Many, many moons ago, I remember driving in a pouring rain through the streets of Philadelphia with a friend. There was a young woman standing, waiting for a bus, probably, who was wearing a mini-skirt, bright purple stockings, and white boots. I thought to myself, “How gauche!”—or some other college form of endearment of that innocent era. (Swear words were yet to make their debut in my life.) My friend blurted out how wonderful it was to witness this person dressed so joyfully on a gray day. His poetic perspective left judging behind. That moment, however, was an epiphany regarding my own criticality.
We all carry within us a terrible and sometimes terrifying inner critic. Regrettable as that is, it is also unfortunate that we all manage to inflict our own internal judge on just about everyone we meet (or just observe!).
There is a vast difference between the discernment and judgment we as humans need to have to perceive danger. We do need to be wary of predatory people, sociopathic types, whether they wear an Armani suit or carry a chain saw. When the hair goes up on the nape of your neck, it’s time to listen to your inner instinctual sage.
That necessary attention is mightily different from the everyday judgments we make hastily about both ourselves and others. Why do we critique someone who wears purple stockings or a fuzzy hat? Why do we harshly judge someone for their physique, be they large or small? For one, we have no idea what inner burdens they carry, what story is theirs, what history created their present situation. Instead of empathetically walking in their moccasins (or white boots), we fear the unfamiliar.
Perhaps out of such fear of the unknown other, we get caught in comparison mind: “I’m better than you because I don’t look like that or say that.” Other times we may mind travel to the opposite pole where our inner dialogue is a putdown of ourselves: “I wish I could be that trim, that young, that rich, that famous.”
Whether our comparison mind is a disdain for the other or a disdain of ourselves, the source is the same: a lack of compassionate acceptance.
Compassion starts with accepting ourselves for just the way we are, our imperfections being the signature of our humanness. When we accept ourselves in that way, we can accept others with compassion too.
This movement from comparison to compassion is a journey without end. Even in monasteries and meditation halls, comparison mind runs rampant. Often, when committed to a silent retreat, we can find ourselves in comparison mind. We find the chatter between our ears drones on: “I’d like to have a prayer shawl like hers” or “ooh, why does he make that weird sound when he breathes in?” And on and on. In any spiritual retreat, Buddhist, Catholic, or otherwise, the hope is that we use these comparison mind ruminations to be grist for the mill. So we gently return to the prayer or the breath, non-judgmental of ourselves regarding our own sorry judgments of others. “There I go again, come back to center, dear one.”
I recall an incident when my daughter was about two years old and kept going over to a large flower pot in the home of a friend, wanting to throw the dirt. I would gently remove her from her target. A little while later, she would make another attempt. Again, the gentle bringing her back to the table and away from the plant. This repeated several times.
Well, in meditation, prayer, and in life our comparison mind is like a two-year old, and so gently, compassionately, we bring her back.
Imagine our comparison mind being like the little toddler who needs compassion and understanding. As we grow in compassion and understanding for ourselves, we can grow in compassion for others.