Intuition is a controversial concept. Does it exist or is it just a generalized, vague sense based on some neural processes just below the level of conscious awareness? We process a lot of information and the vast majority of it is content we are not aware of. The bulk of neural activity is filtering out unwanted details so you can focus on what you deem important. Even though you are not aware of stuff that you’re not paying direct attention to, it is still influencing you. This is indisputable these days and radically changes notions of self-determination and “free will” on their heads. Professor Mary Peterson explained:
“Many, many theorists assume that because it takes a lot of energy for brain processing, that the brain is only going to spend time processing what you’re ultimately going to perceive. But in fact the brain is deciding what you’re going to perceive, and it’s processing all of the information and then it’s determining what’s the best interpretation.”
Well known phenomena such as the confirmation bias are an example. You will automatically select and over-value information that supports your beliefs and undervalue or ignore contradictory information. If you are aware of this, you can do some adjustments, but the vast majority of people are not, so their day to day choices and beliefs are influenced by these biases, and they don’t know it.
The only way out, is through. You have to study yourself and others in to see how these factors influence each and every one of us. In time, you can more easily identify them and that’s a step in the right direction. Let’s look at a specific example of this in action.
If you’ve ever watched a mentalist in action, you’ll know what I mean. In England, there is a guy named Darren Brown who has produced a series of astounding TV shows including a series called Mind Control. In this series he demonstrates rather conclusively that people are dramatically influenced by events occurring just below the level of consciousness. As a result, in a matter of seconds, people are persuaded to hand over their wallet and the keys to the car to a person they just met on the street. He demonstrates how people will take blank paper believing it is cash for expensive jewelry and cashiers are induced to pay off losing tickets at the horse track.
In one episode some marketing experts are assigned the task to create a logo, drawing, and catch-phrase in in a short period of time. The materials are intended to be used to support the opening of a fictional chain of taxidermy stores that are opening. While the stores are fictional, the experts don’t know this and believe they have been hired for real business venture. After explaining the situation to the experts, Darren places an envelope on the table saying it contains some ideas of his own but instructs them not too look at the envelope till later. They have 30 minutes to complete the task.
At the end of the 30 minutes the experts show Darren the logo and catch phrase shown below on left.
Darren then had them open the envelope to show them what he had drawn ahead of time, on right.
Each logo has 3 elements, wings, the phrase Animal Heaven or Creature Heaven and the phrase, “the beast place for dad animals or Darry’s version, “Where the best dead animals go”
In other words, the experts had “created” a marketing campaign from scratch and had drawn almost the exact logo, name, and catch phrase Darren had drawn ahead of the meeting.
So how did Darren accomplish this? Was it intuition on his part? Was it intuition on the expert’s part? No, but as you will see, this is deeply related to intuition.
To create this feat, Darren had carefully arranged a series of events to occur to the experts. As they drove in their car on the way to the meeting, the route and specific experiences were carefully controlled. One such example, shown below, is a chalk drawing on a coffee shop they drove by on the way to meeting.
Store signs, displays in windows, people wearing T-shirts, and other methods were used to expose them to the images and phrases that Darren had intended for them to use in the drawing.
Others included people wearing T-Shirts with angle wings, harps on display in a window, even the words Creature Heaven written faintly on the dirt on the back of truck.
There were many more of these images. The entire trip to the meeting was one big suggestion fest, and the marketing guys were completely unaware this was going on.
When the experts were then given the task of producing an image and text, they believed their ideas were coming from their experience and expertise – but they were unknowingly deeply influenced by events just preceding the meeting.
The key point here is they had no idea they were being manipulated. Yet the result of what they drew was remarkably like the one the Darren had created and placed on the table before they began.
What does this have to do with intuition? Everything. We are all deeply influenced in this way. We imagine that we are free to choose, think, create and speak as we choose. The truth is what we say, do and even think is woefully constrained and shaped by the events of our lives both conscious and unconscious leading up till now. What we like, don’t like, feel good about or dislike is not largely a matter of free will.
The beginning of freedom is to understand your nature. Without realizing how we are wired up, you cannot be free to use the mechanics of that wiring to your advantage. To be truly intuitive, you have to understand that most of our thoughts and actions are habituated responses to events that already occurred.
