We live in, at least, two worlds—the inner experience and the outer world. Each of us has our preference, often understood as a personality that is more introverted (inner-focused) or extroverted (outer-focused).
I’ve seen several memes and articles about the care and feeding of the introvert and the extrovert, and we benefit from knowing our tendencies, but I find it unfortunate that we seem to view them as fixed and unchangeable personality types and not preferences we can develop.
The inner and outer worlds are separate yet in relationship with each other. We need not defend against one to protect the other.
This meditation helps you to find your best balanced style of attending to and interacting with your inner and outer worlds. With practice, this may help you feel more at ease with your natural social style, better able to manage stressors in the environment, and strengthen your ability to maintain your self.
This meditation guides you through making contact with your inner experience, being present to the surrounding environment, and then being with the flow of information between the two worlds.
The following meditation arose during a book group I and a colleague led discussing Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. In her chapter on cultivating calm and stillness, she defined calm as “creating perspective and mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity.” We thought it would be helpful to include an experiential exercise, and so I developed the following meditation.
As with many things, I think we often misunderstand concepts like calm, peace, stillness, and serenity as the absence of trouble. Instead, I think of all these things as emerging when we cultivate presence amidst our troubles.
Practicing calm and finding spaciousness is empowering and allows us to see possibilities where we might have only seen our worst fears. This practice helps us to be more pragmatic.
Some important caveats:
This is harder for some of us than others, and the difficulty is particularly contingent on whether we have any sense of safety or stability in life. Find it, wherever that might be, and build upon it.
At no point does this practice require dismissing the importance and reality of your troubles.
Calm is a surprisingly loaded word, as it is one often said to others as an order. “Calm down!” This is rarely helpful, often expressed in a way that’s dismissive. It is exceptionally unhelpful when what one really means is “I feel uncomfortable when you do or say that and I want you to stop.”
When we feel distressed, angry, or panicking, we instinctively want to pull others into our crisis and sometimes react very poorly to people who are able to keep themselves out of it and show calm. Yet we need that so much. It is a model and inspiration that helps us to disconnect from the panic and re-examine the conditions on the ground.
Emotions are contagious, and as a highly anxious person can stimulate anxiety around them, so too can a calm person help bring more calm to a situation, as Brown notes in the same chapter. When you feel a need to tell others to calm down, I invite you to practice calming yourself first.
At last summer’s Many Gods West conference in Olympia, Washington, I offered a workshop on discernment. In my spiritual communities, discernment is valued highly, yet I found few descriptions of how to engage in a discernment practice. One of the benefits of discernment is its cultivation of inner authority, so it is helpful that there is no “one true way” of discerning. I wanted to offer a practice and context to help people begin or deepen their own discernment.
This blog post is a very concise summation of my talk and includes a link to a recording of a meditation I led. If it is not clear already, I will speak of discernment as a psychospiritual practice. As you will see, I believe it is a useful practice for those who do not have a theistic or spiritual orientation. In this post, however, I will be including the spiritual dimension.
Discernment, according to Etymonline.com, comes from Old French and Latin roots and has connotations of sifting and separation. During my talk, I defined discernment as “judging without being judgmental,” and a participant approached me and pointed out the usefulness of the sifting metaphor to clarify the meaning behind that. When panning for gold, one sifts through the ore to separate out the desired mineral. The discarded ore is not “bad,” it simply does not pertain to the desired goal.
A discernment practice, then, cultivates our inner authority to tease apart the meaning of experience, to separate what is beneficial to our values and desires from what is not.
This image offers a conceptual model, drawing upon cognitive-behavioral models of experience and cognition, to help us discuss the practice of discernment. We all have Experiences, which are essentially neutral occurrences that of themselves do not have meaning. For example, an experience might include:
Having a strange twinge in your shoulder
Reading a friend’s Facebook post
Having a dream in which your deity communicates with you.
