Discerning not Judging

How do we decide what to do without judging?

In an earlier post I discussed contemplation contrasted with rumination. One of the unhelpful processes that creates rumination I called “judging” and suggested that many times we are able to act more effectively if we use describing instead of judging.

When I present this to people I find that some wonder how they can decide what to do if they are not judging, if they don’t label things as right and wrong.


What I did not clarify in the earlier post was that contemplation is done in the context of our values. This is discernment. Discernment can be defined as “perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding”. (New Oxford American Dictionary). We are able to use discernment when we apply contemplative thinking, with its processes of describing, exploring, asking, and planning, in the context of our values.

Judgment in terms of right vs. wrong or good vs. bad feels pleasant when we judge ourselves as “right” or “good”, but it reduces a complex issue to a single dimension. Most situations are not reducible to a single dimension and reducing them that way prevents us from ever seeing reality.

Think of a tree. Is it white? Is it black? If neither, is it some shade of gray? Clearly none of these. Judgment of “right” and “wrong” insists that the tree is white, black or gray. Discernment sees the tree as colored.

Discernment and Relationships

Judgment is particularly dangerous in relationships in the family and socially. We justify ourselves by finding fault with the other. If they are the slightest bit “wrong” then we must be “right”.  This feels good and we ignore facts that would indicate otherwise. We become self-righteous. The other is “bad” and needs to be punished and we continue our actions even if they make the situation worse.

By avoiding judgment, discernment helps us use contemplation to describe, explore, and ask in the context of our values. When we are discerning we seek an understanding that allows all of us to take corrective action without assigning any blame. This is far more constructive and more likely to lead to a peaceful outcome. Perhaps that is why so many traditions warn against judgment, for example Matthew 7:1-5

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