Among all the popular current spiritual teachings, there is one that has become so common and so taken to be true that to disagree with it marks one as spiritually un-evolved. I recently came across a good summary of this teaching on a blog. The blogger wrote:
Every moment is as it is. Nothing is good or bad, right or wrong, or has any meaning. It is the ego that places these judgments on things. To judge occurrences as good or bad is to believe that there is no greater intelligence running the universe; that everything is just random events.
This teaching of "no judgment" proposes that all judgments are manufactured by the fearful ego in its attempt to feel safe and in control, and because all judgments are self-created, they stop us from connecting to the moment, to others, and to life as it is. A corollary to this teaching is that, since there is no right or wrong, there are no "shoulds;" that all "should" statements are artificial restrictions, imprisoning us in the expectations of other people.
This spiritual teaching is popular because it offers relief from a painful syndrome. The ego loves nothing more than to make judgments, and to tell us what we should and shouldn't do. As a matter of fact, that's one of its primary functions. The job of the ego is to identify possible threats, and to devise strategies to help ensure physical survival.
There is nothing essentially wrong with this. We need our egos to help us function in the realm of physicality. But, when we are feeling very fearful or insecure, the ego goes into overdrive, and continually places everything that it experiences into one of two pots: good and bad. It does this without investigation, without self-awareness, and in absolute condemnation -- judging people and events as either absolutely good or bad, with little room for nuance, and no room for courage or compassion. It does this in order to give us a feeing of safety.
We all suffer from this syndrome, and I imagine that we can all recall people or events that we judged as bad at the time, which later turned out to be exactly what was needed. And so, the teaching that we must stop judging and "shoulding" is like a tourniquet to the out-of-control ego, designed to stop the constant chatter of judgment so that the fresh air of unfiltered experience can enter.
This is a very good and desperately needed change, which is why this teaching is so popular. Stopping judgment brings tremendous freedom. But this can be double-edged. It can bring freedom from the dominating voice of ego, but it also can bring freedom from accountability and growth.
Here is where the teaching of "no judgment" turns catastrophic.
If nothing is essentially good or bad, and if nothing has inherent meaning, then we are free from the responsibility for the consequences of our actions, which are just more meaningless events that have no moral content.
I have often heard people defend the idea of "no judgment" by noting that things which are labeled as "good" for one person or culture, are seen as "bad" for another. "If the Nazis had won World War II" it is argued, "then genocide, torture and ruthless dictatorship, would be seen as good, while compassion, democracy and diversity would be seen as bad." This is presented as a discovery of a deep and obvious historical truth, but can any mature and sane person truly believe it?
Who can truly believe that concentration camps are objectively no better or worse than soup kitchens; that to torture a baby is objectively no better or no worse than feeding and loving one; that a person who dedicated her life to curing disease or educating the neglected has led a life of no greater meaning than one who spent all his efforts accumulating material, regardless of consequences. Are these merely cultural distinctions? Something essential within us screams "no!" This "no" is experienced not as an instinctual byproduct of evolutionary urges or conditioned upbringing, but as a deep knowing of true right from wrong.
We do know there are many "shoulds" that are true: You should keep your promises, you should care for your children, you should avoid harming the environment, you should honor your job by doing your best work, you should take care of your body, and you should resist "shoulds" that compromise what you know to be right.
Here, we see the flaw in the "no judgment" teaching. Besides the obvious self-contradiction in the position that judgments are bad and that one shouldn't live by "shoulds," this teaching is based on underlying assumptions that are fundamentally incorrect. It assumes that there are no absolute standards of right and wrong to which human beings can connect, and that the only way that human beings make judgments is from the level of ego.
Yes, the ego does love to judge, yet its judgments are all toward self-protection, and are completely subjective -- and often harmful. But there is a way to judge from a position of objectivity. In Jewish mysticism, one of God's essential attributes is Judgment, which is balanced by God's attribute of Mercy. Both are needed. Without judgment we stagnate, and without mercy we loose our humanity. Our Spirit, which animates our bodies and is manifest as consciousness, shares in these essential attributes. This is the internal "still small voice" that connects us to God.
Our Spirit knows that creation is good, and that we have also been given the free will to choose otherwise. Our Spirit knows that the purpose of creation is to evolve toward higher levels of awareness and connection by choosing the good. And our Spirit knows that this choice is a judgment of that which we know to be positive and noble and toward which we should aspire. This is how we grow.
We need to make judgments. Without making judgments of right and wrong, better or worse, how can we ever hope to grow, or to create a just society, or to even determine that growth and a just society are goals worth pursuing? Without judgment of right from wrong, and without knowing that life is inherently meaningful, we atrophy and, even worse, descend into nihilism and narcissism. But we need to be sure that we are judging from Spirit, where instead of viewing others through the distortion of ego -- which sees others only as obstacles or opportunities to be manipulated or avoided -- we see others as fellow holy beings who have the capacity and the sacred responsibility to choose goodness.
When we help ourselves and others to make this choice, we are doing holy work.
In this way, the blogger had it upside down when he wrote that nothing has meaning. From the perspective of ego this is true, but from Spirit, all is meaningful because existence itself is meaningful. He also had it upside down when he wrote that to judge is to deny the existence of a "greater intelligence." The greater intelligence, which I here call "God," is the Source of judgment and goodness. This is what the Bible means when it tells us that we must judge objectively, with love:
"Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly... Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord." (Lev 19:15-18)