Discernment is the Path

Discernment is the Path

The spiritual path, the journey home to ourselves, is the path of discernment: becoming discerning about every aspect of ourselves.

A fundamental aspect of becoming discerning is about becoming attuned to yourself, becoming aware of all the little ways in which we dismiss our own inner feelings in favour of what is expected of us, or out of the habit of conforming to societal norms.

Due to the power of conformity many of us lose our sense of ourselves, our sense of being “in our own skin”. As we say, we lose touch with ourselves.

The first step of discernment is getting back in touch with your own inner self, learning how to find a balance between conforming to societal norms without losing touch with your self.

I suspect that this is often more of a problem for women than men. I once met a woman who when I asked her what her favourite food was, said that she didn’t know because she always cooked what her husband and family liked.

When I was younger I often suffered from head colds that lingered for weeks. At the time I thought that was how my body was. As the children became more independent I learned that taking an afternoon in bed when I was feeling tired warded off the oncoming head cold. The tiredness was an indication from the body that it needed rest in order to fight the infection. Nowadays, I rarely get head colds because I pay heed to the bodies warning. Admittedly, my circumstances also allow me to do this now.

The point is that learning to notice the signals from the body or emotions is the first step in learning to pay heed to them and to act on those signals.

Learning to live in your own skin is the first step in taking back some of the energy that society steals from you and that you give away unwittingly in conforming. This is a balancing act and one that can easily be learned without anyone around you even noticing. It’s the beginning of taking responsibility for yourself, and for the quality of your life.

Learning to balance the meeting of your own needs along with meeting the needs of those around you is another aspect of living the discerning life. This can be articulated as finding a balance between inter-personal and intra-personal needs.

Women, I suspect again, are more likely to negate meeting their own needs in prioritising  meeting the needs of their families or dependents than men, but men also, I see, often negate their own needs out of a sense of responsibility to their dependents, whether that be family or work or the wider community.

The fact is that everyone has needs. This is a given for being an organism in the world. Our needs are not just physical but emotional and intellectual and social too.

As the saying goes, “ all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. In modern society, work, the accumulation of wealth and being an upstanding member of society often takes precedence over taking care of our own individual needs. Society likes hard workers. But, as an individual, how well balanced is your life?

And maybe I could say “too much play makes Jack a silly fool!”, if you’ll tolerate my humour!

The point is that living a discerning life means becoming conscious of yourself as an individual and as a member of society and finding your own way to live with these competing needs in a balanced way – your way.

As we learn to pay heed to our intra-personal needs, we find there is more guidance available to us than we might have been previously aware of. People often speak of this inner guidance as intuition or subtle feelings. It’s really a question of learning to take into account every aspect of ourselves when making decisions, and every day decisions need to be made. Learning to accommodate the rational, emotional, imaginative, body sensations, and empathetic aspects of our natures into one whole requires a fair deal of discernment acquired through trial and error. It’s a learning process because this is a new dimension of ourselves. We are learning to live as a whole being as opposed to various competing fragments taking turns at getting the upper hand. We are learning to live an integrated life. We are learning to live as a whole, wholesomely.

Questions come up while we are doing this work on ourselves, wondering what to do in various situations. The Christian spiritual teachings speak of “not my will but Gods” or the Vedanta teachings tell us “you are not the doer”. The Buddhist teachings speak of “the ego” or “the false self” as the aspect of us that causes all our suffering and so we think that getting rid of it ( as if that was possible) is the solution. The question is how to balance activity versus passivity and what kinds of activities promote or hinder our growing integrity and movement towards healing our inner rift.

Sorting through these kinds of questions is the discerning path. Depending on what spiritual tradition you read from, they will speak of these questions using different metaphors, but it is the same question that is being addressed.

My very general guidance around this question is that as you become more inwardly discerning and aware you’ll find an inner authority developing in you.

You’ll come to know which activities and decisions lead you to peace and a sense of alignment with what is genuine and right for you. You could interpret this as an alignment between “my will” and “Thy Will” or between “self” and “Self” or “the doer” and “What is”.

Surrender is not passivity. Surrender is the active movement of doing what you can to facilitate this alignment.

The whole thrust of living a discerning life is to become yourself in the midst of whatever circumstances and social me-lieu you find yourself in. Becoming yourself in this sense means coming to know your “child of God” aspect as opposed to being fully identified with our “child of the world” aspect.

Everyone has circumstances and they need not be a hindrance to becoming who you really are, but you do have to find your own way inwards regardless of what your circumstances are. This is the path of discernment.

