For a human being who hungers for truth, what is most beautiful is that which is most truthful. If the road to truth means having to learn what is untrue and to face unconsciousness and obstacles within ourselves, the lover of truth gladly accepts the challenge. Each time we expose and face that which is untrue, we are that much closer to what is true. – M. Caplan
When it comes to spirituality and personal growth, we know what essential principles to keep in mind:
But how often do you hear about the importance of spiritual discernment and sincerity?
Well … probably not too much.
Let’s face it – these words and ideas aren’t as warm-and-fuzzy as concepts such as love and gratitude. Such ideas may even sound like they’ve been taken from some heavy leather-bound book that has been collecting dust on the bookshelf for the past 100 years.
Inevitably, the lack of feel-good-vibes that spiritual discernment and sincerity possess means that they get glossed over – or at worst – completely neglected.
But here’s the thing, to me both spiritual discernment and sincerity are two of the most essential and powerful principles on the spiritual path. Yet in many spiritual communities these days, such vital practices are totally neglected or ignored in favor of a carefree attitude. This breezy attitude says, “go and do whatever you want, it’ll all be okay.”
But it won’t.
The reality is that there are sharks in the water.
The reality is that the spiritual path isn’t as blissful as people make it out to be.
The reality is that there are endless ways you can be taken advantage of by so-called spiritual teachers, guides, gurus, and paths.
The reality is that there are deep rabbit holes which you may struggle to get out of.
Hence the need for spiritual discernment and sincerity.
So let’s take off our rose-tinted glasses and get real for a moment.
I’m going to explore exactly why practicing deep sincerity and fiercely seeking truth (aka. being discerning) are so important.
So … What is Spiritual Discernment?
Spiritual discernment is the ability to distinguish between truth and deception on the spiritual path.
That’s it. It’s quite simple.
In Sanskrit, spiritual discernment is called viveka and is said to be the “crowning wisdom” on the spiritual path, allowing us to discover what is real vs. unreal.
Indian sage Patanjali believed that it was spiritual discernment that helped us to achieve a “luminous state,” also known as spiritual illumination or wholeness. In fact, in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the cultivation of spiritual discernment is said to be so powerful that it has the ability to destroy ignorance and address the very root of our suffering.
In a world full of sharks, spiritual discernment is the boat that allows us to safely travel through the waters of existence. But without it, we are left flailing desperately around in the water while those who feed off ignorance and folly come to feast on us.
Why is Sincerity So Important?
In order to practice spiritual discernment effectively, you have to be honest with yourself.
What do you really want?
How deep are you willing to go?
What are your true motivations?
There is no use pretending to be one thing and behaving in the opposite way. Eventually, you will be called out by yourself, others, or Life itself.
Spiritual discernment only works when you are first crystal clear about your own internal drives and desires.
As psychotherapist and yoga teacher Mariana Caplan explores about sincerity,
To ask this question ourselves – “Am I committed, or am I just involved?” – and give an honest answers helps us to make intelligence choices about which paths and practices are best suited for the spiritual development we seek. The problem arises when we profess one thing and live out another, because we confuse ourselves and others, and we limit our growth.
If only we could say honestly, and without shame, “I engage spirituality as a hobby,” or “I want a spiritual practice that will give me some inner peace of mind but without any commitment or discipline,” or “I’d like to keep spirituality as my mistress but maintain comfort and security as my spouse,” or “I want to be seen as a spiritual man or woman because that will make me more sexy.” …
Or perhaps we could use more simple, straightforward language, such as “I’m a serious spiritual aspirant,” “I’m a seeker of moderate interest,” or “I’m a part-time, casual spiritual tourist.” It is not wrong to have such an approach to spiritual development. We grow from where we are, and if we pretend to be somewhere we are not and try to move forward, we are likely to travel in a very crooked line and become more confused than necessary.
Figuring out where we stand on the spiritual path is the very beginning of discernment.
Here is our (myself and Luna’s) perspective regarding discernment – taken from our principles page:
Be passionate and sincere about the pursuit of truth, depth, and understanding. Be open, receptive, and humble. Be genuine and serious about the spiritual path. Be wholehearted (not lukewarm).
Deep sincerity is a core principle at the center of our lives and work, and everything we do revolves around it. Granted, we’re human and we’re not perfect. We do stumble, fall, and become lazy at times. But spirituality is much more than a hobby to us, and we hope to encourage others to be passionate and wholehearted about psychological and spiritual growth as well. So next, let’s take a look at the most serious dangers of lacking discernment.
The Dangers of Lacking Spiritual Discernment
Where do I even start?
I realize that it may be an inconvenient truth for many. But the spiritual path can be tremendously perilous when you don’t practice discernment.
