Judgment is like cholesterol: There's a good kind and a bad kind. My friend Angela calls the good kind of judgment "discernment." The bad kind, she calls "the enemy of love." "It doesn't matter what situation I go into," she once told me while suffering through a spell of the bad kind. "I can always find something wrong with it. If it's not the weather, it's people's clothes, or the way they're talking. Whatever it is, I hate it."

You can't win with your inner judge; it even judges itself for judging. Sometimes that judgmental state feels like a sword driven right into the delicate fabric of your consciousness. Any feelings of love or relaxation or peace you might have been nurturing are chopped to bits. Whether you're judging others or yourself, it's impossible to aim negative judgments in any direction without experiencing the sharp edges of judgment within yourself. Doubly so, in fact, since the faults we judge most harshly in other people usually turn out to be our own negativities projected outward.

Linda, a professor at a Christian college, has a rule-breaking streak that she's been trying for years to suppress. When she was in graduate school she was caught shoplifting and nearly lost her job as a teaching assistant. She likes to engage in sexual brinkmanship—intense flirtations with much younger men, many of them her students. At the same time, she prides herself on her ability to spot the hidden lawlessness in others, and because she rejects it in herself, she rejects it in them. She once drove a colleague out of her teaching position by spreading rumors about the colleague's affair with the father of a student. She'll say, with a straight face, that her sense of purity is so powerful that it will always point out the impurity in the people around her. It doesn't seem to occur to her that the "impurity" she sees in others mirrors behavior she rejects in herself.

But of course, I'm being judgmental here, and what's more, taking a certain satisfaction in it. That's the problem: unleashing the inner judge can give us a quick hit of superiority. We feel authoritative and smart when we can wield a skillful insight, pinpoint our parents' mistakes, the faults of the current administration, the pretenses of our friends, teachers, and bosses. Moreover, judgment fuels passions—the sense of injustice, sympathy for the underdog, the desire to right wrongs. It helps us get up off the couch and into action. For many of us, in fact, judgment and blame offer a kind of emotional caffeine, a way of waking ourselves out of passivity.

Recently, I was leading an exercise with a group of political activists about dissolving negative emotions in meditation. One of the participants chose to work with her judgments about the Iraq war and shared afterward that when she examined the energy inside those feelings, she could feel how toxic it was. Judgment, she realized, could actually make her sick. "The problem is," she said, "that I don't know how I'll generate the passion to do my political work without those feelings of judgment."

It's a good question, and one that every one of us who decides to work through our judgmental tendencies has to answer at some point. After all, the critical intellect is indispensable. The absence of critical feedback is what makes tyrants, dictators, and bad decisions.

But without discernment, we mistake emotional heat for real love, and states of mindless trance for meditation. Without discernment, we get into relationships with teachers who don't walk their talk, and make investments that backfire. Discernment—or viveka, as its called in Sanskrit—is also the quality that will ultimately allow us to make the very subtle spiritual decisions about what we ultimately value, what will make us happy, and which of the many competing inner voices are important.