The practice of discernment goes back thousands of years. Spiritual teachers, mystics, and prophets all knew that their words would be open to interpretation. Also, many of them had the humility to realize that they could not be 100% certain that their message was wholly of God. They recognized that, being human, some of their own filtered biases and wishes would get into the mix. And so, over time, a process developed of asking certain types of questions of oneself (and giving an honest answer) in order to "discern the spirits."
One of the major systems of discernment was the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, developed by Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. Now before you protest that those Jesuits were often an oppressive order, Ignatius himself was a profound mystic, and as with any spiritual tradition, there are strengths and weaknesses. The Ignatian process of questioning is used today by many people, many of whom are not "religious" at all. There are, of course, many other systems and ways of discernment from many different traditions--Judaism has a long track record of asking questions; Buddhism has dharma talks which often involve intricate questioning, etc.
Through exposure to both Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and the Judaic practice of scriptural reasoning, several such questions emerged for me as good discernment tools:
1) Does this teaching (or intuition) improve my life by making me a better person?
2) Does this teaching involve any way in which others could be harmed?
3) Does this teaching lead me to feel a sense of humility when encountering the presence of G-d in my life?
4) Does this teaching lead me to be of real service in the world? Does it inspire me to take action to serve others?
5) Does this teaching affirm community--the idea that we are interdependent with each other?
6) Does this teaching emphasize myself more than G-d?
7) Am I making G-d into my own image?
Questions 2, 6, and 7 are cautionary questions, asking us to root out our subjectivity. Questions 1, 3, 4, and 5 are affirming questions, asking us to consider the amount of good the teaching or inspiration can actually do.
There are literally hundreds of other discernment questions out there in the various traditions. These are only a few.
Is discernment something you practice in your spiritual life? What discernment questions come to mind for you when you ponder a spiritual teaching you have either heard from someone else or arrived at on your own? And if you are writing a spiritual book, do you first use discernment in crafting your message?
Sharon, Good message.
Yes, I practice discernment both before I write and hopefully before I speak. I also practice discernment to evaluate Truth as I write.
There is universal truth to the practices you mention above. I believe people are drawn to truth.
I find that truth comes out in writing just as deception is revealed and I believe this is discovered through discernment exercised by the reader whether they know it or not.
In my spiritual life discernment is critical. I hate to lie to myself or to my readers and that is where discernment comes in if I am honest with myself as I write.
Thanks for the beautiful response, Jan! You are so right that truth can reveal itself in writing and so can deception.
I love the emphasis you put on honesty--honesty with your readers and honesty with yourself. Honesty is so very important in spirituality and in ethics.
Would you be willing to share a bit more about your discernment process--the types of questions you ask yourself, the kind of reflection you engage in before, during, and after writing?
Yes - when my meetings are over for the day.
Sharon, I must tell you that you inspired me. When I finished commenting on your question - I wrote something from my heart. It will be a blog as soon as I finesse it some more. When it is I will post again here for the link. It is truth to my soul, and maybe to anothers' soul as well.
Thanks, Jan! It's very gratifying and humbling to find out that I inspired you.
I look forward to your blog post and your further comments on this thread about your discernment process.
Sharon, I love the questions you use as discernment tools. :-) Thanks for sharing them.
Jan, I'm looking forward to reading more about your discernment process. :-)
I guess each writer is different when they create words out of air. For me, when I sit down to type something happens. I have an open document and words flow.
However, before I open that document I pray (this is a whole other conversation - but don't assume it means asking G-d my grocery list). This, for me, involves discernment. Probably the best way I am able to explain this to others is to say I listen to an inner voice, kinda like intuition. I believe it comes from God, and not from me. But, I hear it as an inner voice - words in my head.
My words, when they flow, sometimes surprise me. If someone asked me if I knew beforehand what I was going to write I would have to say no.
Yes - edits are needed, quite a few actually. I also have a critique group look over my writing. There are many changes and clarifications afterwards.
As to actual discernment tools - I did not realize I followed many of the same Ignatian Spiritual Exercises listed above. To write truth, I must find words which don’t hurt or control others. If my words make me G-d, they are wrong imo.
I become a better person because of the release of these words into concepts. This is also part of why spiritual leaders have spiritual exercises - to bring out the best in us.
As to practicing discernment in other areas of my life - ABSOLUTELY!!! It is a part of my being. Take something as simple as buying a new kitchen tool, or a special washcloth. Part of my discernment is asking the question of “Why am I buying this?” If the answer is: It is shiny or nifty cool - the item goes back onto the shelf. Not that there is anything wrong with having something nice. But what I buy also has to fill a need - even if that need is to bring beauty to my life or the lives of my loved ones. A purchase has negative value if it comes home, sits in a closet until I get sick of it, and then goes out the door to GoodWill as a donation.
I hope others will share their own discernment practices.
Jan, you have a great self-discernment process! Particularly when dealing with an inner voice, discernment questions can help us determine which parts of the inner voice are truly part of us and which parts are mixing up more mundane stuff that we've absorbed from what is around is. You are certainly right that almost every genuine spiritual teacher has a discernment process, often in the form of specific exercises they do at regular intervals.
You mentioned using discernment for other purposes, for example, for buying things. This is something people do all the time in their daily lives. They just don't call it discernment. Isn't it ironic that people will spend more time discerning about what kind of car to buy than they do in asking questions of their spiritual life? In other words, discernment in a sense comes naturally to people in "mundane" areas of life, and so it's a skill everyone has, but in these current times, it's not often used enough for the really big questions of life, which is so unfortunate because lack of spiritual discernment leads to all kinds of shallow spiritual nonsense being propounded as being "deep" and thus misleading people.
I use discernment questions and double checks from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed... I am better at it with my interactions with oher people, my writing and my counseling work than I am with making purchases LOL. So I intend to start using Jan's purchasing discernment ideas...more often.
Because I know that I do not know all of the intricate aspects of the Divine Plan. I often end conversations with the Divine...especially if it involves a request...with the phrase. May this come to be only in the highest and best interest of all souls.