Learning Discernment from Martin Luther King

Civil Rights MarchMy wife, Lori, and I recently went to see Selma, the new movie about Dr. Martin Luther King that centers on the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.   As well as being significant as an important chapter in our history, this movie provokes thought around the issues King was facing and how he chose to respond. After seeing this movie, I was left contemplating the subtleties it revealed on many levels. For me, the most powerful moment was during the scene about the second attempt to march across the bridge.  The first attempt had resulted in a brutal clash with the authorities.  This time the troopers were there again, however, they stepped aside, seeming to give way for the march to continue – a complete surprise to the marchers.

Dr. King’s response was not what I expected either.  Instead of a triumphant display of victory and celebration of power finally yielded, he knelt in prayer.  Perhaps it was a prayer of thanks but perhaps it was also a moment to seek guidance around how to respond to this surprising and unexpected retreat of the troopers.  On arising, Dr. King slowly turned and led his followers back across the bridge – choosing to not proceed on the march.  Many of his followers were clearly angered by his choice.

To me, it was a lesson in discernment.  In that moment he made a difficult choice – and not the popular one.  He chose to put aside ego, to resist the temptation to please his followers, and to back away.  The decision later proved to be a wise one.  This significant, but not so well known, moment was possibly a key turning point in the quest for civil rights.  Soon after, a permit was granted with federal protection for a peaceful march to finally happen.

The lesson for me here was the importance of responding rather than reacting.  With the nation watching, King paused and took a moment to kneel and to pray.  Out of that moment came awareness and clarity.  Out of that came a choice that was not only the noble path but also the path that would most likely assure the ultimate victory sought – not the apparent one in the moment.

As Viktor E. Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Spiritual practice plays an important part in being able to discern in such moments.  Our yoga practice, particularly an embodied mindfulness based approach like Phoenix Rising, can better prepare our entire being for these events.  We learn how to see it all in the moment, how to be present in thought, feeling, desire, and circumstance and how to distill it.  And then to come up with the path that will best support our overall intention.  The capacity to discern in this way is a powerful gift.  One that I believe is worth worth investing the time and energy to acquire.

Here’s a simple exercise in embodied discernment.  Choose any yoga posture; take a little extra time to enter the posture; take several deep, slow breaths; before fully coming into the posture, pause; observe; notice-body-feelings-sensations-anything else; before engaging further, come out of the posture; observe again; what do you notice? how does what you notice connect to your life? what subtleties can you discern?

This is a small taste of an embodied mindfulness based personal yoga practice.  Phoenix Rising Yoga Teachers are skilled at guiding such experiences in their classes and offering take home practices.  Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapists work one-on-one with you to support your journey in learning how to better support you in your life with Awareness, Acceptance, Discernment, and Choice (some of the 8 Themes that we use and that are discussed in my book Turn Stress Into Bliss.)  

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