Meaning is what we understand about our Experience. This includes the pre-existing beliefs we have about ourselves and the world; our mood; the political climate; the weather; our previous interactions with others.
If I’ve had that twinge in my shoulder before, for example, and then threw my back out, that might influence the Meaning I make of the shoulder-twinge. “Uh oh.”
If I had a fight with my friend last night, that might shape the Meaning. “This post is about me!!!!!”
If I ascribe to a religious framework that discourages people from believing that gods can communicate directly, that might form the Meaning. “This is just a strange dream, or a misleading one.”
The Meaning we make of the Experience leads us to make a Choice or take Action.
“I’d better get a massage and see if I can avoid another back issue.” or “Oh, that twinge just lasted for a second and went away, I’m going to ignore it.”
“I’m going to post an angry, passive-aggressive response to this post!” or “It’s unlike my friend to be passive aggressive, I’m going to call and see if we’re cool.”
“I’m going to ignore this dream.” or “Maybe my god is talking to me, I’m going to follow the dream’s suggestions.”
Whatever Action we take (and inaction is an action), what happens next is the Outcome, which either reinforces our Meaning or challenges it.
If I get the massage and still throw my back out, I might question my understanding of the shoulder twinge.
If my friend tells me I’m overreacting, I might question a lot of things about my experience or the friendship.
If I follow the dream guidance and have an amazing experience, I might start to believe (or believe more deeply) that my god can talk to me via dreams.
Meaning moving into Action is where we practice Discernment. Too often we accept our premises of Meaning so rapidly that we take unconsidered or damaging actions. Alternately, we might divest our power of Meaning-making or Meaning-seeking by deferring to an outside authority.
Meaning is a deeply Existential concept, and to break it down in a blog post would be ill-advised. To keep things simple, I look at Meaning as beginning with my personal experience—the thoughts, emotions, and sensations I have, my history and personal associations—and then widening it out to larger circles of Meaning. Wider circles include political meanings, cultural messages, spiritual beliefs, and so forth.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Jesuit priest, developed a practice he called “discernment of spirits” after a long convalescence from illness. Essentially forced to spend hours with himself, Ignatius began observing the thoughts he had, and noticing that each thought engendered a feeling in his body. He began to categorize the feelings according to his own theological framework. To be very simple, some thoughts come from God and some from Satan, and he believed one could discern the origin of the thoughts by observing the quality of feeling.
For those of us who do not subscribe to dualistic religion, this framework is not useful. I acknowledge P. Sufenus Virius Lupos of Aedicula Antinoi for noting that this dualism might negatively influence how people in other traditions view discernment. We may need to take some time to name and define the possible influences upon us so that we can practice more effective discernment, engaging in what Anomalous Thracian calls “the three Ds“: distinctions, differentiations, and definitions.
I believe that Igntatius’s approach has merit, and have created a version inspired by his. I have included a fifteen-minute recording of the Discernment meditation. It begins by getting us deeply grounded in our bodies, and then invites us to observe our thoughts and notice the feelings they engender. In part two, I invite you to call to mind a spiritual teacher or other influential person in your life, to call their thoughts and actions to mind and observe the feelings they engender. In part three, I invite you to contact a spiritual ally and invite them to send you a message, so you can sense how that contact feels in your body.
For your ease and wellness, I have recorded a guided meditation practice that I do often with clients. This meditation has been useful for people struggling with PTSD triggers, anxiety, chronic pain, and other overwhelming physical and emotional experiences.
The meditation is not about eradicating uncomfortable experiences, rather finding our inner capacity for spaciousness and presence with discomfort, distress, and pain. When we have spaciousness and presence, much becomes possible that is not when overwhelmed.
I recommend you use the meditation in a space where you feel safe and will not be disturbed for about ten minutes. I recommend that you practice with the full meditation the first few times when you are relatively calm—not in an urgent crisis. As you get more comfortable with this, you can very easily simplify it and draw upon it during your day.
This is freely offered. I ask only that you share it with attribution to me, and not use it for your own profit.