Developing a nonjudgmental attitude

lotuses“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;

On purpose,
in the present moment, and

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Kabat-Zinn’s definition highlights that an important aspect of mindfulness is acceptance, or of avoiding harsh judgments. Acceptance means being able to be aware of our experience without either clinging to it or pushing it away. Instead we accept our experience with equanimity.

All too often we find it difficult to accept what we’re feeling. A common pattern is to experience some initial unpleasant experience, and then to feel bad because of feeling bad, and then to feel bad about feeling bad about feeling bad, and so on. It’s a vicious cycle of feeling bad about feeling bad. The feelings are generated by thinking in unhelpful ways, so this means there are several approaches to breaking the vicious cycle.

Acceptance of what you’re feeling is one tool, although it’s not so much a tool as a way of being. Acceptance means acknowledging what you’re feeling, and standing back from it so that although you experience the unpleasant emotion you don’t entirely define yourself by it.

An important approach in doing this is to locate the feeling in the body.

  • What shape is the feeling?
  • Where exactly is it located?
  • What color – if any – is it?
  • What kind of texture does it have?
  • Does it change over time?

In locating the emotion in the body in this way, we realize that the emotion is smaller than we are. We’re bigger than any emotion that we experience, which means that if we stand back from the emotion then not everything we’re experiencing is colored by the emotion. In this way we create a sort of “space” between ourselves and the emotion so that we’re not so caught up in it.

This approach also allows us to surround difficult emotions with lovingkindness.

Befriending your distractions

A complementary way to develop acceptance is to be aware of your emotions in a spirit of friendly curiosity. So in doing the above exercise – as you locate the emotion in the body and sense its characteristics – you can take a kindly interest in it. You can say words like “It’s okay. Let me feel this. It’s okay to feel this.” In this way we can replace the aversion we have to the unpleasant feeling with a more creative response that won’t lead to further unpleasant reactions. In other words we’re breaking the vicious cycle by not feeling bad about feeling bad.

Then there’s the whole area of the thoughts. When you feel bad, your mind generates thoughts that are conditioned by the unpleasant feeling. These thoughts (“Here we go again. I don’t want to feel like this. I can’t stand it. If I feel like this no one will like me. I don’t think anyone likes me anyway”) are what make us feel bad about feeling bad. We take a molehill (or at least a hill) and make it into a mountain.

It’s very useful indeed to learn to stand back from our thoughts as well as our emotions. We can recognize that our thoughts are just thoughts, and not reality. When you notice thoughts arising, you can let go of the stream of thought. Thoughts only keep going as long as we put energy into this, so by letting go of the thought we’re actually withdrawing energy from it and stopping it from being perpetuated.

Labeling thoughts as thoughts can be useful. When we notice ourselves thinking we can just say the word “thinking” quietly to ourselves. When we name our experience we again create a small gap that gives us a sense of freedom.

You can adopt a skeptical attitude about your thoughts. Our thoughts often lie to us, and we can feel empowered by choosing not to automatically believe them. Instead of believing thoughts like “No one will want to be with me if I feel as bad as this” we can be aware of this as simply a thought.

10 Comments. Leave new

  • Isn’t it nice how a few words such as your article, make such good sense and have helped me on the road to freeing myself.

    thank you

  • I am confused. When Iam with people, in a party for example, I feel extremely uncomfortable because of my mind telling me lots of things, like I’m not good enough, I’m boring…etc. In those moments I’m aware of what I’m thinking, otherwise I wouldn’t feel that way.How being aware of the thoghts could be useful for me in order to behave in a normal way?I could say, OK let ‘s feel that , but later when I am at home, feel miserable..I know thoghts are thoughts, but I can’t stay back to look at them. I suppose is a kind of exercise everyday until you can overcome this. Thankyou.

  • Hi Rose,

    I can understand your confusion. It does seem counter-intuitive that being mindful of unhelpful thoughts will be helpful. But experience of practicing meditation and mindfulness will help you learn that you don’t have to believe those thoughts. You can recognize them just as patterns in the mind.

    Techniques like the mindfulness of breathing will help train you to let go of those thoughts and to come back to your actual present moment experience of the body. This helps to quiet the mind so that there’s less self-criticism going on.

    You can also learn to strengthen your self-confidence through lovingkindness practice so that self-critical thoughts are less likely to arise and less likely to have a strong effect on you when they do.

    You can also learn through lovingkindness practice to pay more attention to other people in a positive way. When we’re worrying what other people think about us we’re paying attention to ourselves in an unhelpful way. We’re not really paying attention to others. When you really wish others well it’s much harder to be self-involved.

    As you note, practice is the thing!

  • Amaranta Castillo
    June 22, 2009 5:09 pm

    Thanks for writing this article. I found it very useful and so transparent…I am working on it.