Here are some of the MANY traps, pitfalls, and dangers present (and inherent to) this journey – also known as “spiritually transmitted diseases” (STDs):
- Spiritual ego (using spirituality to strengthen your self-identity creates a spiritual narcissist)
- Buying into ‘fast-food’ spirituality (cheap, low quality, and unhealthy practices)
- Corrupt spiritual teachers (who use you for money, sex, fame or power)
- Spiritual narcissism (using spirituality as a defense mechanism to protect the ego)
- Faux spirituality (pretending to look, talk, dress, and act like a “spiritual person”)
- Confused motivations (confusing the desire for belonging, validation or escapism for seeking spiritual growth)
- Ego-attachment to spiritual experience (sometimes an ‘ego death‘ experience can the ego as feeling “special”)
- Groupthink or cult-mentality (being in a spiritual community that rejects individuality, questioning, or any type of personal difference outside of the accepted norm)
- Spiritual pride/superiority (this happens to seasoned seekers who have attained a certain level of wisdom but use that as an excuse to shut down further growth)
- Spiritual codependence (finding a spiritual guide/teacher who mirrors your own repressed desires, and vice versa, e.g. your desire to be “protected” or “saved” and the teacher’s desire to feel special, needed, and loved)
- The “Chosen-People Complex” (believing that your group/path/teacher is the best in the world)
- Falling for the cult of personality (bolstering your self-worth by associating yourself with a powerful, charismatic or perhaps enlightened teacher)
- The Messiah Complex or believing that “you have arrived” (prematurely claiming to be enlightened and to know everything, which severely limits further growth and harms others)
- Spiritual bypassing (avoiding facing reality in favor of escaping into feel-good spiritual fantasies)
This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Furthermore, all of the above traps arise from one or all of the following issues:
- The inability to distinguish reality from illusion (or truth from lies)
- The inability to discern what is ego-based and soul-based
- Lack of self-awareness
- Lack of psychological growth and maturing
- Lack of inner work and exploration of shadow motivations
- Lack of honesty and sincerity with oneself
Read the following articles for more in-depth guidance about spiritual traps:
- What Is Spiritual Bypassing?
- 11 Traps Sabotaging Your Spiritual Growth
- Are You Addicted to Spiritual Escapism?
- The Dark Side of Spiritual Healing That No One Talks About
How to Stop Spiritually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and Practice Spiritual Discernment
If our goal on the spiritual path is to be authentic and sincere lovers of truth, we need to practice spiritual discernment.
As Indian master Paramahansa Yogananda once said, “Truth is not afraid of questions.”
If you want to prevent yourself from contracting spiritually transmitted diseases (STDs), there are a number of practices you can make use of, which can include the following:
1. Go soul-searching and study yourself
To study yourself is to know yourself. Self-study means going on a journey to explore the deepest realms of your mind and heart. Self-study is synonymous with the idea of soul-searching: it involves diving deep into places most people tend to avoid. Valuable avenues of self-study include reading books, studying spiritual and psychological teachings, attending workshops and self-development classes, going to psychotherapy, getting a spiritual mentor or teacher, journaling, practicing meditation, examining your dreams, doing shadow work – the list goes on. There are many forms of self-study on this website. In fact, simply reading this article is a form of self-study, so kudos if you’ve read this far!
2. Be brutally honest with yourself
Easier said than done, I know. But developing spiritual discernment means being willing to face the hard truth and facts about yourself. If you don’t like facing reality, you’ll find it close to impossible to be honest with yourself and therefore practice spiritual discernment. Honesty and discernment go hand-in-hand, you cannot have one without the other.
One powerful but simple way of being honest with yourself is asking the question, “Why am I feeling/doing/saying/thinking this?” Try your best to dive deep into the core reason. If you start feeling defensive, uncomfortable or threatened in any way, you have likely found the truth. If you feel like you want to run, stop questioning or if you get the urge to distract yourself with something else, you have likely stumbled upon the truth.
Being honest with yourself requires sincerity and integrity. The good news is that you can develop and strengthen these qualities by asking questions such as “why?” and “what is happening exactly?”
Other ways of being honest with yourself include, for instance:
- Admitting when you make mistakes
- Owning your strengths and weaknesses
- Being mindful of your thoughts, feelings, desires, impulses, and shadows
- Introspecting and reflecting on your habits, decisions, judgments, and motivations
- Humility and the willingness to be wrong
Because being honest with yourself can be so confronting, it’s essential to show self-compassion. Make sure that you forgive yourself and treat yourself kindly, otherwise being honest will become more traumatizing than nourishing.
3. See from other’s perspectives
Explore alternative viewpoints. Look into the pros and cons, the evidence and contradictory evidence, the for and against. To practice spiritual discernment means to go beyond your limited perspective and determine what is real vs. illusion. What do others say – popular and unpopular, famous and infamous, educated and uneducated, etc. – about the subject at hand? Be careful of biases. Seek to expand your understanding as far and wide as possible. Often the realizations and discoveries of others can help fill the missing piece of the puzzle and inspire us to connect with higher understanding.
