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What is Intuition? A Whole and Open Mind
An inner voice, guardian within, embodied cognition, pattern recognition, knowing without knowing how, understanding through the senses, bone knowledge, wayfinding, and just...what you like
What is intuition?
There are so many ways of describing what’s often called intuition—and still it can remain hard to define, hard to reach, hard to hear, and hard to understand.
Words wear out, and this old word that once meant something like “tutor, guardian, or ‘private teacher within’” is so well worked-over and loaded with fuzzy connotations and cultural baggage that it’s clear-enough meaning has become perhaps permanently obscured. The cruft acquired over time has become a caked-on crust, so much so that despite attempts to declaim the nebulous feeling the word has acquired and explain more clearly what it intuition “is,” just as I’m doing here, that coloration persists.
That said, what else are we going to call it—other than just ourselves?
It might help to stop calling it “intuition,” at least for the moment. That said, I’m writing here because I feel compelled to explain what I’ve come to know of it, and so I can’t help but use the word, even at the risk of tumbling the rock even smoother in the stream. In this piece I’ll offer some thoughts and experiences that I’ve collected over time that have helped me to feel intuition as a part of myself that is very much alive and present in my daily life.
Approach the Unconscious Indirectly
Aside from the ever-changing meaning of words as signifiers for deeper meaning, the most important and self-reflexive reason that intuition is difficult to put our finger on is because like everything else that has to do with the unconscious, we can’t go towards it directly.
The unconscious communicates wordlessly through sensations, images, and symbols, although because we are such creatures of language, intuition can also speak to us in words and phrases. Intuition speaks more in art and poetry than in prose, and many of the intuitive messages that I’ve gotten are what could be song or chapter titles—or the names of spells. Because of its indirect nature, we often have to go away from what it is we’re trying to get closer to understand it, or even go in what seems like the wrong direction first, before realizing that we feel better going the other way.
One of the Most Basic Functions of the Psyche
Speaking of spells, intuition isn’t magic, and it’s not really mystical or even that mysterious. I often describe it as the surfacing of a bubble rising up from the unconscious, or the tip of an unconscious iceberg breaking the surface, and entirely part of what is—or at least should be—our normal state of mind. As Carl Jung put it, intuition is “one of the most basic functions of the psyche”—and yet, that sudden aha! of intuitive realization often does feel like magic because of what appears to the conscious mind as the instantaneous appearance of a fully-formed knowing, and because it’s a knowing without how you know, it invites the characterization of something beyond the realm of the real, repeatable, or rational.
But again, this capacity for spontaneous sensing is built into all of us, and is no less real or normal simply because it’s informal, alogical, arational, non-linear, and unstructured. It just means that we’ve “so thoroughly learned the steps that they happen automatically, without conscious thought, and therefore at great speed”.
Intuition Is For Everyone
Although I’d prefer to skip this entirely so as not to contribute further to any reinforcement of the idea, it feels that it would be neglectful to omit some mention of gender with regard to intuition. One of the things we’ve been carrying around about intuition is the idea that somehow women are better at it, have more of it, or are intrinsically geared more towards intuition, simply by way of being women.
Without discounting the fact that there can be behavioral differences that map to biological sex, the fact is that most of what we attribute as differences due to sex are actually differences that correlate with sex—or, more accurately, have correlated with sex over the course of our recent cultural history. The fact that women have perhaps exhibited more of some of the characteristics that get lumped together as intuition in, let’s say, recent centuries, and that men have not practiced intuition as much in recent modern culture does not in any way prove that “men,” for example, have less of an innate capacity for intuition because they are men.
Correlation isn’t causation. Let’s leave this limiting, harmful and obsolete stereotype in the past, where it belongs. Intuition is for, and part of everyone.
Another way to grok intuition is as a combination of embodied cognition and pattern recognition. You could also say that it’s feeling what wants to be, through your body. The roots of this sort of feeling are in interoception, that is, the actual physical “sensations that arise from within the body”—the feelings of “our internal organs, in our muscles, even in our bones,” aswrites in The Extended Mind.
Again, there isn’t any magic here, and it’s not that we have a “brain” elsewhere in our bodies—although we do have a huge number of nerve cells in our enteric nervous system—but it is the body ‘thinking,’ in the sense of a knowing or understanding through the experience of the senses. Even though we tend to think of cognition as “thinking,” the meaning derives simply from “to know,” as in the Latin verb cognoscere. If you’ve ever studied romance languages you’ll know that this sort of knowing comes from experience, feeling, and familiarity more than facts, figures and conscious thinking. In this way, intuition is “bone knowledge,” as my friend and master coach Robert Ellis puts it, or from our man Jung again, “perception via the unconscious.”
