heading 1b

Discernment: Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio

by Robert Magrisso


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 the ability 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 analysis may even be part of the process as well. 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 are seen as small decisions, inconsequential moments, may later be seen as turning points, inflections in the curve of life. We often do not 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

inner ocean
where a compass doesn't work
winter rain²

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 hearing it better and better. We go past the station and hear static again, and then 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 a 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 with 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 board³

Our minds are noisy.

The noise is our inner discourse: the 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. The very effort to be silent makes us aware of the continuous background presence of thoughts. The discourse 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 irrelevant to what is in the present. This “noise” is what we usually identify as our “mind,” in the sense of “what's on our mind.”

We could say that the signal is something that comes from the depths of our soul, of our being. the still small 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. Religions, spiritual paths and psychologies have various 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. Although these words, religious symbols and metaphors appear so different, they all can lead to a new 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.


autumn breeze
patches of sunlight4

We know from many studies of cognition and from our own experience that we most often 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 is colored by emotions. For example, if we are in a strong mood, that mood is like a wind pushing our discernment into a particular direction. Anxiety and depression, two very familiar inner atmospheric states, and fear or aggression, which we all have at times, distort our ability to discern inasmuch as they veil our perceptions, robbing us of 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. Although this tendency may be based on very real past experiences, it 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 my ever realizing it, and my discernment will be so much the worse for it.

Honesty with myself is necessary for self-knowledge. This means having some ability to see myself 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. An image that I find helpful is one of transparency-seeing all that is there and hiding nothing. Of course this is not easy, but if I can catch a glimpse of my intention at the root of my thoughts and feelings, then I can often find their energy source. While self-knowledge is always partial and must 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 about myself!

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 ourselves 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.

posted by Little Hawk

The voice within does need strengthening, though this entails a more subtle and long-term process than may be apparent to the instant-illumination, fast-decision culture in which we live. Strengthening our power to perceive is part of the issue, the other part is making the “inner voice,” that state of consciousness, more active. For myself, it means daily meditation exercises on 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! The process also means learning to apply this movement in my daily life.

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

icon end


1. Haiku by Anita Virgil, permission granted by the author.
2. Haiku by Fay Aoyagi from Modern Haiku, Volume 40.2, 2009, p. 9.
3. Haiku in Hitch Haiku, by Gary Snyder. See Buddhist Travelers website.
4. Haiku by Jeff Hoagland from Modern Haiku, Volume 40.1, 2009, p. 41.

Seeds interviews the author

What made you choose to write on the subject of discernment?

I have been thinking a lot about this subject for a few years since it seems to me to encompass so much of what I have come to understand as spiritual life. For me, the latter is trying to live life with an open, generous and loving attitude rather than trying to force life into my predetermined categories. While facilitating a workshop in Second Life, sponsored by Kira, (Cafh: Daily Life as Spiritual Practice) one of the participants asked a question about discernment and this made me think others also might find this subject interesting.

Can you give a few examples of how discernment actually applies in your life?

Well, as a physician I continually need to try to discern: What is causing a person to experience certain symptoms? How can I see clearer or deeper into the presenting symptoms? Is there a pattern here that can be discovered? What does that stooped posture or abnormal blood test or scan mean? In this example, I may be trying to discern underlying diagnoses or make sense of vague descriptions.

As an artist, I do a lot of wood carving and the way I work involves discernment. I may have an idea of what I want to carve, but I am not good enough to actually carry out the idea that I have in my mind. Thus, I have learned to see also what the wood is “telling” me and to allow a “dialogue” of sorts to occur between the wood and myself. I had to learn not to be frustrated and to remain open to that and be willing to change what I thought it was that I was supposed to carve. In some ways, it is the most exciting part of the process, but sometimes the scariest.

I see discernment has a lot to it and this article just scratches the surface.

Yes, mostly I hope it stimulates others to think about discernment too.