Chaplaincy

Spiritual Discernment - what gives life /what discourages

Today's blog has been written by Associate Chaplain, Ali Newell.

Image of feet standing on a pavement with white arrows on the ground pointing in many different directions

Learning the art of discernment comes with time, patience and awareness. It involves becoming alert to what brings us life and conversely noticing where we feel an absence of life, or a feeling of being discouraged or depleted. 

I’d like to share some of the insights from the Ignatian tradition about discernment. The particular gift of St Ignatius of Loyola, (the founder of the Jesuits in 1534) was recognising the importance of feelings, moods, energies and desires in our inner lives and noticing when they opened us up to Life and Love and when these feelings close us down. He came to recognise two spirals: one opening us up to others, to the world, to Love and Life and one closing us down, closing us off to the world, to each other and shutting us down internally.

In learning to discern he asks us to consider two sets of questions 

  • What is it that brings life, what encourages you?
  • What are the things/experiences that deaden you or discourage you? 

A way to practice discernment today is by reflecting over last week and noticing what was life-giving for you, from work, life or family. These things can be as simple as sitting in the sun, eating a delicious cake or apple, having a good conversation with someone.

When you reflect, open to what the feeling was like in your body, the felt sense as well as the emotional feelings.  An example in terms of felt body feelings and sensations might be something like: 

‘When I took some time to sit in the sun, I loved the sensation of warmth on my skin, it felt relaxing and comforting in my body. Emotionally I noticed I felt grateful to have found a quiet corner away from the busyness of the day.’ 

We are invited as we reflect to focus on the senses.

What was I smelling, tasting, touching, hearing and seeing in this life-giving experience today? How did the experience feel in my body? The second step is to become aware of your emotions and feelings: eg I was alert, comforted, grateful, happy, surprised, relaxed, open.

In this tradition of discernment, these feelings are called movements, and the movements that are lifegiving, that open your heart, are called consolations. They are moments to cherish. By staying with feelings and body sensations so that they are felt again, we can realise that the memories still have a power to nourish us. 

So, now let’s look at what discourages or depletes us, and let’s go through the same process of feeling it in our bodies, the sensations that come up for us as we recall it and the emotions around it 

An example might be Zoom exhaustion! See what comes up for you. 

Sensations might be tightness in the head, tired eyes, achiness in the body. 

Feelings might be feeling frustrated, disengaged with those online, tired or discouraged.

In this Ignatian tradition, a movement that is depleting or disheartening is called desolation.

Discernment involves really paying attention to these movements or directions in our lives and learning to make choices from what we discover.

 

Looking at the life-giving spiral in more detail. 

Illustration of the life-giving spiral - a spiral with an arrow on the end of it pointing left

In consolation: 

We open up to each other, to Life.

We have an open heart, feel more patient and courageous. 

We are kind to ourselves, to others. 

We have a sense of things flowing with a creative life-giving energy.

We have a sense of being loved. 

We have a sense of all things being interconnected.

There is gratitude for the gifts of nature.

There is a sense of serving Love. 

We have greater flexibility and a sense of freedom. 

We focus on what really matters. 

We open in gratitude and compassion. 

We accept the reality of what is. (we see pain, suffering and injustice but in consolation we move towards healing, justice and wellbeing from a place of openness) 

There is a sense of rightness. 

There is an increase in hope and love. 

 

Let’s look at the discouraging spiral in more detail 

Illustration of the discouraging spiral - a spiral with an arrow on the end of it pointing upwards

In desolation there is: 

A sense of a closed or hard heart.

A destructive energy that drains us.

Fear, anxiety, guilt.

A serving one’s ego.

Feeling we are stuck or blocked.

Feelings of self-hatred, discouragement. 

Feelings of disconnectedness and separation. 

Feeling at odds with self and others. 

Feeling life is meaningless. 

A sense of driven-ness fixed or grasping energy. 

Decrease of hope and Love. 

 

The key to discernment is awareness. Both spirals lead in the end to wellbeing as it is through noticing our moods and feelings and body sensations that we can make choices about a different way to live.

Importantly both ways can eventually lead us to deeper understanding of ourselves and of Life and Love. We can learn from both the spirals.  

There are subtleties in these movements to learn about.

When we are very busy and energetic, it might look as if we are full of life but in fact, it may be that we are driven. Driven-ness belongs within the downward spiral – we are not free when we are driven, rather we are in the grip of something.  

On the other hand, when we are in grief or experiencing loss, it can look like desolation, but this is not always the case. Someone can be sad but still open to Love and still facing towards Life. 

Through witnessing and reflection, we can choose to do less of what is destructive and deadening and do more of what is life-giving and nourishing. 

Always we begin the process of discerning by learning to notice feelings, energies, felt sensations. Ignatian discernment also draws attention to desire and asks the question where desire is leading. Is your desire serving the ego or serving Life and Love?  

One of the small practices that goes with this is called the Review of the Day. 

The invitation is to spend 10 minutes noticing what you have been grateful for and what has enlivened you and brought you to life, feeling the felt sense in the body through connecting with the senses. 

Do this for 7 minutes and then take only 3 minutes to notice what has pulled you down and NO JUDGEMENT - just noticing again the felt sense in the body and the feelings.  (We spend more time on the life-giving as there is a tendency towards focussing on the discouraging.) 

At the end of this Review of the Day, rest in an awareness of having been nurtured by gratitude for consolations. 

With the desolations, just acknowledge the struggles within gently, and then let go as best one can. Know these are our guides to learn more about ourselves. Make room for a sense of forgiveness, through connecting to kindness. 

Within this short practice there may emerge some choices you want to make about how to live the next day, there may emerge a sense of new beginnings from the life-giving places within you.