Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. is the author of eleven books, including the newly released, “Your Secret Compass: What is Spiritual Guidance?” written with her husband, Gordon Dveirin, Ed.D. Trained as a medical scientist and psychologist, in her work, Dr. Borysenko encompasses the fields of behavioral medicine, stress and well-being, psychoneuroimmunology, women's health, creativity and the great spiritual traditions of the world.
In “Your Secret Compass,” Borysenko and Dveirin interviewed 27 living sages, many of whom are lineage keepers of their respective paths, and asked them a series of questions pertaining to receiving spiritual guidance. From Sisters to Sufis to Shamans, in this interview, she shares the gems these sages impart.
Randy Peyser: Can you talk about trusting one’s own guidance? For example, years ago, I entered into what turned out to be a terrible relationship because I thought I was being spiritually guided to do so. I quickly extricated myself from that situation, but that feeling of not being able to trust my guidance stayed with me for years. How is that we can learn to really trust the information we are receiving?
Joan Borysenko: That’s the most important question, and it comes under the rubric of discernment. How do you discern the difference between authentic guidance, your own past history, and the desires that come up in you?
We called the 27 people we interviewed, the sages, because we respected them so much. When we asked one of them, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, this question, he laughed and said, “If you can answer that, I’ll become your disciple.” The problem is that there are no ten steps that will give you perfect discernment.
What we heard repeatedly, though, was that the process of discernment needs to involve more than one person. We tend to go off on our own, but usually if we have good friends, (particularly when it comes to something like relationships), and if we are willing to listen to them, they will tell us the truth. They’ll say, “You know, you seem a little bit off here,” or “this looks like a repetitive pattern for you,” or “do you think there’s a lot of rush and urgency here?”
Rush and urgency are usually a sign of the ego at work, not guidance. We must learn the virtue of patience and discernment. If you continue to sit with something and inquire into it, and don’t feel pushed to act in a hurry, then there is time for discernment to happen. Everybody has had the experience of “today’s good idea turning into tomorrow’s disaster.” Having patience and asking other people for their input are important.
Another thing that we heard from our sages repeatedly is what we refer to as “the felt sense,” which is information that is relayed to you from your body. In every tradition, the felt sense that is associated with good discernment is peace. If you feel a lot of anxiety or overexcitement, wait a while and look. When you are centered in your own true nature, there is a sense of aliveness and peace. That felt sense of aliveness and peace is frequently associated with discerning the movement of spirit, rather than the movement of ego.
So often, we doubt. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi said, “Doubt is not an enemy of faith; doubt is the means by which we scrape off the barnacles from the ship of faith.” We try to banish our doubts, however, the felt sense of anxiety that we may see as doubt can sometimes be the information we need. Perhaps we need to slow down. Perhaps we are on the wrong track.
From 27 people, to a person, our sages described two kinds of doubt. One kind of doubt concerned the heart of good discernment. Good doubt means curiosity, the ability to inquire into something, to ask questions, to sit with it, to notice what your body, your friends, or your dreams tell you. If you sit in meditation and pray about something, what comes to you? Good doubt can be an important ally because it opens you up to deeper levels of experience and reflection.
The bad doubt that they described, quoting Taj Inayat, who is a Sufi guide, is the kind of doubt that is a hindrance. It’s the kind of doubt that has a paralyzing affect on our actions. We begin to doubt ourselves or a project that started off with a lot of enthusiasm. We’re afraid that if we make a move we might make a mistake. Bad doubt keeps us in a state of anxiety.
We’ve all experienced both kinds of doubt – the kind that keeps us running in circles, chasing our own tails, and the kind that opens us to a larger field of possibilities.
While all of our sages said that doubt with inquiry was a good thing, Sister Rose Mary Dougherty, who is a Catholic sister of Notre Dame, as well as a Zen teacher, talked about cultivating the “Don’t Know” mind, which she explains is absolutely key to discerning one’s guidance. As soon as you think you know everything, you step into a box and you lock it behind you. Good doubt is when you cultivate an attitude of “I don’t know, but I’m willing to be shown; I’m open.”
A.H. Almaas, who is the founder of the Diamond Approach to Self-Realization, teaches that “we have to be lovers of the truth.” What he means by this is the truth that is emerging from the infinite in every moment. You become a lover of truth by being open-minded. You don’t know. You ask: What am I feeling? What’s happening? What is real that is coming forth right now? It is that attitude of “Don’t Know” that is most associated with guidance. It’s a paradox: In order to know, you have to say, “I’m willing not to know.”
The two most basic things we learned in researching this book are 1) guidance only functions when you are willing to embody the “Don’t know” mind; and 2) guidance only functions if you absolutely trust that there is a wisdom that is larger than your own separate self that can show you what the best potential in any situation is, or at least guide you to be open to that in steps.
Randy: What prompted you to write this book?
Joan: We felt this was the kind of book that was needed because we are at a pivotal place in our world history, environmentally, socially and globally. We live in an incredibly polarized time. Religion and science are at war in a sense, and different religions are at war with one another. Yet, everybody claims they are guided. Just look at the history of George Bush; he’s always invoking spiritual guidance. So is Osama Bin Laden.
There is something beyond the usual intellectual knowing through which we figure out the world and make decisions. My husband and I were fascinated by this subject. How do we find a way in a world that is so chaotic, with every form of fundamentalism, both religious and scientific? We thought that there had to be a credible bridge between faith and reason.
