Signal to Noise

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle 

Some days I fear the signal-to-noise ratio of our society is too much for me personally. My academic degree is in music, and my earlier musical ambition was to be a sound recording engineer but then I got a degree in music business, with a little respite between in music composition. The balance between the intentional, purposeful piece versus the distracting background noise in any recording is an important consideration for your music. You want to record the right levels in the right environment. It can’t be too hot, or you’ll distort the sound, and you can’t be too open, or you’ll pick up every little noise and distraction. I think about these same principles in consciousness, communication, and magick.

In an era of constantly generated texts, audio, video, and photographs broadcasting every stray thought and every experience, where is the silence? Sometimes it is as much about what you don’t say as it is what you say. The silence between notes and words punctuates, reflects, and illuminates a composition in ways that constant sound cannot. Our need to create and consume content in an unending media cycle has made silence and reflection into endangered species. How many of us, myself included, look at social media while doing one or two other things, rather than giving any one thing our full attention? Our default state becomes having multiple “balls” of attention in the air, not focusing on any one thing for much time at all. We fear we will miss something. Our attention—and therefore energy—becomes divided.

For those of us who have a public side to our business, social media has replaced advertising budgets. There can be a perception that we are required to continuously create content, often from our personal lives and experiences, a constant broadcast of whatever thought or half-thought is on our mind. Things are blurted out to the masses for consumption instead of being thoughtfully worked out, reflected, discussed in small knowledgeable groups, and then tested before being sent out to the public at large. It can be fun at first to share, until that dreaded moment when you think your sharing was harmless and fun, but someone takes it a different way, rightly or wrongly, and your day becomes continually responding to this one post that was supposed to be fun or thoughtful or helpful, but wasn’t.

There is the desire to be “authentic,” warts and all, with our messy process, doubts, and mistakes, but because even the most devout “follower” will only see parts of the process, and not necessarily what came before or what comes after, there can be great misunderstanding as much of social media becomes influenced by its very terms, a cult of personality. And with all such cults, there is the unconscious desire to build up and tear down. Sometimes our desire to “keep it real” creates the exact opposite as we find ourselves acting and sharing, critiquing and lamenting, in ways we never would face-to-face. I have several friends who I have difficulty following online; I have to see them face to face to remember again why we are friends. Their desire to be forthright online actually created a clear division between who I (and others) perceive them to be “in real life” and their public online persona. And they would probably be mad at the thought of an online persona. Their desire to keep it real has created an unreality.

Recently on social media I saw a post from astrologer Rhyan Butler referencing the difficulties in social media with the old occult axiom of “those who speak do not know. Those who know do not speak.” And yet some who are great at the PR angle are perceived as “those who know” because they will repeatedly tell you how much they know, how great they are, and how powerful they are. Some are obviously charlatans and con artists, but some are sincere, and some are sincerely conning themselves first, before their audience. If the proof is in the pudding, there is no real way to taste it online. They tell you it’s good, so you must either believe it or seek them out in some other manner. You might have an eye for figuring out what works for you, but it’s all a product of light-up screens, so there is always a measure of illusion in whatever we are looking at in that medium.

Some start out knowing, but the need to generate new content puts them outside of the area of known experience quickly. It’s easy to collect knowledge, especially today, but far harder to digest it, integrate it, and make it a part of your life and worldview. Anyone and everyone can appear as an instant expert, yet experience is valued less. Soon the Voice of Knowledge outstrips the Voice of Wisdom, and even when the facts are correct, the signal-to-noise ratio goes up. One is simply “talking” in order to avoid yielding the “floor” or attention of people, posting for posting’s sake rather than having something to share. In such situations, the platform is generated for what you might say in the future instead of having a cohesive message or mission and building a platform around it.

Even when we do have a message and mission, we fear to go “fallow” as people will forget us. Yet I remember the days when musicians would put out an album, tour, and then disappear for a bit—to live life, get inspired, write, and record. We would eagerly await the new music. We didn’t need to know what they were doing every day. Big-name authors did the same thing. Sports teams had their season and then went away for a while. The “stars” might pop up here and there with a bit of gossip, but not often. The time-out, the silence, grants rest, regeneration, and perspective where we are not getting constant feedback, which often tampers with our process through too-quick praise or critique. Both distort our true work and can do a number on our internal sense of self and self-worth. Absence can make the heart grow fonder, and rest and regeneration of the land and self, the seasons and stars, is inherently Pagan and magickal, putting us in alignment with nature’s power. To produce constantly is an unnatural state. Everything unfolds in its proper time.

So what does one do in such an age? How do we boost the signal and diminish the noise? Well, we can only control our own signal-to-noise ratio, though we can encourage the signal and discourage the noise overall through our participation.

