Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, wrote that, “Systems incorporate the unexamined beliefs of their creators.” Herbert highlights a fundamental law: we can never fully understand anything of which we’re a part. Or, more succinctly, judging precludes understanding.

The reason we can’t fully understand a system we’re a part of is because we have a vested interest in that system. Our support for that system, or criticism of it, will be distorted by the extent to which we feel it meets our needs.


This distortion manifests as a limited perception of the system. The more embedded we are in a system, the greater the distortion. The less we understand, the more we judge—and vice-versa.

We cannot escape from systems. As Lynne Tillman says in Men and Apparitions, “No escape from patterns and systems, no exits. Nothing, and no one, resides outside a system; that’s the way it is.”

This presents a problem, because the system we’re most deeply embedded in is our own life.

We can’t understand our own lives because we’re ‘too close to the coalface’. We’re too busy trying to meet our physical and emotional needs—too busy judging.

Quite simply, we can’t understand our own lives because we’re ‘too close to the coalface’. We’re too busy trying to meet our physical and emotional needs—too busy judging.

Some other time

Specifically, we can’t see the contents of our own unconscious. As Frank Herbert notes, our unconscious contains our “unexamined beliefs.” Why don’t (or won’t we) examine them? Because they’re beliefs that are considered shameful and unacceptable in another system we must participate in, our society.

We unconsciously protect our place in society by refusing to examine the aspects of ourselves that clash with our society’s worldview.

These unexamined places are always a source of pain, particularly when we collide with another individual—family member, lover, friend, work colleague—whose own unexamined wounds conflict with and inflame ours.

In these situations, we rush to judge that individual as ‘bad’, as the source of our pain. We refuse to understand that others are simply acting out from their own unexamined places. We refuse to accept that the source of our pain is always within, because that would entail taking responsibility for it.

In that refusal we doom ourselves to repeat the situation with someone else, “someplace, somewhere, some other time,” as the Alan Parsons Project sang.


As long as we judge, we are blind. The only way to get a balanced view of a situation is without judging. To gain understanding we must shift from the judger to the watcher.

To watch we must stop judging, stop having an agenda, a default position. We must abandon the moral high ground and the need to be right. We must commit to seeing the truth—no matter how bad a light it may paint us in.

The watcher, or inner observer, is the part of us that watches our own lives from a detached, unsentimental distance. It identifies where our “unexamined beliefs” contaminate our experience with judgment, pain and ego projections.

The watcher is a facility we must develop through exercise, like a muscle. I’ve written about this in How to develop your ‘inner observer’.

Every world teacher and spiritual leader since the dawn of time has advocated non-judgment. Religion instruction ties non-judgment to spiritual rewards in the afterlife, but the rewards in this life can be huge: genuine understanding.

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