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Judgment vs. Discernment

"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing

and rightdoing there is a field.

I'll meet you there.


When the soul lies down in that grass

the world is too full to talk about."


This quote by Rumi often shows up in Compassionate Communication materials.  It sounds nice and at first read you might feel a "yes" in your heart.  Then you start thinking about it.  You hear yourself say, "But there are things that are just wrong.  We can't ignore that!"  You begin to think of things little and big that you think are important to label as wrong.  For example, certainly you have to teach your child that stealing is wrong.  With this thought, the first "yes" you felt from the quote leaves you and you find no fields for your soul to lie down in.


Compassionate Communication is not inviting you to ignore harmful behavior  in favor of some ideal.  It's saying that labeling things as right and wrong doesn't lead you to wise action.  Usually labels like right and wrong are based on a visceral sense of pleasure or aversion.  While this labeling process may be either coarse or contain detailed conceptual analyses, it usually offers very little insight into what actually serves life.


Regardless of its lack of usefulness, judgment will happen; you can count on your mind to habitually engage in judgment.  What you do with that is what counts.  Behaving unconsciously from judgment means you are likely trying to get away from something you don't like or get more of something you do like.  Most likely this kind of behavior will create a different versions of the same thing.  For example, as you speak angrily about how a political candidate has created more division in society, you create division in yourself and possibly those around you.  A more helpful thing to do with judgment is to notice it and become mindful of what else is happening for you or others in the moment.  This leads to discernment.


Discernment, as I am using it here, is the process of taking the time to notice what truly serves life.  With subtle and specific observations over time you discern what decisions, behaviors, words, etc. truly serve life or meet needs in any given context.  When you engage in discernment you become curious and stretch yourself to become intimate with life.  You learn about yourself, others, and the myriad and subtle ways life unfolds - you cultivate wisdom.


Faced with harmful behaviors, you can then help others to cultivate wisdom.  For example, when you find out your seven year old has stolen something, you pause.  You get curious about what might have been going on for her.  You help her get curious too, not just about her own experience, but also about the impact on others.  You help her to see both the pleasure of having the stolen item and the pain of eventual repercussions.  As you engage in this process with her again and again she learns discernment rather than an imposed list of right and wrongs.  With the skills of discernment, she can choose that which truly serves life.



Take a moment now to choose one thing to which you typically react with judgment.  Set your intention to notice this judgment next time and pause for even three minutes to observe more of your own or other's experience.

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3 Responses

  1. Oct 29, 2016

    So, that is what wise discernment is. I was struggling with my behaviour to stop being judgmental. Thank you for offering this method. It is so obvious that it has been evading me.

  2. Oct 31, 2016

    Your welcome :)

  3. Nov 01, 2016
    Karl Amo

    I find the distinction between judgment and discernment, as outlined by the article, to be useful. Reading the article triggered several thoughts in me.
    - Discernment makes increase in moral knowledge (wisdom) possible. (In most times and places of human history, moral knowledge, like technical knowledge, has been static.)
    - Nietsche: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” This quote seems to describe that judging has on one who judges.
    - Labels of right and wrong often stem from people having a belief system. A belief system gives persons certainty and identity in a group -- at the cost of denying a part of themselves, and any knowledge that contradicts one of the beliefs (James P. Carse in his book "The Religious Case Against Belief).

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