Health Matters: Non-judgment: Embracing reality

The Big Kahuna. The mother of all mindfulness practices. Get this one and you immediately move on to the bonus round

By Mark Nash | Contributor

We humans, and especially those of us raised in a Western culture, just love to put things into categories. It helps us to make sense of things and creates order out of chaos. And our favorite categories fall into the realm of good and bad, or right and wrong. We are led to believe that by making these distinctions we can have orderly lives complete with clear instructions on how to live them.

The problem from a mindfulness perspective is that these distinctions are almost entirely arbitrary. Naming something good or bad is simply a matter of opinion or taste or…judgment. In reality, things don’t fall into these neat categories naturally—we put them there. Or to quote Shakespeare, “… there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Obviously some legal and social bounds must be observed. But when it comes to the behavior of those around us, we often make judgements based on our opinions and preferences rather than some objective truth about the way things “should” be.

And then there are our own thoughts, feelings and actions, and these are the ones on which we often pass the harshest judgment. How do we make choices about how to live our lives if we’re not making these clear distinctions between good and bad?

Stuck in traffic II

Mindfulness practice takes a pragmatic approach

Contemplating an action? Rather than asking yourself if it’s the “right” thing to do, ask instead whether it’s a useful thing to do. Does it move you closer to meeting your goals? Does it align with your core values?

What about feelings, though? We’ve all had those times when we think, “Well, I shouldn’t feel so upset about this.” Or when we get angry, we think, “Oh, it’s wrong to feel this way.”

The main thing to remember about feelings is that we have very little control over what emotions show up, and so to blame or judge ourselves for our feelings is a little like judging the weather when it rains. So instead of telling ourselves that some feelings are better or worse (more opinions), the most factual thing we can say is, I prefer some emotions over others. No right or wrong, just personal preferences.

And then there are thoughts, which are both the source and object of most judgment. We use our minds to tell ourselves that some of our thoughts are good and some are bad. And here, mindfulness again suggests a pragmatic approach by asking, Is this thought useful? If so, then keep on thinking it! And if not, maybe we can substitute another thought that would be more useful.

So, to use the example of driving in traffic, our good/bad brain tells us that being stuck in traffic is a terrible thing, and it shouldn’t be this way. If we can switch to a mindful state, we might say, I’m sitting in a car, moving towards my destination. In this moment, there is nothing wrong, and since I can’t do anything to change my circumstances, I accept my current situation, which will eventually change on its own, as things inevitably do.

Eliminate the word “should”

If there’s one practice you can engage in which will help you avoid judgement—of yourself or others, of the world—it’s to eliminate the word “should.” Rather than applying the arbitrary standard that this word suggests, try replacing it with a statement of preference. That is, instead of saying, “I (or they) should behave in this particular way,” you could say, “I want to behave in this way.” For example, instead of “I should exercise more,” note how much more empowering it is to say, “I want to exercise more.”

Or rather than saying “The world should be (fill in the blank),” you could note that you wish the world were different than it is but that wishing won’t make it so, and that accepting the world as it is leads to decreased struggles. (Of course, you could also choose to do something to make changes, but that’s another subject.)

Accept reality as it is

An attitude of non-judgment, or acceptance of reality as it is rather than as we wish it were, is the capstone and encapsulation of mindfulness practice. When we can be fully aware of our own circumstances, stay connected to the here and now and accept things as they are, we find that life becomes a whole lot less stressful. Looking at our lives through the lens of mindfulness, we release resentments of the perceived flaws in ourselves and the world. In its place we cultivate gratitude for what we have and appreciation for who we are. And therein lies our path to greater peace, fulfillment and wellbeing.

This is the second in a series of three articles about mindfulness practice; the first appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of The News. Mark Nash lives in Charlotte and has a psychotherapy practice in Burlington. For questions or comments about this article you can contact him at