What is Intuition? A Whole and Open Mind.
An inner voice, tutor, guardian within, embodied cognition, pattern recognition, knowing without knowing how, understanding through the experience of the senses, bone knowledge, wayfinding–and satori.
What is intuition?
There are so many ways of describing the inner voice—and still it remains hard to define, hard to reach, hard to hear, and hard to understand. The main reason, I think, is that words wear out, and this old word that 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 of the word, that coloration persists, no matter how hard we work to explain it away.
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 that intuition as a part of me that is very much alive and present in my daily life. This essay will be followed by a series of further posts on specific methods for connecting to and practicing intuition. I’m doing my best here to collect my ideas and put them in context—please keep in mind that while I may sound like I think I know what I’m talking about, of course, I’m sharing my opinions, and you may well have your own—which I’d be very happy to hear.
Approach the Subconscious Indirectly
Part of the reason that intuition is difficult to put our finger on is because like everything else that has to do with the subconscious, we can’t go towards it directly. The subconscious communicates mostly 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 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 to find it, or 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, to be clear, intuition isn’t magic, and it’s not really mystical or even that mysterious. I’d say that it’s simply the surfacing of a bubble rising up from our subconscious, 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 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 of condensed expertise 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”.
Although I’d prefer to skip this entirely, 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 are certainly 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 in the relatively recent past. 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.
Another way to grok intuition is as a combination of embodied cognition and pattern recognition. You could also say that it’s feeling what naturally 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,” as Annie Murphy Paul writes 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 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 the 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 and again is a matter intuition, not animal instinct or higher 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 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, sex, skateboarding, riding a motorcycle, 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 forward movement feels so good, “even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.” In this way what begin as purely physical activities 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. “Trust your gut,” is the emptiest of exhortations to those of us, like myself, that had no 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-over-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 to be used at some later point that has yet to arrive. 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, conscious, analytical minds, the time to act is well and truly upon us! Even so, as I take in messages, I make good note of them, collecting clues along the way, and knowing that eventually—and likely before long—I will come across a situation, a puzzle, a ‘lock’ that fits one of the keys that I’ve been collecting. Just like finding a great campsite just as the sun is nearing the horizon, or that perfect place to stop for lunch that I had a feeling would be just around the corner, fitting one of those keys that I just happen to have in my pocket into a lock that I need to open is one of the best feelings there is to be had.
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 feels like it’s coming up soon? How do you know when you’re close to getting to the top of the hill on a hike, 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 reliably in certain actions, situations or places.
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 well-developed and also particularly helpful to you 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 and collect 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 Facebook profile page, and the particular rhythm of back-and-forth texting. 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 a ’voice’—an inner voice, a quiet voice, the voice of the subconscious. Whose voice is it? Well, it’s your own, but it’s the voice of a part of you that doesn’t have direct access to language. The sub- or unconscious is very much part of us, and it does often seem to have something to say, even if it can’t always 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 better, younger or older self— the intention of that subtle voice of intuition is hinted at in the Latin root word tueor, “to look, watch, guard, see, observe”—and also, to protect. Gavin De Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, tells us that “it’s 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 the F 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.
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?” The search for purpose is a topic that I’ve explored further elsewhere, but one thing I’ve found to be true for me is that I’ve really only 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 way-finding, 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 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, also, 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 inner voice of self.
The Wellspring of Creativity
Something else that’s been very important to me 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’s very hard to articulate or locate its source—unless we go indirectly, and 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 intuition, recognized that “when psychically integrated rather than repressed, the intuitive function transmits information other functions cannot access.” The source then (which is, 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 the creative path, helping us with the otherwise impossible task of finding our way to an expression which is nothing less than an 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 getting a massage, and the primal rhythm and pattern of a trail run of several miles—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 memory so as to be able to capture more of what emerges from this 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, 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 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, the “superb wealth of my subconscious,” which, rather than a lower, ‘sub’-conscious part of our psyche, is actually just our full self. Although this capacity is inhibited in many of us in the modern world, it is 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, and 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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I was invited to do an interview recently and had a great conversation with Doug Beitz on his podcast about intuition. You might also enjoy some of the following books that I’ve referred to above, in addition to more articles and episodes from DECIDE NOTHING on the subject of intuition., 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.
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?