Now, this may all be disappointing for some as in general, people don’t like hearing they are not free agents in the world as that goes against our ideas of ourselves. But once you embrace the fact that we are all deeply habituated and bound by the limitations of our experience, then you can start walking a path that celebrates our remarkable capability to respond creatively and accurately to extraordinarily complex situations. This is where real intuition enters.
The book Blink, by Malcom Gladwell is full of examples of “intuition” of the sort I’m referencing here. He gives an example of a women who is considered one of the world’s best in discerning forged masterpieces. In the book, they bring a work of art to her and ask if she thinks it’s real. She instantly replied “it’s a forgery”, without examining the piece in detail. When asked how she knew, she replied, “when I looked at it, my left toe hurt”.
While this may seem like nonsense, keep in mind she’s not some kind of psychic reader but is regarded as a world authority on forgeries. So how is it that her left toe told her anything at all about the painting? Consider the example above where the marketing experts were “creating” content that was actually provided to them, but were not conscious of the influences that directed them. Our forgery expert was using this same principle to her advantage, and you can too.
She had learned that thinking through a problem may not be the most reliable or expedient method at arriving at the conclusion. As the mind/body perceives so much information that doesn’t rise to the level of awareness, that information is still “in the system”, below our conscious awareness, so to access it you cannot use the mind. Instead, you use your senses. By being mindful of her present moment experience, she was able to access a body level response to the painting.
One spiritual teacher I studied with taught us long and hard about “body sensing”. Simply put, this means paying close attention to what you are feeling in your body in your moment to moment experience. When you do this, you start to notice what the art expert knew – that a great deal of information is available through your senses that we routinely ignore. We’re too busy thinking our way through life to pay attention to what we are actually feeling. And if we do notice, we then often junmp to judgment “That’s bad, that’s good, I can’t know that, I suck”, or whatever instant reflex you have in that voice in your head that keeps you down. Using your body as means to connect to your experience, opens a world of experience and information that we all had at one time as infants, but have learned over time to ignore. Continued practice of body sensing yields a great deal of “intuitive” information that is beyond the conscious mind to name or identify. In this sense, I call it intuitive as the means for understanding is not through the rational thought process, but is more direct and less considered.
Body sensing is a practice of presence. When you take time to check in with what you’re feeling in your body, you are immediately placed in the “now”. By actively taking your attention to notice your bodily sensations you take yourself out of thoughts and put yourself into the immediate moment. This is where intuition dwells. Eckhardt Tolle teaches the hand exercise to leverage this technique.
Meditation practices of many sorts advise focusing on your breach, your nose, your posture, or other body sensation. Becoming aware of your body sensations is the doorway to mindfulness, and mindfulness is the door to awakening.
Body sensing also requires that you slow down. Actually, it requires that your mind slows down. Your mind is slower than your body. This may not seem obvious but if you listen to those who are masters of their body, they will never say that the path to mastery involves thinking about what they are doing. Perhaps in a pre-visioning way, but during the execution of some complicated stunt or action, the mind must get out of the way. There are plenty of examples from people who are far more body centered than I, but from my own experience I know this to be true.
When I was in junior high school, I was playing basketball with some guys. I was not very good and was liability for any team that would have me which caused me some significant grief. One day while I was at one end of the court I looked up to see a basketball moving very quickly directly at my head. It was really moving fast. Instinctively I moved my head about 2 inches to the right. Just enough to clear the ball. I did not overreact, or under react. There was no emotion, or thought. Just a small movement. The guys on the court audibly expressed their surprise that I could be so bad at basketball, but react like that. I was surprised too but was of course, as a teen, pretending it was nothing. I remember it well though as a sharp lesson that taught me that my body can react precisely to sudden situations before you’ve become consciously aware what they are. There is no time to think “OMG, there’s a basketball coming at my head and its 2 feet away!”.
Shortly after this, I started taking martial arts. I studied Tai Kwan Doe, Judo, and some Aikdio. I had a knack for it, but was not expert. Just reasonably well informed. These skills still serve me to this day as I learned a lot about the mechanics of a body in motion, balance, and how to create big forces by using your whole body to create an impact, rather than just throwing an arm or a leg. A big part of this training is learning to take falls and rolls.
