Reprinted from Spirituality & Health magazine, June 2005.

People bug me. All kinds of people. Like the guy who takes up two parking spaces for his SUV. Or the kids who toss beer cans along my favorite hiking trail.

I actually feel hateful toward these people. When I think about them, my stomach clenches and my eyes narrow and I feel an ugly surge of, well, hate. It doesn't last that long, and I don't identify with it, yet still, for that one moment when I'm awash in hate's fury, I just want to wring their necks.

Why does this matter? Because I'm a "spiritual teacher." After a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter and filmmaker, my life fell apart, my heart broke wide open, and now I write books on love and happiness and travel around the country giving talks on how to achieve them. Does that make me a hypocrite? I'll let you decide. But one thing is certain - it makes me a human being.

Human beings love to hate. Even more, they love to judge. While hate is a feeling, judgment is its rationale. We allow ourselves the perverse pleasure of our hatred when we decide that those who elicit it are evil, or some kind of threat, or that they've wronged us. Even when we're not actually in the direct experience of hate, we still thrive on enumerating all the reasons that these people are different from us, less than us.

Of course I've exaggerated. Often, rather than full-blown hatred, it's just annoyance or irritation that accompanies our judgments. That's certainly the case with my personal examples above. But such low-grade judgments can actually be even more toxic than the hate-fueled variety. This is because they're able to proliferate beneath our radar. Not only can we be unaware that they exist, but we may even deny them outright. Sometimes, those of us who pride ourselves on personal growth, who think we're beyond judgment, turn out to be the most judgmental of all.

The Bible admonishes, "Judge not lest ye be judged." But in my experience, it's impossible not to judge. We all do it, all the time. And it hurts us far more than those we judge. It isolates us, makes us small, and bars us from our spiritual essence.

None of this, however, is a problem. In fact it's a wonderful opportunity. Recognizing our judgments, and working with them skillfully, is how we cultivate compassion. And cultivating compassion is the key to well-being.

An Open and Shut Case

Think of someone you love. Choose a person whose very name brings about an automatic inner smile. Next, invite all the emotions and sensations associated with this person to fill you up completely. Then turn your attention to your body and notice what you feel. Chances are you feel open, flowing, a little more connected to yourself and the world around you. This state of being, which we'll refer to as Expansion, is what allows us to be fully present in any moment or situation. It's also the pathway to our greatest wisdom and creativity.

Now think of someone truly reprehensible. Whether part of your own life or a public figure, make sure this is a person whom you judge harshly. Next, invite all that judgment to fill you up completely. Then turn your attention to your body and notice what you feel.

Chances are you feel scrunched up, shut down, a little less connected to yourself and the world around you. This state of being, which we'll refer to as Contraction, is what limits our presence in any moment or situation. In a contracted state, we're unable to gain access to the breadth and depth of our perspective, or to cultivate peace of mind.

Most of the time, we exist somewhere between the opposing poles of expansion and contraction. But taken together, these two simple exercises point toward an important principle: judgment makes us feel bad. And when we feel bad, it's much harder to be our best.

Caveman Logic

Even if this principle were well understood, it wouldn't be enough to make us surrender our most closely held judgments. That's because there's an instinctive part of our brains that functions in a strictly binary fashion. All it knows is yes/no, good/bad, us/them. Psychologists refer to this aspect of thought as "primitive splitting." When we're expanded, such primitive splitting easily gives way to a more nuanced outlook. But when we're contracted, primitive splitting takes hold of us like a hypnotic trance.

The first key in breaking this trance is awareness. Once we realize the impact of primitive splitting, it becomes natural to regard virtually every judgment with suspicion.

I experienced this firsthand in my early 30s. It was at Thanksgiving dinner, where I became furious with both my parents. In my mind they weren't just bad; they were all bad. This was nothing new, but with a recent understanding of primitive splitting, I was no longer willing to indulge myself. It just didn't feel right anymore to stay up late, nibbling leftovers, dissecting my parents' shortcomings with equally disdainful siblings.