One of the things I enjoy most about having moved around a lot and met a lot of people from a wide variety of backgrounds is that it’s given me a great window into both the similarities, but especially the differences, in the ways people think and make decisions. Some of my friends make decisions entirely on instinct without any serious thought, and consider any deliberation at all to be “thinking too much.” Others aspire to be wholly rational, to act only on cold logic, without recourse to their emotions or instincts. Still others listen to whatever dominant emotion is pushing its way to the surface in the moment. And others — particularly those embedded in more traditional communities — make decisions primarily within the hopes and dreams of their families or the expectations of their faith communities. Most of us are somewhere between these different poles, even if one or two of these aspects of the self may be more dominant in our decision making. Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, all of these have something to contribute. Each of these aspects of our miraculous and confounding human selves is important in its own way and offers its own wisdom. This brings me to this week’s practice, known as the Inner Wisdom Circle, which is to bring as many of these sources of wisdom together in intentional dialog with each other.
I encountered this practice in The Discerning Heart, by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au (Μahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2006; see especially pp.70-72). I have mentioned this book often on this blog; I think it’s the most helpful book on discernment out there, combining both the riches of the Ignatian spiritual tradition and the insights of modern therapeutic disciplines. One of the most helpful aspects of their approach is that they refuse to cordon off discernment or even spirituality into one corner of life. The head, heart, instinct, emotions, sensations, and body all have their place and all have their God-given wisdom to share. Each of us tends to gravitate to some of these sources of internal wisdom, emphasizing one or two over the others. This is fine, but as the proverb goes, a weakness is a strength overplayed. Being rational is good; being in touch with your feelings is good. But being rational at the expense of your feelings, or being in touch with your feelings at the expense of reason is not. If we ignore our feelings, they simply hide in the shadows where we aren’t aware of them and secretly work to undermine our rational decisions. Similarly, critical reflection if overindulged can suppress spontaneity and desire, but if ignored, can’t do its good and wise work of freeing us from momentary whims and impulsive reactions. Similarly, the body too has its wisdom, an ancient wisdom that is often pre-rational and pre-verbal but deeply connected to our interior state. While we do well not to listen to it all the time, we also ignore it at our peril.
And so, to ensure that we listen to all of the wisdom available to us when we’re faced with a decision, the Aus suggest we convene our ‘Inner Wisdom Circle’ and allow all of these potential sources of internal wisdom to bring their truth to whatever it is we are needing to discern.
What is it?
While this exercise can be done in different ways, I like to envision the exercise as a president meeting with their cabinet, or a queen or king with their counselors. Here is how I have taken to doing it.
- State the question at hand.
- List all of the competing voices that are trying to express themselves within you about this question. For me, it’s a slightly different list each time. Also, while the Aus focus on inner sources of wisdom, I also like to bring in what important external voices are saying too (culture, faith tradition, family, etc.).
- Allow each of these voices to express themselves fully. In my experience sometimes they ramble and get a bit off topic. I think this is okay. The other perspectives will draw the conversation back to where it needs to be when it’s their turn to speak.
- Think on the following questions: Are there any other legitimate representatives of the self who should be brought in to this decision? Are all respected and given their fair say? Are any typically left out or ignored? Are any domineering or trying to monopolize the conversation?
- As the presider of the wisdom circle, synthesize the discussion into a statement. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a final decision if you aren’t ready, but hopefully it will at least contain a direction or pathway to help you come to your decision when the time comes.
The word that comes to mind when I think about the week I’ve spent with this practice is ‘gentle.’ I found the practice to be a calming and clarifying exercise that enabled me to confront some intractable problems in a gentle way. Toward the end of the week, however, I was running out of things to ask, so I definitely think this practice is more a tool to bring out at times when I’m confronted with a difficult problem or when I’m feeling confused than it is something to do as a regular part of the day.
As I’ve written about before, I’ve had to learn as an adult how to listen to my body. I’ve pretty much always been connected to my reason and my emotions — perhaps with one taking the lead in one season of my life, and the other in the next — but listening to my body has been a journey for me. There are two times specifically that come to mind when it comes to learning the importance of listening to my body. The first, several years ago now, was in the midst of the crisis of faith that led me to leave the Eastern Orthodox Church and to open myself up to engaging with my sexuality in a different way. In that season, I came to a point where, essentially, my body just said ‘no’ to the life I’d been living. Suddenly I couldn’t eat or sleep, and was hit with chronic headaches, neck, shoulder, and upper back pain. In the words of my massage therapist, words which were a big wake-up call for me, “It feels like your body has been in fight-or-flight mode for twenty years.” And it was letting me know.
