The critical, judgmental mind

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A student offers his personal reflections on a talk by Venerable Thubten Chodron on our tendency to criticize and find fault with others.

A few days ago you gave a talk on the Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner about the critical, judgmental mind. A monastic had asked for advice on dealing with this mind and she saw herself immersed in negative thinking about others in her community. I was reflecting on what you said and think it depends on what is meant by judgmental. If we are constantly fault-finding and nit-picking and recognize it as a pattern in our lives, then yes, as somebody shared during the discussion, looking at the faults of others can be a way of taking the focus off of ourselves and distracting ourselves from getting in touch with our needs and/or our unsuitable behavior.

On the other hand, sometimes we can seek to make an honest assessment while at the same time trying to see our part in a given situation. For example, I was recently in a work situation where I was offered a job in a small business that my brother owned. My brother felt that he was my boss and that since we were siblings, he could speak with me any way he pleased. He was under a lot of stress (I tried to recognize this and have compassion for him), and he did not have many healthy tools to deal with his stress. Anger is a real issue with him, and he would blow up at me, his family, and others. I tried hard to be patient with him and several times calmly asked him to speak to me in a more respectful way.

Abbey retreatant in discussion during a Dharma talk.

When we’re not yet Buddhas, we need to find circumstances that are conducive to our spiritual growth.

But I also must recognize my limitations and know that, despite the fact that I am a Dharma practitioner, I am not a Buddha yet and need to find circumstances that are more conducive for my spiritual growth. In addition, another employee in the shop was a friend of my brother, and this guy was a marijuana addict. He would step outside to take a puff of pot every twenty minutes or so (no exaggeration). He was also very insecure and would talk incessantly.

Once again I tried to be an example for him, talking about recovery and positive things but I also knew it was not my responsibility to change him. The only one I truly have the power to change is myself and the way I relate to any given situation. And that’s exactly what I did. Bottom line is my honest assessment was that yes, there were times I could have handled things better, but it’s also true that I needed to make a change for my own mental well-being and spiritual growth. Thankfully I managed to part ways with no hard feelings and still have a good relationship with my brother.

Looking back on the situation, I found that I was judgmental not only about my brother’s anger but also what I saw as the constant locker room behavior (for example, homophobic and sexist jokes) that my brother and his friend tried to pull me into. I would think to myself, "I wish these guys would stop acting like teenaged morons!" and at one point even mentioned that to them. I even asked them to stop including me in their immature conversations. I found my own reaction to be very strong in terms of judgmental aversion towards them and even though, ultimately, I made a change by leaving the job, the judgmental aversion is the part I needed to look at within myself!

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