First non-judgment, then discernment

I’ve been thinking about how to address this subject, which arises often in spiritual communities, most notably when some kind of harm has taken place. The problem of holding non-judgment as a value, while behaving in accordance with basic ethics and morality, and navigating real conflict with real consequences, presents lots of practical problems.

Most often, regretably, the arguments about this issue take place between people of mis-matched levels of spiritual maturity. Some are young and naive, die-hard ‘no judgment” types, while others are more experienced, have a nuanced understanding of how these concepts work together, and are on the road to developing “right vision,” which distinguishes matters with precision rather than blanketing or blurring moral questions with easy answers.

There is a lot of tension that arises when these two levels meet, especially if those who are immature in their practice lack the capacity to gauge the experience or proficiency of others, and more importantly, value it, learn from it, and defer to them. Anyway, I will leave the intricacies of the politics of spirituality for another time. Let me get back to my original subject here.

I want to try to untangle this a little bit, and to explain the usefulness and importance of both sides.

We are all taught initially, over and over, about non-judgment. It is an inner practice (and I say that to distinguish it from external behavioral norms), that is really crucial at the outset of the spiritual journey.

Through non-judgment and acceptance, we seek to create an inner environment that is safe from self-condemnation; essentially disempowering that awful inner critic, and interrupting the cycle of perfectionism via self-abuse. We discover and remove many of the false standards and beliefs against which we measure ourselves, creating a sense of relief from the normal operating of an unconscious system. We want to create an inner sanctuary, that allows all kinds of unpleasant inner truths to come to light, without justification or defense, and without fear of how bad the critic will make us feel to see such things. We also begin loosening the various self-concepts, to make them more malleable and flexible.

I shared a lot in my early posts about acceptance work, which is vital to creating this safe inner space, and all of the material that is illuminated when we try not to judge. When you take an objectively bad thing, like war, or murder for instance, and you try not to judge it, beginning to inquire into what you judge about it exactly, the mind will show you all of your false and silly beliefs and hidden pains and projections wrapped up around those subjects. That’s one side of discovery.

On another side of discovery, we do something of the opposite, we bring all of our judgments freely to the surface, without trying to undo them, or stop them, and we use those to discover a whole series of projections and images we overlay on others. Looking at our own judgments, from a base of non-judgment, helps us to reflect on our own unconscious material and shadow aspects.

In all of these early phases of work and self-discovery, non-judgment is the rule of the game. Whatever arises, whatever we experience, we allow it and do the work of accepting it. Whatever others do or say, we allow it and accept it, bringing awareness most especially to those situations where it feels impossible to accept. It’s very very important to see all of what reacts in resistance and why.

(If this non-judgment is taken to the extreme, it leads to a complete submission and passivity, which enables all kinds of harm to self and other, and becomes highly immoral. Some will then use this non-judgment as an excuse to remain passive, and avoid the growth process and facing all kinds of mature adult responsibilities of life. I won’t go into a discussion of that particular thread here.)

Then, over time, as our spiritual work develops in maturity, we take a step further inward, deeper, where greater ugliness lives. And while we still maintain a safe inner space, a different kind of perspective is brought to bear here, in order to continue the work in a fruitful way.

At this deeper level, we have to start judging again. There is an emerging sense of right and wrong again, just along a different axis, calculated by a different set of criteria.

We call this kind of judgment “discernment,” because it lacks any of the punitive qualities an inner critic might have. We aren’t trying to berate ourselves to become better – that’s not the point, and never works. Instead, to engage in purification work in earnest, we must recognize what is “impure,” and in need of transformation.

The perspective required here is that we look honestly, and recognize truthfully, deeper and deeper, all of our various destructive egotistical drives, fears, pains, desires, vanities, prides, self-deceptions, and we have to make the assessment (the discernment), that those things are harmful, self-destructive, and not to be condoned. They need to be worked on, healed, and transformed. The source pain that creates them needs to be brought out to awareness, expressed, and digested through, so that the surface level expressions and feelings can shift organically into a balanced condition.

This level of work then is what starts to form a new basis for morality, unrelated to what we’ve been taught, but rather guided from within. It becomes something of an essential morality, that is almost entirely focused on motivations and inner currents, rather than external behaviors or expressions. That which is rooted in pain, and seeks external alleviations of that pain, becomes obviously a wrong that needs to be worked through. That which is extreme and out of balance, also because of fear or pain, becomes non-virtuous and in need of work. It is this personal journey of purification, cultivating things like courage, resilience and fortitude, emotional peace, integrity and authenticity, that are the heart of mature spiritual life.

This is complicated to explain in words on a page, because it’s paradoxical, because we don’t have a proper language for the inner landscape, and because it’s entirely relative to where you, the reader, happen to be in your work. If you are relatively new to spiritual practice, don’t worry about any of this, and keep going with the non-judgment view. If you are a seasoned practioner naturally approaching this cusp and wondering what the heck is going on, I’m sure you’ll find the bit below somewhat validating and helpful in your own philosophical sorting.

I came across a piece of a Pathwork Lecture that captures this well. It’s part of a larger discussion of finding real guilt at depth within. And the transition from non-judgment to discernment as the proper inner perspective to take. I’m pasting it below.

