Finding Spiritual Guidance

Excerpted from Your Soul's Compass: What Is Spiritual Guidance? By Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., and Gordon Dveirin, Ed.D. Copyright © 2007 by Joan Borysenko and Gordon Franklin Dveirin. Published by Hay House, Inc.

Through the ages, religions have sought to answer questions central to the human condition. Tapping the wisdom of twenty-seven spiritual leaders—aptly described as Sages— from across the spectrum of faiths, Joan Borysenko and Gordon Dveirin explore concepts of spiritual guidance in Your Soul's Compass. In this excerpt, the notion of the felt sense is explored.

Looking for signs
Shaman/poet Oriah Mountain Dreamer told us a story about something that happened when she was a young woman. An acquaintance was trying to decide whether or not to go to Mexico with a man she'd recently met. A truck passed by with the word Mexico written on the side, and the woman took it as a sign that she should make the trip. Off she went, only to get beaten up by her companion, who proved to be untrustworthy.

Oriah's advice about signs is to use them as questions to sit with in contemplation, rather than accepting them as pat answers. Spiritual guidance rarely comes as a given, we've learned, but more often as an invitation to feel for the movement of Spirit.

What greater wisdom does a particular life event suggest, and how can we best integrate its teaching into our lives? Some of the most common ways that the Sages discussed feeling for the movement of Spirit were by attending to felt sense (meaningful bodily sensations such as goose bumps, for instance, or feelings of peace, excitement, aliveness or anxiety), intuition, dreams, signs and synchronicities.

Everything Provides Guidance
While the Old Testament God appears to Moses as a burning bush, spiritual guidance is usually a lot more subtle. The counterpart to God the Father is God the Mother. In Judaic mysticism she's known as Shechinah ... wisdom itself. And rather than being up there, she's in here. In you. In me. In the earth, the sky, the water and the wind. She is in joy and in sorrow, in success and failure. Shechinah is the life force itself and can offer her wisdom in an infinite number of changing forms.

Like many Friends (what Quakers call one another), [Quaker educator Patricia Loring] stresses that whatever guise the guidance may take, it's the quality of our attention and our willingness to listen with an open mind and heart that creates the conditions for recognizing and following it: “Spiritual guidance ... involves an ever-increasing level of openness and awareness. Over a lifetime, we are led to open in the direction of absolutely everyone and everything around us as a potential messenger of God—a goal toward which we reach all our lives without expecting to reach it.”

Opening to everyone and everything around us requires feline sensitivity. A cat's whiskers continually taste the air; ears orient to the subtlest sound. Muscles expand and contract in poetic harmony with the changing environment ... not as it was a moment ago, but as it is now, and now, and now again. The tapetum (reflective layer) of the eyes creates visual acuity matched only by a cat's uncanny inner acuity. Ever think about getting out the cat carrier for a trip to the vet and your precious pet stages a disappearing act worthy of Houdini. How does it know?

We asked our Sages a similar question: How do you know? What is your personal experience of guidance? Unlike cats, who tune in to multiple channels of knowing, most of us humans have a much more limited bandwidth. No two Sages answered the same way. Nonetheless, some had preferred methods for listening deeply to their lives to discern the wisest direction. Others spoke about using multiple channels to receive guidance. You may have your own methods, or perhaps reading about the experiences we've chosen to highlight here will help you recognize more about your own process of making choices and living with purpose and direction.

The Felt Sense
Sometimes you're so much in your head that you don't notice what's going on in your body— a subtle range of inner sensation called the felt sense that can give you an intuitive read of a situation. When you're thinking about whether or not to accept a job, how do you decide? One way is to list the pros and cons and consider the opportunities for advancement, the pay, the benefits and so forth.

But rational thought alone often won't tell you the whole story. There's a more wide-ranging system at your disposal that includes tuning in to bodily sensations. Philosopher and psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Gendlin discovered that the difference between people who did well in psychotherapy and those who didn't was the ability of the former to pay attention to this interior information, which he called the felt sense.

