It begins with comparison. Comparison seems like a simple enough thing. A tiger is different from a rabbit. A blueberry is tasty; a pokeberry is poison.
In fact, scientists call our brain a comparison device. Neurologically, it is a pattern recognition machine. We match sensory inputs to patterns wired by genetics or experiences into our neural structure. We identify perfect matches (“Oh, there’s my friend Jack!”), similarities (“Gosh, that sure looks like Jack!”), and differences (“If that guy had a smaller nose, he might look like Jack.”)
The never-ending work of the brain is to process sensory data, build internal models of that data, and compare the two.
This seems like it should be a feature, not a bug! Look at how amazing we are. In a crowd of hundreds I can recognize my beloved from fifty feet behind her just by some nuance of the way she walks.
Comparison itself has some serious detrimental effects on human experience (see below), but it is also the foundation of a true poison: judgement.
But first, consider shame. Michael Lewis, in Shame: The Exposed Self, defines shame as “the comparison of the self’s actions with the self’s standards.”
It works this way: in that internal model the brain has constructed, I have an image of how I “should” be, or how I want to be, or how I wish I was. I then compare my observations about myself against that model, and identify the myriad ways I fall short.
Similarly I compare myself to others. My family, friends, peers, and celebrities. Making these comparisons and passing judgement on myself gives rise to new beliefs: that I am insufficient, perhaps broken.
Shame, it is interesting to note, has the etymology of “to cover” (proto-Indo-European: *kam, to Germanic skamte and schamm, to English ‘shame’). Think of the story of Adam and Eve:
Genesis 2:16–17: And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.
In the next chapter they eat of that tree, naturally, and: (3:7) “They knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.”
Notice. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil introduces a new human experience: judgement. Judgement of good from evil. What happens with this newfound judgement? They cover themselves. They *kam/skamte/schamm/shame themselves.
And suddenly they are no longer in paradise. The authors of these passages have God stomping about angrily, but the simple fact is, with judgement there is no such thing as paradise. When I separate experiences into good and bad, there is no bliss. Suffering has been introduced, and if there is suffering, then by definition it is paradise no longer.
One persistent obstacle to escaping shame seems to be the simple evidence that this judgement is factually correct. Nobody loves me, so I must be unlovable. I am not as attractive as I wish I were, this is inarguable. I feel I should be more successful at this point in my life, so it is actually a fact that I am not good enough. Personally, I would only respect myself if I were good enough, so incontrovertibly, by my own standards, I am not deserving of respect. I am unworthy.
The basis of shame then, the comparison of the self-that-I-perceive to mental model of the self-I-wish-I-were, is based on (1) this inner “standard” and (2) the believe that I do not meet this standard. The belief is continually reinforced by observations.
A common approach to undermining shame is to try to rewrite the script of the that inner critic. I look at myself in the mirror and repeat affirmations like a Buddhist monk chanting mantras. I undertake “manifesting” work to try to alter the fabric of reality through the intensity of my own desire for reality to be other than it is.
This can offer enough short term shift to give me the illusion of control — and to sell a lot of self-help books. Maybe that inner critic does start to get on board with a different story, one of becoming who I want to be, rather than being this shameful failure. But as long as my inner standard is in discrepancy with the reality I observe, this is a house of cards.
Psychological approaches may try to identify the origins of these unrealistic or impossible expectations, or to clarify the ways in which my self-image is not as factual as it seems. Did early childhood influences wire this pattern of “not-good-enough” into me? Finding the origins of those stories in order to identify — and change — the internal expectation at the root can work more effectively than pop culture short-cuts, but it is grueling work with many false leads and setbacks along the way.
A more effective (but no less difficult, unfortunately) approach is to undo this suffering at the source. Judgement. Comparison. Shame. What would it take to give up all of that?
Comparison itself offers a clue.
We are born into a primal state of innocence. A state in which we are not yet separate from the world. But at about eight months, a child develops “object permanence.”
The mechanism of this involves constructing the mental model of “things that I am not” as well as the mental model of “who I am.” As our cognitive representation of the world forms, we begin to use this basic function of comparison to separate ourselves from the world, and to label the sensory experiences, the objects separate from us and from each other, as well as to label the qualities of these now-distinct “things” and the nature of our “separate” experiences of them.
