Thursday, August 19, 2010

Discernment: The Internal Authority Figure

“If your friends told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it?” Did your parents ever ask you that question in relation to peer pressure? I definitely remember hearing it and thinking that my parents were unoriginal, to say the least. Nonetheless, this trite rhetorical question serves as a reminder to navigate life with our own compass. “If your GPS tells you to drive straight into the ocean, will you follow it?” There’s an updated version.

I have been interviewing a lot of advisers lately. I write a local column about spirituality, Spirit Beat. The column features a different spiritual perspective or practice each week. To write Spirit Beat, I have to connect with people who are on a spiritual path. Most of these people are in the business of helping others, so they have theories and advice to share. I truly enjoy listening to and writing about all of them. This process is helping me to connect with my community and to define my own spirituality.

While I love gathering various theosophical perspectives, I have to be careful to remain detached from the work. On a personal level, I have to exercise discernment. Discernment is defined as “keenness of insight and judgment.” I believe that discernment is personal to each one of us. Only we know what is going to work for us and what is not. Only I know what perspectives are enriching to me and will help me to make sense of my life and relationships.

As children, we are constantly bombarded by messages from authority figures. Everyone tells us how to be and what to do: our parents, school principals, teachers, counselors, aunts and uncles. As adults, we don’t necessarily think about being guided by authority figures, but we are. Many people relate to doctors as authority figures. “She wrote me a prescription for this medication, so I have to take it.” Accountants are financial authority figures. Lawyers, psychologists and real estate agents advise us. We may not think of following professional advice as an act of obedience, but any time we surrender control of our own will to comply with someone else’s opinion, we are giving our power away. Of course, we willingly cede to the advice of others when it benefits us and when we need help. This is obviously the right thing to do, for our own self-preservation.

In following the advice of other people, whether hired professionals or trusted friends, it is a good idea to check in with our inner guidance. If my doctor tells me to take a medication that I think I do not need, I am going to research it and decide for myself. I have done this in the past and found out later that I was improperly diagnosed. By contrast, on an interpersonal level, I find myself listening not only to the people I interview for my column, but to almost anyone who has an opinion to share with me. I really want to know what people think and more often than not, I will give a lot of thought to what they say. I internally give other people the same credence that I give myself. This tendency of mine can be a real handicap. I care too much about the opinions of others, to the point that I second guess my own choices. I know I am not alone in this predicament. So what is the solution?

When reacting to external information from any source, we need to become empowered internally. We need to access the authority figure within us. We can listen to the words. We can genuinely like the person who is talking. In most instances, if someone is advising you they are well-meaning. That’s why we don’t shoot Jehovah’s Witnesses. Even if we don’t like the missionary, we can respect the mission. That doesn’t mean that we have to comply with the advice or even take it seriously. This is where discernment comes in. Am I able to separate what someone is telling me from what I personally believe to be true? Can I hold their advice up to the light of my own truth? I am finding out that I can. I can respect you and me, and follow my own path all the same.

How am I applying this with respect to Spirit Beat? I listen to what people say. I generally admire the individual expertise of each person. When I am able to sort out the information I have gathered, I give myself some mental space. This space allows me the room to change my own mind if I want to. That way I can incorporate new things I learn. In this space, I can also interview myself. “How do you feel about this? How does this compare to what you believe?” It is a moment where I simultaneously open up and create a boundary. I don’t want to be closed, but my mind needs shelter. Within the structure of my internal wisdom, there is always room for an outside perspective.

We can call on our powers of discernment in every informational exchange. It is an ability we tend to forget we possess. We live in a culture where people read headlines and run for cover. We don’t have to be those people. You are at the center of your school, and you are your own guidance counselor. If you are confused about a class, knock on the counselor’s door and talk it out. You’ll be glad you did.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Eye Splinters

A former boss and friend told me, "Sometimes it's better to be alone than in the company of the wrong people." Today as I switched the car radio to WNYE, I heard this advice, "Positive thoughts, positive people, positive outcome." How can we surround ourselves with positive people that uplift us with their words and energy? We make definitive choices about who we spend time with, but we must also give out what we wish to receive. The latter is the greater challenge.

I want to be around more positive people, so I am focusing on my own thoughts. Are they positive? Are my words positive? If not, then I won't attract the type of people I'd like to meet. It is often said, "Like attracts like," and as I look back through my life I see how true this is. My friends and partners have reflected the values and priorities I have held through time. I consciously chose them, but I also unconsciously attracted them.

Currently I would love to meet people who are more focused on the heart and less focused on the ego. The ironic part of that is my new tendency to look for ego-centered behaviors in others. As I focus on posturing and self-importance in the people I meet, I judge them. In this act of judging, I am putting out the type of negative energy I seek to avoid. I would do better to let go of any judgments and simply act like the person I want to hang out with. If I encourage others when I would like to be encouraged, listen when I would like to be heard and give love when I would like to receive it, I will be surrounded with support. This is how I want to start living.

This concept also works within existing relationships. Do you want your child to calm down? Take a moment to get centered yourself, and then ask him to chill out. Do you wish your spouse would open up to you more often? Try being more open yourself. Take the initiative when you feel you have lost touch with a friend. As my husband likes to say, “The phone works both ways.”

Displaying the qualities you are looking for in others can change the dynamic of a group, as well. I have seen this recently in yoga class. It always helps when the teacher sets the tone of the class, but students can also impact the vibe. Sunday I attended a class that I usually avoid. When I walked in the people who weren’t talking loudly were already in headstands or arm balances. I feel that the class attracts type-A personalities and show-offs, but that thought is not going to help me get through the class. I tried closing my eyes and meditating on my mat until the class started. I found that the students near me were quieter and less active as a result. Of course, when the teacher started by asking, “What do you guys want to do?” and someone replied, “Kick ass!” I did not yell, “Namaste, motherfuckers!” like I wanted to. That was probably a good move. I do consciously avoid the class as a rule, just as I might avoid certain people. All the same, if I miss a favorite class and need a makeup, I can still get my practice in and enjoy it. For all I know, the teacher may take it in a different direction or my perceptions of the class could shift. Maybe next week I’ll be positive about “kicking ass.”

“Be the change you wish to see in the world,” taught Mahatma Gandhi. To get an idea of how to adjust my attitudes, I am making a list of all outward changes I would like to see. I will list everything I want for myself and the people in my life. Then I will study that list and attempt to embody it. If I start there, I am less likely to injure myself. Jesus taught, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Sounds painful, doesn’t it?