When my son was younger, he loved to play with trains. He would build elaborate train stations all over the house, and I would often find multi-car trains strewn across the floor. This created obstacles courses requiring considerable skill and attention to navigate. I do not possess such skills. And my attention was often elsewhere. You can guess what happened. “Ouch!”
My tendency was to say, “Nehemiah, clean up your mess! You are so inconsiderate! Don’t you think about anyone else?” Notice the implicit and explicit judgments in these statements. Arranging toys in this way is messy rather than creative. My son is self-centered. He should fix the problem.
Now, it was also possible for me to say, “Nehemiah, I see that you are playing with your trains. I’ll need to pay attention to where I am stepping. We are having company for dinner, so please put the trains away before they arrive.” Here, we have the same facts on the ground, but a very different response.
This suggests that it is not reality that is the problem, but rather the judgments we make about it. When I view reality from an egocentric perspective, my perception is limited and I see only what pertains to the maintenance of my self-regard. When I am viewing reality from a God-centric perspective, there is no judgment. I simply act from a place of wide-open awareness - “big mind” - rather than react unconsciously.
It is difficult to act without layering judgments upon what is there in front of us. Stepping on toy trains simply means that there are toy trains on the floor. To add to that experience a judgment about my son’s character and an expectation about what he should do is neither necessary nor helpful. It only compounds the pain of a stubbed toe with emotional suffering for both of us. Such judgments are a function of ourselves rather than of our experience of reality.
The great spiritual teachers tell us to drop our judgments because they are rooted in the “little mind,” our self-centered ego. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2) “Let none find fault in others. Let none see omissions and commissions in others. But let one see one’s own acts, done and undone.” (Dhammapada, v. 50) It is important for us to become aware of our tendency to judge others, and to acknowledge the consequences.
I used to think that Jesus’ warning about judgment was scary: don’t judge others or God will judge you! Now I realize he is talking about how we judge ourselves, as well as how we judge others. The judgments we make of others reflect our negative self-image. We project this negativity on to others to make ourselves feel better. It perpetuates a vicious cycle of judgments.
As the Buddha says, the point is not to judge but rather to see. Charlotte Joko Beck suggests that, “Whenever we say a person’s name, it’s useful to notice whether we have stated more than a fact. For example, the judgment ‘she’s thoughtless’ goes beyond the facts. The facts are, she did what she did – for example, she said she’d call me, and she didn’t. That she was thoughtless is my own negative judgment, added onto the fact. We will find ourselves making such judgments over and over.” (Nothing Special: Living Zen, p. 104)
In his song, “Say,” John Mayer expresses the effort it takes to free our language from such self-centered preoccupations:
Take all of your wasted honor
Every little past frustration
Take all of your so-called problems,
Better put 'em in quotations
Say what you need to say
It starts with noticing how we respond to the trains on the floor. We practice opening ourselves to the compassionate response in any given situation, patiently waiting for our minds to settle until they are clear of the judgments that muddy them. Then we know intuitively how to act from the perspective of “big mind,” even when dealing with challenging relationships and circumstances.
Dropping our judgments isn’t easy, but with practice we begin to experience relief from needless suffering. We learn to say what we need to say: words that mirror reality without ego, judgment, or expectations, words that come from a place of compassion, rooted in freedom rather than fear.
Even if your hands are shaking
And your faith is broken
Even as your eyes are closing
Do it with a heart wide open
Say what you need to say
It takes courage to say what we need to say – and discernment to say only what needs saying.