Monday, July 06, 2009

MPOW #24 - Witnessing Self-Judgment

“Our opinions of ourselves actually get in the way of being ourselves.” -Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2007

My friend and fellow salsa and tango dancer recently shared this. It's such a simple and powerful notion to reflect on. For fun, I'll look at it in the context of a dance class. A dance class can often function as a individual or couples therapy, and like any really effective therapy session often involves a meditative state.

Early in a dance class series, you may already be judging yourself: "I'm too fat." "I'm too weak." "I'm not attractive enough to be here." "I'm wearing the wrong clothes and look sloppy." "I'm the best looking person here." "I'm already a better dancer than these other people; I shouldn't be here." "I'm really good at this already."

Dancing is just an idea here, and you may feel this in any class or any gathering. You quickly catch yourself judging yourself or others. Over time, you may begin to be down on yourself for where you are or over-inflate your internal image and miss opportunities. Remember that Stories Define Reality, so tread cautiously where you enter story-ground.

Sometimes, in a dance class though, if you're eager and comfortable being there, you're often in a wide-open state of learning, receptive to teaching and improvements without judging yourself. This is often referred to as "beginner's mind" or shoshin in the Zen tradition. This is an important state to cultivate at all times, no matter your skill level: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

The less that you know about yourself, the less that you box yourself in to a particular definition. Our authentic selves are all limitless and expansive, the more that we form opinions or place definitions on ourselves, the tighter the box that we have created. We begin to limit our infinite nature to something that we can understand or explain. Even if we are being positive, this actually does us a disservice by both making us narrow and also less likely to learn.

The Mindfulness Practice of the Week - Witnessing Self-Judgment

For this week, take some time to explore how you define yourself. You can do this while doing something of any skill level. Likely, it is easier to notice when we beat ourselves up. So, throughout the week, take some time to do something which which you're uncomfortable, such as stripping down in front of a full length mirror, and deeply examine yourself. Are you judging? Are you noticing flaws? See if you can recognize the judgments that you can make about yourself, and let them go. What do you notice as you do this? What are the concepts that you repeat.

Be gentle with yourself as you notice these things. In From Self-Judgment to Being Ourselves Dianna Winston reminds us how normal it is to engage in this comparison:
The Buddha had a word for comparison, the word màna, which means pride or ego or thinking too much about ourselves. A lot of our judgments say “I’m greater than, I’m lesser than, or I’m equal to this or that,” and this is just màna— pride or ego coming up in the mind. The thing that I find so interesting about màna is that 2500 years ago, when the Buddha was alive, people were judging themselves just as much as we do now. They were judging others, and comparing everything. When I remember this I think, “Oh, actually ‘comparing mind’ is normal. Everybody does it.”

See if you can let them evaporate and just be Comfortable with What Is.

This post is dedicated to my friend and dancing psychologist Solomon Kurz.


  1. In a world where we are raised to worship 'perfection', this is a very good idea. From the cradle, we're taught to not like ourselves.

    I like this exercise and plan to give it a shot.

  2. I'd love to know how this practice goes for you. Please share. Thank you so much for letting me know that this appeals to you and your thoughts on it.

    Perfection is such a curious concept. I recommend redefining it for yourself. I've done that for myself:

    Then I found this page, which is sweet and touching:

  3. It really resonates with me when you write: “The less that you know about yourself, the less that you box yourself in to a particular definition.” In a way, the more you think you know about yourself the less you really do. This strain of thought really hit home for me a few days ago.

    For about as long as I’ve been old enough to form an opinion of myself I’ve considered myself introverted and shy. This has been more or less prominent, waxing and waning, from season to season and year to year. For the last three or four years, during the beginning of which my degree of shyness was on the more intense end of my shyness spectrum, the issue has been at the forefront of my mind. It was very bothersome and felt like it was preventing me from living in an authentic, comfortable, and fulfilling way. So about two years ago I began making a conscious effort to become more social.

