I was nineteen years old and in my sophomore year of college in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I finally learned there was such a thing as a spiritual path. Like so many young people who long for something greater, I had searched for years through whatever means were available to me—from alcohol to political activism to travel. I had begun my travels when I was fifteen, and by the time I hit college I had traveled through much of Central America and Europe, yet my thirst was not quenched—it had only increased. I was not finding the deep answers I was looking for.
The summer before my nineteenth birthday, while traveling in Central America, I met a man who had been traveling the world for twenty years—something I had dreamed of doing—and I was curious to know if he had found the answers he sought. At the end of several long days of conversation, I asked him, “Why do you travel?”
“To find freedom,” he told me.
“Have you found it?” I persisted. “Does the freedom to go wherever you want and do whatever you want make you free?”
“Not really,” he confessed.
When I returned to college I discovered what was then Ann Arbor’s only spiritual bookstore. I clearly remember the first time I walked into the shop. My eyes darted quickly from shelf to shelf. I was dazzled and astonished by the subjects of the books: meditation, psychology, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, Sufism, mature mysticism, shamanism, self-help, metaphysics, and more. I understood for the first time that there was a spiritual path; in fact, there were many of them. And I understood I was not alone. People throughout the world thirsted for something greater, and there were many well-trodden paths that one could follow. I was home . . . or was I?
On the one hand, I did feel I’d come home. On the other hand, I had no idea where to begin. There were hundreds of paths and thousands of books before me—how was a human being to begin this journey? Once embarked, how could one proceed with intelligence and clarity? How could I discern between this seemingly endless array of choices, how could I know what was right for me, and how could I know if I was fooling myself?
As I was to learn over the next twenty years, these questions do not necessarily get any easier to answer. Instead, they ripen into increasing degrees of subtlety. As my commitment to the spiritual path deepened, it became increasingly critical that I learn to see clearly, with my eyes wide open, so I could move through the journey of life with passion, creativity, and meaning—in a way that makes a difference. Spiritual discernment, called viveka khyatir in Sanskrit, is said to be the “crowning wisdom” on the spiritual path.
The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali say that the cultivation of discernment is so powerful that it has the capacity to destroy ignorance and address the very source of suffering. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, to discern is “to recognize or identify as separate and distinct.” Discrimination, its synonym, “stresses the power to distinguish and select what is true or appropriate or excellent.” Those who possess spiritual discernment have learned this skill in relationship to spiritual matters, and they can consistently make intelligent, balanced, and excellent choices in their lives and in relationship to their spiritual development. Their eyes are wide open, and they see clearly.
Viveka khyatir is believed to be such a powerful tool that it has the capacity to pierce all levels of the physical, psychological, energetic, and subtle bodies of the human being. In Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, B. K. S. Iyengar explains that through this unbroken flow of discriminating awareness, the spiritual practitioner: