When you are facing a juncture in your life, a period of transition, or an important decision, I wonder…
Do you search for an answer by weighing out all your choices in a reasoned, rational way? Or do you try to feel your way through it, seeking a gut sense of rightness?
Do you imagine that the universe or a divine presence has guidance to offer you about your path, and that you are being called toward one direction or another because of your particular spiritual work or destiny in a larger universal unfolding? Or do you feel that we are all quite on our own in an indifferent universe, and that all things in this life unfold by some combination of human action and random chance?
In the many traditions of discernment and spiritually grounded decision-making, there are perhaps two very broad categories:
One perspective is that we make meaning as we walk along. There is no “larger plan,” no “God’s will for our life,” no “where I’m supposed to be or what I’m supposed to be doing in the universal scheme of things.” There is only choice: the choices we make, their consequences for our lives and relationships, what they say about us, and to what extent they enable us to live to the fullest of our capacity. This might be called an existentialist view, but it can be understood in spiritual language as well. Our calling is to make meaning of our lives through the choices that only we can make.
A different language of discernment comes from a tradition of theistic belief in which the seeker lives and moves within a divine field or ground of being. The universe is expressing and unfolding a divine intention, what some call the divine will and others call the divine longing, and we are a part of its action, its expression and its fulfillment. In this view each person’s life has a purpose within that larger unfolding, and it is possible for the individual to experience the divine as communicative, responsive and leading. This is a mystical understanding of the universe and our place in it.
I am personally sympathetic to both these views and have experienced my path in both ways. I have enough personal experience of strange synchronicities and urgent intuitions to sense that reality is intelligent, responsive and very mysterious. At the same time, I think we build our lives by what we choose, moment to moment, day by day, and I believe that we are profoundly responsible for all that we create by our choices.
There have been passages in my own life when I longed for, prayed for, begged for guidance from God or from my own deeper wisdom, and was met by deafening silence and a deep sense of being alone with very difficult choices, a small boat with short oars in a big sea.
There have been other times when I have felt as if the wind caught my sails and moved me with great energy in a direction that felt right in every way, an undeniable leading or intuition that I was called to do a particular thing. Auspicious conditions seemed to conspire to assist me, and what followed that choice and flowed from it over time confirmed the rightness of the decision.
Perhaps there is also an in-between ground in which we seek through intuition and feeling and the guiding wisdom of a larger community to which we belong, a path that is both personally life affirming and good for the whole. I do not think we need to frame this as divine guidance, but it does call upon some larger sense of self, or larger sense of belonging than merely following one’s personal desires or reasoning.
It is possible to imagine that guidance comes as a kind of directive about a specific choice. What should I do? This particular thing or that particular thing? It is as if one were at a crossroads, facing four possible options, needing to choose: What is the right thing to do? What is the right step to take?
Many of us have GPS devices in our cars or on our phones now—global positioning systems that interface satellites with maps to locate where we are and how to get from one place to another. In a clear, pleasant, mechanical voice it talks to you, saying things like: “Left turn approaching, 200 feet.” Or if you take a wrong turn it says, “Recalculating route,” and sets you back on track. And when you get to your destination, it says, very satisfyingly, “You have arrived.”
What could be clearer? Perhaps spiritual guidance could work something akin to this. One would get directions about a particular choice or where one should go. There are right turns and wrong turns, a particular destination, and a particular route (plus recalculations, as needed).
While it’s true that one can get a very strong intuition to do something in particular—or not to do it—I’ve come to believe that the compass is a more apt metaphor for the way intuition and inner guidance work. The compass needle doesn’t point southwest to indicate that you should turn southwest, and then switch to due south when that’s the better way to go.
The compass simply shows you the direction of the Earth’s North Pole. The point of the needle is drawn toward the north because it feels a magnetic attraction to north. That’s all the compass does for you. North is the only thing it reveals. What you do in relation to that knowledge is up to you. You can move directly toward it, you can turn in the opposite direction and walk south; you can keep north in the corner of your eye as you move in an easterly direction. You can hike upstream along a winding creek bed that meanders first this way and then that, but always moves generally in a northerly direction.
If we were to understand “north” as a spiritual metaphor, what does it signify? And if the compass needle is also a spiritual metaphor, what is it in us that is drawn to the north?
Bring to mind a time when you felt spiritually grounded, when you felt that your actions flowed from a sense of being at home in yourself, being at one with your best self and your truest values. Can you play out in your imagination a scene in which you are spiritually centered? What happens to your breathing as you remember or imagine this? How do you feel in your body? What is the quality of your interaction with others? What’s the feeling in the room? What emerges from your choices or your interactions?
This might begin to give you a sense of your “true north.” The question may not be, “Should I choose A, or B, or C?” but rather, “What happens when I move and speak and consider the situation from a place of my deepest spiritual centeredness?” Another good question is: “What kinds of choices enable me to stay more spiritually centered, more attuned to my true north?”
A GPS enables us to not have to think. We are simply told what to do. We do not need to be aware of where we are, or how to get where we want to go. A compass places greater responsibility for awareness and choice in our hands.
We may think of discernment as all about making the important decisions in life—changing jobs, having a child, getting married or ending a relationship, etc. But the path of discernment is more about developing an awareness of our inner sense of truth, an inner feeling of rightness or wholeness, a capacity to sense our deeper yeses and our deeper nos. This is the compass needle within us.
As we develop an awareness of what greater or lesser well-being feels like, as we learn to distinguish when we are moving toward or away from that well-being, we develop a foundation for truer choices. We find north by attuning to a sense of sacredness or wholeness—within both ourselves and others. When we lose that attunement, or feel cut off from it, when we can’t sense in which direction our wholeness lies, the choices we make may not be informed by what is best for ourselves or others.
We have to ask not only the question, “Who am I?” but also, “Whose am I?” A friend once shared with me this truth: “Discernment is personal, but not private.” We are not entirely free agents, making our decisions in a vacuum. We belong to a community of others, and a community of life. At best, our capacity to attune to the sacred dimension and to an experience of spiritual groundedness places us in touch not only with our inner true north, but also in touch with a shared north toward which the larger community of life is longing and evolving.
Following that compass, the path may be winding, but we can trust that the direction is true.