One of the things I get asked a great deal by people both in person, and online, is how to know when to trust the voices in their heads.
This is an essential question in every mystical tradition, and the essence of what Catholics call “Discernment“. The most basic Christian advice on this topic is simply “by their fruits shall ye know them”. Unsurprisingly, my view is not as dualistic as the Catholic view. I don’t believe that our own input, or the input of that which is obscured or mysterious (i.e. Occult) is evil. I don’t believe in Good and Evil as cosmic forces at all, actually. The skill set of spiritual discernment itself is still relevant, however.
There are various forms of divination and various people to serve as intermediaries as needed, especially in my local community. But the most essential method for seeking spiritual advice is to pray our questions and meditate on their answers, listening for input from the gods.
I try to encourage my students to develop good judgement, and to go ahead and trust that judgement where personal gnosis is concerned. We’re all responsible for minimizing harm, obviously, but I don’t believe “our answers don’t match” is a form of harm all by itself.
Part of good judgement is being aware that there are several places where errors can enter into the communication stream, and some of them are common to all our methods.
On the one hand, we are incredibly limited in our ability to take the gods in for what They are directly. It would overwhelm us completely if there weren’t layers between, never mind the multiplicity of potential contacts, and whatever our own minds happen to be doing at the time.
On the other hand, the gods themselves are limited. They’re not infallible and most of Them don’t claim to be. They really can give bad advice, either because Their agenda is a higher priority than our individual well being, or because They have simply made an honest mistake.
When I am meditating or otherwise communicating directly, if I encounter a problem, I am obliged to at least pause for reality checks and corrections, if not stop altogether.
If there is another medium or reader involved, conveying the message to me, they are responsible for some of those first layers, but we are additionally responsible for translation between how they use and perceive language, body language, tone, etc. and how I perceive them.
Always, I have to ask myself several questions:
1: Is what I’m hearing coming from inside or outside?
“Inside” is a perfectly reasonable answer. This is true of dreams as well. Most of my dreamwork is a dialogue between my conscious and unconscious mind, which is essential to my emotional, spiritual, and even physical well-being. I would never throw it away just because I was aiming for a god, but it is very important to learn to tell the difference. I’m simply obliged to be honest about the source of any particular piece of information or judgement.
This can bring up a lot of wrestling around the relative worth of information from gods vs. from ourselves, doubt in sanity, and so forth. There’s enough here for a lifetime of spiritual work without ever even touching the questions that come after it. If we can not accept that we have sufficient value and sufficient power that our own thoughts can be worthy, or dangerous, or both, it can be very hard to accurately determine where we end and outside beings begin.
2: If outside, is the entity who I think they are? Can I confirm this somehow?
Once I am personally familiar with a Power, I tend to be able to “taste” Their identity when it is present again, but not everyone has that ability. On the contrary, I’ve only met one or two other people who do. And I’m as much at a loss as anyone else when presented with an unfamiliar spirit. There are clues and attributes we can track, and some folks employ tests or proofs to make absolutely certain. I would advise people to remain respectful in the process, but it’s not unreasonable to want to be sure you’re not being misled, and most of the Powers I know will accept requests for confirmation that are politely offered.
Outside divination is a good method for confirmation. If I get conflicting signals, can’t get a lock on any particular identity “taste”, or otherwise doubt the identity of the messenger, I will often do a Tarot reading to reach for confirmation or clarity. If the content of the message is muddled, or very important, I often get that confirmation from another reader entirely. Whenever possible, I err on the side of caution. I am far more likely to believe advice was not divine when it was than the other way around, and my caution increases in direct proportion to the significance of the message. I believe that is safer than the alternative.
3: Have I received the message clearly, without confusing signals adding false or irrelevant information?
One of the biggest obstacles to a clear signal is anxiety. Needless to say, the more important a question is, the more likely the querent is to be anxious about the answer. This is one of the reasons people often say we shouldn’t do our own readings, and why I can’t always use the same methods for myself that I use on behalf of other people. That’s not an absolute restriction, however. The more self-aware a person is, the more able they are to sift signal from personal noise, and to recognize accurately when they’re not in a position to do so. That part takes practice, but it’s useful practice for everyday life, so I highly recommend it.
The basic spiritual skills of centering, grounding, and clearing my mind help a great deal. That’s not always easy to do. If I’m seeking comfort, it doesn’t much matter what mood I start in, but any instructions I receive in that state beyond the basics of how to calm down are bound to be suspect, and should be verified when I’m calmer, or with someone else who is calm.
It’s important to realize that “calm” and “reasonable” are NOT synonyms. It is quite possible to be very reasonably worked up about something. Just because someone is angry, upset, or anxious, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be. It’s just that such emotions tend to be louder than any incoming signals we may be listening for, and the resulting noise can interfere. That’s not always the case, though. There are times strong emotions like anger can actually clarify tremendously, by clearing out the emotional underbrush of ambivalence. At those times, however, it may not be the gods we need to be listening to, but ourselves.
