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Finding Deeper Wisdom Through Discernment

Various religious traditions preach the value of clear sight and alignment with the divine, but we can only find our deepest discerning wisdom when we recognize the value in everything around us.

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A wise person knows she’s only ever alone with God. Even if she doesn’t believe in God, she knows, no matter where she is or what surrounds her, she’s always interfacing with the divine, with spirit, with the stuff from which the universe is made.

She is only ever alone with God.

You’ve probably heard this saying before. You’ve probably even felt this feeling, when you were holding a smiling baby, or staring at a sunset with the people you love most. I felt this feeling so sharply when I sat at the enormous stone base of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, watching people from all over the world take selfies with their phones. In that moment I knew every single thing around me was God in varying forms, but it’s hard to maintain this feeling every day. It’s hard to remember that you’re alone with God when you’re in the middle of family drama. When your best friend’s husband confides that he’s cheating and you don’t know what to say. It’s hard to remember you’re in the presence of God on a 10-hour economy flight as the person behind you kicks your seat. It’s hard to remember you’re with God when you’re trying to convince your boss you deserve a raise, or dealing with coworkers that talk behind your back.

This process of remembering is a form of discernment.

Almost all religious traditions have a teaching around discernment. Christians rely on something called “biblical discernment,” which encourages followers to be critical when examining false teachings that may deviate from how Christianity calls them live. The Koran has a similar teaching, it warns followers that, “not equal are things that are bad and things that are good, even though the abundance of the bad may dazzle you.” The Koran calls us to seek wisdom in our duty and commitment to Allah. Christianity tells us to exercise perception in the absence of judgment, and when faced with false teachings consult our Bibles. Discernment even shows up in 12-step programs. It can be seen in the Serenity Prayer which states: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. This “wisdom to know the difference” is discernment. This is an earnest cry for the desire to see things clearly. This is our plea for help with discerning truth from falsehood.

When we are able to see the truth of all things as divine, the way forward becomes obvious. It is a natural side effect of realizing we are only ever alone with God. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass once wrote, “When you know how to listen, everybody is the guru.” Discernment is knowing how to listen. It’s not an intellectual exercise by which we make choices to abstain or indulge; discernment is a deep awareness that we’re all made from the same stuff—we’re all the same person hanging out in different rooms. When we recognize that we’re all made out of sameness, discernment becomes second nature. All paths are valid. We must only move forward in our individual truth.

How can we be discerning in community with others, whose truths appear different from ours? Well, when everyone you meet is a deity, you trust they’ll make their own choices, and the need to exert your will becomes unnecessary. When everyone you meet is a deity, conflicts between two people become dharma teachings to help us grow. When everyone you meet is a deity, then you can let go—knowing that your help may be useful, but you aren’t really necessary. You can effectively breathe a sigh of relief. Yes, fight for justice, but when everyone is a deity, you work toward change, but remain in love. You’ll never see yourself as separate from the issues you seek to resolve.

There’s a Buddhist verse that explores discernment in Chapter 20 of the Dhammapada:

When you see with discernment,
‘All phenomena are not-self’ –
you grow disenchanted with stress.
This is the path
to purity.

I don’t know where purity is. I can’t tell you what that looks like, and, quite honestly, don’t know if I’ll ever get to a purified state of existence, but here’s what I do know: Discernment is not an action, it is a perspective. From this perspective the things that may have pulled us away from our true happiness and joy—things like jealousy, anger, shame, guilt, and pettiness—lose their appeal. We don’t have to rage against them. Instead, we become disenchanted with the dramas we play out, and a new way of being emerges. We outgrow our own addiction to turmoil, and embrace the differences and chaos that swirls around us. When we see that “all phenomena are not-self,” when we proceed from a posture of discernment, we understand the essence of what the wise woman already knows: We are only ever in communion with God.

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