Comparison gives rise to separateness.
Spiritual and mystical traditions invite us to re-discover the non-separateness of the true reality of what we are. This “non-dual” nature of reality seems like a bizarre and counterintuitive philosophy or an impossible-to-attain spiritual realization available only to the rarest Buddhas and Christs of ancient history.
But this is just another story; and it is a story that separates us from what we are. It is a story that maintains the status quo. A convenient and comfortable status quo, even when it is rich with suffering.
What it takes to give up the suffering of judgement is a complete surrender of all our illusions. The answer is to embrace and directly engage the reality that our mental model tries and fails to represent.
Affirmations and therapy strive to change the mental model, to make it a more pleasant home for our conscious attention, or to bring it into closer conformity with the “truth” — but a truth that is still rooted in separateness, an incomplete truth of concept, subject, and object.
The spiritual/mystical approach is to stage an escape from the mental model entirely. To eliminate judgement, place comparison in the proper category of “useful survival skills” and completely embrace reality-as-it-is.
One feature of many self-help systems and shallow teachings is that they pin radical transformation on “one simple trick.” (That spiritual teachers don’t want you to know!)
So, by way of full disclosure: although judgement is the root of suffering, escaping from the prison of our cognitive model and the shame of our shortcomings is not as easy as giving up judgement for lent.
The escape is not (usually) an overnight accomplishment, but it is feasible. Many have made this shift before us. The rich tools and teachings are available.
Following are three essential aspects of defusing the suffering of judgement. If this tastes interesting to you, know that this is scratching the surface of what is possible.
One: consider thoughts and beliefs as an experience that you have rather than something you do or part of what you are. If you are the miracle of consciousness itself (which, incidentally, is still a mystery to science) notice the simple and undeniable truth that you are conscious of your bodily sensations, your emotional sensations, and your cognitive sensations. These are things consciousness is aware of, not the constituent parts of consciousness. Relocate your “Self” to the seat of consciousness, rather than the process of thought. Even change the language: don’t say “I am thinking,” say, “I am observing this thought.”
Two: now find the “shoulds” and “should nots.” These are beliefs — stories — that we tell ourself, the constituent elements of that standard we hold ourself too. These are the hooks that give judgement something to hang on to. Instead of changing those beliefs or reversing them, try dropping them entirely. From the vantage point of the conscious observer, simply disregard those particular beliefs and thoughts as experiences you choose not to pay attention to!
Finally: take time to soften your attention out of the thought-process. Whether you are a verbal or visual thinker, let the monologue or the movie go from time to time and relax into a softer attention. What is it like to drink in all your physical sensations all at once, without thinking about them? Try noticing the flow of thoughts in this same way, observing them all, as well as all the emotional sensations that ride along with them, as well as the physical sensations that connect in. Some people might call this “meditation” — but I encourage people to start simpler. Just take a few moments to shift out of the thought stream now and then, and expand into the sensory world. There are dozens of distinct practices and techniques for this, but just try it on your own, without any special instruction, and see if it calls you to more.
Here’s a tricky thing: what if the judgement is a judgement about having judgements? “This will never work… I am no Buddha. I am so terrible at letting go of judgements! See, I’m doing it right now!”
Such a perfect combination of comparison, judgement, and shame!
It is the experience my brain is giving to my consciousness right now, and it is an excellent opportunity to practice letting go. I notice and observe, I find the “should” — “I should not be judging myself about my judgements.” — and I let that should go. Then I soften my attention out and away from the thought process entirely, and allow whatever arises to be.
Does this really work?
Yes, and it works in a variety of ways, and there is a lot that can be done to improve the efficiency of this process and accelerate progress. Look to any nondual spiritual tradition for more practices and approaches.
This isn’t going to change your life overnight, sorry! But if you try it for two weeks, really notice the results.
I began with two weeks. I noticed every single time I judged myself, compared myself to others (favorably or unfavorably), or experienced the feeling of shame. Every single time I noticed this — which was certainly not every time it happened — I did these three steps, quite consciously.
And I could tell, at the end of two weeks the judgements were softer. The shame less biting. The thought process less intrusive, disturbing, and disruptive. Now, years later, those thoughts still arise from time to time. But in the space of a single breath, they dissipate.
Most importantly, so does the suffering.