Many of you may have noticed my use of the word “discernment” from time to time, and you may have no idea how that’s any different than “judgment.” Others of you may have vague ideas, so I’m going to spend a little bit of time explaining it. Much as urges and desires get confused in this culture, being able to state what is versus coloring what we see with our preferences is a very common thing. Let’s take a few moments to break down the differences between discernment and judgment.

What Is Discernment?

Discernment is stating what is. The sky is blue today. That’s discernment. The deeper you go within that peaceful, neutral space that you have, the more easily it will be to say what is in any situation regardless of how emotionally charged it is. That’s the power of your spiritual practice, and that’s the power of removing the veils and lies that cover your eyes, which skew what you see. It’s also why at the early stages of building a spiritual practice that it is so crucial to hold back on what you have to say about a lot of things (others of you need to speak up, and that is often about learning to share your discernment for what is right for you). Many of you have simply been spewing out words left and right without any real regard to what is actually going on or what others want to hear. In so doing, you’re also perpetuating lies.

Consider gossip. There’s no real discernment in gossip. Here’s an example:

“So I heard that Dolores has a new man on the side,” Neighbor 1 said.

“Oh, that is so like Dolores. You think her husband will find out about this one?” Neighbor 2 replied.

“I heard that he already did and that’s he’s trying to get a mistress to make her jealous,” Neighbor 1 said.

“Would serve her right. She’s such a slut. I don’t know how he could have married her,” Neighbor 1 replied.

How horrible is all that? It could all be complete lies, and spreading this kind of vileness about others serves no one. Whatever Dolores and her husband have going on really doesn’t affect these two neighbors. The conversation is most likely a distraction from their own lives because it’s much easier to thrown trash on another person’s lawn than to clean up one’s own.

What Is Judgment?

Just about everything in the above conversation is coming from the space of judgment. Both neighbors are actively disapproving and placing their own values on the two people, which by and large is not a near and present danger to them and subsequently has nothing to do with them. All they’re really doing is focusing their negativity elsewhere, and people tend to do that to try and displace their own sense of pain and negativity. This is part of projecting on to others, which is another topic that I’ve already blogged about. Projection and judgment go hand-in-hand, and together, they create a set of glasses that skew everything that you see. It’s no wonder that most of the world is blind. If you’d ask a person wearing those glasses what the color of the sky is today, they might say, “It’s pitch black” because they can’t see anything. That’s, of course, shocking to the person of the spiritual path who has removed those glasses of judgment, but that person understands because s/he has been there.

Practicing Discernment

So you get the basic difference: discernment sees what is; judgment sees what it wants to see or what it thinks fits into its value system. If something doesn’t fit into a pre-fabricated story, many people don’t “see” it. It’s kind of like when someone has so many projections and stories about their romantic partner that they’re blown away when that person asks for a divorce. They had so many seemingly harmless judgments that they never saw the other person and their needs. Conversely, many people don’t really know what their own needs are, and this, of course, is the first place to practice discernment.

Just like any spiritual practice. It can be very simple, and you can do it at some of the most basic levels. Go out somewhere that you normally go and just focus more on the details. Don’t get lost in the stories about “this traffic light is taking too long,” “that’s not a safe route,” or “I had an amazing date at that diner there once.” Just look at these places. Perhaps you start to notice the stories in your mind, and perhaps you start to notice the themes in the stories. The more you notice the themes–safety, fear of being alone, etc.–the more you’re starting to dig into the stories that are dictating your life to you. From these stories, many judgments are springing forth, and you’ve got to get to the root of the stories to fully release many of these judgments.

Practicing Non-judgment

Along with practicing your discernment to see what really is there in a relationship, place, job, or anything else, I encourage you to practice non-judgment. I’m not using this in any kind of Buddhist sense (although it may sound like that). I’m simply encouraging you to hold off on the immediate urge to label or judgment something. Give it a few breaths before you categorize it. Discernment works from places of deep neutrality, but not passivity. It allows the correct action to come up when needed, but most things don’t need as much action as we think they do. Most things that happen or get said to us really aren’t about us, and practicing non-judgment is usually the first step to getting down into that place of discernment. Without space for patience and for things to naturally work themselves out, you’re over-reacting and under-preparing for whatever it is you actually do. Consider this:

Your boss asks to have you come to her office. Judgment and stories kick in.

“Oh my God. What’s this about? Am I going to get fired? Maybe she hated that last report I turned in. She’s always undermining me. She’s such a bitch. You know, what? I don’t want to work here anymore.”

And then you walk in and she’s offering you a promotion. You’re completely unprepared. You may even turn it down because of all the stories going on. You may think it’s a trick or an attempt to set you up to fail. There is no discernment in this line of thinking because if she is trying to play a trick on you, you won’t be able to see it clearly or take an appropriate form of action. You’re completely reactive and truly out of control.

Which is why non-judgment is a great first step towards discernment. At least, you could have gone in there saying, “I don’t know what this is about, but I’ll find out.” Maybe then, you’d have said, “yes,” “no,” or “I’ll think about it” in an appropriate way to what you really want.

The Deepening of Discernment

Now on the spiritually-awakened side of the fence, you may suddenly be seeing very clearly, but because you haven’t worked out your judgments, it may still be very murky waters. You’ll have some catch up work to do where you simultaneously have to trust what you see implicitly and while facing situations where you feel like you should color them as positive or negative. At times, “the sky is blue” becomes kind of how you see everything and everyone. The more intuitive you are, the more easily you see all kinds of things about other people.

“Her mother really hurt her as a child.”

It’s not a judgment. It’s what you may see within someone. Discernment goes that deep. It’s because we are all so naturally interconnected. We truly have few secrets, and those of you holding on to secrets are truly damaging yourself with the rot of that pain, guilt, shame, or whatever it may be. It’s best to just let it go.

To others who don’t understand discernment and certainly don’t want to hear anything resembling the Truth, they’ll confuse something like the discernment around someone’s inner pain as a judgment. They’ll think that you’re trying to create a story about the other person. Especially if that statement doesn’t have any reflection of who you are, it’s easy to see that isn’t true. But if you are still working out some deep issues and other people are acting as mirrors, then you may take a little more time in feeling through a discerning thought like that before saying it to make sure that it’s coming from a clean space. One other thing about discernment is this: it really doesn’t need to make a statement or a big splash in front of everyone. That’s what our egos like to do with their judgments because your true self isn’t interested in defining itself. It is simply stating what is and what is true, and from that space, it makes living your life so much more effortless because there’s nothing to protect or defend.

Allowing Judgments to Dissolve

So as I said, there can be a lot of work leading up to this deep discernment that I’ve mentioned that sees life so clearly. But if you do it, judgments will gradually dissolve. You may be surprised at how many situations that you no longer really have anything to say in. If you’ve been like one of the gossiping neighbors that I gave as an example, stopping those judgments will probably also dissolve that relationship. Or perhaps it’ll help to transform it. Who knows? But things won’t be the same. They never really are, and that’s always important to remember. Things are always changing, and no matter how stuck you may feel, you can always change too. So take heart, and take a step back from judging the world around you. It may be the start of finally seeing clearly for the first time.


I'm a spiritual teacher who helps people find freedom from suffering.

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