How Discernment Got Lost in 21st-Century Yoga.
In 1988, I attended my first silent Insight Meditation retreat. I noticed one thing right off—how incredibly out-of-control my mind is. But as my mind began to quiet a little, I started to notice something more subversive: that my mind judged everything. If I stayed focused for an entire breath, I’d label it “good” meditation. If I caught my mind spinning out in thoughts, I’d label that “bad” meditation. As time passed and my awareness got subtler, I saw myself judging my judgments. “Oops! I just judged that last breath as ‘bad.’ I must be bad. Auggghhh! I’m judging again!” On and on it went.
I was shocked at how pervasive my judging habit was. I realized that my judgments of everything were not reality; they were completely subjective and not intrinsic to the truth of the moment.
This insight sent me into a period of being completely anti-judgment. Each person has his/her own dharma, I thought. We’re all following our own truth. Who am I to judge?
In a lot of ways, this made life easier. I could “follow my bliss” and if someone else happened to take it wrong, well, they were just being judgmental. My truth just happened to clash with theirs. If they had a judgment about it, that was their problem.
I made some poor choices during that period in my life. Living in what we now call the “cult of positivity,” averse to what I thought was “unyogic” judgment, I caused considerable hurt to a person who was very dear to me. I ended up making a chaotic mess of my life, culminating in a year of immense suffering as I reckoned with the choices I’d made and committed to rebuilding my life in a much more conscious way.
It was then that I began to understand that not all evaluations can be classified as damaging judgments. Wise discrimination is actually an essential part of the yogic path. If the purpose of yoga is “the settling of the mind into silence” (from Sutra 1.2), wise discrimination is crucial to that end. Our minds cannot settle into silence when we’re continually making unwise choices. Tossing all evaluations out the window in the pursuit of being judgment-free is antithetical to the settling of the mind.
I have a visceral response to the inevitable labels of “judgy” and “unyogic” that get applied to the questioning of unskillful behaviors by (mostly) famous yoga teachers. I believe this pattern squashes the #metoo movement that needs to happen in the worldwide yoga community.
Social media and the yoga blog world went crazy when John Friend’s, Bikram’s and Kausthaub Desikachar’s damaging behaviors were outed. The yoga community quickly broke into factions—some of whom were appalled by their behaviors and others who not only defended these teachers, but also accused those who questioned the behaviors of being unyogic.
It’s true that judging can be damaging. It’s also true that judging, the automatic labeling of something as “good” or “bad,” is often the result of a shallow understanding of a situation. It is culturally based judgments about our own bodies or our own abilities that cause many of the injuries that happen in asana practice. And of course, the mindstuff that we encounter on the mat is quite likely a microcosm of what’s going on in our minds in the rest of our lives. It pays to be aware of the worlds our minds create.
But there is a difference between judgment and discernment. Discernment is the faculty that asks us to consider the yamas, the ethical precepts that are the foundation of yoga, when we are faced with a perplexing choice. Discernment asks us to consider the potential consequences of our behavior.
Vivekachudamani—meaning “Crest Jewel of Discrimination”—is a 580-verse poem that describes the quality of viveka, wise discrimination or discernment. The text describes the development of discernment as the central task on the yogic journey, and calls discrimination the “crown jewel” of the qualities we need to develop in order to reach enlightenment. Definitions abound, but to my mind, viveka is the ability to discriminate between what is permanent and what is impermanent, what is real and what is unreal, the causes of happiness and the causes of suffering.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras list the five causes of suffering: ignorance of our real nature, egoism, attachment, aversion and fear of death. According to Patanjali, discrimination is the antidote to ignorance, the root cause of all our suffering. The uprooting of ignorance leads to freedom. Our freedom is not limited by our loyalty to conscious, ethical behavior; it is dependent on it.
Discrimination is dependent on mindfulness, our ability to discern in each moment’s experience whether our choices will lead to happiness or to suffering. It allows us to look deeply into each situation and make choices according to the truth of the moment. While judgment looks at a situation and labels it good or bad based on our beliefs, discernment evaluates whether our or another person’s actions lead to lasting happiness or to suffering. Big difference.
Discernment is not petty judgment based on jealousy or just being an old fuddy-duddy who doesn’t want yoga to be fun. Discernment is, in fact, essential in discovering lasting happiness, the happiness that is not dependent on our external circumstances or experiences and objects that are impermanent.
I don’t doubt that John Friend’s teachings created happiness during Anusara’s 15-year run. But friends from the Anusara community have expressed to me that his private actions caused a lot of chaos and suffering for a whole lot of people. Many people claim the benefits of Bikram yoga, yet Bikram’s alleged rape of students, if true, has undoubtedly caused profound damage, as rape always does. To dismiss these men’s critics as judgmental is to diminish the suffering these kinds of actions cause.
Yoga has tremendous power to heal not only our personal lives, but also the world around us. When we begin to experience our interconnectedness with everything and everyone around us, we become much more conscious of the power of our actions. We are more likely to act in ways that heal our world, rather than in ways that simply prop us up as individuals. It is discernment that teaches us the difference.
Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City. CharlotteBellYoga.com