When we practice investigating judgments and diffusing them we can learn to choose how we look at things and react to them.
Of all the wondrous array of thoughts that are possible, negative judgments about ourselves and others are one of the mind’s compulsive obsessions. It’s as if the human brain has a hyperactive gland that secretes judgments, just like the adrenal gland secretes adrenaline. Negative and reactive judgments can arise instantaneously and in regard to almost anything. Sometimes they focus almost exclusively on you, and sometimes almost exclusively on others.
Exercise: Investigating Judgments
If you allow critical judgments to remain unexamined, they can come to occupy many of your thoughts and emotions, and even your dreams. But if you examine them, you’ll find repetitive themes that are connected to earlier life events and discover that even your judgments regarding others are often rooted in self-judgment or events that happened earlier in your life—sometimes when you were very young. It’s a good practice to investigate all of your judgments, and this practice will help you do exactly that. Give yourself about thirty minutes for this inquiry.
- Settle into the moment. Spend at least five minutes practicing mindful breathing.
- Recall a judgment. Next, see if you can remember a strong judgment you’ve had about yourself or someone else in the last few days.
- Take note of the sensations in the body. As you feel into the judgment, notice if there’s a physical component—something you feel in your body. Spend a few minutes investigating the way your body feels as you reflect on this judgment.
- Explore the thoughts accompany the judgment. Was there anything automatic in the way this judgment came up? For example, was the judgment a reaction to something or someone? Spend at least five minutes investigating the thoughts that arise in relation to this judgment.
- Explore the emotions that accompany the judgment. For example, some judgments may call forth anger, whereas others evoke shame and yet others evoke compassion. Spend some time investigating the emotions that arise in relation to this judgment.
- Notice your observing mind. Notice that the part of you that is investigating this judgment is not itself judging anything; it’s simply observing bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions with balance and curiosity.
- Recall whether this kind of judgment has come up before. Does it come up often? If so, do you have any sense of why you have this strong and automatic reaction? Does it isolate you from others or make you feel more connected? Can you sense where it comes from? Please spend a few minutes reflecting on the historical associations related to this judgment.
- Write about some of the ideas that just came up. Take a little time to write about what came up for you as you investigated your judgments. What sorts of physical sensations and emotions were associated with different judgments? Did you discover any associations between judgments and earlier life events?
If you allow critical judgments to remain unexamined, they can come to occupy many of your thoughts and emotions, and even your dreams.
Try this exercise the next time you find you’re having a strong critical reaction toward someone. See if you can notice what happens in your body, how your body feels. Then imagine that you’re leaning toward the other person with your index finger pointing at the person and a tense, mean look on your face (sometimes you might even actually catch yourself in this posture). Appreciate that when you point at others, you have three other fingers pointed back at yourself. Follow them back to yourself and investigate how this judgment toward someone else has something to do with you. Many judgmental thoughts about others have their origins in painful events earlier in life. These kinds of judgments call for deep personal non-judgmental inquiry.
Judgments are like bombs that can be triggered by life events. Imagine that you’re in the grocery store and see a mother angrily slap her daughter’s leg, and the child looks humiliated when she sees you watching. Or imagine that someone cuts in front of you near an intersection, so that you get stuck at the stoplight while he drives on. Picture a scenario in which your spouse criticizes your house cleaning. These types of events can trigger strong judgments and anger.
Negative judgments can explode in our minds at any moment and overwhelm us with immediate and emotionally overwhelming condemnations of others or ourselves. The body contracts, blood pressure rises, and the breath moves up into the chest and becomes shallow and rapid. The fight-or-flight response has been triggered, and an urge to say or do something floods you. In these moments, regrettable words can leap out of your mouth and injure others, and even yourself. Many of us have extremely short fuses when similar triggering events occur again and again, and our reactions can be like bombs that go off almost instantaneously.
Although we’re usually unaware of our projections, we can learn a great deal about them if we’re willing to investigate our reactive judgments with an intention to defuse them.
