I have spent a significant portion of my life struggling with this concept. I realize looking back that a big part of why it has been such a struggle for me is that when I first really thought about what it would mean for me to be successful—what I really wanted out of my life—I came to the conclusion that what I wanted more than anything in the world was to be “good”. I made sure that I clarified to myself and whatever higher power I was certain was listening in on my thoughts that when I said I wanted to be good I meant I wanted to BE good and not LOOK like someone who was good.
This desire, however, to be “good” immediately led me down a road of an intense judgment which was incredibly painful and in many ways detrimental to myself and the people around me. In order to be good, I tried to not only do good things but also to avoid bad things. I made another consequential mistake in my thought process here, not only did I set myself up to fail by trying to define everything as good or bad—I also mistook actions for identity. I failed to recognize the crucial universal truth that I am who I am and I do not get to change the fabric of my being no matter how many good or bad thoughts or actions I pursued—but that’s a topic for a different time. For the purpose of this post the problem with my goal was that it required me to define “good” and “bad” so that I knew what things to do and which to avoid. From that moment on my paradigm become structured around a rigid and dichotomous ideology.
“Was this good or bad?”
“Would doing this make me a good or bad person?”
“Would saying or being this way make me good or bad?”
Everything I did, thought, and felt ran through this filter and to top it off, I never did figure out a working definition for either term. What usually happened was that I would come up with some semblance of authority or ideology about why something was good or bad and then it would melt into its opposite so that I always ended up feeling like I was bad and judging myself very harshly because of it.
In summary, defining success in this way and then setting out to achieve it was a really ineffective strategy when it came to having an enjoyable life. It was also an incredibly effective way to skew my perception of reality so that it was impossible to look fully at anything—especially myself.
Now to give an illustration of how convoluted this ideology became I will tell you that I got caught in a loop about judgement itself for many years. I had heard of course in my search for “goodness” that judgement itself was “bad” and so I tried not to be so judgmental, but as soon as I saw judgment as being “bad” I realized I had made a judgement about the concept of judgment and was immediately swept into another mind trap, because when I realized I had done something “bad” by being judgmental I felt the need to punish myself for being judgmental but to do that was again a judgment and it sounds silly now but it felt impossible to escape from at the time. Eventually I came to the realization that I was completely evil. Every part of me that tried to be good ended up in this same cycle which dissolved into “badness” and I could not figure out how to move beyond it.
I didn’t escape the cycle immediately, instead I found a way to mute it for several years. Then one day while I was listening to YouTube videos and reading books about new concepts, I came across an idea that I had never thought of before. I don’t remember exactly where the idea came from, but it had to do with the concept of life after death. I think that it was related to someone’s rendition of a near death experience, or perhaps it was a channeled explanation about what happens before or after we die. In that explanation what was described was a time when you were met with a white light and a being/beings of pure love and compassion. Then you saw your entire life again except when you saw it you didn’t just get to see the life you had lived, but all the implications of it. You were able to see not only your own thoughts and actions but how those thoughts and actions extended out to influence not only the people immediately around you but through a vast amount of space and time (many generational cycles can be influenced by the decisions of the present generation). The person describing this experience noted that even though things we do affect other people positively and negatively the beings showing this review were so loving and compassionate that there was no judgment involved at all and so the experience was one of honest learning but it was not painful.
Hearing about the life review terrified me. I could only imagine how horrifying it would be to have everything I had ever done to harm another being confirmed. It seemed impossible that such an event would not be painful.
Maybe it’s not true. I hoped. It’s just an idea.
“You don’t want to see how your life has impacted others?” The voiceless voice asked.
“I don’t want to see how much pain I’ve caused. I don’t want to hear you tell me all the things I did wrong. I know I messed up, I wouldn’t be able to stand the thought of having to see it all again and know how bad it was”
In my imagination I could hear the criticism. My skin prickled with humiliation.
“It only hurts if there is judgment,” The voice told me,” And you are the one who is judging yourself. If there was no judgement there would be no pain.”
“That seems impossible” I told it.
“Sit down,” the voice responded wordlessly. “I’ll show you.“
So I sat down and fell into a meditative trance.
I don’t know how to describe what happened because the experience wasn’t visual so much as felt. It was the experience of being swept up in complete compassion, of having a being with me that understood so completely my desires and needs and pain and hopes that there was no room for judgment at all. The other being knew that I wasn’t doing the things I was doing because I was good or bad but because I was still internally a terrified child trying to do something that she/he did not understand how to do and tripping over all those misunderstandings over and over again.
“Yes. You have caused pain to others” the being expressed without words, “you made choices that resulted in real consequences, but I can feel the fear you felt then and see how you didn’t understand what you were doing or why. You were doing the best you could in those situations. There is no reason to be afraid or ashamed or hidden now. You were who you were and you are who you are and you are loved.”
And when I felt that amount of non-judgment and compassion for me reflected from that being I was able to see my life from a new perspective.