Photo by Bob Fergeson



“Man hears what he wants to hear and…….

“Man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest” Simon and Garfunkel



Regard; look, see, view, behold, witness, perceive, discern, detect, find, notice:

consider, reflect upon, contemplate, pay attention to, examine, think about:

value, admire, defer to, respect, appreciate, care for.

Disregard; overlook, gloss over, take no notice of, indifferent to, dismiss, avoid, minimise, underestimate, neglect, deny, ignore, keep at arms length, make light of, disdain, cold-shoulder, deprecate.



What are you “disregarding?”

In spiritual seeking we are seeking something within ourselves. Since we don’t know what it is that we seek, we cannot identify it clearly, we don’t know where it is hidden. We only know that we experience dissatisfaction and we are seeking the end of dissatisfaction. Spiritual teachings tell us that this ending of dissatisfaction is a possibility for all of us. I, Tess, knows this. I am now beyond all dissatisfactions and knowing that this is possible for everyone and that it is the “thing” that all humans want, I share the kinds of things I did along the way in order to allow this to happen to me.

One aspect of my path was to become aware of what I was “disregarding”.  Disregard is such an innocent sounding word. It takes no effort to disregard. It’s simple and not even worth talking about, we might think. It’s kind of a non thing.

I started the article with a list of synonyms and antonyms for regard, in order to highlight the varying degrees of “regard” from; “looking” to “appreciating” on the positive side and “overlooking” to “deprecating” on the negative side.

But what one person disregards is different from what another disregards. And most people have had the experience of coming to value or appreciate something that at one time they had overlooked or even deprecated.

The question is, what is the regard/disregard based on? We choose how we want our lives to be and in that choosing we dismiss/reject/resist other things. We are usually not aware of  this choosing because it happens automatically in childhood. We select from the smorgasbord of life what we want and what we don’t want, (reject) and then try to make our lives fit into this template.

Recently I showed a film to a group of people, which had a very emotive theme, around the lives of women in the 1950’s in Europe. It was about the ugly side of life. Some people couldn’t “go there”.

They resisted, rejected, tuned out, fell asleep, were very bored, during it. They were probably annoyed and baffled by me showing this, but were too polite to say so. All these states are ego’s ploys to maintain what it has chosen to disregard. Disregard is the mild version of reject, hate or won’t go there.

We do this with the world, and we do it inwardly. We are not aware that we are doing it. It is how our habitual self has learned to cope with the world, and with our inner life.

But, what if the thing you seek is hidden in what you reject? And, by not being willing to look at “your rejections” you are not able to accept “what is”? What are you protecting by this rejection? Unless you “go there” you won’t find what you are protecting. These rejections are what Carl Jung referred to as The Shadow. I’ve seen the expression “confronting our shadow” in psychological literature. To me this means being willing to look at what we are disregarding in our everyday activities and interaction.




That which we disregard or turn away from tends to fall into categories such as: what we fear, security issues, what we dislike/hate, that which does not bring us love and belonging and acceptance and that which we don’t understand, radical questions about meaning of life and death, and issues that trouble our conscience, morality.

We operate out of this “regarding” and “disregarding” all the time, quite unaware of its power over us. In Buddhist terms this is about our cravings and aversions. It’s the living out of what I want, what I have selected from the smorgasbord of life and what I have rejected. We are constantly walking this tight rope between the two edges. It’s hard! We are always vulnerable to getting a slap in the face from what we have rejected.

Self-inquiry, looking within yourself, being willing to know yourself, right down to the roots of yourself is the only way to permanently get out of this tightrope bind.

This means having the courage to look at what you reject, to face your shadow, and not necessarily having to look at all the ugliness in the world but seeing the ways in which you everyday automatically disregard things. Do you dismiss some people as unworthy of your time, and what is the basis, (your thinking) of why that person is unworthy of your time? This is not about changing your behaviour to others, but about knowing why you are doing it.

In your mind what is not-nice, not-comfortable, not-worthy for you?

Most people have what Catholics call a conscience, a moral or ethical standard against which we live our lives. We have ideas about what is good and bad, what is right and wrong, and so on. Looking at what we consider good or bad, in specific incidents is a valuable way to become aware of our underlying values and to become able to identify where we picked them up.

We are always looking for the underlying values to our actions. Seeing the underlying values, and competing values that we become aware of reveals our hidden agendas to us. These hidden agendas are the roots of ego, or what Bob Fergeson calls The SMAARP -self maintaining automatic associative reaction pattern.