Years later I was living in Boulder Colorado and was the proud father of 6 month old baby boy. One day, I was out on a walk on popular path by Boulder creek with my son Zeke carefully secured in one of those baby carriers that mounts in front of the body where the baby faces out. As I walked, my foot hit an obstacle that I did not see on the path below (obstructed by the carrier with the baby). As my center of gravity was a bit more forward than I began to actually fall forward. I have not fallen down more than 2 or three times unintentionally in my adult life and here I was going down, but with Zeke strapped on me in such a way that he would receive the brunt of the force if things continued as they were set in motion. Suddenly, without thought and effortlessly, I tucked my head down and committed to landing on the back of my shoulders. It worked. Much to my surprise, from a standing position I tucked, rolled and wound up back on my feet with Zeke gleefully along for the ride. People that saw this got what had just happened. A disaster had been avoided. Relief, concern, wonder, surprise, all of that was expressed by the strangers around me that came over to the scene. No one was more surprised than me. Thank God for that Judo training. Perhaps the bullies I encountered in High School that drove me to these trainings were actually inspired by my son Zeke, not yet born looking down from where people are before they are born saying “we better get this guy some skills before I get there”. That would be wild.
The point of these stories is to illustrate that there is useful information to be had by someplace other than your thinking mind. The body knows. The body knows what to do and when to do it. I once took a class on Aikido movement by the great Aikido master Hiroshi in Boulder. One we were practicing a movement and he took my forearm and placed it on his, looked at me straight in the eye and said “body knows”. This phrase was often repeated in his class and is meant to say that when you touch another person, skin to skin, your body knows how to respond. (BTW, did you know that as an embryo, the cells that form the skin also for the nervous system!) You don’t need to think about it. Trust your body. In this case, we talking about martial arts, but it could just as well be dancing, healthcare, making love, detecting art forgeries, or dodging basketballs. This “body knowledge” is one of the key contributors to intuition.
All living organism from the humble amoeba to the human are born with devices designed to solve automatically, no proper reasoning required, the basic problems of life.
— Antonio Damasio, Looking for Sponoza, 2003
Topics like intuition were of no interest to me till my early twenties. I remember the moment very vividly. I was sophomore in college majoring in interpersonal communication. There were only about 12 this one spring afternoon in my group dynamics class. The teacher was lecturing on non-verbal communications. As I looked across the room at one of the students I didn’t know, I asked myself “what I can know, really know, about this guy by just looking”. That was the first time I head taken the time to truly observe someone with the intention of gleaning details about what the person may be like.
I noticed his clothes, watch, and books he was carrying. These all told me something about the guy that I didn’t bother to notice before. He was obviously pretty organized and neat. Attentive too. He had freshly sharpened pencil he was pressing to his lips while listening to the instructor. I realized at that moment, that there is a wealth of information available to anyone that just bothers to notice. This first venture into the world of “reading” people was clearly not an intuitive process but one of deduction based on observable details in the spirit of Sherlock Holmes. Even so, it opened a big door for me, the one that opens when you get curious about what you can know. And there’s an important lesson here – intuition begins with being willing to notice.
Later I would learn that there is a VAST amount of information available that I, and most others, just take for granted. As a newbie observer I had not considered factors such as age, gender, race, education, nationality, financial well-being, health, height, weight, intelligence, fashion, breathing style, hair kind and style, pace, gate, eye contact or hundred other factors that are easily observable and tell you something about another person.
Imagine for a moment you are at some event you go to regularly, and at the end of the event a guy you had noticed before but did not know walks up to you. This guy is wearing a red sweater and smiling as he approaches you and says in a friendly way “hey, some of us get together every week after this event at a restaurant afterwards. Would you like to join us?” What’s going on in you? Let’s break it down a bit. Take a breath, slow it down – what’s going on for you right then? Remember what I said before about how the body is faster than the mind? You have already decided if you like this guy before he opened his mouth. (That’s the way the brain works. The part of the brain that decides like/dont like fires first before you know what the thing is you are deciding about. This is because the fight/flight part of the brain is hard wired in to get you moving before you have fully determined the details. Structually, that part of the brain just gets access to the data stream first and has already rendered an opinion before you say “Hey”).
