Discernment vs Judgment
I’ve noticed a tendency for mind-body-spirit books (and pithy inspirational FaceBook graphics) to demonise negative thought–or else make it seem as if one should go through life only seeing the positive in people and situations. To see anything “negative” is to show that we possess that trait in ourselves, or so the quotes go. I’ve started seeing the, ahem, negative side of this line of advice, and it’s quite possible that it comes from my failure of understanding it properly (in which case, it’s one I share with many), or if the authors truly do mean that we should all go through life not-seeing the dysfunctional relationships and abuses of power around us. The biggest danger I see is falling into the trap where we cannot see our own flaws, or to lose honesty with ourselves (because of avoidance of so-called “negative” thoughts and opinions), or staying in a destructive situation because to see it as such is to be “negative” about it–when it’s just the truth.
Some clarification–or more clarification–needs to made about what kind of negativity is to be avoided, because sometimes, a shitty situation really is just that, and no amount of inspirational glitter can cover it up. Maybe someone is in an abusive situation. Maybe there’s a person (or system) around exploiting the weak. It’s not BAD to notice these things–in fact, I wonder how we’re supposed to ignore them. Fighting our own natural observations and instincts is surely a losing battle, and I’ll argue that it is discernment, a power that helps us decide what’s right or wrong for us, a right we’re all entitled to as sentient beings, and that serves to protect us. Judgment? Now that is something different.
Discernment tells you whether or not something is right for you–the company of those who tear you down, a dangerous situation, choosing to refuse drinking water that is unsafe. Judgment is needless condemnation beyond what you need to decide your own actions.
So here are the things I’ve noticed come up again and again, either in conversations, dharma or meditation classes, or in the right books where the authors DO tackle the finer points of what negativity to avoid:
It isn’t wrong to notice, say, an act of theft, lying, or cheating. It isn’t even wrong to call out those acts.
It isn’t wrong to make decisions to protect oneself from such further acts upon oneself. To allow it to happen again and again is one’s personal choice. But should a person do so, it should be a choice, and one that they are happy with. If they’re not, they should have the liberty to make the decision to get out of the situation, ideally without being labeled or (ironically) condemned as being negative and judgmental.
This should all be common sense.
All that said, I think it’s counter-productive to dwell on the acts of theft after they’ve happened. It is counter-productive to dream up punishments for the thief (unless you’re the disciplinarian or court judge). And it’s a waste of time and headspace to wish hell upon the thief and condemn them forever, to say they will never change, are utterly irredeemable, and deserve to be eaten alive by maggots. It’s all these things that strike me as the negativity to avoid, not the initial observations and decisions to protect oneself.
One teacher of mine said it best: Practice compassion, but do not practice idiot compassion. Love, even universal, unconditional love, does not mean suffering at the hands of another–instead it can mean loving everyone as one loves himsmelf, and not allowing harm to come to oneself, and not allowing another to harm. All this still falls under discernment, and still falls under love and compassion, and all the other happy FaceBook quotes.
I just wish someone would explain this all so I don’t keep running into people who lose all context.