Wise Discrimination: Yoga’s Crown Jewel

Portrait of beautiful woman meditating and doing yoga at sunset on the grass in a park or forest

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. Soon, I observed that I even judged my judgments. This judging was not what I’d call wise discrimination. It was simply a completely subjective lens through which I saw the world.

This insight sent me into a period of being completely anti-judgment. I thought that any less-than-glowing evaluation of another person’s actions was judging, and therefore, unyogic. 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.

The Problem With Anti-Judgement

I made some poor choices during that period. Living in a “cult of positivity,” averse to what I thought was unyogic judgment, I caused considerable hurt to a person who was very dear to me. This was just one of a series of unwise choices I made during that time. Pursuing what I thought was non-judgmental “yogic” bliss—everything’s yoga, so anything goes, right?—I ended up making a chaotic mess of my life. This culminated in a year of immense suffering as I reckoned with the choices I’d made, during which I committed to rebuilding my life in a much more conscious way.

Wise Discrimination—Not the Same As Judging

Young woman practicing yoga lesson sitting in Sukhasana Pose, Easy Sitting Pose with Mudra gesture.

It was then that I began to understand that not all evaluations can be classified as damaging judgments. Wise discrimination (Viveka) 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’ve often seen yoga culture confuse wise discrimination with “unyogic” judgment. Every few years it seems, a revered yoga or meditation teacher falls off his/her pedestal, often because of unacceptable sexual behavior toward students. About a decade ago, I was in the thick of the yoga blogging world when one such toppling occurred.

Predictably, many yogis rushed to the defense of their beloved teacher. Anyone who questioned hurtful behavior was labeled as simply being judgmental and therefore, unyogic. It felt as if “judging” was considered to be a much bigger crime than the exploitive behaviors that triggered the discussions.

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. But there is a difference between judgment and discernment. Discernment is the faculty that asks us to consider the Yamas, the foundation of the system of yoga when we are faced with a perplexing choice. Discernment asks us to consider the potential consequences of our behavior.

Wise Discrimination: The Crown Jewel of Yoga Practice

Yoga class to cultivate community and cooperation.

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 Viveka 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 the most common one says that 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.

The Yoga Sutras list the five causes of suffering: ignorance of our real nature, egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear of death. Sutra 2.4 states that ignorance of our real nature is the source of the other four causes. Sutra 2.5 goes on to define ignorance as “the failure to discriminate between the permanent and the impermanent, the pure and the impure, bliss and suffering, the Self and the non-Self. [emphasis added]” Sutra 2.25 states: “When ignorance is destroyed, the Self is liberated from its identification with the world. This liberation is Enlightenment.”

So 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.

Viveka: The Key To Happiness

Discernment allows us to see beyond the unconscious, relentless pursuit of temporary bliss, which keeps us on the hamster wheel of samsara. Viveka is dependent on mindfulness, our ability to discern in each moment’s experience whether our choices will lead to happiness or to suffering. Viveka 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, Viveka evaluates whether our or another person’s actions lead to lasting happiness or to suffering. Big difference.

Viveka is not name-calling. It is not snark. Viveka is not petty judgment. Viveka is, in fact, essential to discovering lasting happiness, the happiness that is not dependent on our external circumstances or those things that will necessarily change—which is everything in our experience.

I don’t doubt that the teachings of yoga’s disgraced teachers were beneficial to many, many students. But I also know that their private actions caused a lot of chaos and suffering in their communities. To dismiss these teachers’ critics as judgmental and “unyogic” is to diminish the suffering their misbehavior can cause. This, of course, extends to the rest of our world as well. Calling out harmful behaviors and actions is not simply being judgmental. It’s the beginning of effecting change for the better.

Yoga has tremendous power to heal our personal lives and 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 Viveka that teaches us the difference.

Reprinted with permission from Hugger Mugger Yoga Products/Charlotte Bell.
Charlotte Bell writer

Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.

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