This is all about getting to know ourselves, right down to the roots of our being, which reveals our true nature to us, which then solves our predicament.

The spiritual path, seeking is about coming home to ourselves, returning to our natural state and that is accomplished by the process of coming to know ourselves. The first layer is through this mental construct which dictates our every action, but that we are unaware of. Having the courage and determination to look at our “disregardings” is one doorway into ourselves.

This is the goal of self-inquiry.

On the Value of Spending Time Alone

Many years ago I read a book by Alice Koller titled An Unknown Woman, subtitled A Journey of Self-discovery. It didn’t claim to be a spiritual book or make any claims other than being an autobiography by someone who had found something about herself that changed her life from one of confusion and misery to one of understanding herself.



Alice had done a PhD in Philosophy at Harvard University and as she said herself, this gave her to tools to know how to ask a question and to be able to follow that question down to its roots.

At around age thirty, she was so miserable and confused that she decided to spend a winter alone on an island, Nantucket, and to turn this questioning on herself.

This book is a documentation of the detailed process of her thinking, during that winter. She looked at her own thinking and “decoded” it. She saw the connections between her thinking and her misery.

She saw through many of her assumptions, motivations, beliefs and so on and saw how these were causing her suffering.

In those days I didn’t know the term self-inquiry, nor had I heard of it as a method for getting to the roots of our suffering but this book did start me on the practise of questioning my own thinking.

At the time I was simply trying to understand myself better, in the hopes of finding ways to make myself feel better. Little did I realise that I had started on a profound journey of not only of understanding myself but of inner transformation that would eventually lead to Self-realisation, the ultimate solution to our human confusions.

At the time of reading this book, I had no idea that such a transformation or more accurately, metamorphoses, was possible for humans.

Below are a few quotations from that book and a later one she wrote, The Stations of Solitude, that are worthy of contemplation.

These books are still available on Amazon, I think.


I compelled myself to become aware of my ways of perceiving the contours of a situation, of responding to other persons, of recognising the impact of others on me and mine on them, of gathering information, of selecting what would count as relevant, of deciding what to do and when and why. I did not rest from my questioning. And one day I came upon the purpose I had been pursuing all the preceding years. I had not known I had been doing that thing: I had believed I had been doing something quite different. So, it was a huge thing to learn. Understandable, but ugly. Not palatable in any way.”

“I found that I knew how to call things by their right names, so that what was real stood out sharply from what was only phantom”.

“You begin marking your line of travel in the instant you recognise the extent to which you are alone: thoroughly, unremittingly, without other human beings. I call it “being alone elementally”: as an element, unconnected. It is the essential human condition”.

This is about taking every detail of one’s reactions, responses, interactions etc seriously. First you have to notice what is going on and then you have to interpret it. It takes a willingness to be open to whatever comes up and to understand what you are doing and why.

Yet that fearsome being alone is merely the starting point in an exhilarating process, the first step along a continuum whose end point is so far from terrifying that is is beyond price”.

“By aborting the process at its early harrowing appearance, by rushing toward surcease through other human beings, no matter whom, no matter at what cost now or later, you deprive yourself of the one gift you can give yourself that no one else can ever deprive you of: the person you wish to be, the life you wish to live”.

“Being solitary is being alone well; being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement. It is your distinctive way of embodying the purposes you have chosen for your life, deciding on these rather than others after deliberately observing and reflecting on your own doings and inclinings, then committing yourself to them for precisely these reasons”.

“To become genuinely solitary, to be alone well, you must first have been alone elementally.  For that, no “here” will do. An island is not necessary. Only be away from everything familiar: every person, every relationship, every circumstance. Friends, a mate, an analyst, a priest, a teacher, your family to take you in, even one person you can talk to, liquor, drugs, the occult, the divine: if you have any of these you are not ready to undertake the interior journey that will let you confront the person you are”.

I encourage people to spend time alone, go on solitary retreat, as a way of finding out more about ourselves. Living as we do in such a busy world, spending time alone is not encouraged. It is seen as a waste of time. But, is knowing yourself a waste of time? I’d say it is the most valuable activity you can do for yourself.

As Shakespeare said, “to thine own self be true”. Becoming true to oneself is not an automatic thing. It takes effort and an appreciation of the notion that it is a valuable activity, valuable to yourself. The question is “are you going to take yourself seriously?” or are you going to let others dictate your life for you.

Whose life are you living anyway?

The Circus Animals’ Desertion by WB Yeats

This being the year of William Butler Yeats’ 150th birth, one of the great poets of this era, I thought I’d take a look at one of this last poems, written in the last year of his life, when he knew he was dying.



