In Part VI we, Ami and Garima, wrote about the quality of gentleness that is embedded in samānubhūti, the virtue given by Gurumayi on June 24, 2022. We did this in the context of the fifth aspect of this virtue that we had identified at the outset:
Samānubhūti is responding to others with gentleness and nonjudgment.
We spoke about how gentleness is a quality that is innate to all of us, and that once we refamiliarize ourselves with our own gentleness and practice connecting with it regularly, it can eventually become second nature to us again. We can readily tap into it and exhibit it in our responses to others.
Nonjudgment differs from gentleness in that it will often require more effort on our parts to reflect it in our actions. Nonjudgment is not instinctual to us in the way that gentleness can be. It entails our being aware of our habits, opinions, and prejudices, and applying our buddhi, our intellect, to question and assess whether or not they are truly beneficial.
We first spoke about the quality of nonjudgment and its relationship to samānubhūti in Part IV. At that time, we looked at nonjudgment specifically in relation to how Gurumayi has taught about compassion—another attribute of samānubhūti. Now, we will take our exploration of nonjudgment further and build on our knowledge and understanding of it.
Many times, to understand what something is, it is helpful to learn what it is not. At other times, to understand what something is not, it is useful to learn what it is.
But when it comes to this quality—nonjudgment—things get a bit more interesting. As a term, nonjudgment has two parts—the prefix non (which means “not,” “without,” or “the reverse of,” depending on the word it’s attached to) and the root word judgment. Yet when you put those two parts together, the resulting word, nonjudgment, means and connotes something different than simply “the absence of judgment.”
It is, however, still, useful to consider how the two words—judgment and nonjudgment—are related.
Let’s start by referring to the Sanskrit and Hindi languages, wherein there is no shortage of words that have meanings similar or related to judgment. These words include nirnaya (“verdict,” “decision,” or “settlement”), viveka (“discretion,” “prudence,” “discernment”), nishchaya (“determination,” “decision”), vivechana (“judicious criticism,” “evaluation,” and “examination”—often through discussion), vichāran-shakti (“the ability to reflect and reason”), prajnā (“wisdom”), buddhi (“intellect”), and samajh (“understanding”).
What’s interesting to note in considering these different words for “judgment” in Sanskrit and Hindi is that none of them imply that judgment is inherently negative. In fact, some of these terms have decidedly positive associations! Even in English, the denotations of the word judgment are fairly benign overall. It can, for example, be taken to mean such things as evaluation, assessment, and discernment. Yet because the word judgment is not typically used with these meanings in mind, the general consensus has come to be that it has a negative connotation. If we say that someone is judging us, we generally don’t mean to say that they’re thinking highly of us, or that they’re showering us with compliments.
On its own, however, the word judgment simply refers to a cognitive process whereby we come to a conclusion about someone or something based on our knowledge or understanding of them. What’s more, this cognitive process is one that we’re all engaging in, all the time. As we go about our day-to-day lives, we are constantly having to discern, to evaluate, to examine, to apply discretion. We might say, for instance, “I decided to attend the meditation retreat instead of constantly complaining that I’m not a good meditator.” Or: “I made the choice to visit my grandparents instead of going on a vacation with my friends.” Or: “I knew the importance of passing on the knowledge I’d gained to others, in order to better their lives.”
As you can see, the judgments we make may be simple or complex. They are a natural function of our buddhi (which, not incidentally, also counts “judgment” as one of its many meanings in both Sanskrit and Hindi). In Part V of this commentary, we explained how we utilize the buddhi to understand and effectively navigate our world. We use the buddhi to make sense of things that come before us, to analyze the thoughts that cross our mind, and to determine our response to that inner or outer impetus.
And it’s not just humans who engage in this kind of analytical process. Animals and plants also display cognitive abilities to varying degrees, especially as they make decisions to ensure their survival. For example, a sunflower will turn toward the sun for light. The roots of a tree will extend outward and sink deeper into the earth in search of water. A chameleon will change its color to blend into its surroundings so that it can catch prey or hide from predators.
