Discernment is a human ability to perceive and grasp inner qualities and relationships, especially when obscure, leading to keen insight and judgment.
Discernment grows with practice. It may be conscientious, moral, spiritual, or religious, according to one's own experience and belief, but the ecology of practices used to cultivate inward perception is universal across people and time. Discernment is first a personal practice, which is then tested with a few (one to three) companions and later tested with a community, formed by regular gatherings of numerous companion groups.
This ecology comes to life through cycles of insight and application by individuals, small groups and communities, which becomes the input to guiding individuals, small groups and communities and so forth. Discernment comes to life as it goes through repeated iterations of the entire cycle. Conscientious people live in conscientious communities and society. Participating in their formation is essential to our own formation.
Discernment, or inward guidance, requires the capacity to stop as well as feedback and testing. Stopping and disengaging while maintaining one's presence is an art. So too is opening up to share with others in a way that they may offer real feedback and testing. Refrain from motivations of guilt, shame or judgement of others, but use discernment to seek a sense of the justice, liberty and joy of living in accord with one's conscience.
Discernment requires principled friendships, person to person, across a diversity of ages, cultures, religions and backgrounds, among people committed to living peacefully by a set of common agreements:
- Respect and affirm self and others; no put downs
- Listen, don't interrupt
- Speak simply and honestly, without fear of mistakes
- Speak from one's own experience, not others'
- Be authentic and open to change
- Ask for and give feedback and help
- Discharge distress; in disputes, speak directly to the other
- Build relationships with people very different from myself
- Use what I need and share the rest
- Volunteer myself only, not others
- Exercise my rights to pass, to consult and to privacy
- Care for self, others, the group and community
- Live in integrity with life's transforming power
Practicing discernment requires both individual and collective commitment and action. Personal practices, what we do when no one sees us, define the tone, tenor and nature of our public life. Collective practices, what we do with others, define the tone, tenor and nature of our personal lives.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Meade
In your own words, write a commitment to experiment with the spirit, power and wisdom of life moment to moment.
Experiment with transforming power in daily life:
- Stay aware of life's power in every moment, in easy and hard times.
- Stop, let go, open and listen in personal and group silence.
- Shape daily life to stay aware of and reflect transforming power.
- Change according to insights and what rings true, trust yourself.
- Study others who have tried to do the same.
- Test discernment by its nature, integrity, source, writing, history, feedback from companions and community, expression and fruits.
- Document queries, insights, practices, direction and mistakes.
Write in a journal to log the experiment:
- Open questions, cooperative agreements, affirmative vocabulary.
- Commitments to self and expressions of 'true self'.
- Experiences in easy and hard times and distresses to release.
- What you need to have or let go of.
- What conscience, love or truth would say.
- How you are shaped and changed.
- Errors or mistakes and reflections from the silence.
- Insights from reading.
- Help needed, by and from whom.
- Fruits of the experiment.
Take time with a companion or small group to be silent, truly stop, open up to power and wisdom, release pain and distress, listen, learn, speak, exchange feedback, allow it to change us and record.
Take time in community to be silent, truly stop, open up to the power and wisdom, listen for/to messages, learn, speak, exchange feedback, allow it to change us and record queries, insights, practices, directions and dispute settlements.
Publish results of the experiment in news, writing, art, law or court.
Live... fully and enthusiastically, with love, conscience, justice and mercy.
A journal or log is critical for any sound experiment. A log requires short, disciplined entries; long prose for self-discovery is a different use of a journal. As a rule of thumb, if you want something in your life, do it for ten minutes a week. You may always spend more time, but ten minutes regularly is valuable. Experiment with ways to organize your journal. Remember, however, that the journal’s value is in how well it helps track and support the experiment with transforming power in daily life. People may bring their own journals. Nice journals or blank books may be available for sale. But have on hand make-shift journals: fold three or four sheets of A5 or letter paper in half together and put three staples along the fold. Use a sheet of colored paper on the outside as a cover.