From his youth he was what nowadays we refer to as a spiritual seeker. He regularly read and discussed The Upanishads, the ancient Hindu books of wisdom. I have seen a photograph of him with Jiddu Krishnamurti. His lifelong interest in spiritual matters is well documented.

Any interpretation I have seen of this poem describes it as Yeats lamenting the loss of his creative streak and being depressed by this. I have to wonder if what he is saying in it isn’t something else – a description of his of spiritual awakening – the loss of his sense of self. This is a condition well documented in spiritual literature, and Yeats was undoubtedly familiar with this idea or possibility for a human.

The Circus Animals’ Desertion

by WB Yeats


I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart, although

Winter and summer till old age began

My circus animals were all on show,

Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,

Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.


What can I but enumerate old themes,

First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose

Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,

Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,

Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,

That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;

But what cared I that set him on to ride,

I, starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,

`The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it,

She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away

But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.

I thought my dear must her own soul destroy

So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,

And this brought forth a dream and soon enough

This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread

Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;

Heart mysteries there, and yet when all is said

It was the dream itself enchanted me:

Character isolated by a deed

To engross the present and dominate memory.

Players and painted stage took all my love

And not those things that they were emblems of.


Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.


My circus animals were all on show,” By “circus animals” I take it to mean the contents of the mind. He enumerates the contents of his mind under various classes – mythology, politics, ideals, romance, and so on.

It was the dream itself enchanted me” Being lost in the dream of life is the root problem of all human suffering. We have become identified with the dream, thereby having lost awareness with the source (“but out of what began?) of our dreaming and our essential selves. This is the core message of The Upanishads.

As a result of this loss of connection to our inner self we mistake the contents of the mind and the mind itself for something real whereas they are “emblems” arising from a deeper source.

And not those things that they were emblems of”. We have taken these ideas, beliefs etc as

“Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start”

When the mind is seen through, the root of all beliefs, mythologies and so on are seen as having arisen from our conditioning by the world,  and enchantment with it. The ego collapses.

Buddha’s comment on this conditions is:“Seeking but not finding the house builder, I traveled through the round of countless births. Oh, painful is birth ever and again! House builder you have now been seen. You shall not build the house again. Your rafters have been broken down; your ridge-pole is demolished too. My mind has now attained the unformed nibbana and reached the end of every kind of craving.” (Dh. 153-54)

Perhaps this or something like it is what Yeats was saying in this poem and not lamenting the loss of his creative faculty, but seeing it for what it is.

He is now facing is death, and this is well known to be the vital step in the final collapse of the ego.

I wonder if there are others who might see the same interpretation in it.

Family relationships, Friendship and spiritual work

Family relationships, Friendships and spiritual work

Seven Sisters

Seven sisters.

Perhaps the issue that comes up most often in dealing with spiritual seekers is the issue of family relationships.

We can class these relationships into two categories: current and legacy relationships.

By current I mean the relationships we have with members who are part of our everyday existence now: those we share a home with, those for whom we have an ongoing responsibility or commitment, maybe paying for their education, those we are involved in business with, shared responsibility for caring for maybe elderly parents, those with whom we have financial or other involvements, and so on.

You’ll notice that in each of these relationships there is an element of an ongoing contract. We don’t usually think of relationships in terms of contracts but basically that is what is going on. Sharing a home involves unwritten and usually unarticulated contracts about how we are going to manage our daily living with another. Contracts mean that you give something in return for something else.

The old-fashioned contract between husband and wife was, she was provided with a home and food in order to have children and he got a home and family to come to, if he provided for them. Having children automatically creates a contract of dependent and dependee until such a time as the dependee is fit to provide for themselves. It’s not by its nature a lifelong contract.

Like all relationship contracts, they change over time and run out when no longer relevant or needed in order to fulfil their original needs.

As long as the contract is working, everyone involved having their needs met, at a fair rate of exchange, we feel good. We feel love. In a well functioning family everyone in the family is in on the contract of family survival. Children care about each others welfare.

This is what CS Lewis calls “Affection” in his book The Four Loves. It is the most basic and immediate kind of love. It is conditional love. It is a powerful influence in our lives because of the strong feelings it produces in us. After all, it arises out of the survival need.

The second kind of family relationship that arises is the legacy relationship. The original contract has run out. We no longer need or want to have particular needs met by the person who used to meet that need for us. Children become independent, wife becomes independent, husband want to fulfil his sexual needs elsewhere, and so on.

