The Art of Discernment


A sermon delivered by the Reverend Peter Connolly on 17 January 2021 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Good morning, friends.  I am here this morning, during this, a most tumultuous time in our nation’s history and our shared political life, to talk with you about a spiritual discipline I’ve found useful in my daily life, and which I think you’ll find useful too: the art of discernment. 

Because there are a number of ideas I want to present for your consideration, I will pause several times during the course of the talk to sound a bell of mindfulness followed by a period of silence that will be long enough for us to take three deep, centering breaths– long enough, I hope, to give consideration to the ideas presented.  My hope is that we can all learn something together as we listen and allow the ideas to settle.  Let us attempt to trust the silence.

I don’t hear the word “discernment” anywhere near as often as I did as I was growing up.  I think it’s too bad that it’s fallen out of favor.  Discernment is “the ability to obtain sharp perceptions” or “the ability to judge well.”  It comes from a word in Latin that means “to take apart.” 

To discern means, in part, to examine something carefully and minutely.  It implies taking time, separating in your mind one thing from another.  In terms of our daily lives, it means to be able to separate emotion from thought and to examine each in order to achieve sharp perception and good judgment.  It is not hot-blooded, but neither is it cold-blooded.  It is judicious, not impulsive.

As I wrote these words, I thought of one of my favorite quotes of Mohandas Gandhi: “I have only three enemies.  My favourite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire.  My second enemy, the Indian people, is far more difficult.  But my most formidable opponent is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi.  With him I seem to have very little influence.”

What do you think Gandhi meant by this?  It’s clear, isn’t it, that he recognizes within himself a conflict– you might even say “turmoil,” considering how strongly he states it.  For the quote to be most helpful for you, you might consider changing his name to yours.  I can say, “I have three enemies.  My most formidable opponent is a person named Peter Connolly.”  Try it.  Take a few seconds now and replace my name with your name.  In this thought experiment, who is your most formidable opponent?

{Sounding of the bell of mindfulness}

If we are experiencing inner turmoil–and who among us never does?–and we take the time to examine its cause, we will often–most often, I believe–find that the turmoil is caused by emotions that are in conflict.  If these emotions are not examined minutely, it is likely that the strongest one, perhaps the most primitive one, will emerge victorious– will emerge as action.  If the strongest emotion is anger, we will indulge in an angry outburst.  If the strongest emotion is fear, our actions will be generated by fear.  A peaceful action, a loving action, a kind action… these will emerge when we have given the mind, the rational part of our decision-making process, time to look carefully at the elements causing the inner turmoil and then to choose the wiser course.  You can call this “psychological discernment” or “spiritual discernment.” 

A similar process is helpful when discerning between what we wish to be true and what the rational part of our mind tells us is true. 

Children believe in the actuality of Santa Claus beyond the age of credulity because they want the myth of Santa to be true.  We hold to religious understandings past the point where they make sense to us because it would be so much more comforting if they were true.  We believe that there is a Messiah in the White House because it’s so much simpler than dealing with the complexities of domestic politics, international politics, our own ignorance and need for reassurance, and the effort needed to grow in our intellectual and moral development.  We want the winter to be over, so we prematurely dress for spring.  We want to be happy, so we go online and shop for things that we hope will bring us that happiness.  We don’t want to be inconvenienced by wearing a face mask, so we convince ourselves that the fears of a virus are “overblown.” 

We don’t want to live in fear, so we minimize the nature of the threats we face: We indulge in denial.  Our rational mind knows that these “solutions” are spurious, but do we take the time to discern the difference between what we want to be true and what our rational minds tell us is true?  Too often, we do not. Is that not true?

{Sounding of the bell of mindfulness}

About a year ago, maybe longer, a popular meme on Facebook and elsewhere stated “My desire to be well-informed is in conflict with my desire to stay sane.”  At first, I thought it was pretty funny, but as time passed and things that were demonstrably false were forcibly claimed as true by those in powerful positions, and the differences in political beliefs began to get weaponized, I did not see it as funny anymore.  Reality seemed to be whatever certain people claimed it to be, whether or not there was evidence for the claim.  To be well-informed, then, meant to struggle constantly with the emotions that rose to the surface as I tried to make sense of things that seemed to have no sense.  Staying sane– not being driven to distraction by a cavalcade of lies parading as truth– became a goal in itself.  A process of discernment was necessary. 

I made a practice of examining my emotions as they rose to the surface and tried to discern the elements that stirred them up.  I sought and found sources of information that broke down the causes of events into discrete steps, that interpreted today’s events in light of our nation’s history, that understood nuance and psychology (and, in passing, I recommend to you the daily posts called “Letters from an American” by Boston College professor of history Heather Cox Richardson). 

I understood that I needed sources outside of myself to make sense of what I was reading and experiencing.  And I found solace in a like-minded online community.

{Sounding of the bell of mindfulness}

It is important for our mental health and well-being to feel part of a like-minded community, but this, too, is worthy of discernment.  This, too, needs close study, the ability to gain sharp perceptions, the ability to judge well.  Because immersing ourselves in a like-minded community can lead to insularity.  Such a community can serve as an echo chamber where what we say is amplified by others. Also, what others say, we are tempted to amplify ourselves.  We feel more secure in such a community, and we like that feeling of security, of warmth and acceptance.  If our search for truth becomes, instead, a search for warmth and security as ends in themselves, we will slip into intellectual complacency, we will be tempted not to examine our beliefs, we will trade our integrity for a sense of emotional security.

