Is Being Nonjudgmental Nonfunctional?

By David Sable

Many of us have encountered the often quoted definition of mindfulness from John Kabat-Zinn: “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” We may take that last part to mean we have to stop making judgments if we want to be mindful. Do we give up judging what’s right and what’s wrong while we are practicing mindfulness meditation? How could that work? Even if we could stop making judgments how would we know if we are paying attention in the right way? And how could being nonjudgmental work in daily life?

The mind typically moves quickly to compare experience with memories and make judgments. When it does that, we are generally not aware of our whole experience in the present. We attend mostly to familiar details that reinforce past patterns. We become absorbed in our thoughts. We may not notice the raw sensory experiences, details in the environment, or the underlying felt sense in the body that comes before we label what is happening.

Whether we then make a judgment or not, it is that initial awareness that we are becoming familiar with in mindfulness meditation practice. That’s what’s new. We don’t have to try to stop thoughts; we open to our whole experience. That initial awareness is just being present with our whole experience. If the mind moves quickly to a judgment – “I’m doing this wrong, I’m not supposed to think’ – we notice that and also gently allow our attention to open. Some people benefit from the instruction to “let your attention drop down, into the body.” We include what we know in the body, underneath the words running through our mind. This gentle expansion of attention opens us toward the whole situation as it is, before our attention fixates on any judgment. It is an anchor to the present. In that moment there is no struggle to change anything. There is no rejection, nothing to deny or stop; there is just being there in greater clarity of our whole experience. In that moment we are being nonjudgmental.

To become more familiar with that clear awareness we apply meditation techniques that are anchors to the present moment, such as returning attention to the breath. We notice we were momentarily absorbed in thoughts. Then we return to the breath so that we re-gain open awareness of our whole experience. Without trying to change anything the repeated pattern of returning to the breath loosens the fixation on our judgments.

We may rest in the wholeness of our experience or we may have new thoughts, but we know them differently. The thoughts are not so solid and we can see our whole situation more clearly. We are not losing our ability to discriminate; we are gaining clarity about the whole.

Some critics of mindfulness practice maintain that it could lead to a kind of amoral position, an especially dangerous situation in everyday life situations. It’s as if nothing is right and nothing is wrong and anything goes. This is a misinterpretation of mindfulness. We are not suppressing or cutting off thoughts or judgments; we are expanding our awareness of things as they are. We can go on to make judgments and act based on what is actually happening. Instead of judgments based mostly on the past, we make judgments from a place of clarity about the present: mindfulness in action.

For example, one time I was sitting on a chartered bus traveling to a conference. The person next to me introduced himself and explained where he was from. I noticed I was making all kinds of snap judgments. When I allowed my awareness to open I noticed this was habitual mind at work and my felt sense was telling me something quite different. The more I listened “on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” the more the judgments shifted and I became genuinely curious. We then engaged in a conversation that could never have happened if I had been absorbed in my initial judgments.

In the basic mindfulness meditation practice, judgments are just thoughts, and we train our mind for clarity and awareness. In daily life, mindfulness includes suspending premature judgment so that we can see the situation more clearly, grounded by our whole experience in the present moment. Strangely, being nonjudgmental leads to better judgment.


David Sable, PhD, is a consultant and trainer in mindfulness applied to leadership development and innovation. He teaches applied mindfulness as a secular practice to professionals in universities, government, and the private sector and has worked with management consultants for over 20 years.

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