(A word of warning – touching into this guilt, the real guilt the lecture is talking about, is catastrophically devastating. It’s noxious core stuff, sitting at the very base of the personality, and will cause all kinds of psychological ungrounding and severe physical symptoms when disturbed. Please exercise significant caution when approaching it.).

In my last lecture we discussed real guilt. Quite a long time ago I explained the difference between real guilt and false guilt, but at that time it was not possible to go into the subject in more detail, because you were not ready then, my friends. Many areas of your psychic life had to be explored and understood before it was possible to face and come to terms with the real guilt that always lies behind the false one.

However, not all of my old friends will immediately be able to go into this phase of the pathwork. Sooner or later you will come to this point, provided you proceed in your sincere endeavors. Once you have groped your way through the maze of your various images and misconceptions, you will be able to come face to face with your real guilt.

In all the time we have spent together, we have essentially worked through two major phases in which, of course, there are some subdivisions. When we first started I told you about the importance of self-purification. I said that this, indeed, is the real meaning of life and the way of self-fulfillment. Then came the next phase, in which we quite deliberately shied away from even using such a word as purification; we were concerned with looking at the self without the thought of “right” or “wrong.”  There was a good reason for this.

The most difficult thing for a human being is to face the lower self, and it is in connection with the lower self that real guilt exists. You go to any length to avoid facing the lower self. Perhaps you are capable and willing to face parts of it, yet certain other parts you are absolutely unwilling to accept. You are so frightened by the possible implications, and so eager to be better than you can possibly be at the moment, that you would rather produce much worse false guilt, than accept the tiniest real guilt belonging to the area of the lower self that you are unwilling to tolerate. This condition is quite general and very important to recognize. It is still vastly underestimated.

In order to become capable of facing your lower self in its entirety, you must first learn to accept and to forgive yourself. For that very reason we remained for a considerable time in what we might term the second major phase on our path together. Accepting and forgiving means to recognize and then stop the tendency to moralize with oneself, to understand the harm of perfectionism. This may seem quite paradoxical. For, on the one hand I invite you to face your lower self, your real guilts, to make restitution for them and to purify yourself, while, on the other hand, I emphasize how dangerous perfectionism, self-condemnation, moralizing, and false guilt feelings are.

You see, my dearest friends, to the degree that perfectionism and self-condemnation exist, to that degree you cannot accept your lower self. For in that perfectionism, as I said many times before, you will drive yourself into a false perfection that is superimposed and therefore destructive. Only when you have the courage and humility to be what you are, to calmly accept yourself as you are, will you have the resiliency to accept the lower self as it actually is. Only then can you accept the real guilt and make up for it. Accepting the real guilt makes it possible to accept your real values, even to become profoundly aware of them. This is why it is so important — for as long as one deals with these personality levels — to shy away from any implications of sinfulness, indeed from anything that might even remotely appear as condemnation, so as not to encourage the tendency of perfectionism in yourself.

On the whole, you are ready now to proceed a step further. Some people may be very near the phase in which they become organically ready to face their real guilt, while others may still be struggling to recognize their false guilt. They are still hindered by self-condemnation, by weaknesses and the paralysis of their faculties, by false impressions and concepts, and even by the opposite of self-condemnation, namely, self-justification. They are caught in their accusations of others, or in a kind of weakness that allows others to exploit and take advantage of them. Such inability to assert one’s self by standing up for one’s rights may appear to be the very opposite of evil. Even if you have recognized that such submissiveness is unhealthy, emotionally you cannot yet experience the strong connection of this paralysis with unrecognized facets of the lower self, about which you feel real guilt. Those friends who are not quite ready to come to this deeper core will get there too, if only they persevere. But to force the facing of real guilt before the readiness manifests naturally in your private work, would either find you completely closed up, or else it might crush you.

Resiliency in accepting all the aspects of your lower self can be cultivated even before your personal pathwork leads you to them. It is not as difficult to achieve as my earlier words may indicate. Self-exploration and facing lesser “evils” make the psyche strong enough to face very unflattering truths. Such strength can be cultivated by the right kind of meditation and thought process, and the proper observation of your reaction whenever you come close to this phase. When you observe your oversensitivity and see how easily hurt you are, and how you give in to the temptation to pamper yourself by the very strong reaction of hurt you produce, then you have an indication of how you, too, shy away from fully facing your lower self.

Question yourself:  “Do I wish to pamper myself?  Do I wish to be in self-pity?  Or can I just calmly look at myself with the negative tendencies that exist side by side with the constructive ones?”  If you cultivate your wish for self-knowledge daily and mean it sincerely, your extreme reaction to certain destructive tendencies, which you have so far only vaguely sensed, will yield to a calm observation of yourself. This very attitude is the prerequisite to creating the resiliency needed to face yourself in utter truthfulness. It requires you to maintain a sense of proportion, or even better, the honest acknowledgement that you do tend to lose your sense of proportion.

When you approach certain trends you are not ready to accept in yourself, you produce, almost artificially, an overreaction of despair, hurt, self-abasement, or a feeling of injustice. You forget, at least emotionally, that it is very possible for one to be a decent and good person and simultaneously the opposite in some respects. You fluctuate between the extremes of either being good or bad, rather than seeing both the good and the bad. It is this “and” instead of the “or” that you have to keep in mind. If you thus continue facing areas of yourself you have never faced before, the experience will not be a crushing one at all. You need to come to that, my friends, if you really want to become healthy and strong.