Judgment Is Here. And There. And There.


Image by Abby Lanes

I’ve been doing an exercise with my students lately where we look closely at our judgments.

What is a judgment, anyway? What I’ve found is that a judgment is any thought based on a belief. So, what is a belief? Well, it turns out beliefs are everywhere. If it’s a thought that can change, it’s probably a belief. Think about it. Let’s look at something we can all agree on, say, the color green. If I told you that I was wearing a green sweater right now, you’d have an image of it in your head, right?

But there are many shades of green—we go to so much effort trying to name them all, but still fall short—apple green, artichoke, asparagus, avocado, bright green, Cal Poly green, chartreuse, cyan, dark green, dark olive green, dark spring green, Dartmouth green, emerald, fern green, forest green, green, green-yellow, harlequin, honeydew, hunter green, India green, Islamic green, jungle green, Kelly green, lawn green, lime, lime green, mantis, Malachite, mint, mint cream, office green, olive, olive drab, Pakistan green, Paris green, Persian green, phthalo green, pigment green, pine green, pistachio, sea green, shamrock green, spring bud, spring green, teal, viridian, yellow-green. Which shade of green is this sweater, or do we need to invent another one for it?

And who is to say that even if we can agree on a name for the shade, that we’re both seeing the same thing? Maybe my green looks a little like your red, who knows?

So ‘green’ is a belief. It’s an idea that we’ve all agreed on, but that doesn’t stop it from being an idea.

Here’s another one: my name is Jamie. I should know, people have been calling me that all my life, and I’ve even put it on my website. I’m pretty sure that my name is Jamie. But how do I really know? I’m also a father (another belief), and I remember it taking us two weeks to come up with our son’s name. But how did we know? We didn’t. We couldn’t. We just needed something to yell authoritatively when he was being naughty. And to say lovingly the rest of the time, but the yelling authoritatively thing is important—be sure to practice it before you go naming anyone! So if his name is a belief, I suppose mine must be too.

And it goes on; say I’m looking at a wall. It’s a wall, right? That’s pretty straightforward. Maybe. Am I looking at the wall or the paint? Does the wall have texture? Am I looking at that? If I’m looking at the texture, am I looking at the wall or the gaps that make the texture? Is there a crack in it? Again, is it a crack or is it air? Am I looking at darkness? And am I looking at brick, cement, wood? Mortar? The more I look, the more it breaks down, and every breakdown is another belief, and another, and another.

The truth is, everything I see is what I think it is. My whole perception of the world is constructed entirely of beliefs; of judgments.

That’s what perception is, after all: my five senses receive raw data and transport that information to my brain; the brain—depending entirely on how it already sees the world—dismisses the bulk of this data as irrelevant, and processes the rest through a lens that already knows what it wants to see. My beliefs define what I experience. My whole experience of the world is one big judgment!

What would life be like without judgment? Would it even be possible? Surely we need to judge that we’re hungry or that we shouldn’t step over that cliff. How could you drive if your judgment didn’t tell you that is a stop sign and that is a pedestrian?

The short answer is, how would I know? Like you, I live in judgment all the time. However, I have occasionally been able to still my mind enough to be able to notice that small space between sensation and perception. It is a wide open space of awareness that is beyond perception. It is a state of wonder. We all have that space: if you have sensation and if you have perception, you have the space between.

Allow yourself to be still. Really still. Focus just on one thing, maybe the breath since it’s sitting with you right now. Just focus on that place at the tip of the nostrils where you can feel it coming in cool and going out warm. Just that. When you notice a thought has come—and many will—thank it kindly for its existence and let it go on its way, knowing it is just another belief, another judgment; knowing that if you really need that thought, it’s bound to return sometime. Come back to the breath. Don’t force it, just breathe normally. When you notice a sensation—an itch, a pain, whatever—just let it be; recognize that in calling it an itch or a pain that you’ve entered once again into belief, into judgment. If you find that sensation too distracting, spend a few moments exploring it without naming it. What is this feeling? Where does it go? What does it do? Then return, as ever, to the breath. The tip of the nostrils. In. Out. In. Out. Cool. Warm. Cool. Warm. Just notice. Just notice.

And who knows? You may, at some point, find yourself in that small, yet infinite, space between sensation and perception. It’s a nice place to be.