Some mammals display even more evolved cognitive abilities. Dolphins use different kinds of sounds to communicate with each other; some calls, for instance, function like names and are used to address other dolphins in the pod. Pigs are able to understand verbal and nonverbal cues from humans. And extensive research has shown that both chimpanzees and elephants possess powerful memories and sophisticated intellects.
Human beings, as the most evolved creatures to inhabit the earth, have been endowed with incredibly refined and powerful decision-making faculties. What is more, scientists have found that the human brain has an enormous capacity to constantly learn, change, and adapt. We have the ability to take in and assimilate new knowledge, to hold and understand multiple perspectives on a given topic or situation, to change and expand our viewpoints, and to make choices—big and small—that can effect profound transformation in our behavior.
Now, whether or not we do this is an entirely different matter. As we grow up and go through life, our views on the world—and ourselves—can become fixed, even rigid. We may start to think of our personalities, even our character, as static. We resign ourselves to our shortcomings. “What to do?” we say. “This is just the way I am.” And we project that same thinking outward. “That’s just the way they are.” “That’s just the way the world works.” When we think in this way, we are implicitly refusing to conceive of any other way of being and seeing. We are rejecting the possibility of a different or more expansive reality. And we are not taking advantage of the brain’s capacity for change, growth, and evolution.
This gives us a clue as to how judgment, an otherwise neutral—and extremely valuable—function of the mind, has come to acquire its more negative association.
To learn more, let’s delve further into the concept of buddhi. You might recall that we first spoke about buddhi in Part V as part of the larger mental apparatus of the antahkarana chatushtaya. Also making up the antahkarana chatushtaya is chitta, or the subconscious mind, which stores our memories and past impressions. These impressions are formed by factors such as our upbringing, our education, our belief systems, the norms of our society or culture, our personal principles and the moral standards we abide by, our accumulation of life experiences, and the conclusions we have drawn from those experiences.
There are also the impressions that we have carried into this lifetime. Ādi Shankarāchārya, one of the greatest exponents of the philosophy of Vedanta, explains this principle in his work Prabodha-sudhākara, “The Nectarean Ocean of Enlightenment.”
तत्कारणं स्मृतं यत्तस्यान्तर्वासनाजालम्।
tatkāraṇaṁ smṛtaṁ yattasyāntarvāsanājālam ।
In the causal body is the thick web of all past mental impressions.1
The causal body is one of the subtlest bodies of awareness in our being. It stores the latent impressions of all the past actions and experiences with which we came into this world. These dormant impressions can rise to the surface through the chitta, the subconscious mind, which also holds the memories we’ve accrued in this lifetime, and they color our perception of the world in the present.
Now, the chitta and the buddhi are constantly working together. The information stored in our chitta is what our buddhi deciphers and utilizes to make decisions. Therefore, the quality of that information—whether it is accurate or flawed—matters immensely. The choices we accordingly make shape our reality.
Vedanta gives the classic example of rajju-sarpa-bhrānti. Rajju means “rope” and sarpa means “snake.” The word bhrānti has a number of meanings, which include “confusion,” “illusion,” “delusion,” “fallacy,” and “misperception.”
In her book The Yoga of Discipline, Shri Gurumayi narrates the story of rajju-sarpa-bhrānti, enlightening us about this Vedantic concept. Allow us to share with you Gurumayi’s beautiful rendition.
One night a man named Janghu went for a walk along a country lane. He was thinking about this and that, imagining what he might do in the future. All of a sudden, he jumped with fright. A short distance from the path, a huge snake had slithered into view. It had frozen when it saw Janghu. In fact, it was clearly poised, motionless, ready to lunge forward and bite the poor fellow.
Janghu let out a scream and ran off toward the village, yelling for help and warning everyone not to walk in that direction. A couple of villagers said they would take their lanterns to see if it was really poisonous.
