Spiritual discernment is an underrated skill on the spiritual path. Discernment is simply the ability to make good judgements.
Often we are encouraged to see judgement as a wholly negative thing, or at least something to avoid. But judgement is an essential aspect of navigating everyday life and any specialized path.
We have to be able to judge what teachings or gurus are worth putting our time into, we have to judge whether we are progressing or regressing, in our day to day life we have to make judgements in order to set goals and achieve them.
Judgement can become a negative approach, when we aren’t distanced from a situation or person and can’t view things objectively – only seeing the negative in a situation or placing negative moral judgements onto someone.
We can utlize the mind in a balanced way. Discerning what paths are right for us, what teachers are helpful, and are able to protect our energy without getting defensive or projecting what we feel onto others.
Why spiritual discernment is important
At the beginning of a spiritual awakening we tend to take on and absorb information indiscriminately.
As we come to a deeper awareness, wanting to learn everything we can about it. We might binge-watch esoteric videos, read spiritual books, follow endless spiritual teachers or take spiritual courses – trying to find anything that clicks.
However there is a lot of misinformation out there, and not every person who talks about spirituality or professes to hold a high level of spiritual insight actually does. We have to be able to judge which paths to follow here.
When our spiritual senses are developing the concepts we take on board have a huge impact; they influence the way we view things in a spiritual context long-term.
Spiritual discernment allows us to pinpoint what is ego-based and what is heart-based, it allows us to decide which teachings highlight deeper truths, and which are disjointed or incomplete. We can discern when a spiritual teachers has embodied their teachings or if the knowledge is surface-level.
Pitfalls we avoid with spiritual discernment:
- Lack of self-awareness
- Dogma & group-think
- Spiritual bypassing
- The ‘spiritual ego‘
- Following unreliable teachers
Don’t be afraid to question the spiritual concepts that you’ve taken on and unfollow any spiritual teachers or writers who no longer resonate (including me).
Spiritual discernment & ego
As we say, the spiritual path is not a straight line but a spiral. We continuously come back to previous ideas, concepts and levels to see deeper truths. The spiritual path is a constant process of letting go and inner-purification.
When we take spiritual teachings on without the proper discernment, our spiritual practices become incomplete. We take a on a defensive position in relation to our spiritual beliefs and close off room for further exploration.
A lack of spiritual discernment means we will hold onto beliefs tightly, never questioning them or taking responsibility for their reprecussions; we mistake our stubbornness for spiritual insight.
In a Manly P. Hall lecture from August 26th 1956 ‘The Flower of the 5 Senses’, he talks about the tension which is created when the ego is convinced of its ‘rightness’.
How we create tension defending our ego, our infallibility, and how this defense becomes increasingly intricate and hardened over time.
That which is right does not need defense, and that which is wrong cannot be successfully defended.Manly P. Hall
Spiritual discernment is about being open to being wrong – knowing that a lot of freedom and peace comes with that. When the spiritual beliefs and concepts we’ve accumulated do not meet up to the reality we observe and experience, not being afraid to prune them.
How to develop spiritual discernment
Work with your ego
Contending with the ego is one of the most important aspects of spiritual work, but there is a lot of confusion surrounding it. We either bypass the ego completely or try to get rid of it. However working side-by-side with the ego is a much more helpful approach.
The ego is likely to sabotage the spiritual progress you make through taking on a defensive stance. Whenever we feel unsafe, unseen or unheard, our ego comes to the forefront.
We all have defence mechanisms that are in place in order to protect our safety, so not all of our defence mechanisms are ‘bad thing’. However it’s crucial to identify which of your defence mechanisms are necessary and which are hindering your progress.
On the spiritual path the ego causes us to lose objectivity. We take spiritual concepts and strongly defend them. We use spirituality as a way to better our image or sense of self-worth, we constantly look outward and assign blame.
Observe yourself the next time you feel defensive:
- Why am I feeling this way?
- Does this remind me of a past experience?
- What do I (really) need right now?
- What boundaries might I set in the future?
Working with the ego is difficult – the ego is a tricky beast! It becomes easier to work with the ego when we view it as a friend, a part of ourselves that is playful but needs to be reigned in at times.
It’s easy to get pulled into ‘ego games’ with yourself and others which is why it’s important to go in with a curious approach, rather than one of battle or tension. Meet your ego with the same energy you would approach an annoyed child with, give it space to throw a tantrum.
