Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Other Rugs Shifting Under My Feet: The Challenge of Discernment

I’ve actually been having a rough time since my return from the U.K. This is why my writing here has been tapering off lately – when I try to write, it turns unacceptably negative.

This past weekend, I finally realized that I am feeling a Great Shifting in my soul. I realized that I have been feeling unsettled because I am in fact being called in a new way. The features of this call are starting to crystallize, which is exciting but also terrifying.

Discerning leadings and callings is very difficult. At least in my own experience, I find that I can go through long spells of sensing that something is coming, but without quite being able to make out its shape. Then, when it does start to take shape, I can be so eager for clarity and direction that I can be too quick to take my first impression of its shape for It Itself. But this earliest stage of clarification is where I have to be most careful, because what I first see will be what is familiar. I have been striving so hard to make sense of the great, vague movements of the spirit that, as soon as I can put a label on at all, I am tempted to codify the leading rigidly in that form – a form at last I can get hold of; a form at last I can control.

But this is seldom (if ever) the final form the leading really will take. Most genuine leadings do bring something very new into the world, and so casting them in the old forms of what is already familiar and comfortable to us is almost always mistaken.

We must have the patience and discipline to keep waiting and watching. While we can “try on” different interpretations, we must initially hold those interpretations lightly, keeping our eyes focused, so to speak, on the shifting vague shapes behind the interpretations we tentatively hold up.

That is where I am: at the fragile preliminary stage of the first crystallizations of a new leading.

This is really why I’ve felt unsettled: this may change my life in significant ways (just when I thought it was time to start really settling in to a calm, quiet, and predictable life at last). And this is why I’ve found it hard to write about my life, except in negative ways. My soul is being shaken down. Sometimes maybe we do go through negative phases in preparation for new positive directions.

So, I cannot write specifically about my new ideas yet – I’m not sure I can fully trust my first impressions of the nature of this leading. But I’ll probably be writing more as it does clarify in a more reliable way.

In the meantime, I will note that we are having an absolutely beautiful springtime where I live. Maybe I will post some pictures.


  1. I don't have much good advice, but I can let you know that I feel like I've lived through some of that soul-shifting that you are presenting here.

    I also appreciate and support you in the care you are taking to not force whatever it is that is emerging. Sometimes the most significant thing we can do is simply observe, notice, and give lots of room.

    Liz, The Good Raised Up

  2. Sounds like you've confused your emotions with actual indicators from your environment. You would think any intended message from a higher power would include some degree of clarity. Regardless you should strive to become more independant rather than rely so heavily on a higher power or furthermore provoke others to rely on a higher power. This creates deviate behavior that resembles depression and despair. Naturally free will or even the perception of free will indicates that God most likely wants you to live independantly of him and to spread logic that instigates good will rather than faith, emotion, and tradition that instigates good will. After all why would he so clearly appear not to exist in our perceived reality other than to promote independance rather than reliance?

    Would you rather your child be reliant upon you or independant?

    If you search for something and find nothing, you blame yourself and self-improvement occurs. If you ask someone for something and you receive nothing you blame the other man and self-deprecation occurs.

    The choice should be obvious.

  3. CS-

    I am feeling something similar, or perhaps quite different moving in my life.

    After years of quakerism I am finally really working on learning how to cast off expectations and listen deeply to myself (I dont' know if I'm ready for God yet) - and I find that now, when I worship, I almost always feel a sort of internal "quaking" - as if something is emerging, or at the very least waking up. It is exciting and pretty well terrifying at the same time.


  4. Liz and Pam,

    Thank you so much for your support and understanding! I really appreciate it! Yes, exciting and terrifying. Yes, giving it room helps!

    I keep remembering the latter with some surprise when things finally do begin to open up at last. I'm starting to think that it doesn't actually hurt to try to force it -- it just won't work: that's all. And so if I can just let go in trust during the most confusing times instead of berating myself, as I am, alas, wont to do, things might open up and clarify more easily.

    I will respond to Perceptive Complexity too, but in a separate comment.