But Janghu wouldn’t hear of it. He told them he knew all about snakes, and that if they went there, they would die. He was sure this was the dreaded snake his grandmother used to tell him about. It was surely the one that had killed so many children, poisoned farmers in their fields, and attacked innocent travelers. His descriptions of it grew more monstrous by the minute.
Then Janghu got another idea. He would be the hero! He would save the village from this dreaded serpent by killing it himself. He could just see himself dealing it one mighty blow after the next. Totally energized by this heroic vision of himself, he marched off into the night. As he walked, he looked for a heavy stick to beat the snake with. He saw the perfect branch on a tree and grabbed it firmly to pull it down. Then he let out a cry and fell to the ground. The branch he had grabbed was no branch at all but a huge snake, which quickly dealt its fatal bite to the would-be hero.
Meanwhile, the other villagers with their lanterns inched closer and closer to the original snake, trying to scare it back into the bushes with their cries. But it didn’t move; the snake just wouldn’t move. Finally, they went right up to it and beat it hard. But there was no reaction—because there was no snake. It was a thick rope someone had dropped on the road and forgotten.
Janghu only thought he had seen a snake.2
As this story so clearly illustrates, the impressions stored in our unpurified chitta can have a disastrous effect on the kinds of judgments our buddhi makes. Additionally, those impressions can be so strong, so entrenched, that they actually cloud our faculties of perception. We see what we want to see, what we expect to see, what we’ve already concluded we’re going to see—not necessarily what is. In this way, we continue to reinforce our existing worldview. The actions we take in response are, at best, shortsighted, and at worst, actively harmful to ourselves and others.
We have just looked extensively at what judgment is, as a way to more precisely pinpoint what nonjudgment is. Earlier we mentioned that nonjudgment cannot be defined simply as “the absence of judgment.” Nonjudgment means something different, something more nuanced.
Let’s now consider what, specifically, these nuances are.
First of all, nonjudgment is not about suspending our evaluative and analytical faculties, which we need to survive and move through the world. It’s also not about blinding ourselves to the realities of a situation, in a superficial attempt to be “kind” or “accepting” of something or someone.
What, then, is nonjudgment? On the Siddha Yoga path, we learn that nonjudgment is about making the conscious effort to ensure that our analysis of this world and the people and things that inhabit it is not distorted by the false impressions stored in the chitta. And for this, sādhanā, spiritual practice, is essential.
We see the world as it is—and not as we interpret or expect it to be—when we purify the chitta, when we absorb our mind in the knowledge of the Self. The Siddha Yoga Gurus have given us many means to do this. And one of these means is the practice of being a witness, sākshī, to our thoughts, emotions, words, and actions.
As a witness, we remain aware of our own perception—our own vision of the world and the people and situations in it. As a witness, we see the world objectively as it is—free from our own concepts, biases, and judgments. As a witness, rather than immediately labeling whoever or whatever is before us, we take a step back and observe ourselves in the process of forming a judgment. When we pause (which can be for just a moment) to witness what is happening in our mind, we can ask questions about what it is we’re noticing. Is it an objective truth, something grounded in fact? Or is it a subjective perception that we’ve tricked ourselves into believing out of cynicism, jadedness, a certain intellectual laziness, or an unwillingness to conceive of other realities and possibilities? The more aware we become of the workings of our mind, the more we can understand how so much of our worldview is a choice.
In the same chapter of The Yoga of Discipline in which Gurumayi tells the story of the snake and the rope, she speaks about the importance of practicing Witness consciousness.
As you go about your day, watch your eyes. Be the Witness. Give your eyes rest, over and again, by meditating, by doing japa, by allowing the purest, the most beautiful feelings to arise in your heart. As you watch another person, give your blessings. As you see something, extend your support, your help. The energy flows out very fast through your eyes, so be the Witness. Let the eyes give the most beneficial blessings. In order to do that, keep your heart in the Witness state as well.3
The eyes that Gurumayi speaks of here are not just the physical eyes; they refer to our perspective, our vision, our understanding of what it is we’re perceiving. When we practice being a witness of ourselves and the world around us, we purify our vision and begin to see things clearly. This, in turn, puts us in touch with the ultimate sākshī, or Witness—the Self within, the one who is observing our thoughts, speech, emotions, and actions. And once we connect to the Self within, we begin seeing the Self in others. Through this practice we start cultivating the awareness of sama.
