The word “judgement” has many connotations in English. It can have both a negative flavor (as in someone that constantly expresses superiority over others) or positive flavor (as in the rule of law and justice). Judging, comparing, and assessing are all aspects of our mind and the human experience. There is nothing inherently “bad” or destructive in any of these words. However, it is in their application that most of us make mistakes that can become burdensome to ourselves and others, sabotaging our happiness and freedom.
As stated above, no term related to judgement has better connotations that justice. Justice is a human invention, one requiring subtly, deep connection to and knowledge of specifics, and a sense of ethics.
However, most of us spend our lives chained to judgement’s shadow in a reactive state. Chronic reactivity, or being repelled by what we experience, can be a kind of prison. Often we judge in the form of pity, in this case, pity being defined as “empathy” from the castle of superiority. “I feel sorry for people like that,” isn’t a helpful, genuine, or constructive emotion or statement. Only genuine inner reflection can reveal just how pernicious these statements really are in your life. For many of us, pity asks nothing of us.
Compare this to compassion, being defined here as the ability to see oneself in another and feel genuine care and love for that person, and a deep resolve to help remedy the cause of their suffering both in yourself and in the world. This asks you to admit how you are the same, even if that sameness is a stretch, to the suffering person. Compassion stands eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart. Compassion usually requires something from us, either generosity, courage, or vulnerability.
When we have compassion for others, our judgement and comparing seeks only constructive and conscious realizations. For instance, we might see how someone’s bad habits have lead to their misery and we can find resolve to not repeat such a mistake. In this comparison, we are vulnerable because we begin with the recognition that we could have been, or see ourselves in, the person we judge. We resolve to avoid unskillful behavior out of self-respect and a love of others, not out of disgust or superiority.
Thus, as you can see, acting ethically often involves less focus on the results of our actions, and more focus on their deep, personal, and sometimes subconscious motivations and intentions.
Compassion and judgement can also be directed at the self. For many of us, self-judgement is more debilitating than our constant judging of others. In this case, if the judgement is constructive, it won’t appear with constant repetition or malice, which is usually the case. Harmful self-judgement sounds something like: I’m so stupid, why do I always mess up when it matters, I’m so old and ugly, or why bother anymore.
Healthy self-judgment always has a sense of humor, and helps us find clarity in what we want out of life and what we expect from ourselves. Healthy self-judgement compares ourselves to others rarely and only in order to learn skills about how to live, never to inflict pain. Often we can tell what kind of judgement we are engaged in by how our our body feels. If we feel tense, contracted, like a knot, we are probably cutting ourselves or others down. If we feel light, spacious, humorous, and gentle we are most likely living skillfully, reacting consciously, rather than trapped in unconscious, unhelpful patterns of judgement.
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