Tuning in to Inner Wisdom
A young woman goes on a blind date with a man who comes highly recommended by her own mother. Even though he's unfailingly polite and kind, she feels slightly restless and tense all evening—queasy even. Something just feels “off” inside. She ignores these feelings, since he's intelligent and good looking, has a great pedigree, makes plenty of money, and seems to like her. On their second date, he takes her to his apartment and tries to rape her. She barely escapes. A form of wisdom different from thought was sending danger signals through the felt sense, but she chose to ignore it—at her peril, as it turned out. And, guess what ... that young woman was me.

Several years later, when I was a young scientist doing cancer research at the Tufts University School of Medicine, I paid attention to felt sense. I was a competent medical researcher with an enviable track record, and in academia this meant that my experiments yielded interesting results published in fine scientific journals and that my grants got funded. When I wasn't in the lab, I taught histology—the microscopic anatomy of cells, tissues and organs— to medical and dental students. Teaching and doing research was rewarding, but a vague sense of unease started to grow.

One day a phone call came from the National Cancer Institute to let me know that not only had my latest grant proposal been funded, but it had such a high-priority score that they were wondering whether I'd like more money for new equipment. When I burst into tears, the funding agent was touched. She thought that I was thrilled to get the good news, but the reality was that the grant suddenly felt like a three-year prison sentence. The felt sense of misery and disappointment in the face of seemingly great news was an invitation to sit with the question of what I did want to do with my career, since what I didn't want was suddenly clear.

Felt sense came into the picture again when I made the highly rational decision to attend Tufts University School of Dental Medicine when my grant research was complete. Why dental school, you ask? The reasons were eminently practical. My husband at that time, Miroslav Borysenko, also taught at the medical and dental schools, and as a faculty spouse, I would get my tuition waived. The university also offered to let me keep teaching histology and to pay me well. Our two boys were still young, and I reasoned that practicing dentistry part-time would make me more available to them while still generating a good income.

All systems seemed to be go, and there was an easy flow. The only problem was that I started waking up at night with butterflies in my stomach. The felt sense of anxiety and “wrongness” grew. After sitting with it for a month, I reluctantly concluded that dentistry wasn't my dharma (the path in life that leads both to spiritual growth and purposeful living) ... or you might be sitting in my chair right now...

Opening the Way
I'd given up trying to figure out what to do with my life and was receptive to whatever might emerge. One day the phone rang ... but I was the one who made the call.

I'd picked up a medical journal, and there was an article written by my former mentor Herbert Benson, M.D., with whom I'd done research in graduate school. The article was about the physiological benefits of meditation—what he and his colleague Keith Wallace, Ph.D., dubbed the relaxation response.

I'd been meditating for years and gave Dr. Benson a call to catch up on what he was doing. As fortune—or guidance—would have it, he'd written a grant proposal to retrain physicians and medical researchers in the newly emerging field of behavioral medicine. It had been funded that very morning. He offered me one of the two available fellowships, and as the Quakers would say, “the way opened.” I took the position, went back to Harvard, and was able to use my research background to help people with cancer and other illnesses by cofounding a mind/body clinic with Dr. Benson and other colleagues.

It's important to recognize that the opportunity for such meaningful work didn't appear out of thin air. It was the result of a clear intention to follow guidance, a willingness to wait until the way revealed itself, and a strong desire to match my work in the world with my inner journey to God.

JOAN BORYSENKO, Ph.D., is an internationally known speaker on spiritual integrative medicine, and the mind/body connection. She has a doctorate in medical sciences from Harvard Medical School, is a licensed clinical psychologist, is the author of many books, and is the cofounder of the Claritas Institute for Interspiritual Inquiry and director of its Interspiritual Mentor Training Program.

GORDON DVEIRIN, Ed.D., is the president of Dveirin & Associates, a consulting firm on organization and human development. His interests include enhancing the social, emotional and spiritual lives of children; training leaders; and facilitating new visions of possible global futures. Cofounder of the Claritas Institute for Interspiritual Inquiry and its Interspiritual Mentor Training Program, he is coauthor (with his wife, Joan Borysenko) of Saying Yes to Change.