Suspending Judgment: Losing Control to Be in Control
How to use mindfulness to let go of preconceived notions.
My work as a post-trauma coach means I study the brain and how to calm it, so I know all about how science has proven that the practice of paying deep, nonjudgmental attention to the present moment quiets the mind, quells emotions, and creates a neurophysiological environment (complete with reduced stress hormones) that reduces anxiety. I also hear firsthand from clients how difficult it can be to stop the mind from labeling experiences “good” or “bad”—which set me off on a quest to discover my own process for making mindfulness easier. Here’s what I learned.
To properly facilitate mindfulness, you must:
- Observe sensory cues in the present moment. Using all five senses heightens awareness and focus.
- Allow any thoughts or emotions that come up. Typically, we try to suppress uncomfortable feelings; in mindfulness, you welcome them into the present moment.
- Release any judgments about what you see, feel, or think. This is the step that gives mindfulness its real power, as the release of critical thoughts eliminates stress.
I acknowledge that my mind will label things. I observe that fact, allow and release it; I turn the process of meditation on my practice of mindfulness itself. And it works.
In a recent interview about stress and the nervous system, Stephen Porges, Ph.D., the pioneering founder of Polyvagal Theory (a thesis about the distinctive structure and function of the two branches of your tenth cranial nerve), commented that when we are defensive or feel bad about ourselves or others, we recruit older neural structures, ones that engage survival-oriented processes and cause stress. To reduce this negative effect, he suggested, we should practice “more observation, less evaluation.”
On a still morning, I employ the simple three-step process combined with Porges’ suggestion. For example, when I find a tiny luminescent frog affixed to our kitchen window, immediately the word “ick!” springs to mind. I notice the shivery feeling and repellent reptilian thoughts. I release them by developing an attitude of mere observation: What does the frog really look like? When I shift my attention this way, I feel an instant relaxation.
As I go about the rest of my day, I notice a change in my experience. Instead of being absorbed in any moment with complete focus, there is now a detached part of me observing my actions. It’s through this part’s perspective that I discover something disturbing: My internal dialogue streams innocuous judgments almost every minute. This is a shocking revelation. I think of myself as a kind, compassionate, and empathetic person. How can it be that I have an inner voice that evaluates everything from a negative point of view?
I try committing more deeply to the spirit of Porges’ words, developing a mindset in which things are not good or bad; they just are. But I can’t sustain it. My mind wants to place a value on things. It likes knowing I have a position on the goodness or badness of everything. The more I try to stop the labels, the more my mind flits around labeling everything.
This process reminds me of when I began my transcendental meditation practice fifteen years ago. I was flying high on anxiety; stilling my mind seemed like a ridiculous suggestion. The more I tried to be quiet, the more noisy my mind became and the more I struggled to gain control. I placed all kinds of expectations on my meditation practice and failed miserably—until I learned to drop all preconceived notions for what my meditation practice “should” look like.
When I allowed myself to be present without a preconceived belief about the outcome, the practice became a cinch. Then, when my mind wandered, I didn’t feel like a failure. I learned that the trick was appreciating that in order for meditation to work, the mind has to wander so that you have the opportunity to train it by refocusing attention. The desire is always to be in control of the mind, feelings, thoughts, and emotions, but letting go of control allows you to develop the facility to powerfully reclaim it.
I apply that philosophy now with my mindfulness process. I acknowledge that my mind will label things. I observe that fact, allow and release it; I turn the process of meditation on my practice of mindfulness itself. And it works.