What Works: Your Internal Compass

Discernment is about uncovering what you already know


I’ve written several columns here with suggestions that are rather directive — get enough sleep, use the downturn to find your calling, meditate regularly… and then there was my column about not saying ‘should’ and ‘have to’.

“Um,” said a reader after the ‘don’t should’ column, “How do I know when to make a change and when to go easy on myself — how do I know when to apply which principle?”

It’s a great point, and I’m grateful to be called out on it. It’s all well and good to say we should live in the now and accept God’s plan as it unfolds, but that doesn’t mean we should be passive. Using the metaphor of the stream of life, there are times to watch the water flow by, and there are times to row the boat. We have to decide which is called for, and the right answer will vary depending on the situation.

A lot of the religious guidance out there is in the form of directions — do this, don’t do that — and there’s a place for structure — the banks of the river, to continue the metaphor. But, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger has said:

“[People] have the impression that the Church’s real function is only to condemn and to restrict life. Perhaps too much has been said and too often in this direction — and without the necessary connection of truth and love.”

We tend to row a lot when it isn’t helpful, chasing after the illusion of control over our destiny, our security and safety — things that are really in God’s hands — by controlling our actions. That’s why there is so much spiritual guidance focused on helping people learn to live in the now — to go with the flow (to keep on beating this metaphor into the ground.)

Take the right actions and let go of the results

One of the greatest spiritual axioms, which neatly combines these principles, is: "Take the right actions and let go of the results." Use discernment to choose the right actions (or no action), follow through, and then — and this is the key to serenity — accept whatever comes next.

How do we accept whatever comes? Trust — trust in God and trust in ourselves.

To trust ourselves means to trust our discernment process and our follow-through. That’s hard enough. But we also must trust God and Creation — that things are as they’re meant to be, and that if we operate out of love, things will work out. With those two things in place, we can let go; without them, we live in anxiety.

Take this relatively trivial example: There’s a monthly get-together of a group of friends from my teens. I enjoy it but it’s a lot of social interaction jammed into a small amount of space and time. Last week, I wasn’t in the mood, and decided to skip it. Was I being lazy? Would I regret missing it? — my choice nagged at me. I didn’t entirely trust myself, my motives, so there was anxiety. But I knew I’d made a reasonable choice, which helped me embrace the result.

How to decide

So, when you are facing any fork in the road — big or small — how do you discern the next right action in a trustworthy way? A way that, if you later doubt it, you can remind yourself was reasonable. There are many answers to this question, and different approaches are best in different cases. In the sidebar on the right, I suggest some tools to help in the discernment process.

One common feature is an ancient piece of spiritual wisdom: You already know the right answer. What is best is to be in alignment with God and the Universe. Knowledge of what this entails — or to put it another way, knowledge of what is Truth — is innate. Cynthia Bourgeault, in Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, calls this our “magnetic center”:

“It is indeed your interior compass, the needle of your heart pointing to the magnetic north of God. When the inner alignment is strong and steady, you find that you are able to follow the course of your own authentic unfolding with a kind of effortless grace.”

So, discernment is not a decision-making process but an answer-uncovering process. Much of the research and tortuous mulling we do is, as Malcolm Gladwell said in Blink, not to find the answer but to reassure ourselves that the choice we’ve already made is right.

Why is it so hard to have confidence in how our heart leads us? Often, it is because we think our heart has led us astray over and over. There was a time when I felt very misled by my heart. I was spiritually adrift and facing the wreckage of a marriage and career, and I wrote, "I’ve been wrong so many times, I don’t trust myself anymore." Melodramatic, I know — I roll my eyes when I read that now — but people are not being unreasonable when they feel this way. It’s based on experience. What I didn’t realize then was that it wasn’t my heart I’d been listening to, it was fear — the opposite of conscious contact with God.

Love, and do what you will

Saint Augustine famously said, “Love, and do what you will.” His point is that you can trust that your actions will be right if they are grounded in God’s Love. You don’t need to carefully follow thousands of memorized rules or torture yourself with analysis.

On the other hand, when we make fearful, selfish and self-seeking decisions, thinking we are taking care of ourselves (or full of pride that we are such awesome generous people,) we set up chain reactions that eventually bring everything tumbling down. Then we think we can’t trust our instincts.

But we never followed our instincts.

One of the main things that spiritual direction and other tools of spiritual discernment can do is give you the willingness and framework to trust in God, accept things as they are, and then, in that place of safety, uncover what you already know. As Thomas Merton said, “Spiritual direction is, in reality, nothing more than a way of leading us to see and obey the real Director — the Holy Spirit hidden in the depths of our soul.”

So if you have a choice in front of you, don’t be hasty and try to will yourself through it. And don’t distract yourself constantly with activity. Slow down. Give the issue the space and time it needs. Seek the counsel of a spiritual director, read Scripture and other spiritual books, pray and meditate, be still and listen for God’s guidance. It’s already within you. Then, grounded in love and truth, take action and embrace the future.

Share your own experiences of discernment in comments below, or send me an email at phil at bustedhalo.com.