I can see clearly now... (Judgment vs discernment)

I can see clearly now... (Judgment vs discernment)

To make up for last week's slightly incoherent post, and to give myself a bit of extra time to work on some more research-intensive posts, I'm going to (try to) keep this one short and sweet.

We haven't really talked much about judgment except to say that the practice of mindfulness involves paying attention to experience in a non-judgmental way. My sense is that non-judgment is right up there with acceptance as a concept that is counter-intuitive for musicians and other excellence-minded folk. Judgment seems kind of integral to the whole process of getting better, doesn't it? We play it, we judge it, we play it again -- isn't that pretty much what practicing is?  

Kind of. We have probably all heard that deliberate practice -- as opposed to simple or mindless repetition -- is one of the keys to getting better. (But for a refresher, here is a quick summary.) And key to the process of deliberate practice is regular and immediate feedback. In order to gain skill we need to know how our most recent attempts compare to both our previous attempts as well as to our ultimate goals. But does it follow, then, that we need to judge everything we do? Well -- surprise, surprise -- it depends on how you define judgment...and even more on how you practice judgment.

But, because I said I'd keep this short and sweet, I'm not going to faff around with a bunch of definitions. We all know what judging is. We do it all the time -- most moments of most days I would wager. "This is good, this is bad; I like this, I don't like that." It's constant and, like I said, it often seems pretty innocuous and even helpful. What we might not be fully conscious of are the ways in which judgment can undermine our sincere attempts to improve. Why? Judgment tends to be both ego-driven and imprecise. It carries a charge that gets the emotions involved in an unhelpful and ham-fisted way.

In the practice room, most of our feedback comes from our own assessment of our playing. When we attempt something in -- perhaps a difficult run -- and then evaluate that attempt in terms of being either good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, etc., there is usually an accompanying second arrow reaction that, because of its emotional charge, hijacks the nervous system and prevents us from fully taking in the information that is most useful to us. That information is obscured by messages of "Yay me!" or "That sucked!" And I don't mean this metaphorically. Our brains are set up to chase after pleasant experiences and avoid unpleasant experiences and from your brain's perspective, a "Yay me!" is a pleasant experience and a "That sucked!" is an unpleasant experience. 

So if you, say, flub a difficult run in practice and react with a negative judgment ("That sucked!") the main thing your brain is going to be concerned with on subsequent attempts is avoiding the unpleasant experience of the negative judgment. By the same token, if you nail a difficult run and react with a positive judgment ("Yay me!") your brain will be seeking that good feeling and not consciously working to solidify the behaviour that caused you to nail the run in the first place. Any useful information about what you might change or reinforce on your next attempt gets crowded out by your reactions -- even very subtle ones -- to what going on. Practicing in this way -- chasing the ego boost of a successful attempt while trying to avoid the ego knock of an unsuccessful attempt -- is at best inefficient. Worse, though, it can be demoralizing as practice becomes a never-ending series of mental highs and lows. 

But there is a way that we can get the information we want and need without all the nasty side-effects of judgment. We can practice discernment. For our purposes, we can define discernment simply as seeing (or hearing) clearly. What this means is that we side-step the emotional charge -- what Buddhists call the feeling tone and in Western psychology is known as the hedonic tone -- of the experience and simply describe to ourselves what is happening or has happened. So, in the case of the flubbed passage, we might notice that we missed a couple of notes. No reason to get upset. On a subsequent attempt, we might notice that we missed the notes because of poor finger co-ordination. Then we might play it again slowly so we can more closely examine what's going on with our fingers. Or whatever. You get the idea -- it's not rocket science. But it's also not habitual for many of us. Usually our attention just misses the bullseye as we focus on our feelings about what's happening rather than what is actually happening. 

Check it out for yourself. Try practicing with this type of discernment and observe the emotional stuff (or you can call it something like "non-task-specific content" if you don't like thinking in terms of emotions) that sneaks into the process. It might be a little, it might be a lot. Notice if your mind gets stuck on the emotional stuff, the reactivity. It's okay if it does. Learning to notice how you habitually respond to experience is in itself a form of discernment. There's a kind of magic that happens when you start to really see your mental habits which is that the ones that aren't helpful begin to change all by themselves. It's kind of like when you record yourself and suddenly you can hear aspects of your playing that you hadn't noticed before. Once you're aware of them, you can often change them without a lot of rigamarole. You find that sweet spot where you can see clearly without the emotional reactivity. It's called equanimity. 

One of my favourite descriptions of equanimity is this one from Rick Hanson:

Imagine that your mind is like a house with a mud-room...where people put their messy boots and dripping coats. With equanimity, your initial reactions to things -- reach for this carrot, push away that stick -- are left in a mental mud-room so that the interior of your mind remains clear and clean and peaceful. (Hanson, p. 109)

I love that image. The goal is not to try not to fool ourselves into thinking it doesn't matter how we play. Of course it matters. Non-judgment is not the same as non-caring. We just want to learn to distinguish our emotional reactions from the type of clear seeing that enables real and lasting learning.

One final note: Obviously, there is a little bit of semantics going on here. It doesn't matter what you call your mental processing -- judgment, discernment, evaluation, assessment, reflection, whatever. What matters is your attitude -- your intention to see and hear with clarity rather than emotional reactivity. 


Hanson, R. and Mendius, R. Buddha's Brain. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 2009.

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