4. Listen to your primal instincts
Your intuition or instincts are a manifestation of unconscious knowing. When you “feel something is off” it’s because deep down, a part of you (whether on a heart, mind and/or soul level) calls bullshit. Pay attention to how your instincts feel in your body. What sensations spread through you when faced with a bad decision, an ill-intentioned person or even a dangerous situation? For instance, some people feel butterflies in their stomach, pressure in their head, a lump rise in their throat, a feeling of dread, or like me, tingles up and down the spine. So connect with that wise and primal part of you and use it as an ally.
5. Seek and be receptive to feedback
Get feedback from trusted friends, peers, teachers, and therapists. One way to test both yourself and others is to seek out a spiritual advisor and ask them to help you see where you’re going wrong. A competent and honest spiritual advisor won’t be interested in affirming you at the cost of being truthful. Instead, they will help you to see any spiritual or psychological disease you may be carrying – and how to remedy it. The next step is perhaps the hardest: will you be receptive and listen to the observations? It can be difficult and confronting for the inflated ego to handle honest feedback as the entire purpose of the ego-self is to protect, pretend, and hide. So be gentle with yourself but also open to growing and evolving. It’s okay to feel emotionally reactive, but don’t let that prevent you from accepting and integrating the truth.
6. Ask questions (and test your theories)
If you suspect something within yourself or another may be false/disingenuous, get to the root of it and ask questions. Examples of questions you could ask include:
- Is this true?
- Am I being genuine?
- Are they being genuine?
- What is an opposing perspective that might be equally as true?
- What is this perspective/belief lacking?
- Am I/they spiritually bypassing?
- Why does this not feel right?
- What is missing here?
- Is this intuition or fear speaking?
- Are there any hidden motivations?
There are an endless amount of questions you could pose, but these provide a springboard for you to create your own (or just use what’s here).
The next step is to test your theories. For example, if you suspect that a public figure you admire and follow is not being authentic, test your theory. Go through their work and see if you can find any instances of transparency, humanness or vulnerability. If the person is presenting an invulnerable image, something is most likely off. We are all human after all, and even spiritual gurus aren’t exempt from weakness and messiness.
7. Reflect and evaluate
Self-reflection is an important stage in spiritual discernment. How else will you discover where you may be going wrong? The easiest and most widespread way to self-reflect is through journaling.
Journaling is simply the process of writing down your thoughts, feelings, and discoveries in a journal or diary. I recommend creating a calm and atmospheric space for this practice. Light a candle, burn some incense, make yourself a cup of tea, and put on some soothing music if it helps. Getting yourself into a reflective mindset requires you to be quiet, still, and removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life. You don’t need to dedicate a lot of time to this activity – just ten minutes a day will do – but obviously the more time you can spare the better. Find a time of day in which you feel particularly lucid (or mentally clear) and make a habit out of exploring your thoughts, mindsets, feelings, habits, beliefs, and shadows. Start with one area of life that you would like to evaluate, for example, your relationships, work life, family commitments, personal goals, habits, addictions, patterns, etc.
Next, explore your thoughts and feelings towards this one area of life. You don’t need to write a whole book – just a few lines or even words are fine. Then, explore any dark or looming feelings you have been experiencing such as anger, anxiety, frustration, depression, jealousy, shame, etc. Equally so, explore any overwhelmingly positive feelings you may be having such as joy, ecstasy, immense gratitude, relief, etc. Next, explore why you might be feeling these strong positive or negative emotions. Explore:
- What is behind them?
- What are the pros and cons of them?
- What might you not be considering?
- What might you be bypassing, escaping or ignoring?
Reflect on your answers. You are always free to add to your self-evaluation throughout the next few days or weeks.
Although this process can be difficult and challenging at times, you will find with time that it is worth every ounce of effort doing.
As Henry Miller wrote in his book Tropic of Capricorn,
Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate, or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy, and strength, if faced with an open mind.
Spiritual Discernment is Like a Sword …
it cuts through all of the deception, traps, and BS. It truly is one of our greatest tools of protection on the spiritual path.
I hope this article has emphasized just how essential discernment and sincerity are. To close, I’ll leave you with a few inspiring quotes on spiritual discernment:
Sound judgment, with discernment, is the best of seers. – Euripides
Discernment is the ability to see things for what they really are and not for what you want them to be. – Unknown
We must learn to practice the art of discernment in making choices without judgment, to monitor carefully what enters our field. – Steve Rother, Spiritual Psychology
Where there is not discernment, the behavior even of the purest souls may in effect amount to coarseness. – Henry David Thoreau