Sh*t To Help You Show Up June 18, 2021
On Cultivating the Habit of Discernment
One of the central tasks I have in this life is to take the vocabulary and lessons of my own spiritual traditions, seek out the resonances in other paths, and then translate the essential ideas for folks who need that learning. To sketch new forms for old symbols is my greatest goal and service.
Discernment is the old idea we’re going to tackle today. There is a secular definition of discernment, which is three-fold: the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure; the ability to judge people and things well; to perceive or recognize the difference or distinction between (two or more things).
The word derives from the Old French discerner, meaning to distinguish (between), separate (by sifting), which itself derived from the Latin discernere— to separate, set apart, divide, distribute; distinguish, perceive. The root word parts are dis- "off, away" + cernere "distinguish, separate, sift".
The first of those three secular definitions, “the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure”, is what leads to the notion of spiritual discernment. Spiritual discernment is the idea that there is an answer to any question and a Will behind that answer that is bigger than “I” am, that surpasses my limited and finite understanding. There exists a great Mystery that goes by many names.
As I move through my life seeking to follow my integrity— to live into my wholeness, to recognize what is right and stand firm on its behalf— I am not simply making decisions based on my own experience and understanding. I am also listening deeply and humbly for all I do not know so that I can expand my vision and capacity.
I have said before and I will say again, I do not believe you have to have faith in God in the Christian sense, or even in the anthropomorphic sense, to pursue a life of integrity. I do think that having something transcendent that you bow to brings a necessary humility to your practice. From that necessary humility growth and expansion follows.
But how does discernment actually work? How do we discern what to do, and how is that different than just deciding?
Here is a list of steps in the process of discernment:
Bow to the transcendent and seek guidance. Maybe for you, that involves reading holy texts— scriptures, commentaries, myths and stories. Maybe it involves divination. Maybe solitary meditation, group meditation, or silent worship is your path. The important thing is to look and listen for what you don’t know or can’t see because there is always something you don’t know or can’t see.
Seek counsel and reflection from a trusted advisor(s). I don’t believe that “lone wolf” and integrity really go hand-in-hand. Integrity is relational, remember. It’s about the moral quality of our choices as we bump up against each other. There is always a point at which you, and only you, can make a choice, but the bigger the choice the more people who will be affected, and the more important it is to work to articulate your questions and your current understanding to someone who can help you see what you’re missing. It should be someone who isn’t immediately invested in your choice— a wise friend, therapist, religious leader, teacher, support group, sponsor. If you only share with people who will agree with you, or who will benefit from one option or another that’s before you, you’re not testing your ideas. You’re just seeking confirmation.
Inventory your duties and responsibilities. Covenants, contracts, and commitments matter. Having integrity involves doing what you say you’re going to do. Does that mean we can’t change course or we never get to renegotiate? No. But it does mean that before you renege on a contract or break a commitment you need to understand what your obligations are, who (or what) you’re accountable to, and what the likely effect on them will be of your choice. Here is also where you recommit to the reality that there are always unintended and unanticipated consequences (remember that “all I do not know” business?), and you will be accountable for those as well.
Understand your needs and desires— how they are related, and also different. It may be cliché, but it is still true: what we think we want and what we actually need aren’t necessarily the same thing. Desire is a holy thing, but it can also be compulsive, particularly if it is unintentionally focused on filling a hole created by an unacknowledged or unexamined need. We can’t get our needs met if we aren’t clear about what they are. This unpacking can feel horrifyingly vulnerable, but it is absolutely essential.
Inventory your capacities. What we wish for and what we are capable of, especially if that wish is a big, aspirational one, often are wildly divergent. I desire all kinds of things, but my capacity to manifest those things takes practice and time. For instance, I’ve wanted to be a professional writer for a dozen years now, but I had to learn my craft, word by word. (Still learning!) You can’t just all of a sudden be a totally different person, but you can bridge the gap between your wishes and your capacities if you can honestly assess how wide the gap is, map out the bridge, and then submit to the step-by-step reality of getting there.
The short answer to the question of the difference between discerning and deciding is this: deciding is a hell of a lot quicker. Sometimes that’s fine. Not everything is weighty, or moral, or has long-term or far-reaching implications. Ironically, though, sifting through what is and isn’t requires discernment, so you’re not getting out of developing these skills. Not if you want to pursue a life of integrity.
With practice, integrity and discernment do get easier. If you want to see an example of a woman living her integrity, discerning how to build a business, and being of service, you can watch this video about Jessyka Winston, owner of Haus of Hoodoo in New Orleans. She is a wonder.
We have reached nearly 300 subscribers, y’all! So close! Welcome to all of you new folks, and thank you to everyone for supporting my work.
I’d love to get to 300 subscribers before the end of June. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that in the box below. Also, can you share this post, or one of your previous favorites, with someone in your networks and encourage them to subscribe? Or post a link on one of your social media channels with an endorsement? This is a grassroots, crowd-disbursed effort over here and I am grateful for your help. XO, Asha