The Discerning Mind

This is part six in a series on the qualities of the mind.

The first four qualities of the mind we discussed were focused on being attentive and receptive, cultivating an attitude of openness and acceptance.

The Discerning Mind, however, is about winnowing, evaluating critically, and separating what is true and useful and good from what is not.

“Discernment” is “the ability to judge well.” When we speak of the discerning quality of the mind, we are referring to a quality built on a number of capabilities and activities. The Discerning Mind is responsible for:

  1. Analyzing our thoughts and observations; 
  2. Judging their value and accuracy; and
  3. Synthesizing what we see in the context of our existing knowledge.

It is this synthesis that allows us to expand the depth of our wisdom, creating new intellectual and emotional categories for how we see and experience the world. The evaluation, assessment, and synthesizing of the Discerning Mind are what allow for creative solutions and novel approaches to the challenges life brings our way.

Like the other qualities of the mind, discernment is not something that comes naturally to us—it requires specific attitudes and skills, and it must be developed through practice and effort.

Among those attitudes is skepticism. While the other qualities of the mind encourage openness, the Discerning Mind warns us to slow down and take perspective. Skepticism is not an unwillingness to believe, it is the willingness to accept ideas and claims, but requiring that the evidence presented supports the assertion being made. The Discerning Mind always remembers that we are easily fooled (by others and by our own perceptions), so it stands guardian to protect us from our vulnerability to deception.

Like any effective guardian, it understands the challenges it faces and knows that it requires tools to combat those challenges, and that it must be skilled in the use of those tools.

At Awareness to Action International, we place those challenges and skills into five categories of the ATA Clear-Thinking Model.

The obstacles to skillful discernment are:

  1. Built-in cognitive biases,
  2. Habitual filters of personality,
  3. Cultural biases,
  4. Ignorance, and
  5. Misinformation.

The tools we teach for overcoming these obstacles are:

  1. Antidotes and guardrails against our biases;
  2. The Awareness to Action Process for managing our personality filters;
  3. Culture mapping;
  4. Building a broad general knowledge base; and
  5. Science-literacy, identifying logical fallacies, and building a “boloney-detection” kit.

Future posts will explore each of these elements in more depth via excerpts from my book, “How to Think Well, and Why: The Awareness to Action Guide to Clear Thinking.” Prior to that, however, we’ll finish the series on the qualities of the mind next time with an examination of the Conducting Mind.

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