11. Discernment: Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio

Robert Magrisso Wood Carvings and Constructions

not seeing

the room is white

until that red apple1


Discernment is a word that we do not use lightly. It is often defined as that of being able to grasp or comprehend that which is obscure. In the Christian tradition, it refers to discovering God’s will for one’s life, that is, one’s spiritual vocation. Discernment is a process. It may lead to insight or even an epiphany, but it is the process of discerning, the verb, upon which I want to focus. Discernment is not problem solving but learning to “see”. It seems to me that intuition and wisdom are related to discernment, but at times, so may analysis even be part of the process. Discernment often leads to decision making and can be seen as a kind of “connector” between inner life and action, the subjective and the objective.

Reality is veiled, the future a misted landscape. My perceptions and understandings are limited but I still need to make judgments, decisions and act. When it comes to decisions, even no decision is a decision. We cannot escape the need to act: non action itself is still itself an action!

As examples, I need discernment when I am in an intimate relationship with someone and trying to figure out if this is my life partner. I need discernment when I am choosing a course of study which might involve many years of work: is this the right course? I need discernment if I am thinking about a spiritual path and trying to sense if it is genuine or for me. And so on. However, the truth is that what often seem to be small decisions, inconsequential moments may later be seen as turning points, inflections in the curve of life. We never know what is of import and what is not and it is more important for discernment to be an attitude rather than a program we turn on and off.

Signal to noise ratio

april fool’s day

I shine my flashlight

back at the stars2

As a starter, I find an engineering analogy helpful: the so called “signal to noise ratio”.  We are all familiar with this concept when we try to tune in a radio station. We turn the dial, first getting static, and then we hear it better and better. We go past the station and hear static again and go back and forth until we find the clearest location on the dial. At that point, we hear the most signal and the least noise: the ratio of signal divided by noise is maximized.

We can see this little less obviously when we weed or prune a garden. Before we begin, there are weeds and overgrown branches everywhere, which are, at least from our perspective, “noise”. Our goal is to more clearly create the “garden”, which we can think of as the “signal”. In this example, the “garden” is in part what is growing and in part the notion we have of it in our mind. As we weed and prune, we discern the outlines of what is there and what is possible. It keeps changing as we go along in the process. The example shows how much our mind’s creativity is an active part of discernment along what we perceive in the world. Discernment is both active and passive and the line between so called “inner” and “outer” begins to be less distinct.


After weeks of watching the roof leak   

            I fixed it tonight

by moving a single board.3

Our minds are noisy.

The noise is our inner discourse, the continuous ruminations, preparation, comments and everything else that the mind is continuously generating. It is personal, social and cultural. The inner discourse is sometimes the first thing we notice when we try and make silence as a meditation exercise and we become aware of the continuous background presence of thoughts. It includes the internalization of the continuous bombardment by media and advertising, the latter making us think we need things that we don’t. Thoughts of what others may think about us as well as desires and fears feed the noise. The past, in general, with its unresolved conflicts and unfinished business triggers feelings and emotions when certain “button pushing” subjects are raised, feelings often be irrelevant to what is in the present. This “noise” is often what we often identify as our “mind”, in the sense of “what’s on our mind”.

We could say that the signal is it something that comes from the depths of our soul, of our being… the small still voice within. We could call the “signal” the “heart’s voice” that we are trying to discern amidst the noise. It arises from an “inner teacher”, a kind of wisdom that is deep and present if we let it express itself. Different religions, spiritual paths and psychologies have different names and symbols for this place in our being. In Cafh, many use the term “Divine Mother” as a way of communicating with that voice. Despite so many different words, religious symbols and metaphors, they lead to a different state of consciousness, a place of attunement – tuning in the way we tuned in on the radio dial.

 Thus, inner quieting, creating inner silence is a way of improving the signal to noise ratio. Many meditation exercises can be seen to facilitate this way.


autumn breeze


patches of sunlight4

We know from many studies of cognition and from our own experience that we most often only see or hear only what we are prepared to see or hear. We have many limitations and biases. We most often think we already know something, when that knowledge is just our mind’s conditioned memory from past experience or it is colored by emotions. For example, if we are in a strong mood, that mood is like a wind pushing our discernment into particular directions. Anxiety, depression, two very familiar inner atmospheric states, fear or aggression, which we all have at times, distort our ability to discern inasmuch as they can veil and distort our perceptions so much that there is no clarity.

Some of this is more or less conscious, but a lot is not. Our unconscious is more extensive and powerful than we might like to think. Self – knowledge, then, is very important when it comes to discernment. If I know some of my tendencies, I can take them into account.

Let’s say, I am a very suspicious person – I don’t trust people generally. This may be based on very real past experiences but that may not be very helpful if I need to discern something in the present about an intimate friend or a spiritual path. If I know I have this tendency, I may be able to factor it in. If I don’t know, it may color my whole view of reality without me ever realizing it and my discernment will be so much the worse for it.

Honesty with oneself is necessary for self-knowledge and this means having some ability to see oneself more objectively without all the self-judgment and justifications that cloud the view. It helps if I know my motivations and intentions, working as they do to generate certain thoughts and feelings. If I can catch a glimpse of my intention at the root of thoughts and feelings, then I can often find their energy source. While self-knowledge is always partial and it needs to take into account feedback from others if it is not to be some kind of enclosed self-referencing system, even a little self-knowledge is better than none. Better still is the acknowledgement that I still have a lot to learn!

Is it possible to increase the strength of the signal? Can we increase the amplitude of that inner voice? Can we make it stronger so it can be heard over the noise?

How and what we discern, it seems to me, is dependent on what we are looking for. What values do we hold? Are we seeking to gain something only for ourselves or do we take others into consideration? Do we want to take a risk or stay within our comfort zone?  Do we see our self as pitted against the world or part of it?

A Native American describes a particular criterion used for discernment in his culture:

Traditionally, indigenous people would not make any environmental changes until they had carefully considered how it would affect the ecology of their descendants seven generations down the line. This is because indigenous people have direct contact with the responsibilities given to their ancestors and, also, have direct contact with their own responsibilities to the generations yet unborn. Native Americans feel all generations are connected and believe we must think of the effects of decisions made today on the Seventh Generation regarding such matters as preservation of the environment.

The voice within does need strengthening, though it is a subtler and longer term process than may be apparent in the instant illumination, fast decision culture in which we live. Strengthening our power to perceive is part of the issue, the other part being making “inner voice”, that state of consciousness more active. For myself, it means daily meditation exercises on such spiritual ideals such as love, compassion, inclusion and giving in order to see what these words and concepts point to, for the words themselves are more like doors than anything else. It means to be inwardly quiet and learn to listen to that which arises from deeper levels of the mind, to “see” in a deeper, wider and freer way. Paradoxically, often unlearning and letting go seem almost as important as learning! It also means learning to apply this movement in my daily life.

Ultimately, discernment is, for me, an attitude toward life that I think of “applied” spirituality. It encompasses, for myself, the essence of spiritual life.

  1. Haiku by Anita Virgil – from Haiku Mind by Patricia Donegan, Shambala, 2008, p 91.
  2. Haiku by C. Avery – Modern Haiku, Volume 40.2, 2009. p. 9.
  3. Haiku by Gary Snyder, IBID, p 119.
  4. Haiku by Jeff Hoagland. From “Modern Haiku”, volume 40.1, 2009, p.41.