How to Discern in 10 Steps

Thursday, July 07, 2011


To find purpose in our lives and discover the work we are called to, we embark on a journey of discernment. This takes time, practice and patience. Thankfully, there are steps we can follow to develop this way of being. As Parker Palmer, the Quaker sociologist and author on discernment said, "you cannot choose your calling…you must let your life speak." And in order to hear what our life is "saying" we must learn to be still and listen. This is to discern.

This blog series focused on a continuing series on the topic of discernment, the practice of listening to our inner selves and learning how to recognize movements that rise from our spiritual depths. To discern engages not only our minds but also our bodies and souls and requires us to be still and patient, developing the ability to detect something not inherently obvious. Learn how to discern rather than decide by following the 10 steps presented below.

Discernment Step #1: Create one focus statement

Define very clearly and succinctly the matter you wish to discern, for example, your life’s work. Craft a sentence that suits your situation such as “I will leave my current job by next fall to explore my life’s work.” Or “I will choose a new position that better aligns my values and passion by next spring.” Put a time commitment on the statement.

Discernment Step #2: Longing — Listening to your heart

Developing a practice of discernment involves learning how to listen past your desires and wants to notice a longing inside yourself for meaning, truth, purpose and significance. Listen to the longing for true, faithful, divine love. Where does this meaning and truth lead you? Notice what things, places or people call you toward greater meaning and truth and move toward them. Avoid that which leaves you feeling confused, anxious, empty or drained.

Discernment Step #3: Wants — Check the Directionality of Your Heart

What excites you at the core of your being? Longings feed your heart all the time — some truth and some lies. What are these? Can you distinguish the truth from the lies or fears in your heart? Your eyes, memory and ego constantly feed your heart true and false information. Only a wide open heart can discern and prioritize your most true and divine longings.

Discernment Step #4: Intensity — Check the Passion of your heart

Consider and contemplate the following questions to check the passion you feel in your heart and the intensity in your spiritual self... Do you feel spirituality alive or have you lost your spiritual spunk? If lost, what is cause? Do you sense the thrill of the "wind and waves of life" splashing in your face? Where is your intensity level? In what area of your life to you feel the most intensity and passion/thrill?

Discernment Step #5: Keep a Soft Heart

Discernment is not an exercise in stoic will power. Rather, it is a practice requiring a soft heart. A soft heart is humble, full of hope and feels longing for the Divine. A soft heart is also a forgiving heart and a forgiving heart is full of compassion.

Discernment Step #6: Use Your Imagination

As you become drawn to your life's work or whatever it is you are discerning, imagine yourself being in it. Imagine yourself going through a typical day in this new life as you vision it now. Ask yourself... How does it affect me on an emotional level? Does it feel like it fits or suits me? Do I feel excitement or joy around imagining myself in this new work or place? After a time (several days, weeks or months), how do I feel about the fit? If you sense a consistent longing or joyous feeling in your imagining over time, this may indicate a true call for you.

Discernment Step #7: Remain Open to All Possibilities

Are there any possibilities you have not considered given your talents, passions, experiences and interests?

Brainstorm and notice any ideas that come up throughout the day. No need to judge or evaluate them at this point -- merely notice and capture them as they occur. Jot them in your journal for later reflection.

Discernment Step #8: Pay Attention

Pay attention to your inner voice throughout each step of your discernment process. As you hold your focus statement (from step 1) in mind consider how the Divine speaks directly to you, through other people, through books, music or events in your life. Keep a record of your daily experiences in your journal. Over time you will begin to detect a pattern or recurring theme which points to the direction of your heart.

Discernment Step #9: Pros & Cons

When you sift through the layers of longings, your worries and fears, your regrets, people, possessions, achievements—what is it your heart most longs for?

Which influences the other more: your mind and body telling the heart what to want or your heart telling your mind and body what to want?

Make a list of the pros and cons of your decision in your journal.

What are the disadvantages of doing what you are trying to decide? Spend a day living as if the cons list were actually true. Notice what you experience internally as you consider them. What feelings arise, emotionally and physically? It is important to observe what happens as time passes. Note these in your journal.

After a couple of days, list all of the advantages of the decision you are considering. What are the pros of making this choice? Live as if the pros were true and make notes in your journals of your experience and feelings, giving yourself several days to ponder and add to your list.

Throughout the process, keep checking with your heart. Where do you experience peace? Real life? Hints of joy? Possibility? Energy? Hope?

Stay with those experiences where you feel the most consolation for therein lies your call.

Discernment Step #10: Make a Tentative Decision

Once you have made your decision, share it with your spouse, partner, confidant, spiritual director or trusted friend. Discuss your experiences of exploring the pros and cons. After this consultation take a little more time to meditate, pray and further consider your tentative decision. For the weeks or months that follow, test the decision for where you feel the most peace in living with it. You will gain clarity and certainty regarding the decision over time.