Maybe he sounds like someone you used to know and liked, so you’re “intuition” tells you to be friendly. Perhaps he’s very large and has curly hair – and just like that like the guy that assaulted you in middle school – he’s wearing a red sweater. So even though he’s smiling and seems friendly enough – your heart is racing and you want to flee. What’s your intuition telling you here? RUN! If you are not mindful enough to know that this guy reminds of you previous traumatic event, you might just say “I don’t know why but that guy really scares me”. You might think it is intuition, but it’s just a sense memory. And this is why you have to be mindful.
There is a saying “[neuron] cells that wire together, fire together”. So even though you’ve never met this guy and he’s being friendly enough, the fact the enough neurons are firing that are associated with a painful experience is shading your current experience with the whispers of that memory. You have distinct feeling that you don’t like this guy, and a tight feeling in your stomach, but may not know why. Learning to the tell difference between a “feeling” that comes from memory and a truly intuitive experience is exceptionally useful. It takes some study, but you can definitely get to a place where you can recognize that the feeling of this paste memory is qualitatively different than other kinds of sensations. You can then choose to do something else. YOU HAVE MORE CHOICES, and that is one the key hallmarks of mindfulness – you get choices. Now you can choose to not let your initial withdrawal dominate your sensation. Instead, you notice the kind tone in his voice and what seems to be a sincere kindness in his eyes.You can choose to go with that instead. They were there all along, but not available to you till you let yourself experience your first impulse, be mindful of it, and the observe what comes next. Mindfulness is like that – simple and easily opening doors for you to engage.
With some work, you can reliably and almost effortlessly infer meaning from many things you can instantly observe – age, eye color, race, size, gender, skin tone, heart rate, eye movements, body language, use of space (proximity, touch, etc). What you hear is also very important. As you experience someone, you are influenced by their pacing, tonality, dialect, speed of speech, phrasing, tonality, inflections, idioms, and more. When I work with people, I am tracking all of this. Not every detail, of course, but I am aware of the impact on me when any one of these stands out. Your system will wrap all this up into a stream of feelings/sensations about the person and this stream will be informed by the quality of your observations, presence, past leanings, and intuitive senses.
The thing is, attending to another person in such a way that you are consciously aware how you are impacted does not generally come automatically to people. It takes some training and it takes some practice. In our day to day interactions, you can’t be super focused on other peoples every move, but you can increase your capacity to be in a state of heightened awareness relative to where you are now. You can learn to notice that a small pause in an otherwise mundane conversation can be very meaningful. You can learn to notice when someone is speaking casually of an event that was actually very painful to them, and they are masking the pain. You can find those tender moments when someone is available for a deeper connection, but only if you notice and make contact right them, naming the truth from a place of loving presence. A few moments later, after the moment has passed, the door maybe closed. You can learn to use yourself as a resource.
When you engage in a practice to increase your awareness in the moment, as far I’m concerned, you are engaged in a spiritual practice. In doing so, you will change and as a result, so will your world. At a deeper level, when you look past the surface of people, events, or objects – you are in effect peering more deeply into yourself. This is an important concept. If you seek to improve your intuitive capacity, know that you are really asking to know yourself better.
So now we have arrived at the threshold of opening awareness to that which dwells beyond the self, and it is in this dimension that true intelligence lies. A higher mind, a self bigger than just your personal history. When your nervous system is available to be informed by the higher mind, vast amounts of information are available to you. This is the basis for true intuition. It crosses the boundary from just a hunch about something, to having genuine experience of knowing
So why bother? Why even try to increase your intuitive capacity? As mentioned, developing intuition is a spiritual practice. It is not possible to increase your intuitive awareness without also expanding your consciousness. When I do an intuitive reading, I am almost always deeply moved by the incredible beauty and complexity of the person before me. I am moved to my bones with the amazing love that spirit has for them (and all of us), how they are loved by those that have passed, and what I experience as guides and other forces that care for them now. There is always, always, something precious and delicate and brilliant and hard to name about a person. It’s like tasting a sauce from a gourmet meal and trying to sort out each and every flavor in the experience. In short, it’s a divine experience. Sacred work. It brings me in touch with my own higher self and opens the door for true connection. From this place in consciousness, the world is a better place for me and hopefully for those I encounter along the way. So the payoff is that you get have moments like these. Lots of them. And I wish that me, and you.