When I do the initial individual orientations for mindfulness courses I ask participants what they already know about mindfulness. The most common response by far is that it is about being in the present moment. Occasionally if people have already tried audio practices online or read a book on mindfulness they might venture a little further and start suggesting one or two of the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness practice. But it is rare for people to mention more than a couple of the seven attitudinal foundations, which Jon Kabat-Zinn defined in his first book on mindfulness entitled Full Catastrophe Living. So I thought I’d start writing a series of posts on each of these attitudinal foundations, beginning with the first which is non-judgement.
Mindfulness invites us to impartially witness our own experience, become aware of the constant judgment of both our internal and external world and step back from this. When we first begin to pay attention to our experience, we are often astonished by just how much the mind categorises and labels almost everything. Experiences are typically judged as either “pleasant”, “unpleasant” or “neutral” depending on whether they affect us in a positive or negative way or have no real importance to us. In the case of the latter, it’s likely the experience will barely register in our consciousness as we tend to find neutral things, people and events boring to direct attention towards.
The place this judging mind shows up most strongly for me is on retreat when it comes to food! When meals are in silence and there is not the distraction of conversation, my mind seems to like occupying itself by giving me commentary on its likes, dislikes and preferences. Kabat-Zinn uses a metaphor I rather like of the mind being like a yo-yo going up and down on a string of judging thoughts. You might find it interesting to sit and observe your mind for ten minutes and see how much liking and disliking happens during this time frame…
Having a greater awareness of the judgements of our mind can help us see through our fears and prejudices, moving us closer towards inner peace and liberation. When practising mindfulness, we need to be able to notice the judgements of the mind when they happen and deliberately take the position of impartial witness by reminding ourselves simply to watch it. When you catch the mind judging, it’s not necessary to stop it nor to judge the judging which would further complicate matters. The task is purely to be aware that it is occurring.
If I think back to when I first started learning mindfulness (which is hard as it was over twelve years ago and my memory is not the greatest!), I remember an array of judgements arising in my mind during early practices, such as “I’m not doing this right” and “I can’t concentrate”. Over time I learnt to acknowledge these as judgemental thinking and simply watch them show up, without pursuing them, before returning my attention to the breath or wherever else I had intended it to be. At first, even after practices I would find my mind judging whether it had been a “good” or “bad” practice. Now I simply acknowledge to what extent my mind has been distracted without attaching the judgement label to it.
The more we can inhabit the non-judging quality of mind, the less reactive we are likely to be to our environment and circumstances in our lives and the greater the sense wellbeing we’re likely to feel.