Domains for Journaling
Open Questions: During or after the opening talk, distribute journals and suggest people start a page for open questions, which are useful in fueling and directing an experiment. Questions along the way mark progress and remind us of the process of learning.
Cooperative Agreements: It is good to write 'palm-of-your-hand' stories about how each particular cooperative agreement plays out in your life. You might also write about why one is important, difficult or risky, or about questions, concerns or suggestions for the agreements.
Affirmative Vocabulary: The power of positive words is hard to fully appreciate. Cultivate detailed, rich expression by writing definitions and reflections on interesting affirmative words, describing things and feelings, giving concrete affirmations and feedback, and so forth.
Commitment to Self: Record commitments to oneself in the front of one's journal. See if they change over time, or not.
Expressions of 'True Self': Write to get to know oneself, listen to one's body, mind, heart and conscience, get to know one's gifts and talents, and become one's authentic, perfect part of the perfect whole. Each of these contributes to practicing integrity and discernment.
Experiences of Transforming Power: When describing experiences of transforming power, one tends to think of the good times when 'all is well' or the 'mountaintop' experiences. It is also good to reflect on experiences of transforming power in hard times, when one falls short, is broken, is inadequate or even is the perpetrator.
Distresses to Release: In order to be fully alert to transforming power, we need to notice how historic distresses intrude and learn how to discharge them and reevaluate with a clear mind.
Experimenting with Transforming Power: Record what you need to have or let go of in order to stay aware of transforming power in every moment. Note the percentage of the day your awareness is alert. Write about what is on your conscience, how love and truth are working, any implications for yourself, community or society, and how you are being shaped and changed and any errors or mistakes (as cracks and opportunities for learning, yeah!).
Reflections in the Silence: After personal or group silence, open your journal for a moment to see what insights you might record and the implications for yourself or others.
Insights from Reading: Record the references for what you are reading along with inspiring and guiding quotes, and your reflections. Test the insights and guidance from your experience against the experience and practices of other individuals and communities who have taken on this commitment to experiment with their lives.
Help Needed, By and From Whom: Having agreed to give and receive help, especially for healing, feedback and engaging conscience, take notes on your needs and the needs of others. Keep it simple.
Feedback: Writing provides discipline. Before asking for feedback, try to write what you feel is clear in preparation. Write the feedback received and/or the statements that are affirmed by the group.
Fruits of the Experiment: We leave the results or outcomes to the natural consequences of ‘doing the right thing,’ and trust the fruits of our lives will be love, truth telling, joy, peace, strength, compassion, beauty, truth, equality, liberty, and so forth. Record how you are using what you need and how you are sharing the rest.
Visiting is spending time with someone without any particular agenda or demand in such a way as to get to know one another.
Visiting Oneself is an unusual, yet helpful, concept and an amazing experience. Caring for, listening to and being oneself is essential for paying attention to and experimenting with conscience in daily life. Set time aside to get to know yourself through silence, solitude, reflection, counseling, self-care, self-soothing, listening, learning, recreation, relaxation and personal exploration.
Discernment is being inwardly guided by one's best sense of what is right and true. Inward direction may guide us, but also may easily lead us astray, proving to be problematic or self-indulgent. Some traditions use self-denial to attempt to control egotism or inward distresses. Although self-denial may keep one from temptations, it does not reveal the genuine self where transforming power resides. Visiting and getting to know oneself may reveal your genuine self. Also, as the population lives to older ages, unresolved internal distresses increasingly intrude. Discernment requires a 'purity of heart' achieved by being burnt clean by honesty rather than by being innocent by avoiding or denying self..
Questions for Being Available and Prepared
Am I taking care of myself–health, sleep, water, food, activity, tranquility, balance–to be prepared & available each day?
Is distress intruding that needs to be discharged & reevaluated?
Is my heart open? ...is there grief, fear, anger, apathy, joy?
Is my mind open? ...is there insight, understanding, integrity?