At that moment I could see patterns in my life that I had created because of things like fear and pride. I acted out of cowardice so many times and it resulted in so much suffering—mostly for myself but also for people who cared for me. I couldn’t see the cowardice for what it was before then because I had judged the concept of being a coward as “bad” and to see it as a pattern in my life was too painful to look at. The same thing was true of pride. So many times I had tried to make myself look like a good person (in spite of my earlier prayer) and chosen something superficial over something truly meaningful because I was too proud to be honest. Again, I couldn’t see that in myself directly before even though it constantly haunted the perimeters of my perception, because pride was “bad” and to see it in myself was painful. In those few minutes when I could see myself through the eyes of the non-judgemental being I could see myself clearly—so much “good” so much “bad” but completely loved just the same.
What I learned from that experience aside from what non-judgement felt like, was that judgment makes it impossible to see anything with clarity. This idea can be somewhat counter-intuitive.
The reason we make judgements is often to help us conceptualize and understand things. This understanding is our brain’s version of “seeing,” so on the surface judgment seems like a tool for clearer vision. Categorizing things to understand them is an efficient tool for learning and it can help us make sense of the world around us and know how to respond to things. If the word “judgement” is used as a synonym for the word “categorization” and no bias or value was added to or taken from any of the categories, then it could be argued that such a system is in fact useful for “clarity”, but even then I think that the argument would not be particularly strong. Often, however, the term “judgment” and even “discernment” to a lesser extent implies a level of hierarchy. Not only is it a way of sorting things, it is also a way of evaluating them on a scale that implies that some are better than others or preferable to others.
This process of evaluation is not a bad thing, it is can be useful-- especially for figuring out the types of things that you prefer in your life and those that you don’t prefer. For this reason, I want to be clear that I am not saying that there is no place for judgment or discernment. However, because of the way our own bias combines with the idea of preference I would argue that this type of categorization severly limits clarity. In order to see someone or thing clearly, we have to be able to see both the things we like about that thing and the things we don’t like simultaneously, but if we already have a bias (an unconscious judgment which all people have) towards that thing we will meet it with an overall sense of wanting to like or dislike it. If the thing we are looking at is something we have a positive bias towards (meaning we want to like it) then judgment will make it hard to see anything we deem as “bad” about that thing. If we are looking at something that we have a negative bias towards (meaning we want to dislike it) then judgment will have the opposite effect.
Using the example of a life evaluation I would argue that most people probably want to like themselves (even if they currently don’t). They want to be able to see themselves as “good” or as people that they approve of-- this means that on some level if there is something that you have judged as extremely bad it will be hard to see it in yourself because doing so would be very painful. You may still see it if you are really honest with yourself, but the experience will be a difficult one and often you won’t see it until enough time has passed between whenever that trait showed up and when you are looking at it for you to distance yourself from who you were then.
For a different example you could look at people’s reactions to people or characters they deem as bad. If there is someone or thing that you really do not like and do not want to like it will be harder to find any redeeming values in that person or thing. It doesn’t mean that those values or characteristics don’t exist but because they don’t match with overall judgment, they will be harder to see.
The levels of intensity of judgment and bias will factor into how skewed someone’s perspective of can become. Perspectives are how we understand or relate to life so having a skewed perspective can warp our understanding of whatever we experience.
Remember that you can look at something (whether it is a tangible object, abstract idea, or lived experience) from a number of perspectives. None of those perspectives are necessarily right or wrong, but they will show you different things and emphasize certain aspects. When you go through life with the knowledge that you can chose your perspective and switch perspectives you gain greater control over how you see and interpret things, and this will impact your decision-making process.
Being in a state of non-judgment is not always something that is beneficial, and I would argue that for most people (myself included) it would be near impossible to attain. However, it is a lens that can be a great tool for seeing things as they are instead of through a lens that emphasizes either the positive or negative aspects (as defined by your personal preferences and bias) of something. This can be extremely useful for seeing patterns and underlying motives in the choices you make (as well as external systems, ideas, and people). Being in a space of non-judgment can also be an effective way of learning new concepts because you don’t have to prove anything—including proving to yourself that you know what is real or best—it lets you be open to listen and see without committing to any idea. Learning and growth happen gently and naturally from this space because there isn’t the pressure of expectation or criticism of ideas.
Lately the energy has felt incredibly harsh to me and I feel that a time is coming when we are going to have to review the structures we have created socially, culturally, and internally—my suggestion when this starts to happen is to do the best you can to move into a place of non-judgmental compassion. The transition will be much easier if we can see things as they are, make the necessary adjustments, and not add to the pain that is inherent in transformation by throwing criticism, punishment, and judgement into the mix-- this is true when it comes to reviewing anything but especially when it is time to review our own lives. Remember, seeing yourself is only painful if you are looking through a lens of judgment, if you aren't then you simply see that you are who you are-- a living being who is greatly loved.