4: Have I translated the images/emotion/etc. into language as accurately as possible?
The gods don’t actually speak modern English. I believe They don’t actually speak any particular human language. This shows when They convey something that doesn’t translate. Almost every medium I have ever met has had those moments where something a god or spirit conveyed to them as though it were one word unpacked into a whole paragraph worth of content for lack of a single word to encapsulate the concept. And that’s just the gods who are actually speaking some kind of language at all. Many gods only speak in powerful emotions or imagery. There’s plenty of room for things to get lost in translation.
5: Have I interpreted the content of the language correctly?
This is especially important if I find myself using unusual words, or if I am working with someone else’s words. Language is as accurate as we can get for communicating between minds, but it is still a very imprecise mechanism. Just because I have the words, doesn’t mean I actually understand the message.
Obviously the main issue is just, does the message make any damned sense? Sometimes the message has sense, but I can’t yet relate it to my context, and that’s not necessarily a problem. Figuring out how it makes sense may well be the whole point of the message. But if the message seems bizarre and illogical, it’s probably garbled.
6: Have I extrapolated the correct instructions from the data available?
Assuming I understand the message itself, unless the message was clear-cut step-by-step instructions, am I sure the process I’ve settled on will actually accomplish whatever it is the god is suggesting? Am I within the spirit of Their message? Was there anything about the apparent letter of Their message that I may be varying from, and if so, is that a problem? Am I making accommodations for reality? Should I be?
7: Are these instructions drastic? Do they potentially cause harm? Essentially, would it be ethical to follow these instructions?
This is the big one.
Odin once told me, through a medium, very bluntly, to dump my Partner. At the time I already lived with him, and was financially dependent on him. I was indeed angsting about whether our relationship was going to work out. I freaked out really badly at this advice, because Odin was seemingly ordering me point blank to turn my entire life upside down.
I didn’t do it. Why? Because the instruction was drastic, and I couldn’t confirm that it was actually from Odin, actually something I needed to do. In retrospect, Odin gave me that order to demand my attention, not because He expected me to follow it. Freyr has said repeatedly, through various mediums, that I am with my Partner at His will, and He’d rather I didn’t leave yet, please. 15 years later, we’re still together, and I’m very happy, although I do sometimes worry I don’t deserve such generosity.
This is not the only example of the gods giving me drastic or potentially unethical instructions. Sometimes They were testing me. Sometimes it was a bait-and-switch. Sometimes I suspect it was a mistake They didn’t want to admit, and They claimed it was a test to save face. Sometimes They really were honestly mistaken about something, and my pushing back brought it to Their attention that something was awry, prompting Them to reconsider and apologize.
If we don’t stop to think about and question these kinds of drastic or unethical instructions, we’re doing the gods a disservice, not just each other. This is where the military obligation to refuse illegal orders, and the saying “Speak Truth to Power” come from.
8: Are these instructions legally valid? Do they require me to break the law? Do they require me to break an oath?
One of the things I sometimes have to deal with in jail ministry is people believing that they are where they are because they followed the instructions or demands of a god or spirit. That may well even be true in some cases.
But it doesn’t much matter, because there is nothing a god or spirit can do to testify in court for us. Even if They could manage bodies and admissible testimony, “He did that because I told him to” is not considered a legal excuse in our society. The gods have no direct power over the modern, secular court system. Nor should They, given how many different gods there are, and how inconsistent They are in manifestation!
As for Oaths, I’ve had Powers from multiple pantheons tell me, on multiple occasions, via multiple mediums of differing traditions, that any Oaths we take are binding regardless of Their instructions, such that it is binding on Them to not give us instructions that would require we break them. Oaths create taboos. Many cultures uphold this, it’s not just a Heathen value.
Short of a retaliatory Geas binding someone into finding the one bizarre way to both achieve a goal and avoid breaking a contradictory oath simultaneously, our Oaths are sacred to the gods and spirits. If we receive instructions that amount to an order to break an oath without renegotiating first, something is definitely awry.
Discernment is not a specialized skill. One way or another, everyone has to learn how to make good decisions in life, and figuring out whose advice to take is going to be part of that question whether gods are involved or not. This is why I think it’s never a good idea to rely too heavily on the gods’ advice or other divination to make decisions for us. We are responsible for our own actions no matter what the gods say, and we must be able to make those decisions for ourselves as much as possible.
[Edited to add] As you may have noticed, the rule of thumb here is When In Doubt, Get A Reality Check, preferably from an uninvolved human. It should be noted that getting the same message repeatedly from the same source, whether that source is the same medium or reader, small group, or your internal godphone, does not constitute confirmation. Persistence of message is not itself evidence of accuracy, (although it does improve your chances of interpreting that one source correctly).