    Since then I’ve grown and changed a lot, particularly the past six to twelve months. Some of the friends I’ve made this past year have been really surprised when I described myself as she and an introvert. But more so than that, people are beginning to react to me differently. This past weekend I was in a couple situations and interacted with some new people that, upon reflection, really challenge how I think about myself. I recognized how different my self-image has become from how I’m apparently conducting myself. The revelation is jarring. My old box is no longer accurate (if it ever really was -- but that’s another essay altogether) and now I wonder what size and shape my new box should be. It’s an astonishing predicament to find oneself in. I’m not radical enough to suggest that creating conceptional boxes for ourselves is without value, but these boxes of ours, they are tricky tricky little things. There’s no telling to what degree my old box hindered not only my growth, but robbed me a fuller appreciation of that growth.

  4. I've been dealing with combating wrong beliefs and have recently been doing some automatic writing that has really woken me up to some beliefs that might be under some problems I've been having...which made me remember an incident where I was reading a book and came across a sentence that I had a deep seated belief against to the point that my mind literally erased the conflicting word...I saw a blank where the word was suppose to be...a friend kept pointing at the blank space telling me I was skipping a word..that was 5 years ago and I'm still struggling to accept that truth because my experiences say otherwise even though deep down I can see the fault it thinking.

  5. S - Powerful stuff. Thank you for sharing your truth and your situation. It's good to have people all learning together. My mentor has shared with me the following idea which helps me use boxes and look past them at the same time. When him and I speak about patterns at work, we're also talking about patterns of living and being. When sharing a model with me he said: Like all models it's wrong, but it's still a useful tool. All models are wrong, but they can still be useful.

    Jesalyn & S - This reminds me so much about don Miguel Ruiz's concept of the agreements that we make with ourselves throughout our lives. And that these agreements often limit who we are. He has proposed the Four Agreements as a system to replace our limiting agreements. These help us to grow and be our truest selves.

  6. So I reflected on this issue of "defining one's self" last night as I was going to bed. I pondered on how I have had a fluid definition of the way I would desire to perceive myself as. As in, my definition has constantly been changing.
    I agree with the idea that in many ways, defining oneself can create a box that leads to many existential limitations. “I'm tough, I'm smart, I'm sexy, I'm [better], are all frames of mind that very limiting. As I reflect on the ways that I have tried to define myself as, or [be], I realize that many of my past practices were based on material idioms; similar to the examples above. (Egoisms and vanity mainly).
    As I became older and more mature I strove shed these materialisms. Through this process however, I still attached [definitions] to myself... and to a degree I still do. The only difference between now and then, is that my definitions have become more and more abstract/universal. In other words, if i'm going to attach a definition to myself, then it shouldn't separate me from anything. If anything, a (fluid) definition should be a medium for me to understand my connection to this world. And the point of all that to me is, to head towards the direction of finding myself in this universe.

    Maybe I'm off a bit, and should read “define” differently?

    I guess all and all, I strive to be virtuous according to my own nature, hoping/knowing that it will continue to guide me through this life. I do know this however, pointing back to our friend, the Dancing Soldier; The more (materialisms, constructs) I let go of, the easier [my] dance becomes.

    Letting go... maybe we should thank a portion of our individualistic/competitive/materialistic(U.S.) culture for giving us soooo many things to let go of?

    I dig your blog-

  7. Brandon, thanks for writing and sharing. Yours was one of the comments that has gotten me to start sharing my writings again. For a while, I've been writing privately and not publishing, though receiving your comment, with the nuances that you touch on, has reminded me to blog for the 2-way conversation.

    I think that you're on to something. Fluidity of definition feels key. In time slices, we need someway to pinpoint a slice of ourselves so that we can be authentic to ourselves, while still realizing that this is just an approximation of our infinitely complex self. The fluidity lets us slide this around as we need to.

    My mentor Jeff Braaten shared with me a concept that I find important: that all models are imperfect, but they can still be valuable. And I think that's just it. Having a simple model to understand ourselves is useful in any moment for making decisions, and as you put it, keeping it fluid lets us avoid the trap and move on to something else that will work. Thank you.