This talk was given at the TAT Foundation Spring meeting in West Virginia, U.S.A in April 2011.
Sometime in the early 1990’s a man, an art historian, paid a visit to a Jesuit house in Dublin. Over the fireplace was hanging a painting which caught his attention. It was a painting of “The Taking of Christ” by Carravagio. It was presumed by all to be a copy if they ever considered it at all. This man knew that the original of this painting was considered to be one of the lost masterpieces of European Art.
He wondered if this could actually be the missing original, though this was a most unlikely place to find it.
After three years research it was proven to be the original and the provenance had been pieced together.
I tell this story as an example of discernment. This same painting had been offered to another National Gallery at some point along the way and they had rejected it in favour of other paintings.
So, what are the qualities of discernment? I’ll guess that they include, knowledge, experience, intuition, and a goal though it may be vague.
It also includes rejecting the many things that are diversions along the way.
I would also say that discernment is a life style or an element of a life style that means always being on the lookout for the thing you seek.
I think most people have developed discernment in some aspect of their lives. It may be about music, literature, food, shopping, or indeed anything. I consider myself to have some discernment about how I create a home. The goals are to have it functional, interesting, a warm inviting atmosphere for all, and easy to maintain. These goals developed over time and opportunities to contribute to these goals often come in surprising ways and places. It’s like having a programme running in the background that gets triggered by anything that is likely to further the goal.
I suggest you find some area in your life where you have developed some discernment and get to know that feeling. Just transfer that feeling and method to the spiritual search.
The art historian in our story was not actively looking to find a lost masterpiece, but had the discernment and knowledge to recognise it when a possibility presented itself. Bart Marshall might call this “leaving yourself open to Grace”.
In turning the notion of discernment to the spiritual search, the first thing is to have some idea of the goal. In this case the goal is to come to a recognition of your true nature. As Richard Rose pointed out, you cannot know in advance what this goal is but you can recognise the things that are not it and you can back away from them, or minimise them in your life.
A large element of the search is in identifying these false goals. This is where discernment is useful. With experience you become better able to recognise the distractions earlier and learn how to minimise them.
Another aspect of the spiritual search is that while there are general guidelines that apply to all, it is at the same time a specific search, specific to you. Only you can find your true nature. This is where intuition comes in.
Intuition is what I would call the feeling our art historian had when he saw the painting. A possibility arises. It’s just a feeling that then needs to be nurtured or investigated or just left sitting until it reveals itself further. I find intuitions to be very specific and personal. For instance, two thoughts might come into your head at the same time and you do not at first see the connection between them but in not dismissing them they may reveal a insight you had not suspected.
The thing I find about intuitions is to leave them open and to also take them seriously. Have the attitude of “What is the world trying to show me here”?
Finally, I’d say discernment is a lifestyle of having a particular goal, using every circumstance as a possibility to further that goal and constantly having a background programme running that is open to new possibilities arising. This is all an inside job, while you live an ordinary life in the world.
Suffering:anxiety, fear, depression, insecurity, anger, sorrow, heart-break, worry etc.
Some years ago, in a rural village in Scotland there lived two families who on the surface had much in common. Each family had four children of around the same age, of whom the youngest was a boy. This being a farming community, having a son is highly prized as families like to leave the farm to a son who will carry on the name of that family into the next generation. This traditional way of life still continues to this day.
The boys were born about one year apart. When each of the boys were ten year old they were killed in freak accidents. Needless to say these events caused much grief and sorrow, not only in their families but in the whole village.
It was a few years after these events that I met a teacher who worked at the school where the boys had attended and she told me that the two mothers had responded in totally different ways to the tragedies. One mother, let’s call her Mother A, had become supportive and loving to the class her son had been in. She had come to their Confirmation ceremony, with a gift for each child in the class because, she told them, they had been her sons friends and had brought so much fun to his life while he was amongst them. She invited all of them to always remain in contact with her. The children loved her and felt loved by her.
The other mother, let’s call her Mother B, became resentful and angry with the children who now lived while her son was dead. She insisted that “it is not fair” and made it clear to the children that she resented them. She became bitter and withdrawn. The other parents withdrew from her also finding her accusations too painful.
The question is; what had been going on with each of these women to cause them to react so differently to such similar circumstances?
How can we prepare ourselves for when tragedy does strike us, if it does? The nature of human life is that we are always vulnerable to tragedy. The word tragedy is strong and refers to the more intense set-backs we suffer but it is part of everyday life to suffer minor set-backs. My teacher Richard Rose referred to the mundane type of set-back as “afflictions to the ego”.