  5. Thank, you, Perceptive Complexity, for sharing your thoughts. I find them very interesting.

    The question of the relationship betweeen "God's will" and human free will is a very difficult and complex one. I do actually agree with you that God wants us to be free and wants us to be independent and take responsibility for our own actions.

    So, what could the desire to honor God's will possibly mean, without contradicting human freedom? The answer depends upon one's theology, I believe. It all depends on how one understands what "God" is.

    For myself, I tend to equate God with goodness and love. So when I seek to understand and follow God's will, what I seek is the alignment of my perceptions and actions with goodness and love.

    Now, goodness and love are not directly perceived through our sensory perceptions, but require us to pay attention emotionally as well. This way of paying attention to the world through both our senses and our emotions, directed towards the discernment of the movements of love and goodness in the world, and in ourselves, is the kind of expanded "listening" that is behind the quest for wisdom and guidance.

    And so when I feel new stirrings in my soul, the way I interpret it is that my "listening" (both emotionally and sensorily) is beginning to detect new possibilities in the relationship between how I perceive the world, and who I know myself to be. And because detecting new possibilities may be a prelude to being inspired to new kinds of action, it is initially unsettling until things clarify a bit. The unsettled phase can look a bit like depression or anxiety, but is usually temporary. Once things do begin to clarify, confidence and even a kind of happiness returns.

    The language of God's will is a kind of shorthand for all of this -- a shorthand that works well among those who share these basic theological presuppositions. But I agree that that language can be misunderstood as well, especially by those whose theology is that God is a kind of super-human person with control issues, who likes to order people around.

    I myself do believe that God is real (goodness is real; love is real), and I also believe that it is not inappropriate to establish a kind of personal relationship with God (to relate to God as a kind of Person), which is why the idea of conversation with God is meaningful to me. But I'm very careful not to presume that my own constructions of God are the full, undistorted Truth. And so what I describe is a kind of mystical relationship to God, characterized most of all by a kind of open listening. As soon as I put words around it, I am aware that those words fall short.

    But back to your thoughts and concerns: none of this is in contradiction to what you say about the importance of being independent and taking responsibility. I take full responsibility for what I do. My process of discernment is really just a process of trying to align the best of myself with my (ever changing) perceptions of which of the world's problems I feel most concerned to try to address.

    So my seeking "God's will" is my seeking the best path of goodness and love that I can find, given who I am, and given the current circumstances of my life.

    I hope this helps clarify.

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts!

  6. One more quick thought:

    Another way of describing what I am going through is that it is akin to a paradigm shift. My sense of what the world is like, and who I am in it, is going through a change. (For more on paradigm shifts, see Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.)

    Another metaphor: a kaleidoscope. All the beads of color are still there, but they suddenly get rearranged into new patterns. And, in the real life version of this (not the metaphor), it takes a little time to get used to this new way of putting everything together.

    Another metaphor: Plato's cave. When you go out of the cave, initially you cannot make any sense of this new world -- your eyes need to adjust to the light; your brain needs to adjust to seeing things in 3-D. And when you come back in, initially you can no longer make sense of your old world. Again, your eyes need to adjust; but also, you need to integrate your new understandings. (For the full Plato's cave example, see Book VII of Plato's Republic.)

    Ok, sorry, I couldn't help this: being a scholar of philosophy, I feel compelled to cite my sources!

  7. Here's something else that has been helpful to me in recent years. It offers you an experience that might help you understand the consequences of forcing something that is not ready to emerge.

    Find a partner to work with you. Make a fist and hold it as tightly as you can. Ask the other person to work at getting you to open it--without causing you pain! Notice what your response is--inwardly and outwardly.

    After a minute or two, shake out your hand to relax it and make another fist. This time, ask the person to use love and compassion to get you to open your fist.

    Probably by reading this, you already get the idea of what might happen. Still, I want to encourage you to give it a go with someone. It really is striking to experience the power of compassion... and the futility of force.

    Liz, The Good Raised Up

  8. Wow, Liz -- what a powerful example! Thank you for sharing this vivid exercise! I may use this in my teaching as well!