I’ve been thinking about discernment a fair bit recently. In Christian terms this is often the term we use for seeking to do God’s will. This often means given a choice between x and not x then my task is to figure out what choice seems to be more in line with God’s will for me. In other words, what matters is what I choose. One path will lead me towards God and one path will lead me away from God.
Now, I think there are some choices like this. But I think the vast majority of choices that I try to actively discern are not in this category. When I think about the last major choice I made, I know that both choices were good choices, and both could equally have led into deeper relationship with God. What mattered was not the choice itself but the process of making the choice.
The lasting impact on my life is not the decision I made, but rather the way in which I made the decision. Engaging in that particular process revealed to me my attachments and fears. There were six clear steps where I could have chosen to lean into my fear or bow out of the process. Ultimately if I had bowed out of the process, my external life circumstances would look no different to what they look like now (my decision was to stay where I am). But I know that if I had bowed out of the process I would not be who I am today.
All of the steps, except for the last one, were about shifting the decision from a possibility to a reality. Every single step was profoundly challenging. I had to face into a significant fear – the same one in different guises. What actual choice I made on that sixth and final step would have significant impact on the external detail of my life, but the essence of who I am was far more impacted by the previous five steps.
The faithfulness to the process, which required that I attended to my own attachments and fears, has allowed me to cross an interior threshold. That would have happened regardless of the ultimate decision that was made. In other words what was significant was the process of discernment, not the choice that was ultimately made.
In this case there were multiple steps, and so the lesson is clear. But what if this is the case for the vast majority of the decisions we are trying to discern. What if the real invitation is to examine our fears and attachments? There is no doubt in my mind that the extent to which I can free myself of my fears and attachments is the extent which I am available to begin anything which might resemble the will of God.
The image of light dispersed by a prism has been with me for a few weeks. It struck me as a powerful metaphor for different spiritual traditions.
We sit on the refracted side of the prism (the rainbow side). Each tradition explores its own colour of light. Each tradition has developed a set of rules which allow the followers to get to a more or less true approximation of resonance with the actual frequency of that particular light path.
Not all traditions are equal and not all facilitate the real resonance of all to the same degree, but all are striving to the same end.
Some traditions encapsulated more frequencies of light than others, and so do hold a greater part of the whole, but none – not one – holds everything. Not one holds the true nature of unrefracted white light – that is a gift from God.
I had an email conversation with an acquaintance today about Centering Prayer and the Ignatian tradition. Each sits in a slightly different space in the spectrum. Each helps followers to come to greater resonance with that segment of the spectrum i.e. each helps people into deeper relationship with God.
When we find that sweet spot of resonance in a particular tradition it is so exciting – and it is so tempting to begin to proclaim that you have found the way to others. To those who are sitting in the same section of the spectrum your words may be both encouraging and genuinely helpful. But to those are operating in a different zone your words may be more disorienting and destructive than anything else.
The experience of resonating in the white light is perhaps what Christians call contemplation and Buddhists call enlightenment. Those who live from that space are always characterised by humility. They understand the gift of the tradition which led them to that place, but they know that it is not the only route.
It is one thing to look down at one’s life from a new perspective, it is quite another to walk the path into the possible future.
This idea is not mine wholly. It is a half remembered quote, so poorly remembered that even google can’t help me out. The image is of standing on a ridge looking out over the valley of peace or forgiveness, juxtaposed with the challenge of actually walking into that future.
The last few months have been incredibly useful to me. I have come to see myself from a new perspective. A single concept has seeded the crystal which has unlocked my understanding of much of what drives me.
It is a powerful force which has operated below the surface of my consciousness for so much of my life. Seeing it, casts a new light on unconscious presumptions which I never thought to question. It is tremendously liberating.
And yet, the liberation is only theoretical for the moment. I need to make a new path into my future. I need to examine the motivations in the choices I make. The liberation is useful, but ultimately empty until I begin to incorporate the insight into my daily reality.
I was watching a TV show with my sister yesterday. In it, they were discussing personality types. The primary tool they used to was the scale which gives scores on five factors: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeability and neuroticism.
In one of the ad breaks I casually commented that I thought that I scored low on neuroticism. I don’t consider myself I particularly anxious person. I certainly don’t recognise in myself the kinds of anxieties I see operating in others.
