Learning to hear guidance

Question: The Course advises us to turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance on every aspect of our lives. But how do we learn how to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance?

Answer:

This is a huge question for Course students everywhere, since the Course places so much importance on asking the Holy Spirit for guidance. My initial response is to point to two articles already on our website that cover this vital topic in some depth. The first is an article by Robert Perry entitled Being Guided by the Holy Spirit. This article, available to Circle Course Community members, presents fifteen principles for living a life guided by the Holy Spirit, drawn both from the Course and from Robert’s personal experience.

The second is an article by Allen Watson entitled Frequently Asked Questions: How can we distinguish between the ego and the Holy Spirit? As its title indicates, this article deals with the thorny issue of how to discern between the voice of the ego and the Voice of the Holy Spirit, a crucial issue when we are asking for guidance. This article, too, contains advice drawn both from the Course and from Allen’s personal experience. I highly recommend reading both articles before continuing with this Q & A, as they provide the essential Course background for what I have to say here.

Since the two articles mentioned above do such a thorough job of drawing out what the Course has to say about this topic, I want to do something a little different than usual with this Q & A. Rather than presenting an answer drawn from the Course, I want to simply share my own personal experience with asking for and receiving the Holy Spirit’s guidance. It has been a long learning process for me, and while I’ve made real progress, I still feel that I have much to learn. That being said, I hope that what I have to share about my own experience might be helpful to others walking the Course’s path. In that spirit, I’d like to present a little of what I’ve learned about hearing the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

My current personal practice of asking for guidance

Let me begin by presenting a summary of my current daily practice of asking for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Now, I should say that this summary represents the personal ideal that I shoot for each day, not necessarily what I actually accomplish. I don’t always do everything listed below every day, but I try the best I can.

Before presenting the summary, a couple of comments are in order. First, my practice of asking for guidance is inextricably linked to my Course practice in general; because of this, the specific forms and frequency of my asking vary somewhat from day to day, depending on what form of Course practice I’m focusing on. (This year, I’m doing a kind of practice that we at the Circle call “post-Workbook practice”; for more information about this, see my article entitled “My Journey with Post-Workbook Practice,” which is in Issue #35 of the Circle’s newsletter, A Better Way.)

Second, whom I ask for guidance also varies; at different times, I’ll ask the Holy Spirit, Jesus, or God Himself. Since the particular subject of this Q & A is the Holy Spirit, for the sake of convenience I’ll use the term “Holy Spirit” to refer to all three guidance sources. Now, on to the summary:

In the morning

Once I’ve had some breakfast and have become relatively conscious (I’m totally useless when I first wake up in the morning), I generally start off by asking the Holy Spirit for guidance about what Course practice or practices to do during my morning quiet time. Then, when my morning quiet time is over, I ask Him for guidance about what Course practice or practices to do during the day. Finally, I turn the decisions that will be made that day over to Him, placing the entire day into His care.

During the day

During the day, I try the best I can to make it a regular habit to ask for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. I ask for guidance about how to perceive things, what Course practices to focus on, and what to think, say, and do. When and how often I ask for guidance varies. Sometimes, I make it a practice to ask at regular intervals, like on the hour, but I don’t always do this. One thing I’ve found helpful is to ask for guidance about what to do next as I transition from one activity to another. And I definitely try to respond quickly to my ego upsets by asking for both a new perception and guidance about what to do. This practice, which the Course calls “response to temptation,” is a really vital one for me if I want to have a peaceful and happy day.

At night

At night, I thank the Holy Spirit for the guidance He has given me during the day, and ask for guidance about what Course practice or practices to use for my evening quiet time. Finally, I give my sleep to Him (as T-8.IX.4 recommends), placing the entire night into His care.

Some particular forms in which I receive guidance

I think guidance can come in many forms, and those forms will vary a great deal from person to person. That being said, here are some of the forms in which I personally receive guidance:

Thoughts and ideas that cause everything to fall into place

Over the years, I’ve received quite a bit of guidance in this form. To explain what I mean by “thoughts and ideas that cause everything to fall into place,” let me begin by describing how I often feel before I get guidance, especially when I’m dealing with a really difficult problem. When faced with such a problem, my mind is often in a state of turmoil. I’m sure most everyone has had this experience. I feel tense, conflicted, and confused. The problem seems overwhelmingly huge and complicated, like a disjointed jigsaw puzzle in which none of the pieces fit together. It seems that there is no way to resolve the problem in a way that would be satisfactory to everyone.

But then, all of a sudden, a thought will enter my mind—I will be struck with an idea. Sometimes this happens as a result of concentrated thinking about the problem, sometimes through consciously asking for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, or sometimes it just comes “out of the blue.” (By the way, I have never, ever heard a “voice,” though I know people who have.) And this idea that comes to me—be it a new way to perceive the situation, an idea about what to do, or both—instantly transforms my whole mindset. I see at once that this idea resolves everything. It simplifies the seeming complications, causes all of the puzzle pieces to fall together into a complete picture, and provides a solution to the problem in which everyone involved benefits. In short, this idea just causes everything to fall into place. My tension is released, my conflict is resolved, and my confusion gives way to clarity. Whenever I get an idea like this, I feel highly confident that I’ve received genuine guidance, because it resolves the situation so completely that I just don’t think I could have possibly thought of it on my own.

