“A thought is just a thought, nothing more.”
A key component to learning how to watch thoughts non-judgmentally is to simply become aware when we are judging them as good or bad. Most of us do this nonconsciously all the time. Some thoughts are “good” and other thoughts are “bad.” It is important to recognize that thoughts are neither good nor bad, they are benign.
A thought is just a thought, nothing more. For example, we might think about losing our job and think of it as a “bad” thought because with it comes stress and anxiety (i.e., the body contracts). However, is it not possible that the loss of a job might lead to a better, more fulfilling one? If that is indeed what occurs, was the thought of no longer having the unfulfilling job a bad thought or a good one? Instead of thinking of a thought as bad or good we might consider it as helpful or not.
In the example provided above, the original fearful thought of losing the job would not be helpful, unless of course we liked that current job and the thought motivated us to work harder to achieve the necessary results to please our employer. More often than not, however, the fearful thought would lead us into making the kind of mistakes that eventuate its reality. Therefore, we must act on the thoughts that are helpful and drop the ones that are not. Practicing mindfulness can help us do that.
Interestingly, much like the old adage, “it takes one to know one;” it takes a thought to judge a thought. Being the witness of all thoughts and recognizing ourselves as separate from them, as will be discussed later, is what helps us to recognize that judging a thought is just another thought. Furthermore, viewing ourselves as separate from our emotions, as will be discussed in the next section, is what helps us to let go of the judgmental thought without giving it any significant meaning.
The Sound of Silence
As if it’s not harmful enough to judge thoughts, we also tend to judge silence. Once I was sitting at the table with some friends and I came to the realization how nice it is to just hang out and have a conversation with no background noise, such as music or television. For the first time I could remember, I intentionally chose not to play music and I was pleased with that decision. It was a good opportunity to get accustomed to accepting the silent pauses in the conversation without feeling anxious. Perhaps this is why people are so into music, television, and similar background noise. That way, moments of silent pauses are filled with other stimuli.
Moments of silence such as these are often referred to as “dead air” or “awkward silence.” With unfavorable phrases such as these attached to moments of silence it is clear that we have become uncomfortable with them. It could be that we are uncomfortable in these moments because when we are around others and attention is not directed toward spoken language, it has a tendency to move toward thoughts of social comparison and judgment. Being lost in thought can lead to much needless suffering. Therefore, it stands to reason that many people would make attempts to avoid “awkward silence” that might lead the thoughts in such a disturbing direction. However, do we really want to make an enemy out of silence? Instead, would it not be best to accept silence? After all, there is much peace to be experienced in the absence of noise.
Who is the One Judging the Thoughts?
Once we learn to stop judging thoughts (and the no thoughts of silence), we become better equipped to stop judging others. For me, a good example of judging others was provided while watching the movie The Painted Veil with my daughter and a friend of hers. My daughter had watched the movie the night before with her mother and grandparents and she wanted to watch it again. There was nothing else at the movie rental store that interested me so I agreed.
The movie was about a woman who married a man, not because she loved him, but to get out of her parents house. She later had an affair. When the husband found out about it, he decided to take her with him into the middle of a cholera plague, presumably hoping for death to come upon both of them. As they struggled through daily life, they fell in love and conceived a child. The woman did not know if her husband was the father or her former lover. However, the husband didn’t care because he “truly” loved her. Because he demonstrated this unconditional love for her, she loved him even more. Not long after the birth of their child, the husband died. Five years later the woman returned to her hometown with her son and ran across her former lover. When they parted ways her son asked, “Who was that man mommy?” The woman replied, “No one important.” That was the end of the movie.
I felt bitter. I became critical (in the head and later venting to a friend) of my daughter’s mother and grandparents for allowing her to watch a movie so wrought with, what I perceived as, moral ineptitude. However, the next day I read the story in the Bible about the descendants of Lot in Genesis Chapter 19:30. The story was that of Lot’s daughters giving him wine and going into his room to lie down with him that they might conceive children and “preserve the lineage of our father.” When I read the passage I noticed myself judging the daughters for their actions.
Judgement Based on Stories from our Past
Suddenly it hit me! Not only was I judging the behavior of the women in the stories, but I had been judging my daughter’s mother and grandparents as well. Had I focused on the theme of the movie, which was unconditional love, I would have had an entirely different perspective. I would have also had a different response to my daughter. Rather than being critical of her selection, I would have been appreciative of it, thereby empowering her. Instead of raising her up, however, after telling her what I thought about the message of the movie I said, “I don’t think I’m going to let you choose the movie anymore.” That may have had a bigger impact on her psyche than I realized. Even though she showed no emotional reaction to the comment, as I reflected on the meaning of that statement, I can see that it was loaded with judgment. But the issue was mine, not hers.
For me, the meaning of the message was two-fold. First, it involved the perception of the events that take place around me. I could have viewed the story as being a wonderful way of demonstrating the greatness of unconditional love. Instead, I chose to focus on the morality of adultery. In other words, it all started with the direction in which I turned attention. Secondly, I took the chosen positionality and projected outward toward others. First toward my daughter’s mother and grandparents for allowing her to watch the movie in the first place, and then toward my daughter for choosing to watch it a second time. Had I been able to step outside myself and see what they were focused on in the story (the unconditional love), I would have gained an appreciation of their viewpoint and compassion for their desires to have that same kind of love and acceptance in their lives.
It is critical that we don’t become so self-righteous that we allow ourselves to focus on the negative things that happen around us. Instead, we can look for uplifting messages and focus on that. It is equally important to remain cognizant of the fact that others are not always seeing things as we see them. To judge them for their thoughts before even knowing what they are thinking is not only wrong, but also, quite frankly, idiotic. To avoid this mistake, we must first be purposeful of the direction in which we place attention and look for the good in all people. Only then can we open our minds to other people’s way of thinking. If, in so doing, we see that they are looking at things in a pessimistic way, we will be better equipped to lift them up rather than bring them down.