I often go back to what I learned as a Sufi teaching (though it has parallels in many traditions) called the Three Gates of Speech. It asks that before we speak, we ask ourselves three questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? It’s the question of necessity, both in life and online, that is often my sticking point. Am I talking just to talk? Does this serve? Even if the service is to my own self-expression, is it necessary self-expression in the moment? If the answer is yes, then speak (or post). If not, reconsider. Also realize that statements on social media, even those that claim otherwise, will be preserved. Because even if it’s deleted later, someone will save it somewhere. Just as you can’t really stop words once they are spoken, you can’t stop the misplaced tweet.

Remember your signal might be someone else’s noise, and vice versa. When I was younger, my dad didn’t like my heavy metal music. I, of course, loved it! Yet today, I don’t listen to that much heavy metal. Tastes can change. Encourage the things you think are meaningful, but don’t actively attack things that others are enjoying. You never know when your tastes, and your needs, will change.

Don’t get addicted to the likes and clicks. Don’t get addicted to the attention, even under the guise of looking for your business to trend. If you do something, do it because you are moved to do it, not necessarily because you are courting the widest margins of people to respond favorably. Don’t consciously or unconsciously try to “hook” people’s attention for your own ego gratification. If you are doing marketing work, you certainly have to grab people’s attention for a product or event to be successful, but if your self-esteem starts to be based upon it, you are developing other problems. It is easy to become energetically parasitical or emotionally co-dependent upon your online following. Beware of being a “player” on the social media scene; like its equivalent in a romantic and/or sexual sense, it overly emphasizes your own gratification and needs. Work to build mutually supportive relationships whenever possible.

Journal as you wish, but realize that journaling is not blogging. Journaling is inwardly driven while blogging is always observed (or should be). Journaling is private, not public. Journaling helps the esotericist build the vessel. One of the esoteric difficulties of public social media is the disruption of the secret vessel of our life and practice that builds “steam” and pressure to induce magickal change. Even when we don’t reveal “secrets,” we lose something when we do not hone our ability to keep silent, for the silence generates the stillness to change our perception.

Learn the difference between reaction and response, and how to pause any non-life-or-death reaction to allow for an appropriate response. Training yourself to do this is easier if you have a meditation practice and journaling practice, as you will be more capable of observing your own thought process in a detached way, which allows you to pause long enough to decide on your response.

You don’t need to have a strong opinion on everything, particularly if you have no real knowledge of the topic or situation. And likewise, you don’t need to voice every opinion on everything, particularly if you have no real knowledge of the topic or situation. It is okay to say, “I don’t know” or “I am not sure” when you don’t and aren’t.

Understand who, if anyone, is your audience. If you are in the public sphere, every tweet and post is like a mini-press release. We have PR experts to help public figures navigate that realm, and many of us, occultists included, are often not aware of such subtleties, of how our communications can be misinterpreted in such limited formats. Does the post have a real-world equivalent action? If so, would that action be appropriate in a mixed group of friends and strangers? If you would post it, but not say it to someone’s face, you might want to rethink your post. Things understood by those intimate with you are often misunderstood by “fans.” While you might be okay with that, you can do unnecessary harm to people who care about your work or art while simply trying to be funny or clever.

Don’t mistake writing or complaining about something online, or sharing someone else’s work doing something you are passionate about, for doing the actual thing or making clear substantive changes. And yes, I would include this article too.

While I have a real love-hate relationship with Carlos Castaneda and his work, from an occult perspective, he was onto something when describing how much energy we waste on self-importance and defending the ego. This teaching can be found in many traditions, but it is particularly clear and pointed in his work. That lost energy could be put to better use in your own Great Work. And the wasted energy has only be magnified with our social media use. Every time you are defending the little “I” through arguments of opinions where you are not raising the discourse, but attempting to raise the sense of self-importance and how people perceive you, you are losing vital life force and tricking yourself into thinking you are doing something important. The big “I” and the true Dharma don’t need any defense from you.

Avoid tribalism. It’s easy to slip into an us-versus-them mindset when conflict arises, yet so many of us are proponents at heart of the “we” and “all of us” mindset. We have to remember that includes people we disagree with and don’t like. I once read a piece about the difference between “calling out” and “calling in” online. While it is popular to call out behavior we don’t like, and at times it can be necessary, when you do it publicly with those you are friends and acquaintances with, I’ve rarely seen it go well. I’ve personally had better results checking in privately and asking what’s going on first, as sometimes questionable behavior can actually be rooted in personal challenges and troubles. In such cases, the behavior is being used a distraction. Recognition of the situation while also explaining, in a thoughtful way, that the behavior is not acceptable often yields actual changes in behavior, where public callouts often result in doubling down on the unhealthy behavior. In my observation, when you do a public callout, you should observe your own motivations for doing so, making sure that your true desire is to create beneficial change.

Take breaks from posting. Take breaks from viewing. Rest. Don’t be on social media 24/7. Don’t be afraid of being “fallow”; you can always return to a new active “season.”

Create from a place of experience, a place of genuine fun and good-heartedness. Seek out and encourage the same. Balance the thoughtful and the spontaneous. You can still do whatever you wish, but my suggestion is to be more conscious about everything you do, including social media. Then it can be a tool for your own work, not a cog in someone else’s machine.

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