I knew I was in trouble when my sister said ‘Really? You think you score low on neuroticism!’ Her tone was distinctly quizzical.
Then she said to me -‘ When you are stressed you don’t sleep and you lose weight’. Alas – both things are true.
I do suffer from stress – but the vast majority of my stress is internal. It is both self-generated and self-destructive. It will always have some anchor in the real world, and it can usually be defused by a good conversation with a close confidant.
I don’t identify at all with the label ‘neuroticism’ but if it is the equivalent of being highly strung then I fear I must own it.
It occurs to me that so many of these things are simply a matter of perspective. We place value judgements on words or behaviours and this interferes with our perception and our capacity to embrace the truth of who we are. For me to admit that I may score quite highly on the neuroticism scale is a little uncomfortable. Likewise another person may not like to score low on openness or conscientiousness.
Nonetheless, my desire is to be able to accept myself as I am – whatever that may mean for my scores on this particularly personality test. So for today, I am embracing the idea that maybe I am more controlled by my internal stress than I would like.
Just because most people around me cannot tell when I am struggling, doesn’t mean that I am well adjusted!
This is one of those lessons I probably would have learnt a long time ago if I had had any kind of long term intimate relationship. Alas, I have had to wait for my friendships to mature to a place where I can finally see this truth.
A close friend of mine has made some choices in the last few months that I know I would not have made. The choice she has made is in no way inherently wrong or problematic. I only know that I would not have chosen it. Watching her I have really begun to realise that other is just other.
My way is not necessarily better. It is just my way.
I find the process of walking with her fascinating. Firstly, because it is the first relationship where I have truly encountered the complexity of what it is to be different. Too often, my friendships have been forged in a sense of commonality, and when that has broken down – or found to have limitations – I have walked away.
Secondly, because it has forced me to recognise that just because she has chosen something that I wouldn’t, doesn’t make it wrong.
As I ponder this a little longer, I begin to recognise that in similar situations I have been driven by similar forces – the quest to find my identity. The difference between us is that we locate our identity in different places. So where we search to recover it is different.
My way is not necessarily the right one! It is just my way.
Periodically over the last year or so, I’ve been thinking about leadership. I have managed to divest myself of two leadership positions which I had found unduly burdensome. Both positions I had been asked to step into because I seemed the right sort of person. Both ended up draining me tremendously.
The obvious conclusion seemed to be that I am just not much of leader.
But then I recognise that there are several other situations where I am clearly the leader, although there is no formal title. In these situations I lead because I can’t help myself. I am passionate about the outcome and I have significant experience in the area.
So, it turns out that I have two qualitatively different experiences of leadership. In the first case, where it is a role I have taken on, I found it to be a tremendous emotional burden. That burden far outweighs the nature of the task!! But when I lead because it is a necessary part of my being in that dynamic I don’t feel the same burden.
In the latter case, the emotional tax is associated with the occasional complexity of tasks associated leadership, not with the role itself. I think part of the emotional burden of leadership which has been thrust upon me is the desire to perform to the satisfaction of those who have asked me to step up.
It is an interesting and slightly painful insight. Surely, by now, I should be free of the need to please others or impress others? Apparently not!
More importantly, it gives me a crucial point of discernment – am I taking this on because it is the right thing to do, or am I taking it on because I want to be seen to be capable or helpful or whatever else. If it is the latter I should probably steer clear until I have found my interior freedom.
In the last while I have had a series of conversations with a good friend. We have been discussing a situation in his life which has resonances in my own. By this I mean I bring baggage to the conversation.
I have been aware of the need to take time over my responses. Learning to sift the wheat of genuine concern from the chaff of fear.
It has been a fascinating process for me, as I have begun to really respect the other as other. It has forced me to recognise that his story is not the same as my story. His motivations are not my motivations. And crucially, neither of us is right or wrong, it is genuinely just different.
For me, this is a process of discernment. My knee-jerk response of what is right may not be accurate. The challenge is that the knee-jerk response is so often so clear and so easily justified. But I am really learning that my own point of view may not be the whole picture.
In fact, my own view cannot possibly be the big picture!
I am learning the importance of having a measured conversation. Taking time to pause and consider my own responses. Beginning to recognise when I need to not speak because I cannot speak out of freedom. And having the courage to speak again once I have found that freedom once more.
It is an extraordinary privilege to be allowed to participate in another person’s discernment.