Is my conscience open? ...do I listen, experiment, change?
Visiting Companions form with two to six people who are mutually committed and engaged. You may begin with two people, and over time find more people to join you. Traditions that value discernment all share nearly the same tests of discernment, but the traditions that have allowed communities to successfully maintain social structures based on discernment include the personal and collective abilities:
- to stop
- to provide feedback
Therefore discernment requires taking some time for silence, for listening and for exchanging feedback.
- 2-6 people meet routinely (every 1-6 weeks) for 1-3 hours
- Open with 5-10 minutes of silence
- Share available time, taking turns equally among the people
- Pay attention to support emotional release and speaking
- Ask questions that may help, not for discussion, to fill silence or pursue your own curiosity
- If asked, repeat what you heard as closely as possible in your companion’s words without changing, improving or interpreting
- Close with 5-10 minutes of silence
Questions for Visiting Companions
How do I experience transforming power in easy and hard times?
What do I need to have or let go of to stay aware of transforming power in every moment?
What truth is working in me? What are its implications?
What am I learning from transforming power? ...is it for others?
How are love and truth prospering in my life? What are the fruits of my experiment, e.g. love, joy, peace, strength, compassion, beauty, truth, equality, liberty?
How can I ask for the help that I need?
How can I share the extra that I have?
Individuals gather to form a discernment group and discernment groups gather to form a community, who stop, listen, share, exchange feedback, seek direction and document discernment. Community documentation, in turn, serves to shape and guide the lives of individuals. This self-referential cycle of input forms an ecology of practice. The Gatherings below may be done as separate one to two hour sessions or as 20 to 60 minute sections of an hour-and-a-half to four-hour gathering.
Gathering for Silence
Stop • Open • Listen • Speak • Change • Write
Stop, sit silently and let yourself fall away. Let what you want, like or understand fall away.
Open to transforming power. Value all life, the source of your breath and the source of your heart beat.
This is enough; nothing you can say or do will make you any more valuable than you are right now.
- Listen for truths working in you; listen to your conscience.
- Speak, simply and briefly, if there are implications for others.
- Change by yielding to the implications for your own life.
- Write implications for your life or community in a journal.
- Leave silence between speakers; speak only once, if at all.
Gathering for Sharing
Question • Advice • Direction • Dispute
Gather, in silence and open to transforming power.
Once quiet and open, then the convenor:
- Reads a question, advice, direction or dispute to the group.
- Asks "Is it clear?" and clarify as needed.
Once clear, then:
- Speak from one's conscience or best sense of what is true.
- Leave silence between speakers, giving everyone a chance to speak once before speaking again.
- Listen with empathy, open to becoming personally changed.
Once insights or themes emerge (repeating with no new ideas):
- Speak again of one's sense of the group as a whole.
- Record collective insights or implications for later feedback.
Gathering for Feedback
Principles • Love • Truth • Implications • Change
Gather, in silence.
Once quiet and open, then:
- Read a statement that you feel clear about from the experiment with transforming power in your life.
- Ask "Is it clear?" Clarify, as needed.
Once clear, then:
- Listen, not to if you like, agree with or even understand it, but for the sense of transforming power and life in it.
- Test, does it spring forth from conscience or 'ring true'
If not, or not yet:
- Say so and let the person respond. If persistently not or not yet, invite the person to take more time with it.
- Publish it in the community's book in the person's words and name, clearly but without 'interpreting' or 'improving'.
- Ask, is this true for anyone else? If not, move on. If so, acknowledge and add names or use the community's name.
- Leave silence after recording a statement to honor it, then move to the next statement until all statements are tested.
Gathering for Discernment
Seeking Direction • Settling Disputes
Gather, in silence.
Read a statement or question about a direction or dispute.
Ask, Is it clear?
Listen, not to if you like, agree with or even understand it, but to if you sense the transforming power and life in it.
Record the direction or settlement.
Leave silence after each one to honor it.