THE BLOG
10/23/2015 10:08 am ET | Updated Oct 23, 2016

Beware of Wrong Mindfulness: Don't Conflate Judgment With Judgmentalism

At first I was skeptical. A close friend, a rather sensible fellow, told me in no uncertain terms (not his usual style) that I should become "mindful." When I humbly asked what this means, he told me "to be in the moment," to "suspend judgment," and to "run off the inner observer." It reminded me of my days at Berkeley just when the hippies came out of the woodwork. My friend added that the best way to be mindful was to engage in meditation. I wondered what meditation -- good, bad, or indifferent -- had to do with being mindful. My friend responded somewhat impatiently: "Trust me, it's good for you." He mumbled under his breath, "and for all type-A characters."

While I was wondering if I could become mindful, my morning paper carried a story entitled "A doctor puts his mind to mindfulness." He reported, "I'd embark on what I think of as a journey with my thoughts: noticing them non-judgmentally and letting them pass through my mind like white clouds moving across the blue sky." He added, "Experts define mindfulness as a state of moment-to-moment awareness that emphasizes attention without judgment, without thinking..."

The doctor cited several studies by psychologists, even a "meta-analysis," that documented the benefits of meditation, the best way to become mindful. And -- the latest rage -- evidence from neuroscience research! It seems that your brain waves become less wavy when you relax. He concluded with, "I am still at it: sitting on the deck, focusing on my breath, watching my thoughts, clearing my mind..." All this reminded me of a book by Harvard Medical School Professor Herbert Benson called The Relaxation Response, which was all the rage several decades ago. Ever since, we have had wave after wave of a variety of meditation gurus and fads, hailed once more in a recent bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love.

Upon re-reading the doctor's account, a light went on. He spent 20 minutes each day on meditation and ended up feeling less stressed, more empowered, with the world. I felt that I could do that -- as long as the rest of the day I could continue to charge about, doing what must to be done now, if not yesterday. I fear though that at least some of the champions of mindfulness have a rather different idea in their mind (or wherever mindfulness resides): They seek life free from judgment, allowing the "inner child in us to take over" all day long, 24/7 as they say.

This kind of mindfulness concerns me. To explain why, bear with me for a moment. Some years back I helped organize a conference on character education for the White House. It included people from the right, who sought to include in the curriculum of all schools the teaching of values, Christian values. It also included people from the left who vehemently opposed such "value indoctrination" and instead called for moral reasoning. This required that the pupils learn to sort out their values and think clearly, but not to embrace any particular set of values. I got both sides to agree on a third position. Namely that all good people need two qualities that schools can help develop. First, we need empathy. If one is only effective, that person could become an accomplished criminal. Combining effectiveness with empathy ensures that we feel what it like is to be at the receiving end of whatever we do. Second we need the ability to defer gratification, to resist impulse. This quality is requires both in order to be effective, and -- to be ethical. The delay in acting on the movement allows us to judge whether or not we should yield to our urges or better resist them. (For more about this see "Education for Intimacy.")

True, there is rather different interpretation of what mindfulness entails, namely not being judgmental, that is self-righteous, waving the finger at other people, quick to condemn. This is mindfulness I can embrace every day of the week and twice during the weekend. Unfortunately all too many definitions of, and text about, mindfulness conflate judgment which we should not avoid most times -- with judgmentalism, which indeed is bad news.

In short, if mindfulness means superseding judgments and yielding to the moment, as a relaxing pause of the stresses of everyday life, allowing us to be recharged in order to continue to not yielding to the moment and judge -- bring it on. However, if it meant to be a way of life, it seems like a return to the days of let it all hand out, follow your natural instincts, to life not examined, which much wiser heads than mine long ago determined, is not worth living.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Privacy in a Cyber Age: Policy and Practice, was published by Palgrave in 2015. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube