Today is Sunday, August 11, 2013.
Judgment and discernment sound like the same thing, but they are very different. It's true that both are acts of distinguishing one thing or one person from another, but the underlying worldview that leads to judgment is completely different from the worldview that leads to discernment.
When we make judgments, the vast majority of the time we are judging other people. We are actually expressing an opinion about another person, often based not so much on actual facts as on our past experience, what we've been told, our fears, and our need to elevate ourselves compared with others. There is a power differential in judgment, where we feel superior, or occasionally inferior, to the person we are judging. It's important to realize that neither the superiority nor the inferiority are necessarily supported by the facts. Judgments are based on fears, insecurities, jealousies, ignorance, and wishful thinking. Negative judgments are based on our wish to change others t0 be more like ourselves, or to change ourselves to be more like others. They may also be based on our wish to change a challenging situation to make things more agreeable to us. Judgment leads to labeling, stereotyping, racism, elitism, segregating, polarizing, dividing, moralizing, complacency and anger.
When we make judgments, we tend to become more closed-minded, because we make judgments on the basis of our existing beliefs. If we didn't think our beliefs were correct, then we wouldn't have them. So we believe our own judgments, forgetting that our beliefs are not always based on reality.
Regardless of Jesus' injunction against judging others, Christians sometimes distinguish between "proper and improper judgment." For them, proper judgment means pointing out so-called "false teachings." Naturally, the false teachings are the understandings of other religions. Instead of allowing people of other faiths to have their own understandings of God, they feel the need to point out others' "misunderstandings" and change their thinking to agree with Christian doctrine. (Good luck with that.)
People who make judgments tend to feel the need to express them to other people. Often, this ends up being a form of gossip against others. When we make negative judgments, what we are really doing is categorizing people in order to deal with them more easily, and expressing our dissatisfaction over the way the person seems to be, as well as our desire for them to be more like us. We condemn people, governments, religions, and ideas that we don't agree with. This exercise ends up making us miserable, because it sets up an "us against them" mentality.
Judgment is not the same as setting standards, however. It's perfectly OK to set behavior guidelines for our children and our students and to discipline them when they go out of bounds. It's necessary to address hurtful behavior and vandalism in our homes, our classrooms, and our communities. It's also important to set standards in our schools and workplaces for safe methods, and expectations for excellent versus mediocre or unacceptable work. The world would devolve into chaos if we didn't set some standards.
What about discernment? Some spiritual paths prefer to use the Sanskrit term viveka to avoid getting discernment mixed up with judgment. Discernment has less to do with other people and more to do with ourselves. We make decisions about what is good for us, and make choices for ourselves based on these decisions. We may decide that smoking is bad for our health and decide not to engage in it, or to stop doing it. (Notice that with discernment, we don't necessarily force others to quit smoking, as much as we might wish they would. We simply stop the practice, then try to avoid being around people who smoke.)
Some other examples: We realize that trespassing and destruction of others' property is wrong, so we decide not to do it, even if our friends are doing it. We may warn our friends, but we cannot force them to stop what they are doing. We may decide to end those friendships, but we extend to them compassion when they have to face the consequences of their actions.
We may decide that someone's behavior is not appropriate. Maybe the person tells crude jokes all the time, or complains about things a lot. Maybe the person gossips or treats service workers such as waiters with disdain. Maybe we realize that the person always seems to blame others for his misfortunes and we figure that we will probably be next. We don't necessarily have to say anything to the person; we simply resolve not to spend time with him or her in order to avoid karmic entanglements. We may decide that someone around us is too negative or too emotionally needy and back away from them for our own good. Once again, we extend compassion for them, knowing that their actions are based on their own fears and anxieties.
Discernment, then, is deciding what is appropriate or inappropriate for ourselves and acting on these decisions. Rather than condemning other people, we realize that everyone is doing the best they can according to their current level of consciousness. We realize that we may have been in that same situation at some earlier point in this life or in past lives, and that the other person will eventually learn that his or her behavior is unacceptable. It is not necessarily our job to change them or point out their faults, and it is not our place to take away their opportunity to learn the lessons of life for themselves. We extend compassion for those who are acting out their fears and insecurities.
Discernment involves a balance between confidence in ourselves and humility, knowing that there are always some people who are better at a certain skill than we are, or who exhibit positive qualities more consistently than we do. Discernment is about seeing clearly, recognizing what exists without feeling the need to condemn someone or something that isn't the way we think it should be. We accept the world as it is and choose for ourselves accordingly, without the need to change others or change the situation. We realize that God is All That Is, and it is enough. All is in Divine order, and everything has been arranged for our growth and betterment as Soul. :-)