How important are truth, integrity, and authenticity to you – even at the cost of feeling comfortable and being affirmed?
When it comes to spirituality and the journey of awakening to our True Nature, most of us have a pretty good idea of the essential principles to keep in mind.
Qualities like love, peace, kindness, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, and gratitude – you know, those stereotypical feel-good qualities – inevitably spring to mind.
But how often do you hear about the importance of spiritual discernment?
Chances are … probably not that much.
Let’s face it, even just the words “spiritual discernment” have a dry ring to them. They kinda 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.
I imagine a stern librarian or an 83-year-old Harvard professor of physics when I think about spiritual discernment.
But don’t let the lack of feel-good vibes make you discount the importance of being discerning on the spiritual path.
Spiritual discernment is the single most essential ‘Sword of Consciousness’ you’ll need to hack your way through the many overgrown forests of Bullshit out there.
Table of contents
- So … What is Spiritual Discernment?
- The Sacred Path of Brutal Honesty
- 13 Dangers of Lacking Spiritual Discernment
- How to Stop Spiritually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and Practice Spiritual Discernment
- Spiritual Discernment is Like a Sword …
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 oneness.
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.
Why Spiritual Discernment is Non-Negotiable
Many people who begin the spiritual awakening path start off with a sprightly skip in their step, innocently assuming that the world of spirituality is a wondrous playground.
There is a beautiful innocence here that reminds me of the Disney movie called Bambi.
Through the magical forest, Bambi skips … until he reaches a clearing where his mother is brutally and mercilessly killed by a hunter.
There are many spiritual niches, teachers, and communities these days where spiritual discernment is neglected, and it reminds me of this Bambi parable.
“Love and light,” “Just go with the flow,” “Trust and allow,” “All is Love,” – you’ll hear this a lot, and certainly, much of it has truth and power.
And yet …
The reality is that the spiritual path is not somehow magically immune to misleading, harmful, or predatory behavior.
The reality is that there are monsters in that magical forest.
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 that you may struggle to get out of.
Hence the need for spiritual discernment – aka. the Holy Bullshit Detector.
So let’s take off our rose-tinted glasses and get real for a moment.
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.
The Sacred Path of Brutal Honesty
In order to practice spiritual discernment effectively, you have to be brutally 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’ll 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 explains,
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.
13 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 spiritual discernment.
Here are some of the MANY traps, pitfalls, and dangers present (and inherent to) this journey – also known as “spiritually transmitted diseases” (STDs) as coined by Mariana Caplan:
- The Spiritual ego and spiritual narcissism – aka. using spirituality to strengthen your self-identity
- Buying into ‘fast-food’ spirituality (cheap, low quality, and unhealthy practices)
- Corrupt spiritual teachers who use you for money, sex, fame, or power
- 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 authentic spiritual growth)
- Ego-attachment to one’s spiritual experiences (thinking that you’re “extra special” because of a mystical experience or incidence of ego death)
- 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
For more specific guidance, see the following articles for in-depth guidance on spiritual traps:
- What is Spiritual Bypassing?
- 11 Traps Sabotaging Your Spiritual Growth
- Are You Addicted to Spiritual Escapism?
- 5 Types of Spiritual Healing (& What to Be Careful Of)
How to Stop Spiritually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and Practice Spiritual Discernment
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
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 the many spiritually transmitted diseases (STDs) out there, there are a number of paths you can take:
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 really going on here?”
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
- Embracing humility and the willingness to be wrong
Because being honest with yourself can be so confronting, it’s essential to cultivate some simple 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 and the for and against of what is in front of you.
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 are the missing pieces of the puzzle that inspire us to connect with a greater understanding.
4. Listen to your primal instincts
Your intuition or gut instincts are a manifestation of unconscious knowing.
When you “feel something is off” it’s often 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 tricky 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.
Learn to tune into your body and how it feels in different situations to understand its unique language. (A regular mindfulness-based meditation practice can help you develop this.)
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 psychological or spiritual advisor and ask them to help you see where you’re going wrong.
A competent and honest psychological/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 diseases you may be carrying – and how to remedy them.
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 be 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.
Read: Spiritual Guidance: 11 Types & How to Find True Teachers »
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 here?
There are an endless amount of questions you could pose, but the ones above provide a springboard for you to do some detective work or create your own questions.
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 a vital 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 learning how to journal.
Journaling is simply the process of writing down your thoughts, feelings, and discoveries in a journal or notebook.
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.
