Recently, a participant in one of my mindfulness courses used the word triage to describe the process of non-judgment in our practice. I thought it was a beautiful choice of words. Non-judgment is one of the more misunderstood (and sometimes challenging) aspects of mindfulness practice. What she was suggesting with this choice of words was that, when we practice mindfulness, we’re looking at all that’s there without judgment. We’re simply seeing what needs attention, how much and in what way.
I think her comparison makes a lot of sense. Practicing non-judgment is not unlike what a physician does when a patient comes in with a stomach ache. The doctor goes down the list of possible symptoms, determining what might or might not be relevant to the presenting problem. She’s making a list, noting, without rushing to diagnosis. A good doctor listens, fully present. She doesn’t jump ahead or draw conclusions without observing what’s there. She pays attention. And, she waits if she needs to.
When we invite non-judgment into our mindfulness practice, we’re seeing all the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that arise. We are, indeed, triaging them – giving them just enough attention, but not allowing any one experience to take up all the space. “What’s this here?” we’re saying. Seeing each experience that comes up as just that – an experience, no more, no less. A thought as a thought. A feeling as a feeling. A physical sensation as a physical sensation.
One common misconception around non-judgment is that it literally means we don’t judge. However, shutting off judgment completely is not possible. When we practice engaging with acceptance rather than judgment, we pay attention to whatever arises. We don’t pretend that we don’t feel anger, frustration or disappointment. We don’t convince ourselves that everything is perfect or refuse to recognize that something upsetting, or even tragic, has happened. We’re not pretending that the ache or pain in our back isn’t there. We see all of these things – triaging them, making a note of their existence, acknowledging them. Non-judgment is about greeting each of these elements without becoming lost in the story about what they mean or labeling each moment as good, bad or in-between.
The metaphor of triage can be extended to other aspects of non-judgment as well. I think it can help us deepen our understanding of the benefits of our mindfulness practice and the essential element of non-judgment.
When we practice non-judgment, we begin to gain clarity around what needs attention and what doesn’t. We may, for example, notice a thought. Some thoughts might be – He’s making a bad decision. She’s angry at me. I’m a horrible person. We might also notice emotions associated with those thoughts – I’m worried he’s going to get hurt. I’m afraid this friendship is broken. I’m sad that I’ve reacted that way. Perhaps we also become aware of physical sensations in this moment – I have a headache. There is tension in my neck. I have a knot in my stomach.
In our rather typical, not-all-that-mindful, way of reacting to these experiences, we might become completely spun up into one of these stories. One thought leads to the next. One emotion rolls into the following. A physical sensation spreads larger and stronger until our body is exhausted. However, non-judgmentally triaging here gives us clarity to see each experience for what it is, detached from the story.
Taking a deep breath, we may say – I’m having the thought he is making a poor choice. I’m noticing the emotion of worry and along with that I feel a headache. I notice I have the thought that I don’t know what to do or how to help. When I have that thought I feel a sense of sadness. I notice the physical sensation of wanting to cry and I notice tears on my face.
This practice enables us to see more clearly what is happening in the moment. In practicing non-judgment, we offer ourselves the gift to become both aware of and unstuck from our (most often mindless) habits. This practice invites clarity – a clarity that can then help us navigate uncertain or complicated relationships and experiences. Instead of stewing or reacting without awareness, we gather what we need to know in order to respond.
To continue with our metaphor, non-judgment provides us greater clarity on what a doctor might call a treatment plan. It invites us to ask – What do I need to do here to respond to this situation in a way that reflects my most engaged, ethical or compassionate self?
A Deeper Sense of Compassion
There is a natural human inclination to judge what we see within ourselves and others. This is no less true just because we practice mindfulness. Sometimes mindfulness practitioners even notice they’re judging themselves for not practicing non-judgment! It’s quite the circle!
However, non-judging doesn’t mean we never judge, but rather that we see judgment for what it is – a collection of responses, opinions and evaluations of what is present when we pay attention in the moment.
This is why the definition of mindfulness that I use includes three parts – (1) paying attention to what is here in this moment, (2) non-judgmentally and (3) with compassion for self and others. To me, the compassion component is important. I find it difficult to ask people to pay attention to what they see, without offering them the reminder that whatever comes up can be greeted with love and compassion.
This is the part of our triage where we wrap a bandage around the ache or pain. It’s the stage where we offer a warm blanket or gently lay our hands at our heart-center. Our mindfulness practice may slow us down enough that, when the dust clears, we notice difficult things. But, it is also our practice that can offer the love and support we need. With time, we even begin to see the opportunity to offer compassion to others.
Ideas for Your Practice
I want to reiterate what I said at the top of this blog post – practicing non-judgment can feel really difficult. In fact, it is simply not possible to stop judging. It’s important to be able to respond to danger, to plan ahead, to make decisions and to relate to uncertainty. All of these daily life events require us to make some level of judgment. However, what we perhaps need less of is the running narrative in our heads – the one that constantly evaluates every moment. Practicing non-judgment invites the choice to see things differently. The triage metaphor reminds us that taking note of what comes up may be more accessible than we first think when we hear the word non-judgment.
Here are some ways you can try this in your own life.
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of training your brain to pay attention in the moment. When you sit in stillness and silence, you become aware of the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations you’re experiencing. When you engage non-judgmentally with those experiences you see them like a scientist (or like a physician triaging a patient). You make the choice to observe your experiences without letting them run amok. When I notice a strong thought, emotion or physical sensation during meditation, I like to say in my mind, “Oh, that’s happening. What is that?” Consider trying this one to get you started. You might also check out some of my guided meditations.
Even when we’re not meditating, we can still practice creating space for non-judgment. One way to do that is by naming what you notice. Let’s say you’re having the thought, “He always loads the dishwasher that way! It’s such a mess!” Noticing that thought, you can pause, take a deep breath and say to yourself, “That’s a thought.” You can take another breath and perhaps name an emotion, “This is impatience. This is frustration.” All the while, simply breathing and naming what you see – no more, no less. Tuning in to your experiences this way can give you the space to respond differently than you might otherwise do.
One of my favorite things to say to myself or a loved one is, “Sometimes that happens.” It’s a simple exercise in compassion where we acknowledge that something difficult has happened, or is happening, while also inviting a level of perspective. If I feel rushed for time and I speak harshly to my kids and then feel guilty later I’ll apologize, of course, but I first say to myself, “It’s okay. You felt rushed and short-tempered. Sometimes that happens.” If one of my children has a conflict with a friend and is feeling sad, I’ll say, “Yes. That’s so difficult. Sometimes that happens that we disagree with our friends.” The process of both acknowledging and normalizing is a form of non-judgment that reminds us that all sorts of things happen in life and whether we label them good or bad, we’re still deserving of love.
Now More Than Ever
It’s been a really, really rough year for a lot of people. At times, it feels like the entire world is under a blanket of blah. Your ability to triage what’s happened, to non-judgmentally see the ups and downs, the setbacks and stumbles, is a gift you can offer yourself as you begin a new year. Everyone has the capacity to do this – even if it does take time and practice. If you’d like to understand the concept of non-judgment even better, check out this video with mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn.
As you move to wrap up 2020 and consider what 2021 might look like, how might you practice non-judgment? Share your thoughts in the comments or schedule a time to talk more about how I can support you in bringing the important practices of mindfulness into your daily life in the upcoming year.