Mother A reacted to her tragedy by medicating the pain by becoming more outwardly loving and generous. Mother B reacted by medicating her pain with anger and resentment.
The thing is that both reactions are mere medications and here I am judging them only on outer actions. I do not know either woman so I cannot say what was going on interiorly with either of them. Some reactions are more acceptable to society than others but that does not make them any more valuable to the reactor. In fact, it may be even more toxic to the individual because it is just another form of conformity. It may be just another version of adapting to the demands of society at the expense of one’s own inner peace and contentment.
The point is that reactions prevent us from deep inquiry, self-inquiry. I am using the word suffering here in the sense that The Buddha used it. It is about our psychological and emotional pain, as experienced in everyday life. Contrary to what is generally thought, it is possible for humans to live without suffering and this is the point of all spiritual paths. One method of coming to the end of suffering is by self-inquiry.
Self-inquiry is about being willing to look at the fundamental questions of life: What’s it all about? Do I have any control over what happens to me? Am I a victim of life or can I do anything to effect how I experience my life?
What’s more real, my emotions or my thoughts? And, how are they connected to each other? Which comes first, thoughts or emotions?
Am I a victim of my emotions or can I have any effect on them? Where do emotions arise?
Can I see patterns to my behaviour, thought streams or emotional life?
What are my most important goals in life and what are these goals based on?
What matters in light of the fact that I know my body is going to die one day?
Am I really only this body or maybe something else as all the spiritual teachings suggest?
Is there something permenant about me? And if so how do I go about finding it for myself?
Can I afford to believe what others say, especially in light of the fact that I have to live my life, endure my sufferings: tolerate my insecurities, meaninglessness, and desire for love?
Am I willing to take my own suffering seriously enough to try to find a lasting solution to it?
This is what spiritual work is all about.
All the great teachings, Christianity, Buddhism, Vedanta, Sufism, and many more offer teachings which are aimed at showing each of us a path to the end of our suffering. It is by its nature a personal path in that nobody else can walk your path but these teachings offer guidelines for how one might approach their own inner journey.
Tragedies and affliction to the ego are often the first step on the path because they show us that worldly happiness is not secure. Our carefully constructed lives can fall apart at any time. This is a great opportunity to turn to the spiritual teachings but we don’t have to wait for tragedy to strike.
Reacting to our suffering only prolongs it. The same pattern will arise next time we suffer a set-back. It’s only by examining the underlying assumptions, motivations, beliefs and patterns of behaviour that we will come to see how we are in fact causing our own suffering.
My own spiritual unfolding was greatly helped by the TAT Foundation from the USA. (www.tatfoundation.org)
Intuition is not just a feeling, a vague hunch, but a subtle thought or feeling that is difficult to catch at first but has a feeling of authority or clarity or surprise about it. It has a different quality about it from our usual thoughts and emotions. Usually intuition is not recognised in the midst of the noise of daily inner chatter. It is most likely to be first noticed at a time of quiet and calm, when the usual chatter has abated enough for subtler thoughts and feelings to become noticed.
It is accompanied by a sense of possibility or guidance. This feeling/thought then needs to be nurtured or investigated or just left sitting until it reveals itself further. The fact of noticing these intuitions is the first step in getting to know and trust them. I find intuitions to be very specific and personal. For instance, two thoughts might come into your head at the same time and you do not at first see the connection between them but in paying attention to them they reveal an insight or suggest some new possibility.
Or a thought arises, seemingly out of the blue. Now the question is where did it come from and why?
What am I being prompted to notice?
The thing I find about intuitions is to leave them open and to also take them seriously. Have the attitude of “What am I being shown here”? More will be revealed if you are on the alert for it.
Intuition means tuition, guidance from within.
Intuition is the “language” of The Self. It is your direct communication with your Self.
Dreams come to us through intuition. Learn to read them. They come to us in symbolic language. Try to decipher what different dream symbols mean to you. I have found them to be a great source of guidance and information about what was happening to me in the deeper reaches of the psyche.
Practice any creative activity you like. Creativity is closely connected to intuition and creative activities helps open the channel of intuition in you.
Spend some time alone, without the distractions of tv or music or reading. Let silence be part of your daily life, even for short periods.
Intuition is always trying to get our attention, but we have to make room for it and create the conditions in which it is likely to be noticed.
Like most things in life, the more you pay attention to it the more it reveals to you. Once having recognised it, it became my best teacher, always specific and pertinent to the immediate situation.
It is truly the great spiritual gift.