Some call it intuition. Divine insight. Animal instinct. God’s Will. Whatever we label this natural ability to tune in to a deeper inner voice, the question remains: How do we develop discernment in the middle of chaos and indecision?
He may not call it the voice of God, but according to pop-sociologist Malcolm Gladwell, best selling author of The Tipping Point, relying on your first gut reaction is a good way to gamble when it comes to making hard decisions.
In his follow-up book about how we make decisions, Blink, Gladwell looks at a team of firefighters interviewed about their decision-making process during moments of emergency. He concludes that when these professionals make decisions — like evacuating their entire team seconds before a burning ceiling collapses — they don’t logically compare all available options. Instead, they draw on impulse and previous training to assess the situation quickly and act.
What Gladwell is driving at, and what has baffled scholars for ages is: How do we decide? His premise, basically, is that we subconsciously process information more quickly and more efficiently than we might think. This leaves a question of context: If we really are evaluating millions of facts very quickly, how can we move toward a more intentional process?
A more intentional process
James Martin, a Jesuit Priest and author of several books including Becoming Who You Are, believes this kind of sensitivity is formed when we recognize the desires of our own heart.
“God is always calling us to make right decisions,” explains Martin. “His voice is like a drop of water on a sponge: it encourages, leads, and comforts you. It is a gentle invitation. But the spirit that pulls you away from God is like water falling on a stone: it is severe, startling, and causes a gnawing anxiety.”
For St. Ignatius of Loyola, 16th century Spanish saint and founder of the Jesuits, the discernment of spirit requires calm, rational reflection. “If you plunge a cup into a pond and scoop up muck from the bottom,” says Martin, “it will take awhile for the silt and rocks to settle. This is how our minds work. You must be willing to sit alone with your decision and examine where your fears and desires rest.”
Martin suggests finding time for silent contemplative prayer, a time away from the outside bustle and bling of our hyperactive culture. The Ignatian approach also suggests finding a spiritual director to help you examine your motives and determine your conscience.
Examining this unspoken conscience from a more scientific perspective, dance therapist Bill Hedberg talks about somatic, or body, intelligence.
“The brain, isolated from the wisdom of the heart and fierceness of the gut, is a dangerous animal,” says Hedberg. He uses the image of a dog (symbolizing one’s body) and its owner (one’s mind) out on a walk. For the walk to be successful, the owner must make the dog want to go out and explore; he cannot drag the dog down the street, ignoring its raised claws on the cement. “How do we care for and listen to our bodies enough so that they want to guide and teach us?
Hedberg believes that healthy, dynamic relationships are formed through cultivating mindfulness. Just as professional athletes endure intense daily training to prepare for just a few moments out on the playing field, living by your inner guidance requires preparation and maintenance.
“The more we get to know ourselves through physical practices like dance or deep breathing,” says Hedberg, “the more our state of awareness elevates, and thus gives us the capacity to sponsor emotions like fear while acting from a courageous, present, mature place.”
Regardless of how much support you have on your path, developing this trust can be terrifying. When we plunge into the unknown, Sister Theresa Margaret, of the Discalced Carmelite Monastery of Divine Mercy and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wichita, Kansas, believes faith will be a light through the confusion.
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen,” she says, quoting Hebrews 11:1. “When we walk in faith, we are taking a great risk. This requires us to face our fears and trust God’s Will.”
Building faith in one’s higher integrity, says Sister Theresa, comes from practical self-examination.
Once you have researched and informed yourself completely on the matter and asked God for an answer to your prayer, she explains, it’s time to go inside and weigh the decision on your heart.
“Listen to how you feel once you’ve made up your mind,” says Sister Theresa. “Do you feel a deep sense of peace? Or do you feel a foreboding, or a feeling of doom or omen? You will know if you’ve made the right decision when tranquility of spirit arises. You will have the grace to carry the cross God gives you no matter how unknown and scary it may seem.”
Memory and imagination can be helpful, too. Sister Theresa suggests imagining we are evaluating our lives from our deathbeds: “Looking back, what would you have rather done?”
If thinking into the future is daunting, Martin encourages using past experiences as a roadmap to moving closer to what we love: “What made me happy in the past? Looking back at my day, when was God at work?”
Whether from research or contemplation, what the scholars are driving at is what Gladwell meant when he entitled his book “blink.” Our decisions about who to love and what to do — indeed who we are — may seem to happen quickly but, like earthquakes that strike suddenly, the pressure behind the motion may have been ages in the making.