The bombs with the shortest fuses are often found in our relationships with other people. Politicians and strangers in traffic are a common source of small, frequent reactions that come and go like firecrackers. But our love relationships can set off huge explosive reactions that can create enormous suffering for years. Careless words can cut deeply and leave scars that never go away. Because love relationships are so intimate, they have the capacity to call forth emotional reactions that are tied to earlier traumatic interpersonal events. This is one reason why these relationships are so rife with projections. Projections are ego defense mechanisms that operate mostly unconsciously and impose on current relationships the emotional injuries from earlier close relationships, such as with your mother, your father, or your first love. Although we’re usually unaware of our projections, we can learn a great deal about them if we’re willing to investigate our reactive judgments with an intention to defuse them.
Exercise: Defusing Judgments
This practice will help you strengthen your ability to defuse judgments by bringing awareness and compassion to aversive feelings. An inextricable part of developing this skill is to deliberately make contact with difficult feelings. However, if at any point this mindful exploration becomes too disturbing, return to feeling your breath in your belly. This is a home base you can return to throughout the exercise until you feel grounded, and then you can be with the difficult feeling once again and try to stay with it. Also, please note that defusing a judgment doesn’t mean getting rid of it; it means neutralizing it or removing its sting.
- Sit comfortably and begin by bringing your full attention to the breath coming and going in your belly. If you like, place your hand on your belly and feel it rising with the in breath and falling with the out breath. Stay with this practice as long as you like before proceeding.
- Recall the judgment you explored in the previous exercise, or any other judgment that you’d like to explore and defuse. First note who or what you were judging. Notice the reactive thoughts and emotions connected to the judgment, including any stories, beliefs, or memories that emerge. What are you judging about this event and the people involved in it? Be open to and welcome the emotions that arise in this exploration, and respond to these feelings with kindness and self-compassion. Note that these feelings and memories are connected to the judgment yet separate from it.
- Feel the bodily sensations connected to the memories and emotions that came up as you considered your judgment, and move back and forth between these sensations and the thoughts and emotions a few times. Notice the difference between the mental formations (thoughts, emotions, memories) and the sensory formations (experiences of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste). In this way, you can use the body to anchor in the here and now and defuse di cult thoughts and emotions, removing some of their charge.
- Notice your observing mind. Shift away from focusing on the judgment and the mental and physical phenomena associated with it and take a few minutes to reflect on the part of you that just explored these mental, emotional, and physical states—a part of your consciousness you can think of as the observing or witnessing awareness. Notice that the part of you that is aware of judging is curious but not itself judgmental. Awareness can notice the judging and the mental and physical phenomena associated with it without getting caught up in them. As you reflect on this awareness, notice if your heart softens in any way and you feel a little less critical.
- From this perspective you can extend love and compassion to yourself for whatever comes up for you in this mindful reflection. You may also extend compassion and loving-kindness to whomever you may have been judging. What are the words and gestures you would like to offer to yourself for any pain or unhappiness that came up? What would you say to someone you love who was feeling this way?
- Notice what happens in your body and mind as you offer these expressions of compassion and loving-kindness. Pay attention to what comes up for you physically, mentally, and emotionally, and look for connections between mental events and their emotional or physical counterparts. For example, self-compassion may create a feeling of release in the chest, or self-forgiveness may allow the belly to soften.
- Return to conscious breathing, bringing your full attention to the breath coming and going in your belly for a few moments before concluding this exercise.
- Take some time to write about the thoughts and feelings you experienced in this exercise. Write about your reflections on the questions above as specifically as possible. Bring particular attention to reactive judgments and any historical associations they may have in your life, as well as any sensations associated with the judgments you worked with. What words of self-compassion and loving-kindness came up for you in this exercise? How did the sensations associated with judgments change when you offered yourself words of loving-kindness and compassion?
Sometimes our thoughts and feelings create reactive judgments simply because we refuse to acknowledge or feel them.
Wisdom grows from the “one step removed” kind of awareness cultivated by this practice. Indeed, simply naming a thing (“judgment”) is a powerful first step toward defusing it. Sometimes our thoughts and feelings create reactive judgments simply because we refuse to acknowledge or feel them.
This article was adapted from Dr. Bob Stahl’s and Steve Flowers’ book, Living with Your Heart Wide Open.