Diana Winston has been involved with IMS’s Young Adult Retreat since 1993. She teaches dharma to teenagers and adults, and is currently training with Jack Kornfield as a vipassanā teacher. Her upcoming book, due out from Perigee Press in Summer 2003, is called Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens. She is also the founder of the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE) Program.
Tonight I am going to talk about something that many of us deal with, especially in our teenage years: self-judgment. Here we are in retreat, which is a kind of laboratory for looking closely at what’s happening in our bodies and minds. A retreat is a great place to observe self-judgment, and it’s a place to learn how to relate to these old habits in new ways. I’ll talk about how we can work with self-judgment and move from it into fully being ourselves.
Since you’ve been sitting on the cushion for a while now, I’m sure you’ve experienced a lot of judgments that either put you down or build you up. We experience judgments as on-going chatter in the mind: “I’m not very good at this; the person next to me is better than me. But I’m better than the person in front of me. That person has a much nicer outfit than I do. My back isn’t straight at all!” I’ve had thoughts like this on retreats. When we’re home we have judgments that come up all the time, too: “I’m too fat. I’m too thin. I’m not attractive. I’m bad at school. I’m good at school.”
These voices seem like they are on automatic pilot in our head. A fourteen-year-old boy told me that every time he doesn’t do well on a test, a voice inside his head says, “You’re so stupid.” I wonder if you can relate to this? If somebody said to you, “You are stupid and a failure,” you would probably be shocked that they would say something like that. But rarely are we shocked when we say the same thing to ourselves. Actually we say some pretty awful things to ourselves, and we think it’s normal to say them.
Where do these voices come from? They are voices that have been conditioned into us. They may have come from our family, when our parents said things like, “You’re just not doing it right. You’ll never be as good as your older sister.” Or maybe they’re from friends, or teachers at school. We also live in a culture that is incredibly superficial, that gives us messages that we are supposed to be thin, beautiful, successful and rich. It’s really painful, because most of us don’t fit the standards of what society says we are supposed to be.
Now, it is also important to differentiate between judgment and discernment. Discernment is something that recognizes what is happening and knows it to be what it is. For instance, if you get on a scale and you look at your weight and you say, “I weigh 110 pounds.” That’s discernment. But if you then go on to say “Oh no, I’m fat. I’m disgusting. I weigh 110 pounds.” That’s a judgment. We have to be careful not to confuse these two. Discernment just recognizes things and we know them to be true. But negative judgment has a slight layer of aversion, or of wanting something to be different.
We can also call judgment “comparing mind.” Sometimes we compare what is actually happening now with our imagination of what is supposed to be happening. “I’m supposed to come to IMS and all my problems will be solved. I’ll figure out everything about my life and everyone will love me.” But if that doesn’t happen, then we feel bad. We feel bad when we are meditating because of the comparisons of what happened last time (“Remember that bliss!”) or what we think will happen next time (“Maybe no pain?”), or what should be happening now but isn’t happening (“I can’t concentrate!”).
The Buddha had a word for comparison, the word māna, which means pride or ego or thinking too much about ourselves. A lot of our judgments say “I’m greater than, I’m lesser than, or I’m equal to this or that,”—and this is just māna— pride or ego coming up in the mind. The thing that I find so interesting about māna is that 2500 years ago, when the Buddha was alive, people were judging themselves just as much as we do now. They were judging others, and comparing everything. When I remember this I think, “Oh, actually ‘comparing mind’ is normal. Everybody does it.”
So how do we work with these judgments when we are meditating, particularly the negative judgments— when we are cruel to ourselves? First, we can become aware of these judgments arising in the mind. Every time you see one go by, just notice it: “I’m a terrible meditator today because I wanted to sleep late. Hey, that’s a judgment. That’s interesting.” When you notice a judgment, it’s also useful to observe what it feels like in the body. How exactly does it feel? I know when I feel judgmental of myself I often feel a burning in my stomach. That burning can become an object of meditation. We take interest in the judgments. We feel it. If it’s painful (which it often is) it can make us feel sad. We can notice that: “Oh, there’s me judging myself again. It makes me feel sad. Hmmm.”
The second way to work with judgment is something we’ve been talking about: remembering impermanence. This is one of the major teachings of the Buddha. As we meditate, we see for ourselves that we don’t stay the same from moment to moment. Our minds, thoughts, body sensations, and breath are always changing. The more we observe the impermanence inside ourselves, the more we will remember the truth of change when we need it—when we are experiencing difficult thoughts and emotions. If we can recall impermanence, we can know inside that we are not always this way. We’re not always bad. We’re not always ugly. We’re not always fat or thin—or whatever. It’s impossible. We’re not even always judging. In fact, a lot of the time we don’t have much self-hatred or judgment in our minds at all. Things are pretty good.