One of the deepest, simplest and most powerful ways that we practice sensing and knowing with our bodies is through wayfinding. Finding our way in the world, whether it’s walking a trail, driving across the country, or exploring a new city is the most fundamental example of where physical sensing of what feels like the right way comes together with the larger-scale feeling of what is right for us viscerally and directly.
When I’m out trail running, putting my feet in the right place again and again, one after the other, is a matter of physical intuition, higher up than pure animal instinct, and below disembodied cognition thinking—and the result of finding the right way for my feet is the feeling that I am moving well, and that I’m going in the right direction.
Sometimes my feet sense something about the path that I’m on and take me in a new direction before I’ve thought about it at all—and sometimes they just do not want to go where I am trying to take them. If we zoom out from the trail through the woods to the path of life, we can see how this mechanism of wayfinding finds its way into all of the other parts of our lives as we navigate work, relationships, and the maze of twisty passages that is our own human psychology.
Successful Movement Strengthens the Self
Combining the sensations of the body with the movement of way-finding, we can begin to better understand the example given by Moore and Gillette in King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, where “A young college man reported that after he took up fencing…he was able to spot, with lightning-swift clarity, the major themes in a complex lecture, evaluate the weaknesses in the supporting arguments, challenge statements with a sharpness…”—like a the sword-fighter that he was embodying.
Whether it’s fencing, trail running, singing, skateboarding, sex, riding a bicycle, or any of an infinity of other physical pursuits, moving intuitively not only feels good, it feels right, and part of the reason is that the “merging of action and awareness” results in movement that feels spontaneous and effortless, even though in fact this kind of movement usually requires quite a lot of concentrated effort.
Because successful movement feels so good, “even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.” In this way, things that begin as purely physical activities can become forms of creative expression that are done “simply because the doing itself is the reward.” These autotelic experiences are the primary way to get into, and definition of, flow—the state of being where the positive feedback loop of successful movement “strengthens the self.” As endurance athlete Rebecca Rusch said, ‘affecting my physical body is way to reach inside my soul.’
Collect the Keys, Then Find the Locks
Intuitive sensing is not enough to complete this cycle of positive feedback—we have to act upon what we sense, we have to move to find out, to verify, to prove that our feeling is correct. “…Probably the worst thing for intuition is if it is not followed by action,” and it is only through the ongoing practice of sensing and acting upon intuition that we can come to know and trust this mechanism. The old cliché of “trust your gut,” is the emptiest of exhortations to those of us, like myself, that had little connection with my internal sensations or feelings, and no practice at paying attention to, or acting upon them. It can be very hard to move based on the so-subtle-as-to-be-barely-perceptible feeling of something-just-might-be-going-on-in-there.
One way that I’ve come to think of the relationship between sensing and acting in relation to intuition is that when I sense a message, I’m collecting a key for a lock that I haven’t yet come across, but that I will at some point down the road. We don’t have to act right away—in fact, it may well be quite some time before the opportunity presents itself to act in response to an intuitive message—although it’s also true that, often enough, by the time the message becomes clear to our clouded, crowded, conscious minds, the time to act is well and truly upon us!
With this in mind, I make good note of messages as they arrive, collecting clues along the way, knowing that eventually—and likely before long—I will come across a situation, a puzzle, a ‘lock’ into which one of the keys that I’ve already collected will fit.
It often feels like a gradual, accelerating gathering of invisible pieces until something finally snaps into place. A desire, a feeling, a direction, a movement, an inclination, a preference, a spontaneous choice, and then, for example, we crest a rise to find the perfect campsite just as the sun is nearing the horizon, without really having looked for it at all.
So, what is it that gives us the idea that that special something we’re looking isn’t yet right in front of us, but that it may be coming up soon? How do you know when you’re close to getting to the top of the hill, but before you can see the top? What gives you the sense that a cold front is about to blow in, even though the sky is clear and sunny right above you?
Much of intuition is a “subconscious pattern matching ability,” a “reflexive self-knowledge governed by a preconscious neural network…informed by previously learned patterns,” and much of human perception and intelligence is geared towards observing, collecting, and recalling patterns—repeated or recognizable forms, shapes, or designs that show up in certain actions, situations or places as we move through the world.
