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Judge not, lest ye be judged.  The biblical scripture is iconic, in settings religious and less so; it even showed up on Mad Men last night, embossed on an ad-man's portfolio.  The episode was called "Judge Not"--which was a funny coincidence, because it's been on my mind lately.

When I was a child, growing up among Jehovah's Witnesses, the scripture was quoted often, but the primary interpretive thrust was that we should be humble and not judge others--which was confusing, of course, because we did judge others, all the time, for being worldly in a variety of ways.  The way we used the scripture never made a lot of sense to me.

But as an adult, I've often wondered about the phrase as a simple truism, one that has to do with your own mind, your own process.  That is, if you're the kind of person who constantly, unhappily judges others, such judging will become your mental habit, and you won't be able to help turning that caustic gaze upon yourself.  And that will be painful.

At least, that was my experience for much of my life, and the scripture makes sense in that context.

I recently read two essays by Sally Adee, "Zap your brain into the zone:  Fast track to pure focus" and "How electrical brain stimulation can change the way we think," about transcranial direct current stimulation--introducing an electrical current (about the same as a 9-volt battery) into the brain of awake, conscious learners. 

It immediately creates startling improvement.  Learners become relaxed, totally focused, and totally engaged.  They learn skills more quickly and with less strain.  The mental state the essay describes--the focus, the concentration, the effortless flow--is similar to what Zen practitioners and long-time meditators describe.  Electrical stimulation provides a way of achieving that state of "flow" so highly sought after by athletes and musicians.  (And snipers, as one piece points out.  In the sequel to Hell or High Water, Nola's therapist wants her to meditate in order to modulate the effects of PTSD, but she can't.  She goes to the shooting range instead.) 

If you've felt flow, then you know what a wonderful feeling it is.  Why does electrical stimulation work to help people achieve flow instantly?  "One possibility," writes Adee, "is that the electrodes somehow reduce activity in the prefrontal cortex--the area used in critical thought..." 

Critical thought.  That's interesting to me.

It's particularly interesting because this feels like the judging season.  We're finally done with judging graduate applications and job applicants, and I've just finished judging my second writing contest this year.  As a guest editor, I'm judging submissions to a special issue of Brevity.  And of course, there's the weekly grading of my students' papers.  And then, too, we all judge the arguments and/or aesthetic qualities of the published texts we teach.  Judging/critiquing is a useful way to identify strengths and weaknesses, and as a society (and as writers trying to improve our own manuscripts), we need that.  We need it when we decide how to vote, or where to live, or any number of things crucial to our well-being. 

All of that's fine; it's kind of fun; it's my job; okay.  It's one way of using your brain.

But many academics enshrine critical thinking, or judging, as the way to think.  (Many people do, to be sure; I'm just surrounded by academics most of the time, so that's my reference group.  And because, as academics, we're always using language that explicitly vaunts critical thinking, in order to explain and justify much of what we do as educators, our official esteem for that approach is always writ large.)  We critique, critique, critique, and pat ourselves on the back for using that mode. 

But then it becomes hard to turn the inner critic off.  We find ourselves upset with others much of the time.  Moreover, we judge ourselves just as ruthlessly.  We imagine we are being judged by others.  And then we suffer and are anxious.

Experience tells me this phenomenon is not limited to academics. 

"My brain without self-doubt was a revelation," writes Adee, describing the experience of electrical stimulation.  "There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head."  Her "constant stream of self-criticism" just stopped.  For Adee, the effects lasted for about three days. 

I'm wondering if this "incredible silence" is what Zen monks pursue with such diligence on their zafus.  To live permanently in a zone of effortless focus, tremendous effectiveness, and tranquility would be worth a few leg cramps.

It's definitely the case that critical thinking--assessing, evaluating, judging, analyzing--is one viable, useful, and tremendously important way to use your brain.  I'm glad we've got it.

But it's only one way.  There are others, and they can lead to greater peace.  Acceptance.  Love.  Curiosity.  Openness.  Appreciation.  Listening. 

Just thinking out loud here, friends.  Take care.



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