Self-inquiry is the practice of asking yourself (your intuition) questions and tuning into the response. We are so accustomed to referring to an outside authority when making decisions in our life, whether that be our parents, relatives, friends etc. Asking for advice is great, but we can be led astray if we don’t touch base with ourselves first.
We also tend to follow our whims and temporary urges when we don’t have a good practice with our intuition. We feel something strongly and rather than questioning it, rushing ahead based on that temporary emotion.
Start by thinking of a question or area you’d like to explore with your intuition.
- Get into a comfortable seated position.
- Breathe deeply from the stomach.
- Once your mind is clear, ask your question mentally or vocally.
- Notice your bodily responses.
To begin with, you just want to observe the responses you feel. Notice the emotions, sensations, visuals/images, words, and ideas that arise.
It takes practice to tune into your intuition and find an answer that just clicks, but with practice it comes more easier. You’ll know your intuition by how it feels; there is a certain quality, a coherence and peace to it.
Over time you’ll become familiar with the ways your body say ‘yes’ and the ways it says ‘no’.
Practice tuning into your inner guidance daily: before you start your day, before you enter tense environments, before you ask others for advice. You might not always be right but what matters is that you start to build a foundation.
When you are reading a spiritual text or following a spiritual teacher, always be tuning into yourself and your inner guidance. Ask yourself questions (especially ones that are uncomfortable) and adjust things often.
Journaling is a great way to strengthen your spiritual discernment, because you are able to see how you think and reason clearly on paper.
I talk a lot about making sure our spirituality isn’t all mental, which is to say getting out of our own heads. The mind is a great tool and we don’t want to eliminate our mental processes or thoughts, we just have to become more aware of them.
- What are my spiritual beliefs?
- Why do I hold these beliefs?
- How do I feel when my beliefs are challenged?
- What type of ‘spiritual identity’ do I have?
Spirituality comes with a kind of ‘purity’, exploring our spirit is a neutral thing. However our practices and they way we conceptualize these concepts are filtered through our existing beliefs and patterns.
Creating identities is what we do as humans to organize things and find connection, and on the spiritual path we’ll often do the same thing. This is somewhat inevitable, but it’s worth being aware of this tendency and noticing the ways your spiritual practice and identity becomes intertwined.
Intuition is the relationship we have with ourselves; the more we know ourselves the clearer our intuition will be, because we become more aware of our strengths and shadows.
Journaling allows us to see our predominant thought-patterns clearly, notice the trains of thought which aren’t healthy/aren’t helping us, and what we have to let go. We get to see ourselves from a new angle, in a new light.
When journaling about a topic that is likely to change over time, or one that you specifically want to revisit at a later date, leave a blank space or extra page. This gives you an opportunity to come back in days, weeks, years and develop the perspective based on experience.
Go deeper with my shadow work guide that comes with 30 printable journal prompts.
Discernment is difficult on all levels when we do not have a practice of solitude. It’s easy to be in a state of consumption all of the time, there is always something new vying for our attention.
Especially in a spiritual context, we need to be able to build our own concepts and not always relying on someone else. If we are constantly scrolling and reading, taking in other people’s images, we do not have time to create our own (psychic images).
- Get into a meditative state
- Focus on the spot between your eyebrows (third eye)
- Visualize a solid blue dot
See how long you can hold a simple blue dot in your mind’s eye without distration. This might sound easy but you will probably be surprised at just how difficult it is to do consistently. When I first tried this exercize I think I held the dot for about five seconds, before my mind wandered to something else.
When you are comfortable with a blue dot, move onto other colors and shapes. Get the dot to expand in size, move around or transform into something else.
This is a great exercize for increasing your ability to concentrate in general but is also great for any intuitive development. When we ask a question of our intuition our visual muscles have already been primed and can receive, interpret and hold the images that come through.
Discernment allows us to take in information more consciously, and make sure it is actually aligned with our spirit. Teachers and outside help is great, but our own intuition, our own connection to spirit, cannot be beaten.
The mind is such a powerful tool in our spiritual work, we don’t want to close it off. Instead it’s about sharpening the mind as we open the heart – to create balance.
A sharp mind can help us process information quicker and make better decisions, we just have to learn to prune the excesses that sprout up over time.