Since then, with that lesson in mind, I’ve tried to listen more to the wisdom of my body. Encountering this sacred practice three years ago has helped me operationalize that in times of deep discernment. This brings me to the second season when listening to my body proved important. At the time, almost exactly a year ago, I was a postulant for ordination in the Anglican Church of Canada, about eight months away from my ordination. While I’d always had concerns and questions about whether ordained ministry was the right path for me, I had felt comfortable with the discernment I’d done that led me to enter the process. But, as my postulancy progressed and as my ordination day approached, things started feeling more and more ‘off’ in my body. I could feel a tension in my neck and shoulders and a tightness in my stomach whenever anyone mentioned my ordination. Because I believed I was on the right path, at first I tried to brush these feelings aside as just being about my anxiety at being in new circumstances and ‘cold feet’ at the prospect of a big change in my life. But as the weeks and months went on, it became clear that my body was telling me I needed to think twice about what I was doing. And so, I asked to step back from the process for an extra year of discernment. And, I’m so glad I did, as I’m now convinced ordained ministry would have been a mistake for me.
I’ve been reflecting on the body so far because it’s the part of me I’ve had to learn to listen to. But of course, if I followed its leading all of the time, without listening to other sources of wisdom and truth, that would be a problem too. (I’d probably rarely leave the house!) The goal is for a holistic approach to discernment.
I can’t help but be reminded at this point of the multiperspectival approach of integral theory, which similarly seeks to look at issues from as many dimensions as possible. And it’s probably my exposure to integral thought that has led me to include outside voices of culture and social structures into my broader wisdom circle. I can’t make a good decision without thinking of how it interacts with my culture and the systems in which I’m embedded; even if I end up forging my own path against those systems, I still need to be aware of them. All this is to say that I think the aim of this practice — to listen to as many parts of our ‘wisdom circle’ as possible — is truly beautiful and important.
As for the practice itself, for me at least, its greatest asset is that it’s calming and clarifying. When I’m in need of discernment, by definition it’s in a season when I’m feeling confused and conflicted about my circumstances or the way forward. And if I’m feeling confused and conflicted, it means my thoughts are all over the place, with competing voices talking over one another. This practice of identifying the individual voices and allowing them all to speak is really helpful in settling down the commotion in my mind and heart. The voice I tend to let speak first — because it’s always the loudest and most insistent voice and also the one I’d prefer to listen to the least — is the voice of whatever little neurosis is activated in the moment, whether it’s anxiety or any of the numerous automatic scripts or thoughts that have weaseled their way into my psyche over the years. Allowing this voice to say what it wants to say, genuinely hearing it — for its intention for me is always positive and protective even if it goes about it in unhealthy ways — quiets it long enough for me hear what the other voices — my reason, my faith, my hopes and dreams, my emotions, my intuition, my body — have to say too. Similarly, allowing each of these to have their say allows me to identify where the conflicting ideas are coming from, to amplify some of the quieter voices, and turn down the volume on the loudmouths. This is clarifying because it allows me to be intentional about the balance of voices and thereby find a way forward that does the most justice to the whole of what I’m experiencing.
As with a lot of the practices I have explored this year, I have to ask how this is a sacred practice. For me, and I know the Aus would agree, spiritual discernment is one of the main elements of the life of faith. It’s discernment that allows us to choose which path to take, to decide between right and wrong, or even between good, better, and best, to find the genuine signal God has placed amidst the static and noise of our life. And so, as a tool for discernment, this practice touches on the heart of spirituality. Of course, some of a more Reformed or Augustinian bent would no doubt point out that clarifying what the ‘self’ is saying isn’t necessarily helpful in showing the right path since the self is fallen and can’t be trusted to know God’s ways. It’s certainly possible that this practice, or any discernment tool for that matter, could be used in ways that affirm the ego’s leading instead of God’s leading, but that’s why it’s just one tool among many and not the be-all-end-all solution; it’s more a helpful GPS system for the soul than it is a map for the road ahead. This is also why I make sure my faith is one of the voices at the table. Because my faith is important to me, as long as it is at the table, its voice will be prominent.
We live in a loud and confusing world. It’s often difficult to see the path before us. And so it’s helpful to have tools to situate us, orient us, and guide us. In my experience this week, and over the past three years, the sacred practice of the Inner Wisdom Circle one such tool, and an excellent one at that. It clarifies my thoughts, reminds me to listen to parts of me that I tend either to forget (like my body) or despise (like my neuroses), and helps me to orient myself and find my direction. I highly encourage it.