Independent external validation of internal guidance

By this, I mean that something happens in the external world, completely independent of my own mind, that echoes or duplicates some piece of internal guidance I have received. I find that this is often (though not always) a validation of my internal guidance. As an example of this, I recently had an idea to do a particular project. My idea felt “right” to me—it felt guided—but I didn’t move forward with it right away. Then, I got an e-mail message from people who didn’t know that I was even contemplating this project. In the e-mail, they had this great idea to share with me, and the idea was—you guessed it—that I should do the exact same project that, unbeknownst to them, I had already been thinking about. I’m pretty sure now that the Holy Spirit really wants me to do this project.

Personally, I place a lot of value on external validation. Guidance based on purely subjective internal feelings has its place, but it can also easily deceive. I think that authentic guidance usually is validated externally in some form, be it positive reactions from at least some other people, events coming together in a way that supports the guidance, or the kind of external validation that I just described. We can’t always get this kind of validation, but I think it’s a very positive sign when we do.

Synchronistic events that seem to contain a message from the Holy Spirit

I have found that if I observe my life carefully, events seem to occur in meaningful patterns. We all know the Course teaches that nothing happens by accident, and I’m convinced that this is the case. I’ve found that some of my life events seem to have common themes, themes which I think sometimes reveal a message that the Holy Spirit is trying to communicate to me. The story I just told about my project is an example of that.

In particular, I have found that certain synchronistic events in my life—events that have common themes and occur very close to one another in time (especially events that occur on the same day)—often contain guidance from the Holy Spirit. If I take the time to interpret these events carefully, a powerful and important message for me sometimes emerges. This has become an especially helpful source of guidance for me, especially in the last few years.

Written “dialogue” with God, the Holy Spirit, or Jesus

This is a very useful technique for me. Here’s what I do: First, I take some time to calm my mind and open it to guidance. Then, I engage in a written conversation with whichever guide I choose, in which I write both sides of the conversation: my questions and concerns, and the guide’s “responses.” Sometimes this process goes nowhere for me, but other times the “responses” I get can be surprising and insightful. On the whole, I feel that I have received a fair amount of authentic guidance through this method.

My “highest inner sense”

The term “highest inner sense” is from Robert’s article. Like Robert, when I need guidance I often find it useful to simply get quiet, ask within, listen as deeply as I can, and try to get a sense of what “feels” like the right thing to do. Some amazing insights can come from just taking a moment to do this. This is what I rely on for many of my day-to-day decisions. Often there is not enough time to do a longer guidance-seeking process, and when that’s the case, this is my method of choice.

A few things I have learned about guidance

The following is a short list of some of the most significant things I’ve learned over the years about seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance. If you read the articles by Robert and Allen that I cited above, you’ll notice that many of the things I discuss here are also discussed in their articles. I include my personal take on them here because these particular lessons have been confirmed again and again by my own experience.

The best way for Course students to learn how to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance is to go through the Course’s mind-training program, particularly the Workbook.

I don’t think this can be too often repeated. Many of us complain that we can’t hear the Holy Spirit, but then we don’t do the training program the Course itself provides for teaching us how to hear Him. Personally, I believe that really devoting myself to practicing the Course’s program has been by far the most significant factor in improving my ability to access the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Careful discernment of guidance is a must; it is very easy to be fooled by the ego.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my experience of asking for guidance, it’s that just because something looks like the Holy Spirit’s guidance, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. We all have egos, and egos are very good at distorting things; as Allen says in his article, this distortion can easily cause us to mistake the ego for the Holy Spirit, and vice versa. I know in my own life, there have been times when I was sure I was hearing the Holy Spirit’s Voice, but subsequent events convinced me that I was dead wrong. Because of this, learning how to tell true guidance from false has become a vital aspect of my journey with guidance.

How do we practice this kind of discernment? That’s a huge topic, one that Robert and Allen both cover in their articles. I mentioned a few of the ways that I practice discernment above: If a purported piece of guidance causes everything to fall into place, resolves a problem completely in a way that is beneficial to everyone, has some sort of external validation, and/or passes muster with my “highest inner sense,” I find it is more likely to be the real thing. There are other ways to discern guidance as well, but I don’t want to spend too much time getting into them here. I simply want to stress the crucial importance of discernment in the guidance-seeking process.

Guidance (and false guidance) can come in many forms; no particular form automatically means “ego” or “Holy Spirit.”

In my opinion, one of the biggest fallacies about guidance is that one can identify true guidance just by noticing what form it comes in. In particular, many people seem to believe that if something comes in the form of a spontaneous feeling or intuition, it must be the Holy Spirit, but if it comes as a result of deliberate, consciously directed thinking, it must be the ego. But I just don’t think that this is the case at all. In my experience, either form—spontaneous feeling or deliberate thinking—can be used by either the Holy Spirit or the ego. No particular form is inherently “spiritual” or “unspiritual.”

