Monday, July 23, 2012

Understanding Judgment

Prior to this post, the word judgment has appeared only eight times and in only four different posts on this blog. And only one of them, here, discusses how we judge other people. I know I write the blog, but even I am shocked by the fact that judgment has not graced it more often. After all, judgment is fundamental to both yoga and the law, albeit for different reasons.

Being a lawyer means thinking a lot about judgment and not only the day in law school when I realized it is not spelled judgement. That was a profound day but I digress. Of course judges are asked to make judgments. But so are lawyers. Our clients expect us to know how the judge is going to judge, but we also have to stand up in court and explain to the judge why the “other side” is wrong, or why our client’s “side” is right. There are few ways around it; the law is adversarial.

Yoga is the exact opposite. Yoga teaches us to notice without judgment, to simply listen. It is not good or bad whether we can touch our toes or stand on our head. It is not good or bad whether we can meditate for an hour or 30 seconds. It is not good or bad if we are angry or happy. It is not good or bad if you practice Bikram or Anusara. Yoga is about learning not to judge, about learning how to be with what is and notice what is. Yoga helps us see the entire situation, not just our mind's version of the situation.

On the mat, this non-judgment is about our inner selves. We turn our inner vision compassionately on where we are today. While our ego may tell us we should be able to go deeper into a posture or we should be able to stop the thoughts in our mind, I think many people understand how to be non-judgmental about what happens on the mat. Whether it happens in practice is another story, but this is why it is called a practice. We are practicing being less judgmental with ourselves on the mat, and over time, it gets easier.

As it gets easier on the mat, off the mat, we can turn this same non-judgmental, compassionate eye on our actions and interactions with other people. This is taking the practice to an entirely new level, but we start with friends and family, those with whom we can practice, and if we make a mistake, hopefully will forgive us. When someone treats us in ways that cause us harm, we can look at them non-judgmentally and compassionately and know that even if their actions cause us harm, the intent to cause harm may not have been there. A bad day can make even our best friends treat us in ways we would not like, and I know I have certainly treated people in ways I would rather not on my most difficult days.  

There is no question this is a difficult practice. It is very easy to get pulled into the downward spiral of the pain and to lash out in response. It is easy to judge the other person, and ourselves, for actions that cause pain. But as the on-the-mat lessons begin to permeate our daily lives, we can begin to notice that judgment in the moment. We can learn to recognize them and step out of them and see them for what they are - a bad day, or a miscommunication. This understanding provides the foundation for the compassion people need from us.

In short, yoga has helped me differentiate an action from a person’s core being. And as the practice has deepened, it expands beyond ourselves and our friends and family to strangers and even "adversaries."

There is nothing about lawyering that requires us to decide a person is bad. Nothing. But the adversarial nature of a courtroom makes it difficult to hold the entire story. While there are some amazing problem-solving courts in this country where the focus is not on punishment but on rehabilitation, the vast majority of our courts remain adversarial. In the criminal context, this means that people who commit crimes because of untreated mental health issues end up in prison.

Those mental health issues become important, and the defense attorney’s job is to bring them out, but the action is punished by jail or prison time. We ask twelve people who have never met the defendant to determine whether he or she is guilty based upon very simple elements of a crime. We ask them to judge.  We leave little room for the entire story.

I want to be clear that I do not think it is okay to kill people, rob people, etc. But as I said here, judging the person is difficult. Yoga has taught me that. And the law continues to require there to be judgment. On one level, I know this is necessary. Child abusers, while they may have been abused themselves as children, should not be around children until they can prove they will never again touch a child. But I have yet to figure out how to reconcile this with the non-judgment practice on the mat. Perhaps this is why this issue has graced the pages of this blog so infrequently. I have come to no conclusions.

I have learned so many lessons from law and yoga in my life. I have learned so much about how similar they are and how much they can enrich each other. But here I see a fundamental difference, and probably a necessary one. So I turn to you. I want to hear what you think. What do you do? What about you? Do you see a difference? How do you understand judgment in your life?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.


  1. What an interesting article! It really must be exception difficult to deal / juggle with these two aspects of judgment in your life!