After that, go a little deeper. Explore any dark or looming feelings you’ve been experiencing surrounding this topic such as anger, anxiety, frustration, depression, jealousy, shame, etc. (Equally so, you may like to explore any overwhelmingly positive feelings you may be having such as joy, ecstasy, immense gratitude, relief, etc.).
Finally, explore why you might be feeling these strong positive or negative emotions. Answer the following questions:
- How are these thoughts/feelings impacting you?
- What uncomfortable truth might be buried beneath them?
- What might you not be considering?
- What might you be bypassing, escaping, or ignoring?
Reflect on your answers.
Although this process can be difficult and challenging at times, you’ll find, with time, that it’s worth every ounce of effort doing – it leads to a kind of self-illumination.
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.
If you need more guided help, I recommend taking a look at our guided Shadow Work Journal.
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 spiritual discernment is on the awakening path.
To close, I’ll leave you with a few inspiring quotes on spiritual discernment:
Sound judgment, with discernment, is the best of seers.
Discernment is the ability to see things for what they really are and not for what you want them to be.
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
So, I’ve had this page open on my tab for about a month because I haven’t had time to read it since I’m in school. I wanted to read it, so I left it open. Well, last night I had a few minutes to read so I picked up a book that I’ve had for over a year to read a little bit of it. I read a page and a half. The book is called “How to Know God – The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali.” Today, I finally opened this page up and read it. And what is mentioned other than the book I’ve had over a year and only had time to read for a few minutes! What a coincidence! And I mean a BIG coincidence because I also have about 70 other books (no exaggeration) that I haven’t read yet for lack of time.
I love how Kim wrote that she was “smacked awake.” That was my experience. On the winter solstice of 2009, someone told me I was very judgmental, and later that night a clear thought came to me that I lacked all discernment. Still, the person who made that comment was correct in her assessment for whatever reasons she had, even if the words seemed out of place for the situation at the time. I’ve been trying to dig out pockets of my shadow side ever since, which also means I’ve had to balance that with quite a bit of compassion.
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” – Rumi
I want to thank you from my heart for this article! Integrity is a very big virtue. From my personal experience in my first steps in Spirituality i faced a lot of those issues. I saw many teachers call them shelf teacher but they were not even students yet. At the beginning I judged them but then I learned that us much us you go farther and higher in This Path, all of your hidden darkness comes out to see it, accept it an heal it ,and that egoism becomes spiritual Pride. I learned that, this, is the most difficult step for someone in This Path. In the beginning I had some shelf motives like the will to be special , to belong, to be loved, to go to Heaven, and my will was not strong. I wasn’t ready for the commitment. I thought that I had to do some spiritual things for healing my shelf, and that was it! Then I would be happy for the rest of my life! But….it was not! Because when I finally went to the top of my mountain, the Dark Night said hello! And suddenly I saw the rest of the thousand mountains… Read more »
Mateo Sol, thank you for this post. Its very inspiring.
Another incredible and thought provoking article. After being “smacked awake” about 3 years ago, I have tried to always question what is “true” about myself, what is around me, and I’ve found this often painful and damned difficult. It’s led to me being much more open to other people’s honesty, hearing and accepting what they are saying without always being defensive. I’m not completely there yet though! One question I’d like to ask, I often confuse intuition with fear. How do you know when your gut response is right and not fueled by fear? This is still my big question.
Thank you to you both for helping me to understand who I really am through your writings.
As always, I am validated by your article. This is not to say that I know it all, but that by following my instincts over the last decade of awakening. My understanding of this article allows me to know that I am still on the best path, despite the forks in the road that challenge me daily. My sincerity to myself and others, while off-putting to the many, I have learned trust and love myself.
Thank you for being. xo
discernment!! yes!!….i was in a local 2nd hand shop and found some 6 inch solid brass letters which i pinned on my wall….every time i need to i read them again…..they are Y R U.
A very insightful article. What do you have to say about people who put up fake vulnerability?
I’ve no words to add. Just wanted to say that I’ve read tons of articles about these concepts over the years, and yours is by far the most insightful and incisive. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and guidance.
Thank you for reminding, brother. It’s indeed easy to get carried away in any kind of teachings, concepts, or stories. Even more tricky are those which we create and choose as our paths. Being discerning and true to ourselves truly help to be centered in who we really are.
Meanwhile, getting lost in our own stories once in a while is strangely fun, isn’t it :)
What I’m trying say is that we need to be able to learn from the journey that we create for ourselves as well as to enjoy it.
Thank you again, brother.