Spiritual Growth and Discernment
We make hundreds of decisions every day. Over and over we express our desires and choices. In the process we are literally creating ourselves. This is a very active and hopeful thing. In the process of decision-making we may make decisions with reflection, deliberation and conscious intent or we may decide out of habit or in reaction to a feeling, without much thought.
Most people think they choose freely what they will have in their lives and what they will become. I prove that wrong every time I get near most pastries or warm, newly-baked bread. I am immediately consumed by an intense desire for these. I really have to remind myself of my commitment to feeling better rather than to reveling in sugar and all that baked goods symbolize for me. Simple carbohydrates make me feel terrible physically but they also temporally fill an empty hole inside my psyche. When I chose not to eat them I feel strong emotional forces pulling me toward that class of foods.
Noticing the different feelings inside me and my thought patterns as I struggle to get past the Cinnamon and Almond Ring at Trader Joe’s is really revealing. I’m a grown person but I become very little and whiny as I crawl over to the vegetables and lettuce just beyond the bread and pastries. After all, I work hard and deserve a treat! I could just eat a slice and throw the rest away. I actually could do that (and I have in the past).
The desire to be closer to God requires letting God tell me what would please him. That sounds very old fashioned and odd. But, there’s no way around it. Knowing God is knowing what is best — best for me and best for the world. I cannot eat sugar and refined carbohydrates and feel good. I just can’t. I love that stuff!! Knowing God and growing in holiness means that I would like to know which actions in my life would help me to be happy. Discernment is the skill with which I can learn to evaluate what is the best choice at any juncture in my road every day, all day long. There are certain feelings and thoughts that characterize good decisions and others which characterize poor decisions.
Learning those and applying them seems easy enough. One of the problems is that most of us have been fooling ourselves for years about what seems best — because we all love a plausible excuse to eat coffee cake or to buy new clothes when we really don’t need any, etc. And, some of us have been unconsciously choosing what we think other people want for us, so we do not know how we feel about most things in life. What if I dislike red sweaters but have been given a number of them because I look good in red? What if I really dislike a timeshare at Tahoe but almost the whole family loves it? What if I want to go back to school but would have to inconvenience a lot of people? There are ways to know the truth of what is best and to know the ways I postpone the truth and get in my own way.
Becoming mature in these skills, also called discernment, involves attention to our minds, feelings and imaginations. I realized many years ago that my imagination can be both helpful and unhelpful. My imagination can help me image myself as a happy person when I learn new skills or improve relationships. My imagination can also tell me that facing someone’s anger will destroy me. That frightening image is probably not true. Someone’s displeasure at me does not have to harm me. My imagination does not have to motivate me to do actions that are not necessary or helpful. My mind can help me get to the truth of how I make decisions. My mind can also help me slow down as I go through life. I can become an observer and can use my mind to see what my usual processes in life are. I can use my mind to consider my feelings and images. I can recognize if I am peaceful or afraid. I can also see if frightening images are being thrown up in front of me which are not true but set me back.
This reflection process sounds cold to me but in fact I find it an adventure. When I know that someone is upset with me I automatically feel that any interaction with that person is going to be frightening. But, I have found lately that not avoiding a conversation and instead standing my ground has been almost exhilarating. Nothing bad happened. The other person may have a point or may be wrong, but either way I am not overwhelmed. I can listen to his or her words and make decisions in the midst of the confrontation. I can observe myself wanting to run away and talk myself into being calm. Wow, what an advance!
Everything so far applies to any situation in which I want to know what my unconscious mind is doing and also when I want to observe what others are doing. In the midst of worry or upset, I can pray for the peace to see what the influences are: whether feelings, thoughts or images. I can use this information to make decisions.
Of the three sources of information, our feelings usually provide the most important information for discernment. Although I have in mind emotional feelings when I say this, I also believe that our bodies provide valuable information in their reactions to thoughts and circumstances. If I make a decision about my job and do not sleep that night, I want to ask why that reaction happened. In the morning I may feel terrible physically but still feel I have made the right decision. It may be that my mind worked during the night to consider all the options once again. If I decide to move to another city but feel inner turmoil which I try to shut up, I may need to dig deeper, beyond my conscious reasons for moving to see if I am also moving for another reasonable but destructive reason e.g. to please my mother. The saints are people who became good at distinguishing between inner peace and inner anxiety or deception.
To use the example above, my mother may be lonely. I may feel guilty for not visiting her or calling her. But, I may have a very good job which I love and so I should not move. There are ways to work with the circumstances and feelings of guilt without moving. Doing that work requires facing the truth and the possible displeasure of someone. But, it would also mean that I am honoring my true self at this time. I need help to do discernment. I cannot have detachment from my feelings of fear or attachment to approval on my own. I pray throughout the day. I first ask for insight — that I not be blind. I want to see if I am avoiding anything. I prefer to know what my reality is. Secondly, if I have to decide about something, I ask for help to see what is best and to be able to do it. This happens a lot with how I use my time. I usually have a mental or written list of what I want to do in a day. I ask God to help me know what is most important. I usually see what is best, but I often argue about it. I want to do it all. I want to paint the front door when it is 50 degrees and damp outside. I want to spend the morning sewing when I need to file paperwork and write. I want to cook three different recipes when I should just get one done.
The discernment which is going to make me happier is going to be a process in which I see what my feelings, thoughts and images are. It is going to require that I make a commitment to follow what brings me inner peace. It is also going to require that I use strategies to counter negative thinking and pressure from others or the Enemy of our human nature. The more skilled at countering this, the more likely I am to be at peace. When I am ambivalent, I experience much more pressure than when I am clear that I am not going to be doing actions motivated by emptiness, fear, or pride.
At some point we have to surrender to the truth if we want to be happy. We have to follow the footprints of inner peace. If an option before us brings us peace and joy, then we are on the right path. If an option brings us turmoil or a feeling of shame, we are operating out of poor motives. We need to go back to see what is driving us and pray for the strength to make the right decision.
“A Fork in the Path” – Image by K. Pozos