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Blind faith and the value of discernment

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

The problem with blind faith is that it's blind.

I've been increasingly alarmed by the worldwide levels of disharmony, which may be putting it mildly. We don't have a television at home, so most of my consumption of news and current events happens via the Internet. Online streaming of short video clips is now fairly standard, another source I dip into occasionally. As I read and watch local, national, and world events, I find myself regularly shaking my head. I wonder, sometimes aloud, how can people believe that rubbish? How can people believe what is being said without question? In modern history, the worldwide web (which is about a trillion zettabytes if you can wrap your head around that!) provides access to more information than at any other time in recorded human history. It's possible to research vast sums of information at the tap of a fingertip. Do we question what we're told, what we read, what we hear, what we see? Not always, and for some people, not always generally means practically never.

It would actually be impractical to question everything every waking moment; the mind would be completely overwhelmed. The kind of questioning I'm talking about involves separating truth from illusion, fact from fiction.

In high school, I remember learning about a tool used during wartime to bolster support for a mission or to subvert the opposition. The tools I'm referring to are called propaganda and rhetoric. Propaganda is intended to be misleading. Rhetoric is similar because the language used is intended to persuade without having a grain of sincerity or real meaningfulness. Together, propaganda and rhetoric are a powerful combination that looks like but is not the truth to the undiscerning observer.

Discernment is at the heart of the matter. Discernment is like a sword, cutting through the veil of illusion, revealing the essence and truth of what is. When we use the faculty of discernment, the light of wisdom dawns on the higher mind, and it's possible to see clearly as the blue sky on a cloudless day. Paying attention, observing, questioning - requires effort. Cutting through the rhetoric requires a little more effort than would be applied to, say, a summer fiction beach read. It's a little heavier of a lift, but not as much as you might think, especially if we consider the benefit. If we see ourselves as interconnected and interdependent, the benefit of discernment and wisdom is that they move us toward the co-creation of a harmonious being-ness. Each time we are challenged to take a step closer to union is akin to initiation by spiritual fire. Fire illuminates, and light shines upon all the places that have been hidden by darkness.

When faith is blind, like darkness, it obscures the light of higher truth and wisdom. From this perspective, I wish to examine what discernment is and how we might develop and cultivate it.

What is discernment?

To discern is the ability to distinguish between two things, each different in some way from the other. For example, although both a fruit, there is a difference between an apple and an orange. We use discernment all the time, from making choices to making decisions. Discernment refines our senses of perception from the most material to the most non-material, from ordinary understanding to higher wisdom and illumination.

In Vedic philosophy, the Sanskrit word for discernment is Viveka, a term mentioned several times in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Here, it means "the recognition of the distinction between the real (*sat) and unreal (*asat), *truth and fiction, and particularly the transcendental *Self and the "nonself" (*anātman)." (Feuerstein, G. pg. 405) In essence, a person whose awareness of their consciousness has awakened, endeavors to remove the illusions of the mind that create the world of bondage and suffering. In this sense, suffering is a multi-faceted experience resulting from the misidentification of the false self from the true Self. The false self is bound by attachment, desire, fear, aversion, likes, and dislikes. The true Self lives in the world but is not attached to the world, nor is it bound by personal will and desire. The true Self is an agent of dharma, aligned with the Source of All Being. Removing the multi-layered veils of illusion requires the skill of discernment. A primary practice in distinguishing the false self from the true Self is the gradual disidentification that you are not your body, mind, or senses. These are all temporary vehicles for the unchanging and deathless true Self, which you could also think of as the soul. Let's consider what this means from the perspective of the counsel that spiritual teacher Krishna offers his student, Arjuna, in the discourse of the Bhagavad Gita.