I’ve been reading and listening to a fair amount of Richard Rohr’s teaching in the last few weeks. The emphasis has been on non-dual consciousness. I’m still not convinced I know what non-dual consciousness is, or indeed, how to get there, but I think I do recognise it when I see it.
I think part of the problem is that most people who have experienced non-dual consciousness can only really describe their own route into it. For Richard Rohr, that seems to have been principally through centering prayer. For Cynthia Borgeault, the entry was through a relationship of conscious love. For Joan Halifax, through the practice of Buddhism.
But, the experience of non-dual consciousness must be accessible through any tradition which has given rise to mystics. The question that has been playing through my mind for the last week or so has been the link between discernment and non-dual consciousness.
I think, for me, the link is present. Discernment is not an objective process of judging i.e. this external thing is good or bad. Rather it is a subjective process of choosing. That is to say, that the thing is itself neutral. What I am assessing in discernment is what happens when I am in relationship with this thing.
It is a subtle process, and one that needs to be constantly revisited. My discernment with respect is something in particular may change with time as I change or as my circumstances change. There is no certainly in discernment, rather a greater or lesser sense that this does seem the better choice. There is also the recognition that choices which lead me towards God, may not be the choices my neighbour makes.
I’m not sure that I can say that the daily practice of discernment leads to non-dual consciousness. But I am fairly sure that it supports the process.
I am spending a few days at a discussion forum on the global common good. There are some very interesting people here including three young people who are part of the Pathway out of Poverty campaign of the Goedgedacht Trust (If you are looking for a worthy cause to support look no further – link to their website is here).
On the first day these three young people shared their vision for ‘a good life’. All of them focused on family, community and good relationships. Many of us in the room were struck by this, especially coming from people who had grown up in poverty. But as I reflect on their responses and the responses in the room, I wonder.
I suspect that the vast majority of people would say that relationships are the most important thing. The problem is, that for far too many of us, our actions fail to support this. On a daily basis we make choices which compromise relationship rather than nourish it. And we always have a very good reason for making that choice. But we fail to notice the erosion of relationships over time. We fail to notice that we are not, in fact, prioritising relationships.
Of course, we do need to be wise here, we cannot prioritise all relationships. We have to single out the very small number (usually one’s nuclear family) who should receive such focus. But how often do we trespass on the good will of precisely those closest to us, in order to achieve some minor step up. Or, even worse, to keep up appearances for our bosses, church communities or charitable organisations. What are we doing?
We need to be discerning. We need to pay attention to the impact of our choices over time. It is far too easy to get distracted by the many many good things could be done, sacrificing the better along the way.
Every field has its fundamentalists and every person has their blindspots.
In the last month or so there has been a conversation on Twitter between a few chemists. I am not sure whether it has resolved, or indeed how it resolved if it did. But the spark was a paper published in a well respected journal which had a rather dodgy comment in the supplementary information. The comment seemed to suggest that the senior author was asking the first author to make up some data. What ensued began to look a little like a witch hunt – more papers with ‘dodgy’ data were revealed in other journals and the hunt was on.
I’m sure that there are real problems in the reporting of chemical data – precisely because of some of the pressures which now characterise academia. But the vitriol and assuming of the moral high ground which was so quickly adopted was a little disturbing (all this from the most objective and rational of beings – the scientists!! – as a scientist myself I feel I can make this gibe)
It has made me pause – in all areas of life we get those who will so quickly adopt an attitude of superiority totally justified – in their own minds – by the fact that they are unearthing something which is not absolutely right. But failing to consider the possibility that the person they are busy ‘exposing’ may not have had the malicious intent they presume. So quickly reputations are ruined and careers trashed. And the whistleblower is left smugly satisfied with the role they have played.
Obviously I’m painting a rather extreme picture – I certainly have been the whistleblower at times, and it is an important role, but discernment is always necessary. I always need to be sure of my own motivations and the motivations of the other before publicly damning them.
At the start of The Spiritual Exercises Ignatius offers simple advice – every good Christian should be more willing to presume the best in a statement made by another rather than the worst. If you cannot see the good in it, then question the person directly in order to ascertain whether you have understood correctly or not. Only once you are absolutely sure that the other intended something which is erroneous or wrong, should you attempt to correct the other in love.
Our public debate would be quite different if we could all start from this presupposition.