Discerning Our Next Steps on the Path
Some of us appreciate a clearly marked path. I am one of those people who takes comfort in knowing not only where we are trying to go, but what we hope our next steps on the path will be.
It can be helpful to have a clear plan.
I decided I was going to be a lawyer when I grew up by the time I was in third grade. My understanding grew over time and shaped my expectations, but my plan stayed the same. I had an idea where I wanted to go and was looking for my next steps on the path.
My attention was more on planning than on discerning. I wanted to soak up as much information as I could and put the pieces of the puzzle together as I walked the path.
The plan and the path carried me all the way from third grade through university and law school into practicing law.
I was gaining experience being a lawyer as my discernment began to catch up with my planning. For the first time I began to understand where my path was actually taking me.
We often understand discernment as “figuring things out.” We think of it as a helpful trait in a detective or someone good at solving puzzles. It is as if discernment might help us remember where we left our keys or where we parked our car.
I thought discernment was primarily analytical and was approaching life as a series of questions to be figured out.
Discernment is not really about solving problems, though it can be helpful in practical ways.
It carries a sense of wisdom and depth beyond sorting things out well. Discernment grows with listening well, gaining insight, reflecting.
Exploring Our Next Steps on the Path
We blanket our lives with plans and routines and habits, wrapping ourselves in expectations and assumptions. They protect us from what we fear, what intimidates us, what causes our anxieties.
When we are afraid we will fail, or afraid we might succeed, we anesthetize ourselves. When we are afraid we will always be alone, or we may never have a moment’s peace, we close our eyes. We turn over, pull our blankets back over our heads, and go back to sleep.
It is important to get the rest we need, but hiding is not resting. The artificial slumber of numbing ourselves to sleep is not the rest we need.
It is time for us to wake up.
Today is the day we awaken to the potential we have each day. This morning we throw off the wrappings that we allow to keep us in bed. Now is the moment our feet hit the floor.
We come awake to the spark of possibility in this day, this hour, this second. It is time to recognize the power filling us and the people around us today. We open our eyes to the joy, the strength, the beauty packed into each moment. As we take a deep breath, we are ready to begin.
It can be easy for us to miss what is available to us each day, but we will not be distracted today. Life is drawing us into it. This day, this moment, we will listen to something greater and deeper than own attention span.
Life is pulling us out of our routines and slumber. Today, and each day from now on, we will be awake to the glory of life around us.
Exploring our next steps on the path, we set out in a new direction.
Where Will Our Next Steps on the Path Take Us?
Some of us would prefer to know everything we will face on each step of the path. We want to plan and prepare so there will be no surprises.
Our path, however, is full of surprises and discoveries. We are not following someone else’s carefully designed itinerary. Our path depends on our own choices, which no one else can make for us.
Discerning our next steps on the path requires us to pay attention, to know and appreciate ourselves well. Our steps are not determined by the expectations of other people, by traditions, or what is easiest.
There will be times when we need to climb steep hills, get across streams, or pull ourselves out of deep holes.
We will face challenges and surprises, learning things about ourselves and about spiritual life. There will be times when we get turned around or when we need to go back and start walking in a new direction.
Each of us decides and discovers our own path for ourselves, but we do not walk it all alone. We will meet people who will inspire us, challenge us, comfort us.
Our next steps on the path will set the stage for the steps which come after them.
Taking Our Next Steps on the Path
Our discernment is not over when we have thought everything through or reflected as long as we can.
Discernment is not complete until, having finished our mental and emotional work, we take our next steps. Our discernment comes alive only as we put it into practice.
We listen to the wisdom in sacred stillness and contemplate where spiritual life is prompting us to step. Some of us sit still for a long time, until we eventually understand what our next steps on the path will be.
Mental understanding is not enough unless we take the action which will move us on our path. Our discernment is intellectual and emotional, spiritual and physical.
The more time we spend in contemplation, in discernment, and in practicing the more difficult it becomes to separate them.
Our path is not a racetrack.
We listen, and we put what we hear into practice. Discernment is how our contemplation becomes our behavior.
How will we discern our next steps on the path today?
Where will our next steps on the path take us this week?
[Image by gorfor]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He is a recovering assistant district attorney and associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.