The third way to work with self-judgment is to count judgments: “I’m a rotten meditator, Judging One… My brother’s better in school than I am, Judging Two,” and so on. I once gave this exercise to some twelve-year-old girls in a dharma group. I said, “Why don’t you practice counting the judgments you experience in your daily life?” I didn’t see the girls until a month later, and the first thing one of them said to me was, “One thousand six hundred and twelve.” I said, “What?” I didn’t know what she was talking about. And she said, “I’ve been counting judgments.” Apparently she went to school and started counting her own judgments, and then she started counting her friends’ judgments. Then anytime anybody in her classes made a judgment she would count it out loud. She spent the entire month at school counting judgments. I thought it was just amazing that she was that mindful and persistent, although possibly annoying to her friends!
One thousand six hundred and twelve judgements last month.
A fourth thing to know is that judgments are just thoughts. This is something you can see in your practice, every moment that you’re aware of a thought coming and going. Many of you have told me that you’ve seen this on this retreat. “There’s a thought coming. I become aware of it. And it goes.” What’s the big deal? Thinking, “I can’t do this right,” or “That person’s sitting much straighter than I am,” is not so different from “The sky is blue.” It’s just a thought.
Finally we need to remember to be careful about judging the judging. After a judgment arises, the next thought might be, “Oh, that was a judgment. Diana told me last night I shouldn’t judge, so that was bad of me. Oh no! Now I’m judging that I’m judging.” It can go on and on and on. Try to be aware of all the funny things your mind does. It can become interesting to notice the layers, one on top of the other. And sometimes, in the noticing, something shifts; you might take them less seriously.
Acceptance is at the core of mindfulness. We can’t be fully mindful if we don’t accept some piece of ourselves, or our experience. If we grit our teeth and say, “I am mindful of this knee pain,” but actually we want to get rid of the knee pain, we have a fake kind of mindfulness. Our mindfulness is colored by aversion—not wanting, or trying to push away the experience. Mindfulness needs acceptance in order to fully, honestly be mindful. The good news is, the more we practice, the more that we can accept ourselves.
The good news is, the more we practice, the more we can accept ourselves.
Practicing mindfulness develops an accepting quality of our heart. When we sit through so many different kinds of experiences, we learn to accept whatever comes up, because we are no longer taking it so personally. When we can see the thought, “I’m a terrible meditator” coming up for the fiftieth time, we learn to relax a little and accept it. It’s not a big deal.
That’s the amazing thing about mindfulness practice. We need self-acceptance in order to practice, and as we practice we develop more self-acceptance. It’s a lovely circle.
Remember, when we talk about acceptance we’re not talking about complacency or passivity. Acceptance is not saying, “Okay, I’ll just give up and accept things as they are.” It’s really important that we don’t give up in passivity, particularly when things are difficult or we know they are not right. Acceptance understands when there is injustice, or when you need to work for a change in the world, or for a change inside yourself. Acceptance includes the wisdom to get out of a relationship when you’re in a lot of pain or not getting what you need.
Today in our group one teen said, “Maybe a better word for acceptance is understanding.” I really like that. True acceptance is a quality of mind that sees things clearly. It understands and accepts things out of wisdom, not out of hatred, fear or apathy. For example, you can hate yourself and want to change something about yourself, or you can see yourself clearly and want to change something about yourself. These are two very different things. When we accept because we see clearly, we can act with love and compassion rather than acting out of fear and anger. This works in all areas of our lives.
One thing I have learned from this practice—and I want to pass this on to you—is that I am okay exactly as I am. And all of you are okay exactly as you are. You can be loudmouthed and opinionated and silly and into punk rock —whatever is you. You are you. And when you fully step into who you are, you are embracing your spirituality by fully accepting yourself. This practice, whether or not you think of yourself as Buddhist, is not supposed to make you into a zombie, or someone with no emotions, or someone who’s good all the time, or anything like that. The practice is about being you. When you develop awareness, while you maintain a strong foundation of ethics, you can be who you are more deeply—and the whole world benefits.
Martha Graham, the dancer, said, “There is a vitality that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to clearly and directly, keep the channel open.”
Fully being exactly who we are, is part of our spiritual practice. When we become aware of how we judge ourselves, and leam to work with judgments, we begin to soften; and the goodness of who we are comes to the surface. I like to call it our “inner goodness.” It’s something inside us that knows—no matter how messed up we feel, or how many problems we have, or whatever—that we are actually good.
Meditation will bring you in touch with your inner goodness. You will taste it. You will have moments while you’re practicing when suddenly everything is okay. You just know it, and you drop in to the sense of being alive. And this happiness is not dependent upon anything in particular, but comes from being awake and present in this moment. You might feel this inner goodness when you’re doing sports, or when you’re taking a walk in nature, or when you fall in love. It’s the truth of who you are, and this practice helps us touch into it. It’s a gift.