to, irreverent perspective–appealing directly to smart readers curious about meditation. By applying Dr. Sazima’s training routines, learn to spend more time in real engagement with the world. Cultivate a deeper appreciation of experiences, from the everyday to the extraordinary, and live your life more fully, wisely, and joyfully.