This Instant Is the Only Time There Is

Image by dynamosquito
Image by dynamosquito

Today I’ve been pondering this thought: “This instant is the only time there is.”

Have you ever tried to find an instant? Have you ever dropped into the space between the past and the future? Have you ever known the only time there is?

For me, it’s hard to pinpoint. I keep finding myself preparing for it with thoughts of what should come next, and as those thoughts arise, I miss it. I experience an approximation of it; I experience what my mind tells me it thinks it is.

But when I get very still, interesting things begin to happen. Things become less solid. The body I inhabit begins to evaporate. My schedule disappears. It doesn’t last long, though. A thought comes, I attach to it, and I’m back here in memory-land.

The instant is the holy grail of mindfulness. Living only in the moment—the space between the present and the past—is the only way to experience reality as it truly is.

Most of us think we know what reality is, but what we call reality is actually our perception of reality. That’s why my ‘reality’ is different from your ‘reality’. Think about it: how could one person’s reality actually be different from someone else’s? Reality is reality. There is nothing else.

So when our experience of ‘reality’ is variable—which is most of the time for most of us—what we are actually experiencing is our perception of reality, guided entirely by our experience of the past, which dictates what we think reality should look like. When we get upset by things in our lives, it is because we think things should be different than they are. Here’s a newsflash: they aren’t.

When we are truly mindful, we do not dictate to reality how things should be. When we are truly mindful, we experience reality as it is. When we are truly mindful, we find ourselves existing solely in this moment. And when we are existing solely in this moment, everything is experienced as being perfect. Our judgments—our perceptions—are the only thing that could tell us otherwise.

So I invite you to join me in trying to drop into the instant. It’s been said that the instant is the closest approximation to eternity we can hope to experience in the physical form. So let’s find out what forever feels like!

The Squirrels and the Tree

In the mornings I go out to a little cabin in the woods to contemplate and experience a little mindfulness the easy way: by sitting, noticing my breathing, and trying to find a little stillness.

And when I say ‘the easy way’, it’s really not always that easy. Some mornings my mind is like an amusement park; I sit there for 20 or 30 or 40 minutes without a single space between my thoughts. They just roll on, a nonsensically random action-thriller-romance-comedy movie without a pause button. In fact, it’s a rare event that my thoughts leave me for long enough for me to claim I spent more time in stillness than in mental acrobatics.

That’s why they call it a practice, I suppose. We have to keep practicing, because stillness—that serene space between thoughts—is often hard to come by. We have to keep practicing, because we were born with brains that like to keep busy, and minds that love being still.

After a particularly long sit this morning, I opened my eyes to find a meditative face in a tree looking back at me. I sit in this same spot almost every morning, and this morning was the first time I noticed this face, this reflection of the sitter in the cabin, grounded, still, silent. Solid.

See the face?
I stared back at my new friend, thinking of the symbolism it represented, and noticed a flicker just above it. A squirrel was darting about, jumping from branch to branch in its frantic preparation for winter. And then I saw another! Two jumpy squirrels, another perfect reflection of my mind.

I am that face in the tree. I am those squirrels. And the scene outside my window is incomplete without them both.

Why Me?

It is said that you teach what you most need to learn. When I was a kid my stepfather refused to buy me a Walkman because he thought I was already off with the fairies all the time and didn’t need anything to further immerse me in my own world.

I know what unmindfulness looks like.

A few years later I was explaining to a podiatrist that I had weak ankles, which is why I kept spraining them.

“No,” he said. “Your head doesn’t know where your feet are.”

“No,” I replied. “I’ve got weak ankles.”

“Your head doesn’t know where your feet are.”

I haven’t sprained an ankle since.

So, I’m very capable of being unmindful, and I’ve also been able to learn at least enough mindfulness to avoid a little unnecessary pain.

Here’s the thing: a master of mindfulness is really only in a position to share their experience of being a master with you. I am no master. I can share the experience of attempting to master mindfulness with you.

And I’ve had plenty of that experience. I’ve been practicing mindfulness in earnest for most of the past 12 years, and I’m as passionate about it now as I’ve ever been. I love experiencing those glimpses of insight that come with constant practice; I love developing my awareness to a point where I now experience the world quite differently than I used to; I love catching myself time and again slipping back into unmindfulness, and finding newfound clarity through doing that.

