Every morning, we begin our day with the following prayer:

“Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Who gives the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night.”

The attribute of discrimination is a great blessing. Discrimination is a power of the mind. It is the capacity to look at any situation and analyze its component parts – to distinguish between day and night, right and wrong, good and bad, true and false.

The ability to discriminate is one of the distinctive characteristics of a human being. It is the key to our growth and evolution. It is only by discriminating that we can learn to make conscious choices in our life. As the Dhammapada states:

“A wise man calmly considers what is right and what is wrong, and faces different opinions with truth, non-violence, and peace.” [1]

Discrimination is essential in our relationship with others. We live in a world of appearances where the outer façade often belies the person underneath. Sometimes a person with a beautiful exterior is ugly inside, while an individual who outwardly looks ragged and unappealing is inwardly shining with light. It is important for the spiritual aspirant to learn to discriminate between a saintly appearance and true holiness.

Discrimination also plays a role in determining the activities in which we invest our energies and the surroundings in which we spend our time. Not all situations that are pleasant are spiritually beneficial. Some situations that appear congenial on the surface may have a negative spiritual influence. Some of the groups which call themselves spiritual actually have nothing to do with the life of the Spirit.

Our inner growth lies in learning to differentiate between platitudes and real spiritual truths, between sentimentality and true compassion; between the attitude that says “everything is the same” and an inclusive consciousness that embraces all of humankind.

People often become confused when trying to reconcile the spiritual truth that “all is one” with the harsh reality of our physical world. When asked about this conflict, Annamalai Swami, a disciple of Sri Ramana Maharshi, gave his students the following analogy:

“I once went for a walk near the housing board buildings. There was a sewage trench on one side of the building. I could smell the stench of the sewage even though I was a long way away. I stayed away from it because I didn’t want to be nauseated by the bad smell.

“In circumstances such as these you don’t say, ‘All is one. Everything is the Self,’ and paddle through the sewage. The knowledge ‘everything is the Self’ may be there, but that doesn’t mean that you have to put yourself in dangerous or health-threatening places.

“When you have become one with the Self, a great power takes you over and runs your life for you…If you are not in this state, then use your discrimination wisely. You can choose to sit in a flower garden and enjoy the scent of the blooms, or you can go down to that trench I told you about and make yourself sick by inhaling the fumes there.” [2]

A developed sense of discrimination is an essential part of the equipment of any serious spiritual seeker, without it all of our efforts may be in vain. Positive intentions and a desire to be good are not enough; we must also be able to see ourselves, and the world around us, with clarity. Otherwise, God will not take the chance of putting His powerful energies into our hands.

There is yet another level to the process of discrimination. In the spiritual life we seek to know not only what is good and bad, but also what is real and unreal; what is the Self and the “not self”. Here, discrimination is more than a capacity of the mind; it is a property of the soul.

Through the intuition, we learn to discriminate when the higher or true Self is at work and when the lower or “not self” is pushing itself forward; to differentiate between our own desires and God’s Will. People often believe that they are serving the Will of God when really they are only fulfilling their own wishes. It is a natural tendency to assume that what we want is what God wants as well. It is rarely the case that this is so. God’s plans for us often demand that we undertake actions that we do not wish to pursue. It is a real test of our humility when we need to put aside our own desires and accept what God wills instead.

In this case, discrimination means an honest appraisal of our abilities combined with a rock bottom assessment of where we are in our spiritual journey. It means differentiating between dreams and reality. It demands a willingness to sacrifice our illusions in return for a real job for God.

The attribute of discrimination has a great transforming power. Rebbe Ephraim of Sadilkov, the grandson of the Baal Shem, teaches that a person who has discrimination is able to completely change his nature:

“For the form must be like the one who made it: Just like the Maker of All created the natural world through wisdom, as it is written, ‘you made them all with wisdom’ [Psalm 104:24]… so a man of discrimination and true wisdom can create for himself a whole new nature…

“For example, if he was born with an angry and lustful nature, if he is a man of discrimination, he can change his nature and conquer his anger… as is written in Proverbs: ‘The discrimination of a man makes him slow to anger.’” (19:11) [3]

Rebbe Ephraim believed that the transforming power of the attribute of discrimination reaches beyond our own individual selves. He teaches that a tzaddik (enlightened soul) who has bound his mind to God can “change all natures – both physically and spiritually – for the good and for a blessing.”

The discrimination of a tzaddik has the power to influence others and help them to break free from their attachment to wishful thinking and illusion. By shining the light of commonsense into a situation, he shatters superstitious practices, ideas and beliefs. When his clear radiance is cast on that which is evil, it exposes the ugliness and lifelessness that lies at its core. And when it shines on that which is good, it reveals the vitality and inner beauty for all to see.

A holy person is the very embodiment of truth. Contact with a holy person purifies and uplifts the sight of those around him or her. Their minds become loosened from material confusion. They see the world with a new clarity. They begin to understand the true purpose of their existence, to intuit what is real and what is not.

Sri Ramakrishna used to tell his householder devotees:

Haven’t you seen the trees on the footpath along a street? They are fenced around as long as they are very young, otherwise cattle destroy them. But there is no longer any need of fences when their trunks grow thick and strong. Then they won’t break even if an elephant is tied to them. Just so, there will be no need for you to worry and fear if you make your mind strong as a thick tree-trunk. First of all try to acquire discrimination. Break the jackfruit open only after you have rubbed your hands with oil, then its sticky milk won’t smear them.” [4]

The faculty of discrimination is an essential element of our spiritual equipment. It instills within us the higher awareness that we need in order to live upon this material plane. It enables us to pursue the lofty life of the Spirit, while immersed in the tumultuous existence of this physical world.

Copyright © 2011, by Yoel Glick

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Dhammapada, translated by Juan Mascaro
  2. Final Talks, Annamalai Swami
  3. Ephraim of Sadilkov, Degel Machaneh Ephraim , Torah portion Bereshit
  4. ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, as translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 327

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • BkoffmanMD says:

    Important discriminating essayBut I want more.You say: “Through the intuition, we learn to discriminate when the higher or true Self is at work and when the lower or “not self” is pushing itself forward; to differentiate between our own desires and God’s Will. People often believe that they are serving the Will of God when really they are only fulfilling their own wishes.”That is the rub. How can you tell? From the mundane (Is the urge to skip exercise today my body saying you need to rest or is just being lazy?) to the profound (will giving more charity to help those in need help them get going again or will it foster dependence?)What urges are devine and merciful and just are well disguised self serving drives?How do you tell?

    • Rabbiyoelglick says:

      you are absolutely right on the mark! Learning how to discriminate in all these situations and on all of these levels is the stuff our spiritual life is made of. It is an ongoing process that gains greater clarity and precision with each choice that we make, [and its accompanying consequences and lessons], and with every link of contact that we make with our soul. There is no easy formula or pat answer. There is no answer that suits everyone and every situation. It is a slow process of evolution and inner growth. The more we learn to examine ourselves and our actions in the light of God’s living Presence, the more that light will shine on our life and infuse everything that we do. Over time, there is a sense of inner rightness and “spiritual livingness” that we learn to identify, which guides us and alerts us as to the path we are meant to follow. This inner rightness needs to be balanced by an honest look at “facts on the ground” and a large dose of commonsense. Taken together, a picture forms in the heart and mind which coalesces around a particular direction of action which says “yes! This is it!” 
      Through hard work on transforming ourselves into clear vessel, coupled with daily prayer and meditation and the constant remembrance of God, our inner intuition becomes ever stronger until it becomes a natural part of the manner in which we approach our life.