My personal belief is that the Holy Spirit presents guidance in whatever way will be most convincing to the receiver. If a person has an intellectual bent and finds reason, ideas, and intellectual evidence to be convincing, that person may receive a lot of guidance through the thinking mode. But if a person is more oriented toward feelings and is more convinced by reasons of the heart, that person may get a lot more guidance through spontaneous feeling and intuition. I find that both modes have their place in my own guidance process, and they often work in close combination. The truth, I believe, is that thinking and feeling are intimately related: thoughts produce feelings, and feelings lead us to the thoughts behind them. My main point here is simply that authentic guidance takes a variety of forms, and we shouldn’t rule something out just because it comes through a form we don’t regard as “spiritual” (or accept something because it comes in a form we do regard as “spiritual”). We shouldn’t let the form alone determine whether or not something we receive is guidance.

Most “guidance” is a mixture of the Holy Spirit and the ego.

I find that one of the biggest pitfalls many of us, myself included, fall into is the tendency to view a piece of purported guidance in an either/or way. That is, we think that it must be either pure ego or pure Holy Spirit, and never the twain shall meet. But I have found that virtually all of the guidance I have received has been a mixed bag. I may get something that is truly from the Holy Spirit, but then my ego tries to piggyback on it and twist it into a means of ego-glorification. For instance, I may have an inspiration to do a genuinely kind deed for someone else, but then my ego will jump on it and use that kind deed to inflate my pride, to make me feel special, to give me a justification for attack if the other person isn’t appropriately grateful, etc. Seeing which parts of my guidance are ego and which parts are Holy Spirit is no easy task.

One of the reasons I think we have such a hard time discerning guidance is that we aren’t aware of the mixed nature of what we receive when we ask. If we think that what we receive must be either all ego or all Holy Spirit, we will be very confused when we get something that seems to have elements of both. I would like to suggest that if you get something that seems to have elements of both, the reason may well be that it really has elements of both. A discernment process is necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Therefore, I think that the most helpful question to ask about purported guidance isn’t “Did this come from the ego or the Holy Spirit?” but “What parts of this (if any) came from the ego, and what parts (if any) came from the Holy Spirit?”

Getting the right perception of a situation is the crucial thing; if the perception is right, the guidance for what to do often becomes obvious.

It has been my experience that many times when I’m struggling to figure out what to do in a particular situation, my real problem is that I’m not perceiving the situation correctly. I’m not seeing the brothers involved in the situation as holy Sons of God, I’m not seeing their seeming attacks as calls for love, and I’m certainly not seeing no order of difficulty in miracles. In such situations, I’ve found it very helpful to remind myself that the most important thing I can get from the Holy Spirit is not guidance about what to do, but guidance about how to perceive the situation correctly. This, after all, is the Course’s main emphasis.

But not its only emphasis. One of the beauties of the Course is that the Voice that is supposed to guide our perception is the exact same Voice that is supposed to guide our actions. And so, I’ve discovered that once I’ve really contacted the Holy Spirit and experienced a shift in perception about a situation, the guidance about what to do often becomes ridiculously obvious. Looking at the situation with new eyes, I know exactly what I’m supposed to do.

If we get very honest with ourselves, deep down we know what our guidance is really saying to us.

As I said above, many of us complain that we can’t hear the Holy Spirit. I know I have done so at times. But based both on my own experience and on the experience of other people I know, I have become convinced that we hear more than we care to admit. The guidance is there, but we resist it and block it out, because it’s telling us something we’re not wholly willing to hear, or asking us to do something that we’re not wholly willing to do.

But the fact is that underneath the smokescreens we set up to hide the truth, we know. We can kid ourselves and delude ourselves all we want, but deep down we know the truth. And so, in situations where it feels like I haven’t received the Holy Spirit’s guidance, I have found it helpful to simply affirm that I know. Sometimes, I’ll simply tell myself in a gentle but firm manner, “Greg, stop kidding yourself! You know exactly what your guidance is here.” It’s amazing to me how many times this simple act of gentle firmness has cut through my denial and gotten me to admit what I knew all along. I highly recommend this practice. (But remember: Be gentle with yourself as well as firm when you do this. The idea isn’t to bludgeon the guidance out of you, but simply to strongly affirm that the guidance is indeed there.)

Learning how to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance is a long process; making mistakes and learning from them is a normal part of that process.

In conclusion, I want to encourage us all to be kind to ourselves and forgive our seeming failures in hearing the Holy Spirit’s guidance. We have a huge investment in the ego, and so learning to really hear the Holy Spirit on a regular basis is no easy matter. It takes time, practice, and lots of patience. We will make plenty of mistakes along the way. But that is simply a part of the learning process, and so we need not be discouraged by it.

Listening to the Holy Spirit’s guidance has come to play a vital role in my own life. I certainly don’t hear Him with crystal clarity all the time as yet; I’m still very much in the learning process. But I am making real progress, and as I’ve done so, I’ve experienced more peace and clarity and certainty of purpose in my life than I ever dreamed possible. I hope that what I’ve shared here about my own process of learning will be helpful in your own efforts to hear the Guide God has given to lead us all home.

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