Randy: In “Your Secret Compass,” you asked your sages, “If you were to advise today’s world leaders about how to find guidance toward a life enhancing future, what would you suggest?”
Joan: Again, there was a cohesiveness in the answers we received. Most of them revolved around the two kinds of knowing – the intellectual knowing, which is the ability to figure things out; and a second kind of inner knowing, that is intuitive, revelatory, and through which guidance operates. This second kind of knowing requires silence. It requires listening. It requires things we are not taught to do in Western culture.
Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, who is an Episcopal priest, referred back to Blaise Pascal and said, “All the problems in the world can be reduced to this: man’s inability to sit by himself in a room for a single half an hour.” Her advice to world leaders was to spend 20 minutes a day in solitude, in silence with their hearts open and their telephones off.
The question really is, how does a world leader find the space to listen to their own heart, then also find a community of people willing to listen with them?
We have to get beyond the blocks to listening, the blocks to leadership. Leaders, like all other people, operate with certain ideas and dogmas. They are in a certain box that prevents them from hearing a larger point of view or the wisdom of their own hearts.
Sufi Sheikh Kabir Helminksi adds that having a victim mentality is a major block to guidance. We’ve all found ourselves in that box, where we are afraid that somebody is going to victimize us, so we become dogmatic or self-righteous. When we do that, we can’t really listen to where another person is. We can’t stand in their shoes. We nurse our own grudges, instead of opening our hearts to a deeper understanding of our common humanity. What we really need is that deeper understanding.
We have to get beyond the self-centeredness that makes it hard to see other people’s viewpoints. This is a big order for any human being, for any world leader. Ajahn Sona, who is the Abbott of a Buddhist monastery in British Columbia said, “The Buddha summed up the paradox like this: you are clinging to an opinion without the humility to inquire into the other person’s point of view, and then calling that guidance.” That’s what often happens with world leaders.
Ajahn Sona makes the point that right view is not right view when you cling to it. If you are prompted through delusion, greed or ill will to defend your right view, you will lose right view. Love is not defended by hate. Peace is never defended by war. We encourage people to defend their faith through the sacrifice of non-violence, the giving of patience, of infinite patience, which does not have a withdrawal date.
They are saying that leadership skills come from within and that leaders have to get their own spiritual practice together. They have to ask themselves questions like, am I operating out of my own ego, or am I trying to open myself to partnership with a larger whole? That kind of interdependence is very difficult to come by.
It’s a hard thing to be a world leader. How can you reconcile power with love? How do you listen to other people and stand in their shoes, and still do what is right and what is needed? We quote Martin Luther King Jr. who says that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with the resignation of power, and power as the denial of love. King said that what is needed is the realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.
Adam Kahane, who facilitates processes for governmental officials to overcome blocks, states that the bridge between power and love is telling the truth. He believes that people need to be able to sit together without judgment and say what is true for them. I think it is only this that will allow us to overcome our separatism, our dogmatism – to be able to sit with people who we view as other, and simply listen to them tell the truth of how they feel in their own heart. From that place, and then some shared silence, I think it’s possible to build that bridge between love and power.
We interviewed four people from one strand of the Quaker movement called, “the Unprogrammed Quakers.” They have no clergy. They are used to listening together in silence for the movement of the spirit. They have a program by the United Nations in New York, and another in Washington, DC, where leaders can come and simply say what is in their hearts, and speak within groups of others. It’s a place where the truth can be told. Leaders need more places like that where they can be listened to. They need to be heard. They need communities around them for discernment. They have to reach that capacity for forgiveness and inquiry.
How did you access your spiritual guidance before you wrote this book and what changed as a result of writing this book?
I don’t think I was accessing my spiritual guidance. I was in a habit of believing that every creative idea I had and sudden movement in me that made me feel alive was guidance. At some point, I was in a relationship that was very clearly with the wrong person. When friends said, “what are you thinking?” I persisted anyhow, because the belief that somehow if there was a great deal of energy or excitement, and if the way opened in front of you where things seemed to flow together, it was guidance.
Guidance is something that furthers your own spiritual evolution and your purpose in the world. What I have started to do in my life now is to allow time to season things. I don’t make the kind of impulsive decisions that I used to make. I wait. I’ll notice, and I’ll say, “Well, here’s a project that seems to be calling me, and here are four people all telling me the same thing.” I used to take that as guidance. You know, if somebody told you something three times, you should go for it.” That’s not guidance. There are no number of outer signs or synchronicities that are guidance. Sometimes a synchronicity is just an invitation to sit in the “I Don’t Know” space and wait and see what emerges. It can be an invitation for a deeper kind of processing.
I move at the speed of light, as so many of us do these days. My mantra is that urgency and guidance are incompatible. If I’m rushing, I cannot listen. So, I wait and sit in that “Don’t Know” space and I see what comes. I also involve other people. I used to be more like the Lone Ranger.
This is a huge change for me. I no longer rely on common wisdom. The founder of the Jesuit Order of St. Ignatius of Loyolla said that the time it takes to discern something has a correspondence to how important the decision is. So, discerning whether you want to go out to lunch with someone may take a day, but deciding whether to get married, or move across the country, or take a new job, may take months or years to discern.
Every Wednesday from 10-11 AM, Joan Borysenko and her husband, Gordon Dveirin, speak with listeners and guests on www.hayhouseradio.com. For more information: www.JoanBorysenko.com.
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