Most importantly, I love sharing what I’ve learned with others, and (even more importantly) learning even more from them. Except for a fortunate few, the path to mindfulness is a lifelong journey. It’s much easier walking that path holding somebody’s hand than it is alone.

Come hold my hand for a while…

What Is Mindfulness?


Image © Harry Koopman
Image © Harry Koopman

There was a person on a quest to find the secret of happiness. They heard about a man who lived in a cave near the top of a mountain who had the answer, so he set out to find him. It took him years. The mountain was very remote and difficult to climb, and the higher they got the wilder the weather became. And as they reached the top, they discovered the mountain was littered with caves. After searching through hundreds of them, they finally found the man, old and wizened with a straggly beard that went down to his knees. The person fell at his feet and said, “I’ve been on a quest to find you for the past three years. I nearly died three or four times, and I feel I could die of exhaustion now. Please, before I die, tell me the secret to happiness.”

“Awareness,” replied the old man.

“Awareness? Are you serious? I’ve given up everything to find you; sacrificed money, friends and family; suffered incredible hardships; and all you have to give me is one word? Please, give me something more. What is the secret to happiness?”

“Awareness. Awareness. Awareness,” replied the old man.


That is all mindfulness is: awareness. Call it attention if you like. Call it focus. Call it presence. It doesn’t really matter, it’s all essentially the same thing. But what is awareness? You’re aware all the time, right? When you cross the street, you look both ways; when you drive, you keep your eyes on the road; when you watch TV, you watch and listen at the same time.

Maybe. I would suggest that there is a part of us that is aware all the time, it just may not be the part you think. But I don’t know you, I only know what I’ve noticed in me, and that is that I’m rarely what I would consider to be truly aware.

I made myself oatmeal for breakfast this morning. Normally, I eat and read at the same time (therefore not dedicated complete awareness to either activity), but this morning there was nothing immediately available to read, so I just ate instead. The first mouthful was sensational: the perfect combination of oatmeal and blueberries and honey and milk. I was really impressed with it and vowed to appreciate the whole bowl. But I didn’t. Before I knew it, the bowl was finished and I hadn’t fully experienced another mouthful. My mind was elsewhere, and now that was the only place the oatmeal would exist—a memory filed under ‘Lost Opportunities.’

Awareness would be fully savoring each and every spoonful of that oatmeal: noticing the feel of the spoon in my hand; feeling my arm raise towards my mouth; experiencing the sensations of the spoon and food entering my mouth; exploring all the tastes and textures of the food in my mouth; and then following the food as it works its way down my throat and towards my stomach. And then doing it all again.

Mindfulness is awareness is presence. Notice what is going on in your mind when you’re experiencing an unpleasant emotion—say sadness or anger or resentment. Where is your mind when that is happening? It’s not here, is it? It’s off in the past thinking about some injustice committed against you, or projecting into the future, engaged in an imaginary conversation or picturing what all this injustice could lead to. Which is why the secret to happiness is awareness: when you’re truly present, it’s impossible to experience a negative emotion.

You don’t believe me, do you? What if you just found yourself face to face with a cobra, and it was poised to strike? Of course you’d be scared, right? Yes, I do believe I would be scared. But as I said earlier, I’m rarely truly present. Where is the fear? I know that cobras are poisonous, and when they’re sticking up like that, they’re likely to strike: that is all knowledge I’m digging up from the past. I know that if it strikes, it might kill me and I’ll be in a lot pain: that is all in the future. What am I looking at when I’m truly present? I’m face to face with one of God’s creatures: in front of me is a true wonder of nature and all I want is to take it all in. I have just fallen in love again; just as I do every time I come across something new.

And here’s the kicker: everything is new when I’m truly present. Look around you. There’s a lot of familiar things there, right? But just how familiar are they? Do you know each of these things intimately—every color, every texture, every smell—or are most of these things just etched in your memory somewhere, like yesterday’s oatmeal? Mindfulness, true awareness, is experiencing each of these things as new every time you see them.

Are you there? Are you able to fully experience each and every moment? Me neither. So let’s join hands in a journey into mindfulness. Let’s try to experience the present like the gift it truly is.

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