Guest Column

Discernment brings freedom from fear, closeness to God

Susie Leonard Weller

Special to The Spokesman-Review
November 15, 2008

"I don't know how to decide."
"I feel torn between two good choices."
"I feel stuck and confused."

How do you make decisions? When decisions are easy to make, there's rarely a need for discernment. But when I was facing my diagnosis of colon cancer two Thanksgivings ago, I needed more help.

The Latin root for discernment means to separate things in order to distinguish information like a sieve sifting what's essential and what's not. Regardless of our faith tradition, the goal is to hear God's "still small voice" and to increase our attentiveness before making decisions.

Each dimension of our life – body, mind, emotions and spirit – provides a unique source of guidance.

Meditation creates new pathways in our brain by calming the nervous system and reducing inner noise and interference so we can hear the "still small voice." New studies demonstrate that consistent contemplation integrates the left and right brain hemispheres, supporting both wise and compassionate choices.

As a life and spiritual coach, as well as brain style consultant, I've received multiple opportunities to practice what I preach during my illness and recovery. One discernment tool I developed is called NARN (Notice, Accept, Reflect and Nurture). It uses a four-step process to deepen the process of listening.

NARN encouraged me to learn from my physical sensations, feelings, thoughts and behaviors. These same steps can be used for both individual and group discernment.

The first step in the NARN process is to notice without judgment what's happening. Physical cues, such as a clenched jaw, a tense neck or butterflies in the stomach, provide information.

Gay Hendricks, author of "Conscious Living: Finding Joy in the Real World" (HarperOne, 2001), suggests that specific parts of the body are linked to our emotions.

For example, tightness in the neck and shoulders could be unexpressed anger. A heaviness or constriction around the throat and chest may indicate sadness. By contrast, peace is often felt expressed through relaxed muscles.

The second step of NARN is to accept whatever information comes to our awareness. Be thankful for any information that surfaces and compassionately examine it.

I was tempted at times to distract myself from accepting particular feelings by performing a "spiritual bypass." I wanted to sweep uncomfortable feelings under the rug by misusing Scripture or minimizing feedback to defend my position.

The third step is to reflect on what we can learn from any situation. Practicing discernment assumes we're open to discovering God's call in our life, rather than blindly following what someone else says we should do.

It's been challenging to live and wait in the unknown. At times it felt like I was experiencing the dark night of the soul when there seemed to be no clear answers to my prayers.

I'm invited to remain open to the wonder of the questions. Practicing discernment helped me to distinguish my wise inner voice from the noisy, critical voice often fueled by fear.

The purpose of discernment is to increase peace with our decision. When reviewing a possible result especially when it wasn't an easy one I considered if it would lead to a greater sense of balance, calmness or vibrancy.

The last step is to nurture ourselves and take actions that support our purpose in the world. Rather than feel like a victim and curse my illness, each day I focused on what I was thankful for. I appreciated support from family, friends, co-workers and medical staff.

Cancer became my initiation into wisdom. I'm learning to trust God, even when things aren't going well. Outward signs of grace and confirmation are certainly encouraging, but I'm not making them a requirement for God's guidance.

Recovering from cancer is teaching me to shift from fear to accepting what I don't have control over. From expecting God to be the Santa Claus in the sky who'll heal me because I've been a good girl, I'm developing a more mature faith. I'm discovering God's grace is sufficient, no matter what.

Practicing discernment brings greater contentment. I'm trusting at a deeper level that my decisions will lead to my highest good.