Last time, we talked about mindfulness and the power it gives you to stay in the present. One of the key strategies to mindful awareness cultivating a non-judgmental attitude. Being non-judgmental is easier said than done. Judgment is a form of short-hand, and it can be helpful when you are trying to communicate information quickly. It’s much shorter to say “Don’t eat that. It’s bad” than “Don’t eat that. The label says that it expired last week, and according to food safety regulations, you should not eat food after it has expired.” Judgment can be helpful in moments like this one in order to communicate effectively and efficiently. And yet, we often use judgment at times where it is less effective and often causes us more suffering.
“You are so good. You exercised today.”
“You’re such an idiot. I can’t believe you messed that up.”
“You can’t even do this one thing. You’ll never be successful.”
Have you ever said one of these things (or something similar) to yourself? I’d venture to guess that most of us have said a statement like this to ourselves at least once. Evolutionarily, it makes sense to be critical towards oneself. Criticism helps us avoid making the same mistakes again in the future. In caveman days, mistakes could be deadly. Nowadays, most of us are facing life or death situations. However, this negativity bias persists. Rick Hanson says “Our minds are like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive.” It’s easy to get stuck to these negative thoughts, and judgment is a quick and easy path to negative thinking.
So how do you get out of judgment?
If you were in a court of law, how would you describe this situation? In other words, at this specific time and place, what observable behaviors happened?
If an alien landed on earth, what would they see happening in this situation? Remember, they have a very rudimentary understanding of human life.
My clients probably get sick of me asking them these questions, but they are my shorthand to non-judgmental awareness. “Just the facts,” I say. Some people tease me for this phrase, but the facts are what keep us out of judgment. In graduate school, we had to do an exercise where we differentiated facts from opinions. It can be challenging to differentiate the two. We got into a few philosophical debates about the difference between the two, but the basic difference is that facts are verifiable and/or observable whereas opinions are thoughts, judgments or interpretations of facts. Sticking to observable, measurable, or verifiable information keeps you out of judgment.
When practicing mindfulness, you may choose to incorporate non-judgmental awareness by just noticing judgment as it comes up and reframing your opinions as facts. There are days where I still struggle with keeping judgment out of my mindfulness practice. For example, I’ve said to myself “This is hard. I’m going to be stuck here forever. I suck at this. Why can’t I stay focused? Is this over yet?” You can see how quickly my thoughts shift from judgment to hopelessness and suffering. Instead, it might be more helpful for me to say something like “My thoughts are wandering to other topics than my breath. The purpose of this exercise is to return to focusing on my breath. Each time my thoughts wander, I return to my breath.” The second one is much kinder and focuses on the facts. Instead of shifting to dread and asking when the exercise will be over, I can focus on the present moment.
Now, it’s your turn to try. Remember, just the facts.