Patterns are all around us—first of all, as the patterns of nature. Not just the shapes of trees, mountains, rivers, wind, clouds and waves but how they move, look, feel and sound are all patterns that are deeply wired into human consciousness. Clearly, those are going to be particularly recognizable and also particularly helpful if you spend a lot of time outdoors, but many of those same rhythmic, fractal, self-regulating patterns—the subtle shift in the wind, the slow bend in the river, the rise and curl and crash and then the pulling back of a breaking wave—are found in our own human bodies, and, because the processes in our own bodies are based on the same foundational physical patterns, also in our sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and in the very nature of our consciousness.
Of course, there are also many patterns that we observe, collect and predict from the behavior of our fellow humans, as well as other forms of life, not to mention the myriad patterns that we have created ourselves in world, by way of artifacts of technology. By now we all know the patterns of those scrolling green letters from the Matrix, the layout of a Substack homepage, and the particular volley of a text-message conversation. These are all patterns that we absorb, and that lend themselves towards our ability to recognize and even foresee them as they occur again and again in our world.
The Inner Guardian
Intuition is also often thought of as an inner voice, a quiet voice, or the voice of the unconscious. These are all voices of you, just parts of you that don’t have direct access to language. The unconscious is very much part of us, and it does often seem to have something to say, even if it can’t say it directly. We often personify part of ourselves as a ‘guardian angel,’ the voice of conscience, or, what Socrates called his personal daimon, “a little voice inside of your head that tells you when you’re about to do something stupid, that you don’t necessarily listen to, but that you know is right.”
Whether it’s the imp on your left shoulder or the pixie on your right—or the voice of your younger, ’better,’ wiser, or older self— the intention of that subtle voice of intuition is hinted at in the Latin word at the root of “intuition”—tueor—“to look, watch, guard, see, observe”—and also, to protect.
Gavin De Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, tells us that intuition is “always right…and it always has your best interest at heart.” We ignore this inner voice at our great peril. Not only does failing to act on intuition short-circuit the potential for the positive feedback, it tells our protective daimon to shut up and go back to sleep, leaving us knowing that there was something there for us to hear, and that we’ve chosen to ignore it.
De Becker continues to say that “The opposite of intuition is denial. If intuition is knowing something but not knowing why you know it, denial is choosing not to know something, and knowing why you’ve chosen to do that”—and in doing so, we risk confusion, real danger, and psychological instability.
Fear & Anxiety
Especially if you’re not all that in touch with intuition, it can be hard to tell whether a hesitation is based on fear or an intuitive ‘no.’ It can help to know that we’re wired at a very low level for yes—for movement, curiosity, and exploration, and that “intuition is seldom made up of worry.” Intuition is most often the voice of “yes,” whereas real fear is a clear voice of “no.”
Differentiating between real fear and anxiety is part of this too. Real fear is based on clear and present danger. In today’s world, there’s usually little to fear, and many of us think confuse the unsettled anxious feeling of going into the unknown with real fear. One way to clarify this is to consider if a feeling about the unknown could be recast as excitement instead of anxiety, to know that once we cross the threshold into wherever we are going, the unknown becomes known, and that fear—or anxiety—dissipates, and also to practice expanding your boundaries, getting familiar with going into the unknown so that it becomes normal and natural.
I’ve used the maxim of “Start with Yes,” for years to remind myself that “Curiosity is the only healthy reaction to the unknown”—and that while some butterflies are normal, that’s not fear, it’s anticipation.
The Voice of Purpose and Self-Nature
In my experience, intuition is also the only voice that has any chance of answering the question “what am I here for?”
One thing I’ve found to be true about the search for purpose is that I’ve only really found anything that feels coherent enough to call purpose by way of finding my way through the world according to my own unique sensibility, until that way eventually became what now, finally, at least to some extent, feels like my way. What else than our capacity for wayfinding, and to listen for and hear the subtle voice the guides us towards that which feels and true and good for us, individually and specifically, could be that which will ring through as “yes! this is it!” in the middle of the dark night of the soul, searching for light, or gold, or the holy Grail of purpose? What else will tell us when we’re close, or making steps in the right direction, or straying slightly, or wildly, from our way? What else will speak the simple truth of self? Not some chart or checklist, that’s for sure…
In this way, intuition has for some time felt to me like “waking up,” a phrase also used to describe the experience of meditators and psychonauts, not to mention those who have become successful at the regular delight of a properly-timed afternoon nap. The languid, liminal dream-state inhabited by animated archetypes, the polychrome and pixellated psychedelic world-scape and the quiet realm of meditative consciousness are all just as real and even normal as our normal state of being fully awake, and the sense of waking up into a more expansive consciousness that includes more of the true nature of reality must be at least some form of what gets called enlightenment.