When our faculties of discernment are illuminated by the light of sama, what we exercise is not judgment in the pejorative sense, but judgment that arises from being the Witness. This pure form of judgment is viveka.
Viveka is described in the Indian scriptures as discernment that stems from the knowledge of the unchanging and constant nature of the Self. Viveka-buddhi, an intellect that is founded on viveka, takes into consideration the fluctuating factors (e.g., education, cultural background, current or past life situation, or simply our state of mind)—and then places them in the context of the fundamental, constant truth that there is one Self in all. Viveka-buddhi holds in balance both that which is ephemeral and that which is permanent; it sees both difference and the oneness pervading that difference. It has its basis in deep wisdom, prudence, practicality, respect for all beings, humility, and openness to learning. And from this more holistic awareness, viveka-buddhi makes its deductions and decisions.
Viveka is fundamental to nonjudgment, which we cultivate and strengthen when we clear the accumulated impressions in the chitta.
In his text Viveka Chūdāmani, Ādi Shankarāchārya says:
नाहं जीवः परं ब्रह्मेत्यतद्व्यावृत्तिपूर्वकम् ।
वासनावेगतः प्राप्तस्वाध्यासापनयं कुरु ॥
nāhaṁ jīvaḥ paraṁ brahmetyatadvyāvṛttipūrvakam ।
vāsanāvegataḥ prāptasvādhyāsāpanayaṁ kuru ॥
“I am not the jīva, the individual soul, I am the Supreme Brahman, the Absolute.” Discarding that which is “non-Self,” free yourself from superimpositions which have come due to the impetus of past impressions.4
As the chitta becomes clearer and, like a crystal, sphatika, reflects the light of the Self; as judgment is suspended and nonjudgment takes its seat—a whole atmosphere of goodness and virtue is created.
To get even more of a sense of all that nonjudgment encompasses, we, the writers, looked at some of the synonyms for the English word nonjudgment. To be nonjudgmental is to be, for example, unprejudiced, tolerant, open-minded, and impartial. When we reflect on these words, one of the qualities that comes to our minds is respect. To be open-minded toward someone or something, to be unprejudiced toward them, to be impartial in your view of them all require that you have a baseline of respect for them. And this respect is not the superficial kind, a tight smile or pretty words that you say to someone without really feeling their meaning. This is respect that is rooted in an awareness of sama, in a recognition of the intrinsic value of whoever or whatever is before you—whether or not you like what they’re doing, whether or not you approve of their choices.
We think it’s safe to say that the principle inherent in nonjudgment is woven through the fabric of most, if not all, cultures of the world. To illustrate this, we can’t help but turn to the example of a mother (not least because we’re both mothers ourselves!). The archetypal mother might see that her child is doing something inappropriate, she might need to tell them no or otherwise address their misbehavior, and as they get older, she might gently prod them about any of their choices and decisions that she finds questionable. But she never judges her child (in the negative sense of the word). Her belief in her child, her acceptance of her child, her trust in her child’s goodness and lovability and potential cannot be shaken.
This brings us to another feature of nonjudgment—and, by extension, of samānubhūti. When you approach someone with an attitude of nonjudgment, it very naturally fosters trust between you and the other person. That trust, in turn, gives rise within them to a greater sense of self-assuredness and self-belief.
