Meditation for Life
Judgment Calls, Part 2: Turning Judgment into Discernment
"Why is that so terrible?" I asked.
There seemed to be no answer to that question—only a feeling of fear and despair. That feeling felt huge, primal. As I let myself feel it, I saw that in some way it was controlling my life, and that I did not want to live inside that feeling any more. Whatever it took, I knew I had to pull myself out of this swamp of pain.
That realization was a true turning point in my life. In hindsight, I'd say that it marked the beginning of my inner journey, starting a process of self-questioning that led me, two years later, into meditation. At the time, though, the most immediate result was a feeling of compassion both for me and for my husband. There was no longer any question of blame. We were just two human beings on different life trajectories, struggling to stay together when it was obvious that we were moving in nearly opposite directions. My problem, I saw, was not him. It was the fact that I was out of touch with my real self.
Over the years, as meditation and inner practice have made me familiar with my own ground, the self that lies behind the masks, it's become much easier not to blame. That choice always presents itself, of course. When the feeling that 'Something's wrong' surfaces, I can let the discomfort propel me into the old scripts ("Who's fault is this?" "What have I done wrong?" "How can these people act that way?"). Or I can stop, recognize the discomfort as a signal to pay attention, and ask, "What am I supposed to understand here?" or "What is this feeling telling me?" or simply, "What's behind this feeling?" If I take the first road, I inevitably find myself saying or doing something that comes out of the ego's fearful need to prove itself right. The result is often painful and always ineffectual. If I take the second road, I experience a clarity that lets me act intuitively, that seems to come from beyond my personal self. When I act with discernment, it's often because I've resisted the tendency to blame.
So, here's a principle: If you want to switch channels from blaming to discernment, start by paying attention to the feelings that arose right before you started the blame spiral. Find out what they have to show you.
Think of it as a process of retracing your footsteps. When you find yourself blaming—either yourself or someone else—ask yourself, "What was the feeling that started all this?" Be patient, because it might take a few moments to become aware of what the feeling was, but when it does, let yourself stay with it, focus in it. Then turn inside and ask, as if you were asking the feeling itself, "What perception lies behind this feeling? What is this feeling telling me?" The perception might be something totally unexpected—an insight into yourself, a realization about a situation. It might be that there's something you need to handle, something you've buried which is now surfacing through feelings of anger or sadness. You might realize that its time to act in a situation that you've been letting slide, or that you need to stop struggling and let a problem resolve itself on its own.
After you've sensed an answer, look again. Notice whether or not the perception you're experiencing feels clear, or whether you are experiencing another layer of the judging mind. The way to do this is to notice the feelings around your perception. If you still feel confused, angry, self-righteous, unhappy, over-excited, full of desire or any other hot or swampy emotion, you're still in judgment. In that case, ask yourself, "What is the root perception behind this? What does this feeling really have to tell me?"
This process of self-inquiry, if you stay with it, can give you practical solutions to questions about your life. It can also shift your inner state quite radically. Real discernment, I've always found, starts with the willingness to ask questions. If we keep asking those questions, we often get to the place where there are no answers at all, the place where we are simply present. Judgments dissolve in that place. Then we don't have to strive for discernment; discernment is as natural as breathing.
An internationally known teacher of meditation and spiritual wisdom, Kempton is the author of Meditation for the Love of It and writes a monthly column for Yoga Journal. Follow her on Facebook and visit her website at www.sallykempton.com.