Chapter 7, verse 10: "My eternal seed, Arjuna, is to be found in every creature. I am the power of discrimination in those who are intelligent, and the glory of the noble." (Easwaran, E. pg.153)

Chapter 7, verse 15: "Others are deluded by maya; performing evil deeds, they have no devotion to me. Having lost all discrimination, they follow the way of their lower nature." (Easwaran, E. pg.154)

Chapter 10, verses 4-5: "Discrimination, wisdom, understanding, forgiveness, truth, self-control, and peace of mind; pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage, honor and dishonor; nonviolence, charity, equanimity, contentment, and perseverance in spiritual disciplines - all the different qualities in living creatures have their source in me." (Easwaran, E. pg. 183)

Chapter 18, verses 51-52: "Unerring in discrimination, sovereign of the senses and passions, free from the clamor of likes and dislikes, such a one leads a simple, self-reliant life based on meditation, controlling speech, body, and mind." (Easwaran, E. pg. 262)

Viveka is sometimes translated as discrimination, such as the translation quoted above. I, however, generally prefer to use the term discernment, finding it offers a clearer intention of the teaching. The first quoted verse reveals that discernment is not only common understanding and comprehension. It is a power and energy that comes from the Source of All Being. When drawing upon and allowing in this energy from the Source, it has the power to illuminate much more than the human mind alone can conceive. Another way to think of this energy is that we draw upon it from one's higher Self. This kind of inner illumination comes from the higher mind, known in Sanskrit as buddhi.

Separating truth from illusion is, well, tricky. As Krishna tells Arjuna, when a person is involved in their lower nature, they are wrapped up in the world of illusion. Imagine it like a visit to an amusement park. There are any number of activities to draw you in, promising various kinds of satisfaction, from thrill-seeking rides to fried dough and spun candy. It is a veritable feast for the senses and only fleeting and temporary satisfaction. You could wait in line and take the ride again or simply walk to the next one and try a new thrill. Clever advertising knows this about human nature, targeting unsatisfied needs or, in some cases, creating imaginary needs. For example, how many pairs of shoes does one really need?

So, the great challenge arises in separating oneself from the daily involvement of the senses. Craving, wanting, avoiding - these are powerful emotions and feelings. The counsel that Krishna offers Arjuna is just as applicable to modern contemporary life as it was on the battlefield in the Gita. We can apply the wisdom of making careful and considered distinctions between truth and fiction in our modern, practical, daily lives.

How do we develop and cultivate discernment?

There are three tenets worth examining:

  1. The four ways of knowing

  2. Daily practices

  3. Cultivating your inner scientist

Four Ways of Knowing

Much of the world, and in particular, Western culture, emphasizes intellect as above or superior to other ways of knowing and experiencing reality. You are considered smart if you bought stock in a company that traded well on the stock exchange, giving you a good return on your investment. But you are thought of as "lucky" if your intuition told you not to buy stock in another company that, had you done so, would have created a huge loss, even if it was against the advice of your financial advisor. Sometimes I think of intuition as if it were an inner GPS. Everyone has it, but not everyone tunes in to the signal and listens. If we only value one way of knowing reality over any other, we vastly limit the capacity we have in the pursuit of human development. For our examination in this context, we consider there to be at least four types or ways of knowing:

  1. Common understanding. In daily waking life, there are ordinary tasks we undertake. We comprehend and understand what is involved in brushing one's teeth, for instance, putting on clothes and preparing and eating breakfast. It also includes common knowledge; the agreement society makes that an apple is an apple, and an orange is an orange.

  2. Cognition. Acquiring knowledge is a lifelong process, but in general, we can think of this as a focused pursuit in school years, from kindergarten to high school or university.

  3. Perception. We have five primary senses through which we learn: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Touching a hot stovetop will hurt, or worse, burn. Memory and smell are intricately intertwined; the smell of a forest-scented candle brings up the memory of a walk through a pine forest.

  4. Intuition. Described as instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning, I would add that it includes what can be called the process of feeling-in to an experience. Intuition is inner-knowing, but it also relies on the use of the inner senses. When you close your eyes and imagine a beautiful mountain vista, you are using your inner vision or the inner eye to "see."

