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.

But I couldn't let go of my judgments just by force of will. For that, I needed the help of my fiancée. Both of us had spent time in the film industry, so I put it to her this way: "When I watch characters in a movie, no matter how despicable their actions, I can always see them as whole. I can appreciate the personal histories that led them to their transgressions. But I just can't seem to do that with Mom and Dad. So help me; describe them for me as if they were totally fictional."

This approach worked like magic. The trance broke. By imagining them cinematically, I was able to view my parents with sudden expansion. They still had flaws, of course, just like me and everyone else. But no longer were they mind-made monsters.

There Is No Them

Once we're aware of primitive splitting, it's easier to look more closely at two related fallacies of the judgmental mind. The first is our tendency to group people we disagree with into an opposing camp. This creates the "them" in us vs. them. It may include those of a different religion, political view, gender, sexual preference, aesthetic, subculture, personality type, class, ethnicity, culture, location, lifestyle, or even just a single opinion or trait that veers from ours.

The main result, when we group people in this way, is that we feel better than them. It may be a temporary salve, but underneath this illusion of superiority is a sense of separation. Separation always leads to contraction, which is at the heart of why judgment feels so bad. (Plus, even if we actually were "better" than those we judge on some ultimate moral scale, the very act of our judging, ironically, would serve to erase that distinction once and for all.)

One example of how this works is when someone cuts us off in traffic. Usually, even if we don't like to admit it, our initial fit of pique leads to an automatic mental tirade such as Those damn [fill in ethnic group]! Or fat people. Or rich people. Or tourists. After such an outburst, whether shouted silently or at full volume, there may be a momentary satisfaction. The results of such condemnation, however, far outweigh any benefit.

Another example can be found in an exercise that I routinely include at workshops. This exercise comes after a couple days of bonding and mutual support that brings everyone very close together. At this point, I ask participants to look around the room and imagine that every person they see holds a viewpoint on abortion that's vehemently opposed to their own. Then I ask them to notice if just this imaginary division of opinion creates a sense of superiority, separation, and contraction. Uniformly, the answer is yes.

But this exercise, helpful as it is, carries within it the second related fallacy of the judgmental mind. Whenever we lump people into a "them" of any variety, there's an assumption that all those in the group are basically the same. We may call them Palestinians or Israelis, tree huggers or loggers, atheists or fundamentalists. Though it's necessary to use such labels to communicate, at the same time, they're always false. Only from a distance do any two individuals seem alike. While they may share certain key characteristics, there are also millions of distinctions - inherited, learned, chosen - that make them absolutely unique.

Therefore, at best, labeling any type of "them" is a dangerous convenience. In addition to perpetuating contraction, it dulls our wisdom and distorts our interactions. This is true at every level of society, from governments to organizations to families to the secret corners of our own minds.

There Is No Us

Just as it's a fallacy to think of any opposing group as a uniform "them," it's also a fallacy to think of any of our own communities as a unified "us." This idea can be hard to swallow, because we want so badly for there to be an "us." In the core of our being we need to belong. We gain strength in numbers, even when those numbers add up to a small minority. It feels so reaffirming to hear a sermon or stump speech from someone who powerfully puts forth our view, the right view.

And yet, every alliance is temporary. Every coalition is provisional. Every group, no matter how seemingly stable, is in constant flux. It's no surprise that the most successful and dynamic churches I visit are also the ones most in turmoil. Powerful groups comprise powerful personalities, and sooner or later cohesion will give way to discord. Sub-groups and splinter groups are always just around the bend. That's why there are Blue Dog Democrats and Log Cabin Republicans, Reform Jews and Liberation Theologists. That's why your die-hard group of college friends may not be so tight anymore, and why a reading group that bonds over the shared love of one book may break apart in dissension over another.

Once we're able to embrace that there is no fixed "us," it's no longer as necessary to identify with our judgments, to base our sense of self on who and what we include, exclude, champion, or deride. And that's when the real work can begin, when we're finally ready to use our judgments as tools for growth and healing.

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How-to: Seven Steps to Relaxing Your Judgment >>

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