Discernment & Judgment

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Discernment & Judgment

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I would like to bring some attention to the practice of discernment and the difference between discernment and judgment. In so doing, I’m not suggesting that there’s no place for judgment. There are many things we view as right or wrong that can be useful. Right and wrong can serve us well; judgments that we collectively agree upon allow us to enjoy a sense of ease with one another. Growing up we are taught many of these rights and wrongs, e.g. harming another person is wrong, not harming another person is right.

Although some judgments are useful, in reflecting on judgment we can see that it is limited to a dualistic perspective, right and wrong, good and bad, better or worse, my side your side. In reality there are no divisions or categories, we artificially create the divisions and build the mental framework of how we believe things should be and lose sight of how things actually are. A good example of this is the lines of demarcation we see on a map. When we see images of earth from space, there are no lines of separation, we see one whole and complete planet.

When something is contrary to the mental framework we’ve established as appropriate or acceptable we judge it harshly. When something is compliant with the arbitrary shifting lines of our acceptability we judge it positively. Our favoritism of what is right and wrong changes as our relationship to the world and our experience changes. These changes often come about through exposure and education.

The flowing patterns of judgmental thoughts also supports and strengthens our identification with self. There is someone that is doing the judging, employing judgment to try and support, protect, or compensate for the self. Fighting or struggling with judgments is not the practice of discernment; rather discernment is to mature in our relationship to experience by being mindful.

We can think of discernment as the maturation of judgment. While judgment is based in duality and a sense of self, discernment is based in wisdom and the recognition of what leads to fulfillment and what leads to suffering. Not what we think fulfillment is but what fulfillment actually is. To be more precise we could exchange the notion of fulfillment with genuine contentment.

To help illustrate the distinction between how judgment and discernment might look we can use the dessert analogy. Imagine that you’ve just had a full and satisfying meal. Shortly after the meal, dessert is brought out and it’s your favorite. Judgment might see the dessert and label it good, because this particular dessert resides in your favorable mental framework. Judgment might see dessert and generate thoughts of “I shouldn’t eat the dessert, I’m trying to follow a diet.” Additional judgment — eating it would be wrong, not eating it would be right. Discernment on the other hand, sees the dessert and mindfully recognizes the judgment, “dessert is good” or “dessert is bad”. Discernment then goes further, it might check in with the body and notice the sensations around the stomach, questioning, “what’s it going to be like if I eat the dessert?” further recognizing that to eat more would lead to discomfort, i.e. suffering. Without discernment we are simply acting out all our old patterns of conditioning whether or not they entangle us or lead us to inner freedom.

Life can be complicated, how we meet life’s challenges is a personal matter. There’s no easy formula for navigating the difficult decisions we sometimes need to make. If we can allow ourselves to be discerning with our experience we realize wise discrimination, which can be tremendously empowering.

From a reactionary right or wrong, discernment exhibits a responsive further knowing and recognition of what leads to suffering. The idea being that when we relate to our experience more with discernment and less with judgment we meet results that are characterized by wisdom.

By Johnathan Woodside
MOI Founder, Executive Director, and Teacher