“Instead of seeking meaning and how to live, most people pursue external things to avoid facing themselves and to gain excitement and satisfaction that last only a short while.”
—Kodo Sawaki, one of the greatest Zen masters of the 20th century…
…being judgy (gasp!)
I’ve recently been accused of being a bit judgy on this blog. I’ve grappled with the decision for a while— do I take an agnostic cultural stance that everything is equal, everything is ok, and no circumstances can be adequately judged? I tried this for a while and, quite frankly, the well ran dry. The whole purpose of writing is to take some sort of side. To not do so is, quite frankly, irresponsible. I am not interested in sparing the discomfort of a few sensitive souls in exchange for pretending that nothing matters. The side of non-judgement isn’t really a side; it’s more of a concession. After spending the greater part of the last six years devoted to spiritual growth and learning, restricting my impulses, and bettering myself, I have come to believe in the power of judging. It’s a useful tool for growth. Here’s why:
Judgment comes through observation. Someone who pays attention to the world, sees things, and reflects is going to judge these observations to some degree. The label of “non-judgment” is often applied out of guilt or shame, after one confronts reality and finds that the true assessment doesn’t flatter what one wishes to be true. People believe that they are doing good when they reserve judgment. This reservation is then applied to themselves, and allows for a vast degree of rationalization when dealing with personal matters. Without a judgmental eye, it’s often difficult to find the spark or fire to act with self-discipline. To pretend that one can’t improve is to effectively wither away for the sake of comfort.
Self-discipline is precisely that— the discipline of oneself. It requires a bit of sternness. If you judge too rigidly, you end up becoming a bigot or a delusional conspiracy theorist. You have difficult transcending your subjectivity. But if you judge flexibly and allow yourself to assert your own subjectivity onto your circumstances and act with conviction, you’ll find growth. When we cease to observe and judge, we withdraw from the world. We let life happen to us. This works in a monastery but in the real world it mostly just makes you a mark. Kept in check, the critical eye is of crucial importance in a world that is becoming increasingly soft and complacent.
When we pretend not to judge, we deny ourselves the opportunity to refine the process of judgment. Instead of being crass, harsh or using stereotypes, refined judgment allows us to observe with reservation and contemplation. The more practice we get, the more nuanced the process of reflection becomes. We don’t judge based on petty notions of good or bad, but instead simply sort observable phenomena into a subjective moral calculus. We witness subjective cause-and-effect in such a way that, when recognized, enables us to grow and improve objectively. Everyone does this; to recognize it is a remarkable chance to learn and adapt.
- One observes the negative health effects of a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle and judges oneself against this standard in a constructive way. This is a way to incentivize health and fitness.
- A relative has a cancer scare; one judges this as the obvious effect of smoking and decides to quit to avoid the same fate.
- Someone is being loud and obnoxious in public, walking quickly through a crowd or knocking into people in an unruly way. One resolves not to be like this, to be courteous and decent in the public sphere.
- A wealthy friend who works 24/7 experiences constant unhappiness and neglects his family. One learns from this to be cautious of an imbalanced lifestyle and to remember to keep priorities in check.
Judging what it is that we don’t like is not a bad thing. Somewhere along the line, people began to believe that all judgments are harmful, a practice that seemed to emerge alongside a general agnosticism among people. Those who think that everything is subjective and there is no definitive right or wrong are often the first people to say that we should never judge. This simply isn’t true; you yourself have the ability to sort your experiences and adjust your sails. There’s no quicker way to learn this than to expose yourself to something new and experience a visceral negative response to it. If you’re honest with yourself, you will reconfigure your reality to avoid and transcend the negative stimulus. And you’ll be better for it.
Refining the process of judgment enables people to make positive changes in life. Refusing to judge is, in a sense, refusing to live. It paralyzes people and prevents them from feeling like agents in their own lives. It keeps them behaving in ways that harm them and doesn’t allow them to transcend their circumstances. To judge is to grow. Just be smart about it.