  • Thank you for gathering and sharing all this information on meditation and mindfulness. It has changed my life.

  • Thank you for the article. It has only strengthen my practice, meaning my everyday practice. For the last 10 years I’ve been dealing with many problems from low self-esteem to rejection of the word around me. With help of psychologist and buddhism, nowadays I can say I am happy, peaceful and, I hope, better wife and mum. I find nonjudgemental attitude which you describe one of the most useful. I am still learning it, but accepting my feelings just as they were during and after psychological sessions (some of them were really difficult) brought great relief . So thank you once again for reminding me of this.
    And sorry for my English. It is my second language which I haven’t use for some years.

  • Hello,
    first all thank you very personaly,because this is a part of
    many websites that helps me overcome the socialfobia,
    thus drinking.
    Not self confidence,shy and selfcentered thoughts slowly was takin over my health.
    If somebody have the problem to drink before to speak to someone,please look at website thoroughly,is many treasures hidden here.And as mentioned before
    Loving-kindness shortly unconditional Love is making miracle.
    Viva power of love(unconditioned)
    Bodhipaksa thank you
    P.s.:No practice no gain

  • […] to it or those who participate. Keep the subject open for discussion and exhibit an interested, nonjudgmental attitude. She may be apprehensive at first, but many people warm up to the idea as they learn more about the […]

  • “Instead of believing thoughts like ‘No one will want to be with me if I feel as bad as this’ we can simply be aware of this as a thought.”
    If only!
    If I were capable of so easily (“simply”) choosing not to believe negative thoughts (and to simply be aware of them instead), I wouldn’t need meditation. How can achieving something so difficult be described as a simple choice? It’s like saying “to achieve happiness, practice simply being not depressed.”
    The theory of mindfulness seems very circular to me, at least as applied to certain problems (like negative self-judgment). If the problem I’m trying to address through mindfulness is that I judge myself too harshly (thereby causing myself pain), then I don’t see how any workable solution/strategy/solution could include “simply” choosing to modify my self-judgment. If the method is simply a restatement of the goal, it can’t logically be a method for achieving the goal, and it won’t work. That is, the idea seems to be that in order to escape harmful self-judgment, I should engage in mindfulness, which requires (among other things) that I chose not to judge myself so harshly. This is totally circular. If a non-judgmental mindset is my goal, then telling me to choose to adopt a nonjudgmental mindset is equivalent to instructing me by saying: “achieve your goal.” This gets me nowhere….
    I understand it takes practice and persistence. But if each practice session involves an instruction that I simply not experience the problem I’m trying to address, it’s again just too circular. “Too become less judgmental, practice simply choosing not to be so judgmental.” It’s like telling to an extremely anxious person: “calm down” (or “practice calming down”). I just don’t get it.

    • So, it seems that you’re having lots of thoughts telling you that it’s not possible (or at the very least, extremely difficult) to look at thought and to recognize that they may not reflect reality. Have you tried being skeptical of those thoughts? (If your mind jumps straight into justifying the inevitability of believing those thoughts, see if you can pause, and give yourself some mental space in which skepticism may arise.)

      “…if each practice session involves an instruction that I simply not experience the problem I’m trying to address, it’s again just too circular.”

      But there are actually many suggestions above. I suggested acknowledging feelings, standing back from them, noting their characteristics, being curious about them, talking to yourself about them in a reassuring way — and doing the same kinds of things with thoughts. Rather than telling people to “simply not experience a problem they’re experiencing,” I’ve suggested concrete steps to change the internal dynamics of experience so that the problem is experienced in a different way. it’s experiencing the problem in a different way that’s the aim, rather than not experiencing the problem. But it’s experiencing the problem in a different way — that important change in dynamics — that allows the problem to be less of a problem and, perhaps, eventually not a problem at all.

      The suggestion “we can simply be aware of this as a thought” was clumsily worded. Apologies! It should have read “we can be aware of this as simply a thought,” and I’ve corrected that in the post above. The intention is to communicate that we don’t have to treat thoughts as realities we must believe, but as opinions we can examine skeptically. I’m not suggesting that we proliferate thoughts by engaging in an internal argument about the validity of thoughts (that can lead us away from mindfulness), but that when we recognize certain unhelpful patterns of thinking (e.g. thinking that makes us feel depressed or anxious), we step back, notice the thoughts as thoughts, and thus be less inclined to automatically believe them and more able to respond to a challenging situation in helpful ways.

      This is not dissimilar to the skeptical position you probably take when an ad comes on the TV. The message of the ad is akin to a thought passing through the mind. In fact it _is_ a thought passing through the mind — it’s just someone else’s thought. You don’t automatically believe that thought, so that you’re mentally separating hype from reality. Similar to advertisements, some thoughts are little more than various parts of your brain trying to “sell you” on a particular action — a commitment to a particular way of being.


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