In the Zen tradition, satori is something like “seeing your self-nature,” and this sudden awakening is seen as as continuous practice and an ongoing experience of further and further deepening and integration—all of which sounds very much like coming into a lasting relationship with the voice of self.
The Wellspring of Creativity
Something else that’s often overlooked is the relationship between intuition and creativity. It seems clear enough that “the creative process springs from unconscious depths”—and very much like intuition, we know the creative spark when we see it and feel it, but it can be very hard to articulate or locate its source, unless we go indirectly, through the symbolic nature of language and perception.
In the classic mythopoetic tale of Iron John, the long, unkempt hair of the wild man found living in the spring “stands for all those intuitions that appear out of nowhere… When an artist is at work on a painting, images he or she had never thought of arrive instead of the images the artist had planned to set down.” Cary Dakin, a Jungian scholar and student of both addiction and intuition, recognized that “when psychically integrated rather than repressed, the intuitive function transmits information other functions cannot access.” The source then (which is, by the way, and of course, French for “spring”) is right there—the connection between spontaneous intuition and the broader phenomenon of creativity. Specific, fragmentary messages, symbols, and indications emerge and come together to form “creativity,” which is nothing less than a transmitted image of the artist’s soul.
My experience has been that the more that I have practiced listening to my inner voice, the more it speaks, to the point now that whenever my mind is quiet—which for me is especially in the liminal hours of waking dawn, the minutes of morning meditation, the dark quiet hour of receiving massage, and the primal rhythm and pattern of running along a single-track trail—I get a constant stream of creative intuitions. These small or large insights are precisely the transcendental instances of “perception without reasoning”—the leaps of thought the simply arrive fully formed in my awareness, without conscious effort of cognition. The conscious effort, in fact, for me, has come to be to cultivate my power of memory so as to be able to capture more of what emerges from this spontaneous, intuitive wellspring of creativity.
A Whole and Open Mind
Whether we call it second sight, the sixth sense, the Socratic daimon, or Tinker Bell, getting in touch with the subtle, powerful, and also very real and nonmagical voice of the “coordinator within” has been critical to my mental health. For much of my life I struggled with what I felt to be a lack of a sense of identity, direction, inner confidence (as opposed to outer confidence, for which I surely did not lack), clarity, purpose, as well as a general psychic malaise and also a very specific depression that resulted from knowing that I did not know something very important about myself. I knew that there had to be something in there somewhere, and also that I did not know how to access it.
I was existentially frustrated, self-deceiving and perpetually confused. I was rubbing myself the wrong way, and it was primarily due to the fact that I had not cocked my ear to the subtle voice of self. Because of this great deficit, and my at least partial recovery from it, I have come to identify this inner voice as the elemental golden treasure of a broad, whole, and open mind, what Flea called the “superb wealth of my subconscious,” which, rather than a lower, ‘sub’-conscious part of our psyche, is actually just our full self.
Another demigod of the music world, Rick Rubin, gives us a beautifully elemental definition of intuition as simply “your own taste… you don’t have to know why. It’s so simple…if you reduce it to ‘what do you like?’” This basic capacity to sense what we like and what feels good, and to move towards that is dangerously inhibited in many of us in the modern world, and yet it is so fundamentally human, and part of being fully human—and it is only with that full consciousness that we have any chance of integrating our own deep well of psychic material along with vast context of collective, shared, archetypal unconscious material, along the inanimate patterns of the world around us so as to give our conscious, analytical, egoic, small-s self some real stars to steer by.
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Love reading? , The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain
Flea, Acid for the Children
Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear
Harry Wilmer, Practical Jung
Moore and Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover
Rick Rubin, The Creative Act
Robert Bly, Iron John
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
Please stick around — I’ve got some questions for you…
What’s your own relationship with intuition? Do you have your own working definition?
How do you differentiate what feels like fear from intuition?
Have you ever knowingly ignored your own intuition? What happened?
Is there anything that has been effective in improving your intuition?
How is your intuition related to your own sense of physical well-being?
How often do you consciously “use” your intuition?
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