Judgment vs. Discernment: Moving From Preferences to Wisdom

When I first began practicing mindfulness meditation, I was surprised by the constant chatter of thoughts running through my head. What I found most disturbing about all this noise was that the majority of my thoughts were full of self-judgment, criticism and doubt. My first inclination was to try and stop these voices, or at least to ignore them. But the more I tried to do suppress them, the louder they became and the worse I felt when they inevitably reappeared.

Feeling discomfort with the judging mind is not uncommon. We come to meditation hoping to get relief from our distress and end up feeling more distress when we actually start to become aware of our thoughts. We’re taught that mindfulness involves cultivating non-judgmental awareness of what’s happening in the present moment, and yet here we sit full of judgment. I believe that part of our confusion around working with judgments comes from our western tendency to see the world in terms of duality – to judge our thoughts and experiences as right or wrong, good or bad, smart or dumb, etc. By seeing our judging minds as something negative, we take our judgments personally and see them as a reflection of ourselves.

It is not that all judgments are bad.  There are general agreements about what’s right and wrong, such as not harming others and not stealing. Such agreements are important for us as social beings to function as a society.  So there is a place for judgment. Often, however, we artificially make up these categories of good vs bad on the basis of our own likes and dislikes, as a way to navigate through the world. We divide things up politically, religiously, socially, racially, etc. and conclude that those in my camp are right and those in the other are wrong. When something falls outside what we deem acceptable, we judge it harshly. When it falls within that shifting structure of acceptability, we judge it positively. This goes for our critiques of the outside world as well as our thoughts about ourselves.

Our judgments about how things should be often exacerbates our suffering. For example in considering our relationship with our parents, if you still feel anger towards them that you haven’t worked out, you may have a lot of judgment around that anger. You may feel that having anger at your parents is clearly wrong. The judgment you have around this anger will itself cause you to suffer, perhaps dearly, because you feel so strongly that anger shouldn’t be here. But the truth is, it is here.

There is a Buddhist teaching attributed to the Chinese Zen patriarch Jianzhi Sengcan call Faith – Mind that opens with the lines “The great way [towards liberation] is not difficult for those who have no preferences. Like not, dislike not. Be illuminated.”  You could say, this is true of judgment. When we can suspend good and bad, high and low, all we’re left with are arbitrary divisions of life.  When we can just see these division as the way things are, we begin to develop true wisdom. This is the realm of discernment.

When we move from judgment to discernment our view changes. With discernment we begin to investigate and know what thoughts, feeling, or actions lead to happiness and what leads to suffering. The point is to try and wake up to what is suffering, what does it feel like, and to begin to see what leads to suffering. Also, what is real happiness (not what we think is happiness) and what leads to happiness. It is through discernment that we begin to know these things on a felt, experiential level.  Judgment does not have this ability to do this.

To see the difference, consider the following example.  You’ve just eaten a nice meal. Maybe you’re a little full, and you see there’s cake for dessert. Judgment goes cake – “good.” Then judgment goes, no I shouldn’t eat that cake, I’m already full, it will break my diet. Eating that cake is “bad.”

Discernment goes, cake, hum, mindfulness – I think I’d like that cake. Desire that’s the mind. Let’s now check in with the body. How’s the body feeling? How’s the stomach feeling? Ugh, kind of full and uncomfortable. What’s it going to be like if I eat that cake? More likely my stomach will be much more uncomfortable, very unpleasant.

The difference is that it’s not right or wrong. Discernment just knows that eating this cake is going to lead to suffering. This is much different than thinking I am a bad person if I eat that cake.

As our mindfulness practice deepens, we want to come more and more from discernment and less and less from judgment. Discernment starts with the suffering we find ourselves in, allowing us to see how our attachments are its fundamental cause, and then provides us the space to let go. Overtime, we learn to let go of our attachments through insight, by seeing into their impermanent nature and their inability to provide any kind of lasting satisfaction.

As our discernment grows, we gain the ability to grasp, comprehend, and evaluate clearly the true nature of ourselves. We begin to wake up to what is suffering and what leads to suffering in our lives. We gain insight into what is real happiness and what leads to happiness. Judgement does not have this ability to know this because it is concerned with protecting, supporting, or compensating for the ego. With discernment, we are no longer so concerned about protecting the ego. Instead we turn towards the difficulties in our lives with curiosity and compassion. Overtime, this honest turning towards the way things are provides us with the insights that propel us toward greater wisdom.