Why is this? Well, when someone picks up on your sincere acceptance of them, on your willingness to be there for them, on your ability to listen to them without any agenda other than to support them, they start to feel safe in your company. They start to open up. They can muster the courage to be honest with themselves and about themselves. And when they feel that you are seeing their humanity, that you are recognizing their good self, then it’s easier for them to recognize that good self in themselves. This unlocks a whole world of possibility: they gain the confidence to try new things or develop new skills, they’re more capable of identifying and rectifying their mistakes without engaging in endless self-recrimination, and they’re just generally more equipped to move through the ups and downs of life.
At this juncture, we want to share a story that we find illustrates beautifully how a nonjudgmental response can inspire trust and self-assuredness in someone. This is a story from Garima, and she will tell it to you in her own voice.
In the summer of 2004, I was visiting Shree Muktananda Ashram to offer sevā. I was accompanied by my daughter, Vanita, who was nine years old and in the fourth grade at that time. One day, in a darshan with Gurumayi, I shared an incident that had taken place between Vanita and her substitute creative-writing teacher just prior to our visiting the Ashram.
Vanita had written a poem on anger to submit through her school to a well-known anthology publication. The teacher read this poem and urged Vanita to tone down the vivid imagery, giving her own suggestions of how to do so. She even insisted that Vanita re-write the poem based on this feedback.
The suggestions didn’t feel right to Vanita. So despite having her confidence take a hit, Vanita decided to submit the poem as she had written it and not worry about whether or not it would be selected for publication.
After listening to this poignant story, Gurumayi asked me to connect Vanita with several Siddha Yogis who were accomplished poets and writers. These Siddha Yogis had studied the craft of poetry extensively; they wrote their own poetry and had taught poetry and writing to others. Gurumayi suggested that they all form a group and meet regularly to share their creative works with each other—a “Poets’ Group.”
With immense gratitude in our hearts for this suggestion from Gurumayi, Vanita and I approached these Siddha Yogis and shared the suggestion with them. Each one of them was absolutely delighted to take part. And so it happened: the Poets’ Group started meeting right away while Vanita was still in the Ashram, and continued to meet remotely after she’d returned home!
These talented writers generously gave their time, their energy, and their attention to Vanita. Even though she was still a very young child, they fully embraced her as an equal and valued member of the group, showing incredible gentleness toward her and never once expressing any judgment for her lack of life experience. The group discussed, critiqued, and opined on each other’s works, respecting what everyone had to contribute.
It was beautiful to see the trust building between Vanita and the other poets; the genuineness of their interest in her work was unmistakable. I watched in wonder as my nine-year-old daughter became more confident and self-assured, her trust in her own voice growing exponentially in the warmth and encouragement shown by these grown-up poets. It was a transformational time for Vanita and her writing.
In the years since, I’ve often thought back to this time. Vanita was at that delicate age when she was still a child, and therefore quite impressionable, yet she was also starting to come into her own as a writer, a poet, an artist, an independent and creative thinker. Any input she received—whether positive or negative, supportive or unsupportive—from those older and wiser than her was bound to have an impact. Because of this Poets’ Group, this community that was created out of Gurumayi’s intention and vision, Vanita did not go down the road of thinking that the whole world was against her, or that her writing was bad, or that her artistic instincts were wrong. She could tell herself, “That was just one person’s opinion.” She did not lose her innate ability to express herself through poetry; she did not give up on her interest in and commitment to articulating her unique perspective on the world.
Epilogue to this story: When we returned home from Shree Muktananda Ashram after our visit in 2004, we learned that not only had Vanita’s poem been selected for publication, but that it would be included in the top-merit section of the anthology! And today, Vanita works professionally as a screenwriter at a renowned studio in Hollywood!
When Garima shared this story with Ami, we had a dialogue about trust and nonjudgment, and the profound impact they can have on a person. We felt that this story was so illustrative of how Gurumayi teaches—and how Gurumayi teaches all of us to be. Practicing nonjudgment takes effort, yes. It takes discipline. But the fruit of that effort and discipline, of endeavoring to see the value in who someone is and what they have to offer? Well, it’s nothing short of miraculous. It can even shape the trajectory of someone’s life.
Click here to read Part VIII