The contract needs to be re-drawn in order to keep the relationship alive as opposed to becoming a mere arrangement or maybe scrapped.

The thing is that we are not usually aware of the changes in the contract as it happens gradually over time. Circumstances change and so do the contracts or the value of them.

For many people the contract with their siblings, which used to be based on mutual welfare becomes redundant as the children leave home but they are left with the strong feelings of affection or maybe resentment from that time.

The feelings last a lot longer than the usefulness of the contract. This is why people still have strong feelings about their family of origin long after they have left that situation. The hidden contracts are so powerful that they do not dissipate automatically, even after they are redundant. We need to revisit these contracts, allegiances, in ourselves in order to re-draw them and bring them up to date.

Contracts include expectations, motivations, beliefs, and so on. Usually we think that the other party have the same ideas about the contract as we have. They may have quite a different idea of say what is expected in this contract. One in a family may think it is the obligation of other family members to help them in a difficult time, another may think it’s a case of everyone for themselves.

The underlying contracts manifest as guilt, resentment, longing for the old days or friendships, feeling abandoned, expecting help, feeling mis-understood and so on.

In a family where there was good affection and friendship between the family members, we want it to continue even after we have left home. The memory of the friendship outweighs the current relationship, the nature of which has changed over time.

This is why people often wonder what happened to their friendship with siblings. We feel that we have grown apart and feel the loss of it. We want the affection to remain, despite the circumstance no longer being able to support it. We are now having our needs met elsewhere and the affection goes there.

The difference between family relationships and other friendships is in the contract.

With friends we have lighter, less binding contracts. The contract might be to play golf together or share some mutual interest. It might be, having children of the same age that we share play time with them. The thing is that friendships are usually based on simpler, clearer contracts, not many sub-clauses as with family contracts. And, we still get the affection we crave.

We don’t usually think of our relationships in terms of contracts, because they are the norms of society. We just go along with society not realising that society has imposed contracts on us. Examining our relationships is a good way to become aware of what contracts we have unwittingly bought into and re-evaluating them in terms of valuable they are to our current life situations.

This is really about bringing what we are unconscious of into consciousness and in that way coming to know ourselves. We come to know what contracts we have made, not just with others, but with ourselves because basically every contract we make with others is really our best effort at getting our needs met. These needs are based on assumptions and beliefs that are usually hidden from view. So, uncovering the contracts is a way of uncovering our hidden assumptions and beliefs. This is getting to the root of our ego, which is what is veiling our true nature from us.

We may come to see that we always act in a subservient way to authority  or that we are inclined to take on authority in every situation because we have found that this is a good ploy for getting what we want. Seeing this we are likely to also see what this is costing us, maybe in terms of self honesty or something else.

My writing is always about self-knowledge, attempts to point others towards ideas that  may be beneficial in coming to know yourself and in that way see how you have been blinded by your own hidden contracts, the ones taken on unconsciously in childhood.

CS Lewis in his book The Four Loves describes them as Affection, Eros, Friendship and Charity.

Affection and Eros are both arise from instinctive, tribal, biological, gregarious roots. By “charity” I understand him to mean what nowadays we would call unconditional love or what the Greeks called Agape. But, friendship, as he describes it, is love that does not have the strings attached that that go with affection and eros – no contracts or at least non-binding contracts. He says this is the purest kind of love between people, because it is freely chosen and not emotionally encumbered.

Richard Rose, Jesus and Buddha all spoke of the value of true friendship. I think that what happens to many of us is that we expect or want to find friendship in family but this does not often happen. It can happen but something must change along the way to turn that relationship of affection into friendship.

We long for friendship but in a society which does not value friendship for its own sake we may not have thought about it.

Lewis says that real friendship is less understood and less valued in this era than in Greek times. Real friendship is what many long for but maybe have not been able to distinguish it from affection and eros.

I’ll leave you with a few quotes on Friendship.

One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.  Lucius Seneca

There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.

Thomas Aquinas

Friendship… is not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything. Muhammad Ali

Friendship is always a sweet responsibility, never an opportunity. Khalil Gibran

Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it’s all over.  Octavia Butler

My best friend is the man who in wishing me well wishes it for my sake. Aristotle

The only way to have a friend is to be one. Ralph Waldo Emerson

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. Henri Nouwen

A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself. Jim Morrison

Friends are the siblings God never gave us.  Mencius

The language of friendship is not words but meanings.  Henry David Thoreau

and the last word goes to Oscar.

True friends stab you in the front. Oscar Wilde