How would these four ways of knowing help us in developing more discernment? The answer is in the question, which is to say, the answer lies in the act of questioning. Borrowing a phrase from my mentor, we open an inquiry. By opening an inquiry, we turn our attention to curiosity, a desire to learn, and the action of gathering more information in the process. We could think of this almost as a rapid internal cross-check. However, rapid verification would need to be slowed down in unfamiliar situations, such as learning to rock climb. Rock climbing is inherently risky, but those risks are mitigated with appropriate training, equipment, situational awareness, etc. New skills and knowledge are acquired to safely and enjoyably climb boulders and mountains.

Inner Scientist

Meditating Buddha Statue

But what happens when a situation is more subtle, such as reading a newspaper story or watching current and world events? What if we attend a lecture, a political rally, a motivational speech, or a workshop? Every day we are challenged to distinguish between truth and illusion. Naturally, we place certain individuals and groups into the category of a verified trusted information source. Acceptance can be a great gift, but it can also be a hindrance. There are many situations where accepting things without question amounts to relinquishing the use of one's inner authority, giving away personal power to an outside agent. It's one thing to trust an external authority as a trusted source; it's another thing to completely give up one's responsibility in accepting whatever it is they have to say. Just because a person is trusted does not mean they are infallible. Like you and me, they are subject to the same foibles of being human. They, too, are learning and are apt to make mistakes. One of the great world teachers, Buddha, taught his students to not simply accept what he said but to verify for themselves through inner inquiry and practice. In other words, the Buddha was teaching his students to cultivate the teacher within themselves and, rather than blindly worshiping him, practice what he did. If the practice yielded the same result, the Buddha had provided a guidepost that a student could now recognize as the step reached. In other words, Buddha was teaching students to become their own inner scientists: to gather information, form hypotheses, and examine results.

Even though the Buddha's teaching may have been referring more to examining consciousness in the context of meditation, his teaching is nonetheless applicable to modern life. Using discernment is especially important when there are so many activities that we take for granted because they are consistent and predictable, like depositing your paycheck into your bank account each month. What we are talking about, though, is the difference between unconscious versus conscious action, in other words, being asleep at the wheel, where the wheel is one's own consciousness.

Four Daily Practices

How do we stay awake at the wheel of our consciousness?

Symbol for live radio station
Radio Station

One simple practice is called inner listening. Think of it like a radio station. It could be called: "Soul conversations," and all we have to do is tune the dial of our attention and awareness to listen in. In essence, we hold an intention to keep the radio station active. It could be something like: "I would like to live every day from the wisdom of my higher Self." In reality, we all fall into the trap of limited, polarized, and sometimes negative thinking. When this happens, our life force is drained, and we act out in ways that are not always as conscious or for the greater good. Calling upon and recalling the intention above invites and allows in the light of the higher Self. We will often feel an increase in the flow of life force as we draw upon this higher Self and accompanying experience of renewed and or, higher perspective.

Another practice is installing an inner "bullshit-meter," for lack of a better term! The alarm should go off loudly if someone, for example, tries to sell you ice in a desert and the temperature is over fifty degrees Celcius.

Mindfulness is another practice; paying attention in the moment without judgment. Instead of reacting to the day's news by shaking my head, I could be mindful of the sensations in my body and feelings arising in my mind.

Last but not least is common sense. It's common sense that you look both ways before crossing the road. It's common sense to use a raincoat or umbrella if you're planning to go on a walk outside. If I didn't know how to spell a word as a child, I would often ask my Mom to spell it. Usually, she would reply, "look it up in the dictionary." This small act was one way of teaching me the value of learning something for myself, using my aptitude and skills to build on my base of knowledge. I believe we can use the same lesson when there's something we don't know and are unsure of its source or validity - look it up ourselves!

May the sword of Manjushri be with you, cutting through all illusions!


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