When you practice your mindfulness exercises, you will often be asked to become aware of your surroundings without judging them. This is a simple concept, but it can be difficult to achieve.
We spend so much of our lives critiquing what is happening around us that we evaluate automatically. Imagine drinking a cup of coffee. When you take your first sip, your mind evaluates the coffee by using descriptive words. Consider the terms you might apply to something as everyday as a cup of coffee:
• “This coffee is too hot/cold.”
• “Ugh! This is much too sweet/bitter.”
• “Mmmm… Delicious!”
• “This needs some sugar.”
• “Ah, just what I needed!”
These are all assessments, some positive, some negative, but they all contain a label which is an explicit judgement.
Quite a lot of the time, judgements are useful and important. If you want to cross the road, it is crucial to judge how far away the cars are, and what speed they are travelling, to evaluate when it is safe. Even judging your coffee to be too hot is practical — you don’t want to burn your mouth!
However, when we are practicing mindfulness, judgements can limit our awareness. We have described awareness as beyond thinking. What do we mean by that?
The problem with labelling
Critiquing, evaluating and judging are all aspects of thinking that shut down awareness. As soon as judge something, you slap a label on it. By labelling something, you have defined what you see as its most important quality. Taking our example of the coffee — once you have described it as “too hot”, you have assessed it negatively and failed to take note of its other qualities, such as the aroma, the smoothness of the roast, or the silkiness of the milk.
In the great scheme of things, overlooking all the many qualities of a cup of coffee is not a big deal.
The problem is we do the same thing with people.
If you had brothers and sisters growing up, your parents may have given you each a label — the smart one, the pretty one, the naughty one, the sporty one. If you were the sporty one, then chances are you believed your parents didn’t see you as pretty or smart — or at least not as much as your siblings. You may have allowed the label to define your life, or how you saw yourself.
We label our partners, children, colleagues and friends all the time — often without realising it — and this limits our understanding of who they truly are. By bringing awareness without evaluation to our relationships we see others fully, which increases our store of understanding and improves our relationships.
It is not easy be aware without evaluating. But mindfulness will help you to learn this. You may find it difficult at first as your mind automatically makes judgements. Don’t berate yourself for this — that’s judging yourself! Simply note that this fact and keep at it. Mindfulness, like any skill, requires practice, practice, practice!