Last month I was called for jury duty and I was surprised how much the experience of sitting for three days in the jury room was similar to being on a silent retreat. Don’t get me wrong: It was not because the jury room was a still container that facilitated deep truth telling and inner exploration. Rather, in the enforced quiet of the jury room, I had a fresh opportunity to notice the judgmental nature of my own mind.
It was pretty extraordinary. I had very strong opinions about my fellow jurors; I could tell you whom I liked, whom I disliked and who intrigued me. I was undeterred by the fact that I had nothing to base any of these judgments on; I hadn’t even spoken to anyone! It was just like many of the retreats I have attended, where I invented whole stories about people based on the sound of their breathing, the pace of their walking and where they sat.
I was grateful for the past retreat experience because I was able to recognize the absurdity of my judgmental thoughts and to lightly remind myself that they were not in fact based on truth. I had a choice: I could entrench around my criticism (which was easy to do in that particular jury room, a breeding ground of entrenchment and judgment) or I could gently renew a commitment to stay open, to be curious and surprisable, and to question my own assumptions.
People often talk about spiritual practice within the narrow context of the actual practice on the cushion or yoga mat or with the prayer book or other sacred text. But to me the fruit of the practice is revealed in other contexts, often where I least expect it. The practice prepares me to notice more quickly: Oh, here is my judgmental mind. Oh, I am on autopilot again. Oh, this situation is triggering a strong reaction. What is in fact the wisest response?
And for the record, sometimes the wisest response is one of strong judgment. I left jury duty with a lot of criticism, not about my fellow jurors, but about the justice system and how it was facilitated in this particular court. Instead of sitting and sniping at strangers in my head, I managed to recognize the larger issue and subsequently channeled my discontent by writing to the judge who oversaw the jury room. I received a sympathetic response – so who knows what will emerge?
The practice manifests in mysterious ways! It is one of the great pleasures of engaging in it.