You can’t read much about the important quality of mindfulness without learning that it involves being nonjudgmental – that it involves setting aside discrimination and simply accepting our experience.
For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s informal definition of mindfulness (from Wherever You Go, There You Are) reads: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
I use that kind of language myself sometimes, but I also notice that it’s subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, misleading.
Certainly, mindfulness has a quality of equanimity about it. Equanimity is a quality of calmness and composure. To give a negative example, I was recently leading a retreat, and in one meditation session two people ended up sitting just outside the window of the meditation room, having a conversation. I found it very hard not to get annoyed, and to imagine having words with the talkers. So, initially there was something that was unpleasant (noise when I expected quiet) but I reacted to that noise and ended up adding even more pain. The pain I caused myself by brooding over the incident as it happened, ended up causing me far more pain.
I also, fortunately, had more successful meditations where I could sit with physical discomfort, and even the sound of a garbage truck arriving and emptying a dumpster, with not a ripple of reaction crossing my mind. The physical pain, or the sound of the truck, were simply things to notice. Equanimity, which is an important component of mindfulness, is a spacious quality that allows our sense of discomfort to exist without repressing or denying it. It also prevents us from adding to that hurt.
Acceptance is a perfectly good word for describing this quality of equanimity.
But I can’t help feeling that it’s going too far to say that mindfulness doesn’t involve judgment. Certainly, in the spirit of equanimity, we don’t look at our experience and give ourselves a hard time over it. So when we get distracted in meditation are not meant to be mentally beating ourselves up and telling ourselves what a bad meditator we are.
But mindfulness, when it’s fully developed, includes an element of wise discrimination. Accompanying mindfulness is a sense of whether a particular experience we are having is one that we want to put more energy into, or one we want to stand back from and allow to fade away.
In one of the early teachings of the Buddhist tradition we read:
One tries to abandon wrong view & to enter into right view: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness.
Implicit in this is that we recognize when a view (loosely speaking, an idea, a viewpoint, or a thought) is valid or not valid, helpful or not helpful, true or untrue, conducing to pain or to freedom from pain.
Again, this doesn’t mean that we beat ourselves up when we recognize that our thinking is distorted. Beating ourselves up is one of those things we can recognize as unwise, because it leads to suffering.
Mindfulness has a kind of critical edge to it. It’s discriminating. It recognizes the quality of any given experience that we’re having.
Mindfulness recognizes patterns. It can recognize that this particular kind of thinking (angry thinking, “woe is me” thinking) causes suffering, and that that particular mental state (kindness, patience, equanimity) leads to our feeling greater peace and well-being. And so we wisely choose where to put our energy.
Mindfulness is therefore also not entirely about “being in the moment.” Mindfulness is certainly paying attention to what’s going on right now, but it’s also recognizing how “right now” has arisen from “just a moment ago,” and how “right now” is going to affect “just a minute from now.” Mindfulness includes an awareness of process.
So it’s not a question of mindfulness being undiscriminating and non-judgmental in a straightforward way. It’s a question of mindfulness making wise and kind discriminations. Mindfulness makes wise discriminations because it intelligently senses what makes us unhappy and what brings us peace. It makes kind discriminations because in a state of mindfulness we refrain from responding to our experience with anger and frustration.