The question, then, is will we put forth the effort that is necessary to discern what is true from what is emotionally comforting?  That’s an open question that each of us has to answer for ourselves.  But if we accept the easy solution, isn’t it inevitable that we will add to the problems of divisiveness rather than help to solve them?

When I watch the news and political programs of such media outlets as MSNBC and CNN, I train myself to listen carefully, to pay attention to tones of arrogance and an attitude of all-knowingness.  I understand that the hosts have firmly set opinions (that are often in agreement with mine) and that they will phrase the questions they put to their guests in a way that is calculated to reinforce their point of view.  And I listen carefully to the guests who may be journalists, politicians, historians, legal scholars, government officials or retired military.  What I have found, is that while these experts often agree with the statements of the hosts, they provide much more nuance in their responses and are, more often than not, convincing not by an emotional appeal, but by their calm and sober reasoning.  Even so, because my views are being reinforced, I need to listen carefully for sloppy thinking or facile logic. 

If you, like I, have found yourself responding first in humor, then in concern, to “My desire to be well-informed is in conflict with my desire to stay sane,” there may be times you would benefit from taking a break from the news, a break of a day or a few days– or a week or more.  Again, it’s a question of discernment.  If we find ourselves taking such a break because we feel so overwhelmed that we are becoming immobilized, we may consider that we’ve waited too long, that we need in the future to pay closer attention to our tendency to react in a way that causes us to lose our composure.

{Sounding of the bell of mindfulness}

Those things which tend to make us lose our composure, sometimes in ways that lead to psychological trauma, have come to be known as “triggers.”  One dictionary’s definition of the verb to trigger is to “cause an event or situation to happen,” but it has expanded in recent years to include “to cause a negative emotion to be activated.”  I have been training myself, when these situations come up to say to myself the word “trigger.”  To stop and identify the statement as a trigger as close to the moment it happens as possible.  What follows is a five-step process: note, observe, consider, choose, act.  If you remember nothing else from today’s sermon, I encourage you to remember that.  Note, observe, consider, choose, act. 

  1. Note: I take note of the fact that I find a statement to be offensive to my morals, judgment, or sensibility.
  2. Observe: I observe the effect that that statement or action has on my emotional state.  I consider whether or not my response will be helpful or will just allow me to blow off steam.  If I just need to blow off steam, can I do so in a way that doesn’t engage with the other person and inflame the situation? 
  3. Consider: The stage of “consideration” is crucial.  It may take just a few seconds or a few minutes.  Sometimes, it takes as long as a day.  But, generally, a few seconds is all it takes for me to decide that “letting it go” is the most judicious response. 
  4. So that’s what I choose.  Note, observe, consider, choose and only then, act. 
  5. Act: The “act” may be the act of just letting it go.  More often than not, I find that that’s the most judicious course.  To choose not to react is the responsible act.

{Sounding of the bell of mindfulness}

When I last spoke from this pulpit, I told you that some friends and I had decided to read together and discuss a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow by a Nobel Prize-winning economist named Daniel Kahneman.  After some initial complications around scheduling, three of us have been reading the book together, meeting outside in this cold weather around a warm fire pit and discussing Kahneman’s ideas.  I’ve found it very helpful. 

It is a long and complex book with many chapters on inter-related themes and questions and with accounts of experiments and their outcomes– too comprehensive to discuss in any detail here, but I’ll share with you some of the basic ideas.

Kahneman contends that we human beings, all of us, think in two distinct modes, one fast, one slow, depending on the needs of the moment.  He calls them “System 1” and “System 2.”   System 1 is “fast, instinctive, and emotional.”  System 2 is “slower, more deliberative, and more logical.”  There are rational and irrational motivations (what you might call “triggers”) “associated with each type of thinking process.”  To use the analogy favored by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, System 1 is the elephant; System 2 is the rider.  The elephant has the power and the initial control.  The skillful rider is able to direct the energy of the elephant towards a chosen goal. 

Unfortunately for us, most riders are lazy, and so the elephant’s impulses rather than the rider’s judgment are what decides the direction that the rider takes. If we riders are not skilled, innate, “gut feelings” determine our actions.

System 1 is good at binary decision-making, but life is so complex that the choices we are presented with are often not just “one or the other.” Instead, they involve a multiplicity of factors and choices.  If we don’t develop our “System 2s” we will inevitably react, rather than think things through.  Thinking things through will bring our decision-making capabilities to maturity. 

System 1 “involves associating new information with existing patterns, or thoughts, rather than creating new patterns for each experience.”  These are just a few of the tricks that our minds play on us, encouraging us to oversimplify or distort our experiences, thus creating more trouble for ourselves and others as we hold tenaciously onto opinions that we’ve reached too quickly.

If you are interested in learning more about how our brains work in making decisions and forming judgments, I recommend to you Dr. Kahneman’s book.

If we wish to grow in our decision-making capacity, we need to actively work at discernment, obtaining sharp perceptions and learning to judge well.  To make progress, it will be helpful to practice the five-step process: Note, observe, consider, choose, act.

The year ahead promises to be a challenging one in the political sphere and the sphere of public health.  The sharper our discernment processes, the better we will get along and the healthier our society will be.

Amen and Shalom.

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly

for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY

on January 17, 2021

Note: Quotations in the summary section on Thinking, Fast and Slow come from the Wikipedia article on that subject.

Benediction: “You are not an isolated identity. You are part of the stream of life.” –Thich Nhat Hanh

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