When we find ourself in the dark, a flashlight can help us see where we are and how to proceed. In the same way, whenever we are in doubt about what to do, the equivalent of a flashlight can help us search into the darkness of ignorance and uncertainty. We need to examine our mental territory to view what is there, what is missing, and what is working or not working. With this information, we can decide what we need to do.
The mental flashlight we need is discernment. Discernment focuses our mind’s power to illumine the shadowy areas of ignorance, confusion, and disorder. It has the capacity to act as a truth detector that can recognize falsehood, penetrate propaganda, and untangle confusion. It can be used to verify or invalidate various claims and assumptions—our own or those of others. Discernment provides a figurative magnifying lens to perform a detailed inspection of theories, proposed plans, alleged claims, and evidence of positive results. With this ability, we can expose inconsistency, falseness, and dishonesty. As such, discernment helps us sort out complex situations and separate the relevant from the unnecessary, truth from fiction, and reality from deception.
In a way, discernment is our puzzle-solving mechanism. We can use it to collect the pieces of a puzzle, sort out which piece belongs to which puzzle, and then assemble then into a coherent picture. Discernment thus gives us the ability to find relevant facts, assess their significance, and then bring them together to reveal their full context and meaning. In effect, discernment acts as our mental radar that searches for insights and solutions.
The capacity to recognize all the relevant facts and their relationship to one another is where human ingenuity and creativity reach their full flower. We have the power to make sense of what outwardly seems chaotic and confusing, by discerning the larger picture and underlying patterns of external activities. The ability to recognize the sequences of cause and effect is the basis for learning from our experiences. For instance, this is how we become aware of the mystery of why some people annoy us—or we annoy them. Until we intentionally look for the causes of these irritations, we might continue to ignore relevant cultural taboos or fail to admit we talk far more than we listen. Or it may be that we have not appreciated an emotional sensitivity that strongly affects the behavior of others.
Any single or isolated experience will not provide the evidence for a comprehensive understanding of the inherent problems—or the solutions that are needed. It is the ability to see the recurring patterns in a constellation of events that can pinpoint the issues behind distress or dysfunction. Only then will we have the information that will provide the basis for effective solutions.
Much of our life experience will seem a total mystery until we examine them with discernment. The ability to assemble separate facts and organize them into a coherent pattern is the basis for understanding the complex phenomena of psychic self-destruction. We need to examine the structure of beliefs and motives that keep recreating our resentment, anxiety, discouragement, and guilt. In addition, we can examine the quality of our self-concept and world outlook to determine their relevance in our continual pessimism, anxiety, or hostility.
There is a huge difference between a casual examination of our annoyances and a discerning review of them. The casual study often begins with a quick search for “the usual suspects,” continues by blaming the same old enemies and events, and concludes with the customary declaration of our innocence. A discerning study would seek to trace the complex sequence of irritating events to a misinterpretation or exaggeration of their significance and then to our dysfunctional reaction of anger, fear, or sadness.
For example, if we are frequently anxious and suffer from low self-esteem, we might recognize this state was first established in our childhood. Perhaps we were teased by an older brother or sister. Or maybe we thought we were too often criticized and too rarely praised by our parents. With the greater maturity and wisdom of our adult self, we can detect that we totally misinterpreted this criticism. In light of our mature understanding, we can view these events as merely a childish older brother doing childish things, or a very tired parent who did not have the time to fuss over us as much as we wanted. Once we recognize a pattern in our faulty interpretation and response, we gain the insight to make healing corrections in our self-concept and general response to criticism.
The true benefit of living an examined life does not begin until we start looking at every part of our beliefs as a template created by previous personal choices. For instance, as a child we may have chosen to be very indignant that we did not get the food or clothing we wanted. Or perhaps we were jealous of those who were older, stronger, and more skillful than we were. These choices can set a lifelong pattern for dysfunctional selfishness and competitiveness—unless we subsequently recognize how these habits are unnecessary and destructive to our well-being.
Discernment is not a subtle or impractical activity. It is a major key in learning, growing, and healing— by recognizing the patterns of psychic self-destruction, reversing them, and repairing the damage.
The power of discernment goes far beyond addressing simple problems in our personal style. Its great value comes as we recognize the presence of the bodyguards of our anger, persistent anxiety, chronic pessimism, and other dark moods. It also helps us to spot and reverse irrational beliefs such as expecting everyone to approve of what we do, believing that we should be immune to criticism, or thinking that we deserve special privileges. Discernment provides new information to heal ignorance, new insights into the antecedent causes of distress, and better choices of interpretation and decision.
The development of our discernment requires four major abilities:
- The capacity to admit we might be wrong.
- The willingness to ask challenging questions.
- The courage to leave the comfort zone of our current beliefs.
- Intellectual honesty.
If our sensitive ego gets in the way, we will consider only safe and self-serving answers to our questions.
When we ask only softball questions, we will never get the hard answers we need. Likewise, if we want to preserve our usual comfortable beliefs, we will never challenge the “sacred cows” of our cherished assumptions. And if we are too embarrassed to face the truth about ourself, we will invent or preserve convenient fantasies that trap us in our current status.
We do not have to be rude or arrogant to challenge traditions, dogma, or stereotypes—just very curious! A lack of curiosity maintains the status quo—whereas a healthy curiosity can compel us to question if certain assumptions are valid, and why we should look for better explanations or more effective methods.
The work of discernment begins and ends with asking right questions. Foremost among these are basic questions such as:
- What do I know about this subject, and how do I know it is true?
- What irrational beliefs do I have about this issue?
- Am I trying to fix the unfixable or change the unchangeable? If so why do I persist in this pointless activity?
- Am I truly doing what is best for me, or am I just defending my ego?
- Do I often choose to do what is easy rather than what is right—and do I know the difference?
- Do I fully consider the long-term consequences of my choices?
- Is there a better way to look at or deal with this situation?
- Do I understand the real issues behind this dif- ficulty?
- Do I try to substitute magical thinking or hope for the skill and work required for success?
- Do I waste too much time concentrating on what is wrong instead of what I can do to turn things around?
- Am I fixated on how others should change instead of how I should grow?
- Do I recognize how I have participated in cre- ating my current problems?
- Am I willing to take charge in solving my prob- lems instead of just remaining discouraged—or wait indignantly for others to fix them for me?
Will Rogers once said: “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” Our ability to delude ourself with self-serving beliefs is almost unlimited. Precisely because certain illusions protect us from the awesome truth, the body-guards of our ego will try to prevent any change. Only our dedicated pursuit of better answers and solutions will be able to override this resistance.
Asking questions such as these is just a starting place for invoking the power of discernment—for tapping the wisdom that will illuminate how psychic self-destruction has undermined our success and well-being. The honest use of discernment will reveal how we upset ourself by making poor choices in reacting to events, blaming others, relying on dysfunctional assumptions, and rationalizing away the truth.
Discernment is one of our most potent weapons in overcoming the destructive effects of psychic self- destruction.