Our mind judges – that is one of its primary functions. We are so used to judging things that, so often, we do not even realise we are doing so. Wherever we are, whatever we are looking at, there is a constant commentary in our heads – that is hideous, she is wrong, that is evil, what a nasty looking man.
It is the same with our emotions. We feel; that is what we are supposed to do. And yet there are so many attachments, so many aversions, to our judgments and our feelings that we begin to act in unwise and hurtful ways.
In this article, I would like to present some thoughts. I am far from an expert, and this topic is prone to many misunderstandings. So, as with all my writings, please see this only as one person’s opinion, based on my limited experience. If anything disturbs or confuses you please leave a comment. (I wish I had an editor sometimes, heh.)
This post is a follow up to Detachment and Aversion, and Attachment to Mental Positions and Beliefs.
Take a moment to become aware of your judging mind. Already you will have formed an opinion of many things, like this article for instance. But more important are your judgements on people.
One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered in studying various personality psychologies – ranging from George Kelly’s to Carl Jung’s – is that many agree on one thing. The way we judge a person reflects very strongly on us. In other words, if we see it in someone and have a strong reaction to it, it is very likely we have it in ourselves! Of course, whether or not we recognise this is a different matter.
As a fun exercise, try looking at a few celebrities, and listing down three or four things you think about them; try to have at least one positive and one negative. You might ask a friend to do the same exercise– it is very likely that even though you are looking at the same person, the lists you create will be very different. For instance, one list might read “dumb, handsome, and attention-seeking”, and another might read “old, too skinny, and rich”. This difference provides insight into your personalities, your self-judgements, and how you look at the world. (You might also find that the closer you are to your friend, the more similar your constructs.)
Interpreting Our Judgements
What do all these judgements mean then? There are so many possibilities that we can’t analyse them all; we can only use examples to stimulate your own thoughts. Let’s use physical attractiveness as our first – like it or not, it is one of the first things we notice about a person. This is not to say that these judgements are wrong, however. They are completely natural. The danger comes when we become attached to them, when we give them importance they don’t have.
Attractiveness was one of my major judgements, and for a long time I didn’t realise how much it had run my life. It was so automatic, and the times I did catch myself, I thought it was normal. But it led to some very unwise behaviour. I treated people nicely – or in some shameful cases, nastily – because of their looks, whether or not they deserved it. I felt superior to some and inferior to others. I was blindly manipulated by unscrupulous, yet charming, women. On a more extreme scale, the newspapers recently reported incidents where teenagers were spat on, called names – and in one case, physically beaten – by their peers in school just for being “ugly”.
However, once we become aware of our judgements, we find it easier to separate ourselves from them. While a person’s appearance is still one of the things I notice about them – sadly, old habits die hard – I manage to catch myself, and I refuse to let these judgements change the way I treat them. This leads to increased equanimity and inner balance.
Take a moment to think of your own life. What do you judge a person on? Your list on the celebrities might help. Very often these judgements are denied – he’s famous, it’s different! – but really find specific examples how you judge those around you according to the same scale. Then, think of how these judgements have influenced your behaviour, the way you feel, and what you tell yourself. Often, awareness is all we need.
Each Judgement Turns On Us
There is another reason to release these attachments: our judgements always come back to us! There is no way I can judge a person, no matter what scale I use, and not judge myself in the same way.
If we judge someone on their looks, we will judge ourselves on our own looks too, whether or not we want to. We’ve discussed some of the implications of these in the previous articles on attachment. When we are attached to something, we don’t see it as it truly is. More importantly, we unconsciously ignore any evidence that contradicts our perceptions. How does it apply to your current attachment? Take a moment to think about it.
If we like what we see in the mirror, we will be afraid of losing our good looks when we have them, and suffer unnecessarily when they do fade away. I know a woman who agonised for weeks because she saw her first wrinkle. Others might criticise what they see in the mirror – whether or not others think they are attractive. This can lead to unnecessary self-hatred and pain. On the extreme scale, it can lead to some very unwise behaviour. My professor once told me that many plastic surgeons check for body dysmorphic disorder (exaggerated concern and stress about some imperfection in one’s appearance) on all new clients. Remember, though, that we are discussing internal attachment. This is not suggesting that we don’t take care of ourselves.
