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*Warning: well-deserved strong language ahead!
From across the room, it came: “I do not want to pass judgement.”
I was in yoga therapy teacher training and the instructor had invited us to comment on a fellow student teacher’s work.
I could feel the hair raise on my arms and my brow furrow. Agitation built up in my chest.
The first critical thing I learned when I started taking yoga classes was the practice of “non-judgment.”
I understood it, early on, as a way of treating my body with more kindness and respect. After years of abusing my body through competitive sports, and disrespecting and degrading my body by not listening to its needs, I needed this invitation to sit back and explore sensations without self-judgment.
But as time went on, I realized that there was more to this teaching of non-judgment than just an invitation to explore. The longer I stuck around the yoga world, exposed to the mantras of yogic-based non-judgment, the more it revealed itself to be dogmatic. I now understood it to be: “Don’t think this. Don’t think that.”
The teaching of non-judgment became a hammer I used to pound back any thoughts I had that were not deemed to be ones of “love and light.” And with that hammer, I also pounded on myself for having the thoughts in the first place.
I now found myself in a yoga teacher training, observing a 30-minute dialogue about the dangers of “judging” another student, despite that it was by invitation in a safe and guided learning environment. I listened to the calmed, slowed, yoga-modified voices of the other yoga teachers, now enmeshed in self-righteous shame, guilt, and judgment about passing “judgment.”
And I no longer knew what the fuck was happening.
Judgment is not a choice. The human nervous system is wired to judge—it’s what keeps our body alive. When we have another person’s face in our view, we automatically judge: are they a potential friend or a foe? Are they a potential mate or a threat? It’s part of our autonomic nervous system to judge, and the associated fight, flight, freeze, or fawn action is a direct correlation to what we detect.
Yes, in modern self-help circles, we are taught to override this in favor of always being dialed into compassion, respect, kindness, and above all else: love.
It’s as if we hope, through training judgment out of our body, we will find ourselves in a white bubble of bliss where we are never going to think or feel anything negative again.
Holding a position of “no judgment” is not only not possible, it’s also not desirable. And it’s not even human.
If judgment is “bad,” we’re told the antidote is “love.”
Choosing to “love everyone” is not only forced naivete, but it also historically puts us in positions of danger: getting robbed, assaulted, killed, or taken advantage of. In the modern world, we are more likely to mate with the wrong people, do business with others who our intuition told us not to, and befriend people who ought not be befriended.
We need to lean into judgment and stop telling yoga teachers and students—and people in general—that it is a wrongdoing.
Some things need to be judged. They need to be called out. We need to decide for ourselves where our integrity lies, and what we will and will not stand for. A society of people “not judging” is a society of people easily led into cults, and easily silenced into submission.
Healthy judgment allows us to put up necessary boundaries for ourselves. It allows us to know if a teaching or teacher is right for us. How else are so many teachers making their way to fame while abusing students if they haven’t been grooming their students for years on the teaching of non-judgment?
Can we not see how holding “no judgment” is a position of pure upper-class, white, patriarchal privilege? If we truly never have to judge anyone around us, it means we only ever encounter people just like us.
People of color have always had to keep their judgment ability turned on high. Every white woman is a potential Karen, every police officer a potential Chauvin. What kind of privilege is it to suggest that people who have faced oppression and discrimination their entire lives should simply stop judging?
Women have always had to judge whether men are safe or if they give us the creeps. It is of no benefit to turn off our intuition.
Who in the fuck has the place in life to not judge? Only those who are constantly safe, held, and heard in this society.
Strong feelings are inherent to how we make decisions, set boundaries, and create the life we want to live.
Requiring “no judgment” demands we erase our history and experiences as a way of informing our current situation. One of the core benefits of aging is the opportunity to become wiser: to sort through the stuff of life with our critical thinking, and our judgment, intact. We are freer when we don’t have to think “the best” of people.
Like so many things in our world, “non-judgment” gets put through the black-and-white lens of duality. It’s either on or off. It’s good or bad. We’ve lost so much of our capacity for nuance, and a teaching like non-judgment, in its original form, is about nuance.
We don’t need to be scathing and critical, but the idea of “non-judgment” is one of pretense and self-gaslighting. No matter how many mantras we repeat or Post-it notes we paste on our mirror, we are going to judge.
Let’s ditch the idea of “non-judgment” and instead embrace:
Compassion for others: We don’t know what someone else’s experience is. We don’t need to rip them apart, create stories, or hold them in contempt, but we are free to have a negative judgment of them, if based on truth. We get to choose to create space between us. Compassion for their circumstances and realities, and ours, allow us to be neutral about their actions while also keeping ourselves safe.
Self-compassion: We can hold our own judgments without judging them. An immediate “no” on a date or an immediate “yes” to a new house or apartment is a judgment, and we can honor it as truth without trying to rationalize it or change it. We can hold it compassionately as truth.
Attunement: In order to judge ourselves and others, we need to be energetically attuned, which means aware and engaged in what is happening. This requires paying attention, making eye contact, dropping the multi-tasking, and staying in the energy of what’s in front of us.
Presence: Many of us live in the past or the future and we are not dialed in to what’s happening in the present moment. Most of our negative judgments of ourselves or others are based on material we have gathered at some other point in our life. Can we be present to the experience of the here and now without bringing in stories or triggers from the past, using our life experience as a guide or wizened crone?
Discernment: This is the middle ground between harsh judgment and no awareness. It’s a practice of combing through our minds with an investigative eye, seeking the truth and the heart of the matter. Judgment is natural. Non-judgment is constant berating of ourselves. Discernment sits in the middle, patiently awaiting an answer.
Curiosity: Instead of bashing our thoughts to smithereens, why not explore their origins? Whose thought is this, anyway? A parent’s? Society’s? An ex-lover’s? All of us are the combined efforts of all the people we’ve ever known. Some of the mantras running through our minds have been there for years. Curiosity is the tool we use to explore, loosen, and eventually release the thought.
Love is not the opposite of judgment. We can love and still judge. In fact, judgment might be the highest form of love available—a love that respects the whole humanity of ourselves and each other.
The idea of “non-judgment” has become an ideal state that we are told to achieve, one that brings us one step closer to the coveted “enlightenment,” yet it’s a physical and mental impossibility. Our drive for purity of thought and mind is a type of self-gaslighting where we feel dirty, unclean, and inhumane whenever a non-charitable thought passes through our mind or our body.
In yoga, we learn we can and should move away from stress and strain in the body while moving deeper into stretch and opening. We lift our hearts when we are breathing in; we fold in and protect ourselves when we breathe out.
If this is how yoga teaches us to engage with and move in our bodies, why would we treat our minds any other way? The mind, like the body, requires a comb of discernment, not a hammer.
Judge away. We are wired to do so.