Training the Judgy Brain

by Valerie Reiss

That girl isn't pretty enough to be that annoying.

WHAT? WHAT did you just think? Who ARE you?

Oh, right. I'm me. Hi. My name is Valerie and I have a judgmental brain feed that reads like a cross between Mean Girls,The Hangover, and Heathers. It's stunning to me. But there it is. Judge, judge, judge, all the livelong day.

Swami Kripalu once said, "Every time you judge yourself you break your own heart." I'm pretty sure that judging others also breaks our heart. That’s partly because we bear the brunt of the poison that burbles up to form a negative judgment, and partly because we're all energetically connected. I'm convinced that, on some level,we feel each other's psychic barbs, especially if we intentionally throw them. They're also the seeds of violence and war.

Harsh, constant judging creates barriers—which at times can actually be helpful. When judgments protect us from maniacs who cause harm, that's good (yep, I'm judging!). But we also use judgments to protect our hearts from other scary things, like, you know, love. If I'm judging you, then I don't have to take you in. I don't have to need you. I don't have to be vulnerable to you. I'm tough—I've got my barbed wire thoughts and they're protecting me! (Or not.)

My judging has its rhythms. When a particularly tart thought pops onto my radar, it usually means that I'm feeling extra insecure, tired, and stressed. Lately, once I get over my surprise at sounding like an especially harsh late-night comedienne, I sometimes laugh, then usually take a brief assessment: How am I feeling about myself right now? And a body scan: How am I feeling right now? Then I take a deep breath and try to have some compassion for myself.

This is a relatively new practice for me. I used to think thoughts like that and then instantly judge the stuffing out of myself for being such a judgmental person. Because, my deep internal belief went, only lousy people have thoughts like those. But many years, yoga classes, meditation retreats, and therapy sessions later, I can tell you that pretty much everyone has these thoughts. We all have our own themes of disdaining judgment—some judge overweight people or the homeless or parents who Ferberize their babies or people who vote Republican. We all have our inner JudgeyMcJudgerson, and I think that's OK. (Are you judging that judgment?)

It becomes okay when we create some breathing room between those judgments and ourselves. My journey with this began 19 years ago at Kripalu, when I first learned about "witness consciousness," the part of the mind that's always watching the rest of the mind. It's detached from the grasping ego; it's vast, chilled out, and essentially unflappable. It's the “God”-presence in us, connecting us to the big honking space of creation. It's also a large part of Kripalu's philosophy and other yoga and meditation styles. The more you practice watching, I learned, the more this awareness expands. It puts a much-needed buffer between us and our contracted thoughts and limiting beliefs. It can help us, as my former therapist liked to say, "Catch yourself doing something while you're doing it, and then do something different." In her book Yoga for Depression, Kripalu Yoga teacher Amy Weintraub writes, "As Witness Consciousness grows, you begin to accept yourself as you are and make peace with reality as it is."

I've learned that the less I think my thoughts define who I am, the more I expand into the truth of my being. As I unstick me from my thoughts—which is sometimes tender-painful, like peeling bare thighs off a hot seat in summer—then the mean-girl stuff just floats away. And reality seems alright, not quite as negative-judgment-worthy. If I clench and feel guilty, though, and decide that I'm a bad friend, a bad daughter, a bad wife, a bad human, then I'm in for a spiral of more of the bad-same.

But the beautiful news is that we can continually shift away from the Pandora station of judgment and return to this witness consciousness. It doesn't go anywhere; it's on permanent staycation. It's sitting within us, like the Buddha himself, just breathing, being perfectly, neutrally present. When we're sitting in that seat, life has more clarity and peace and we make better choices, including about whom to trust. Turns out that witness protection is the best protection for the human heart.

Valerie Reiss is a writer, editor, speaker, consultant, and Kripalu Yoga instructor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, Women's Health, Natural Health, Yoga Journal, Beliefnet, Vegetarian Times, and more.

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