Either way, imagine what it is like to be with someone who constantly beats you up for being ugly, and you have no way to shut them up because they are in your head! I used to have many strong self-judgements. I thought I was ugly, useless – somehow broken. And I was so attached that I could not see any evidence that told me otherwise! If someone told me I was good-looking, I instinctively thought they were lying. If someone told me I was smart, my first thought was – “Well, maybe, but…”
To prevent readers from getting “locked in” to examples discussed, let’s look at another. How about judgements of rich and poor? I have a friend who is very attached to the “rich” label. Strangely enough, his definition of it was constantly changing. To me, a million dollars is a lot. To others, a million dollars is petty cash. And it was the same for my friend. The higher he climbed, the more his environment changed, and the more money he needed in order to be considered “rich” or to fit in. His goal constantly runs away from him, and he unceasingly destroys his physical and emotional health to pursue it – working 16 hour days, 7 days a week. At the same time, I noticed changes in the way he treats those with a lower income.
We’ve discussed how non-attachment to something leads to us enjoying it even more. I can’t know for sure – but I suspect if he lets go of this label, he might be able to slow down once in a while and finally enjoy all that he has worked for.
Attachment to Negativity
We mostly think of negative judgments as aversion, but it is important to note that we sometimes secretly attach to them too. One story remains in my head, even after all these years. I once had dinner with some old friends I haven’t seen since high school. One of them started telling us how his girlfriend had cheated on him and how hurt he had been. Soon the others were telling their own stories of how they had been hurt and betrayed, too. It was fascinating to watch, because they were unaware of the secret competition they were engaging in – they wanted to prove their story was the most painful!
With that in mind, please think of all the things we have covered. What were your negative self-judgments, for instance? Do you secretly gain pleasure from it? Is there some form of twisted pride at being uglier than the next person, or poorer, or whatever is on your mind? This can be very hard to accept, so a quick scan at your own life might not be enough. I have a suspicion that everyone can find at least some of this in their lives if they really try – except our inner defenses won’t let us. I highly recommend putting some effort in this; the rewards will be well worth your time.
It might help to realize that some forms of suffering have been romanticized by society. A friend told me she once believed it was somehow noble and sweet to be a tragic lover. Because of this belief, she spent many years in pain, wasting away, pining for a love long gone.
Fundamental Identities and Judgements
Similarly, I remember a book written by a clinical psychologist, although I can’t remember who. He found that the number one reason his clients remained in suffering were the victim and the martyr identities; these were also the hardest to treat. I used to suffer from a mild version of this stupidity. I loved replaying all my painful memories in my head. How noble and valiant it made me feel, such an innocent victim of all those nasty people!
There are some very fundamental judgments – such as “right” and “wrong” – that lie underneath the superficial judgments we discussed. However, they can easily be misunderstood (and can cause harm if misapplied), and I don’t feel confident in my ability to describe them, so I won’t. However, please explore them if you find them. In my experience, they are found only after the surface judgments have been processed out. These are at the root of our pain, and any work on these is extremely freeing.
Feelings and Desires
Another part of our inner experience we attach to or reject are our feelings and desires. For a long time, I thought I had to remove all my emotions, to feel nothing, to desire nothing. I thought I would be free then; I thought that was what non-attachment meant. But I was wrong.
According to Thubten Chodron, non-attachment is simply an acceptance of the present moment. It does not mean the absence of negative emotions. It is opening to the present moment, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, without clinging to it, or rejecting it. If anger comes, if desire comes, then accept it, without necessarily acting on it. As we discussed in the Core Practice for Emotions, it is only when we attach to our feelings that we listen to them and act them out – often unwisely.
A common outcome of trying to be free of all negative emotions is aversion. This is a real danger in the world of personal growth. One of the most spiteful people I’ve ever met strangely claims to be very spiritually and emotionally advanced – in the same breath he uses to utter all his abusive words! I can’t know for sure, but I suspect that he has repressed his anger and hatred, and in doing so, thinks he has “conquered” those feelings. Naturally, these repressed feelings come exploding out, as they are prone to do, and his deep denial means he is unable to see what he is really doing.
Similarly, one of the contributors in Meeting the Shadow describes a tale of repressed desires – for sex, alcohol, and others – re-arising in prominent leaders of spiritual groups. They act out these desires unwisely and illegally, hurting their followers, hiding behind clever rationalizations when confronted.
Lastly, take a moment to think of attachment to our negative emotions. If it is of interest to you, this topic was covered in a separate article, Realizing We Secretly Want Our Suffering.
And to finish off this series, it is helpful to remember that most teachers warn against excessive attachment.
There was a Zen master once, who wept openly and deeply when his wife passed away. His students were confused. Wasn’t a Zen master supposed to be free of all this? They approached him, and asked him why he was crying.
“Why?” He replied.
“Because I miss her, of course.”
I forget what the moral of the story is, or even where it came from, but I think it speaks of the dangers of becoming attached to non-attachment , and denying ourselves our humanity