In modern new age and spiritual circles, there is a common agreement that societies that form around the principles of modern spiritualistic ideals should be spaces free of judgement.
This sentiment, at its heart, inclines itself toward fostering a space of openness and acceptance.
In these same circles, there is also a thought that judgement is a product of selfish and negative behaviours, an act of so called ‘lower vibration’.
It’s easy to understand why people who come together to foster spiritual ideals of peace and unity are repelled by the concept of judgement.
Judgements can be viewed as harsh, critical, and as a hindrance to feelings of positivity, happiness and calm.
But could these views stem from a simple misunderstanding of the true need for judgement?
In many ways, our modern view of the word ‘judgement’ or ‘judge’ is fostered by our view of the state and its judiciary.
The word judge springs to mind the image of a rambunctious, fat old man sitting high above, banging a gavel and shouting at the court.
To judge, in new age circles, is most often perceived as the adoption of a position higher than others. Something associated with ego and selfishness.
It’s also viewed as a product of rigorous order and patriarchal dominance – a paradigm that those in spiritual circles hope to evolve out of. (Although popular TV personality Judge Judy has certainly solidified the archetype of the matriarchal bestower of punishment.)
As a result, the common axiom of “You can’t judge me” has been liberated from the domain of trashy TV talk shows and made its way into the words of the free-love folk.
Broadening our perception of the concept of judgement, when we have a judge of a contest, we indeed suffer no conceptual anxiety in accepting that judge’s final decision.
So what is the difference between the person that judges a contest, and of those who judge a person’s actions?
Looking at the teachings of the Buddha, a figurehead of the spiritualistic community, you can see quite acutely, that the concept of judgement, is fundamental to the practice of mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition.
If you look at the word ‘Meditation’, a key element in the tradition of modern mindfulness practice, you can see that, etymologically, it points to a range of interesting and relevant concepts.
In the western sphere, meditation means ‘contemplation, devotions, prayer’ from the Old French meditacoin meaning “thought, reflection and study”. And from the latin cognate of modus, meaning ‘measure’ or ‘manner’. And in a general sense, meditare, to ponder over or to put the mind to.
In reference to the eastern tradition, the word meditation stems from the Sanskrit midiur meaning “to judge, or estimate”.
So looking at these etymological roots, and considering the extension of the modern meaning of the word, we can casually determine that the true meaning of the word judgement is to contemplate and to measure actions in oneself and in others.
In the modern sense, a good judge is one who can measure the actions in oneself and others that are beneficial. And part of what the Buddha referred to in his teachings is to be able to see if an action causes harm or benefit for oneself or others.
If a person truly observes another person engaging in actions that may harm others, and can categorically determine that those actions will indeed cause harm, that they are correct in their judgement of those actions.
Keeping in mind that all judgement is merely a measurement, or a pondering, then we can determine that a good judge is one who can measure well what is harmful or beneficial.
Of course, what is harmful or beneficial is its own precarious minefield of interpretations. Which is why acute application of wisdom, or Paññā, in the eastern context, is required.
A good judge is wise, fair, well learned, and just in their delivering of their assessment or measurement of the situation at hand, and this is true in the western and eastern sense of the word.
But, as the modern spiritualists tend to do, by flatly decrying all judgement as being from a place of negativity or something that should be avoided, it is an adoption of ignorance in the truest sense – namely, that in the pursuit of good feelings and calm, there is an eschewing of careful discernment of the implications of one’s actions.
This eschewing of critique is a prime exemplification of the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’.
If an individual seeks out a life where measurement, criticism or indeed, judgement, is not part of their experience, then they are privy to a reality that is never questioned or analysed.
This reality would be akin to a student piano player, agreeing at the beginning of the lesson with a learned teacher to never critique or analyse the notes played. It would result in a tone deaf piano player, blissfully hammering out a sequence of tonally inconsequential notes, and expecting applause at the end of each lesson.
The feeling of being a great piano player might be realised by the student in their own ignorance (or in the eastern sense, Avidya).
But the actuality, or objective reality of that student being a good piano player would never take shape. Simply because the student would not want any critique that would be incongruent with their perception of themselves being a great piano player.
The North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is a great example of this kind of ignorance. The reality shows that Jong Un is a man who surrounds himself by sycophants who have been instructed to constantly reaffirm that he is indeed a great leader. Jong Un, by association with people who never actually tell him the truth, believes himself to be a great leader, when the facts indicate anything but.
This level of absolutist ignorance is a prime concern of Buddhist practice. It is, in and of itself, Avidya, and a prime root of the cause of dissatisfaction, or Dukkha, that the Buddha dedicated his life to quashing. Dukkha, as the Buddha laid out in his formulations, is the antithesis of calm or peace (Sukkha).
Consider a piano player that, with humility, and wisdom (Paññā), knows that they know nothing about playing a piano, and goes to a teacher to learn piano properly. The teacher is critical and judgemental of every note played, and after years of practice, the student emerges with a primary understanding of how a piano piece should sound to be pleasing to the ears of others, or, in other words, how to play a piano piece beneficially for all people.
It’s a much, much harder and disparaging path to go down, but the piano player can find great peace in performing a beautiful piece of music and bring joy to those around them. By virtue of the continued, applied practice, the piano player effortlessly performs. This effortlessness, by its own application, in its own sense, is peace and calm (Sukkha).
Critique, analysis and judgement are fundamental to the improvement of the human condition. If we want to improve, learn and further ourselves as human beings in our thoughts, words and deeds, sometimes we need to find good judges not only for our performances, but for our very lives.
Finding good judges, however? Well, that’s the hard bit. But it’s nothing a bit of wisdom can’t get around.