“Woman’s intuition” was one of those concepts I’d heard all my life and, as I grew up, came to consider as illusory as ESP. Too many people I knew (both men and women) seemed to “know” certain things that aroused my skepticism no end. I was convinced that scientific inquiry was the only valid path to knowledge.
These days, scientific “knowledge” seems (particularly in the fast-changing medical field) to be almost as unreliable as the old ways of knowing. And at the leading edges of fields such as quantum physics, discoveries are so remote from anything I can even imagine that I find myself feeling hopelessly mired in mystery. Every week, new books offer explanations of “how things are,” but none of them agree closely enough to allow me to get a grasp of what’s real and what’s imagination. Still, for a long time I held to my faith in science that would eventually, at least, answer all questions. Meanwhile, I read what I could and reinforced my prejudices with some of these ideas and discarded the rest.
Then Ken Wilber entered my consciousness. Perhaps I was simply ready to hear him. It’s true that I had begun to sense something beyond my grasp, first in relation to what I called “community,” a profound richness and benevolence between people that I saw in groups now and then. Wilber loosened my mind a little concerning words like “spiritual,” and with his systematic discussions of levels of consciousness, I saw that what I had only sensed before could be a manifestation of spirit in those fortunate groups—a deeper awareness of our connections. My process, of course, was not as direct or as immediate as this paragraph may suggest. But over time my mind did undergo some radical changes.
What I began to comprehend was his (and not only his) idea that we grow through levels of consciousness, with each level opening wider to reality. Where I had been stuck was at the rational cognitive level, and a little further than that in my emotional level to encompass a more inclusive world view. Where he challenged my understanding was in claiming that there is a next step up from “knowing” what can be observed in the exterior world and described and measured by science. Most people, he said, have occasional “intuitions” that go beyond what words can describe or that can be verified objectively, and a few people actually experience that level at will. Usually it takes years of some kind of contemplative or meditative practice to achieve this ability.
The trouble with intuition is that it’s often wrong. Our minds are arranged to take in sensory data and mix it with memory traces to extract meaning from our environment. The newer, outer reaches of our brains, in the cerebral cortex, have developed the ability to think about thoughts, to abstract and to generalize. Even though we have the impression that this kind of generalization is a conscious process, most of it takes place unconsciously. And that unconscious process may be the source of our intuitive experiences. When everything works just right and we have a sudden “insight” into a particular situation, we appreciate the power of “something tells me . . .” It’s easy to just forget the other times when it tells us wrong.
For example, say a long time ago I had a nasty run-in with a bus driver who thought I was old enough to pay full-fare. He wore a uniform and had a prominent mustache. The incident has long been forgotten. Today, I’m parking my car and notice that the meter still has time on it. So I begin walking away without putting any coins in the meter. A man in uniform is approaching, and he has a prominent mustache. I’m suddenly gripped with apprehension, certain that he is about to lecture me or give me a citation for not feeding the meter. He walks past me without saying anything. My so-called “intuition” has failed me and caused me discomfort. My mind takes various information stored in memory and mixes it with my present situation. A moment of rational thought can dismiss the connection, but the emotional resonance grabs my attention. “Silly me,” I think, and walk on down the street.
Intuition or conditioning? In this case I’d call it simply conditioning, a lower-level of consciousness taking over. True intuition sees the bigger picture. Say the man in uniform really is a policeman, and he does stop me to tell me I should put money in the meter regardless of whether there is time left on it. “That’s the law,” he explains.
In the midst of my embarrassment and shame—I consider myself a law-abiding citizen—I pull some coins from my pocket and proceed to feed the meter. I’m suddenly aware of the humor in my situation. Even as I feel the blood turn my face red, and stifle anger at being reprimanded, I acknowledge that the policeman is simply doing his job, and that I misjudged my civic responsibility. The whole episode is no big thing. We’re simply playing out our little parts in the ordinary drama of city life.
That realization is more like intuition. It’s a clarity in seeing the moment in a larger perspective. And it takes practice to expand that kind of clarity. Thinking helps: reasoning through the logic of situation after situation. Eventually it becomes easier and more automatic.
To grow from there, Wilber and countless others have said, one needs a deeper kind of practice, a meditative or contemplative time set aside regularly to examine our minds at work. Only by observing, quietly and without judgment, can we put our thoughts into perspective. It takes a long time for most of us. We can come to expand these brief moments of clarity so that they come more often and more easily, and eventually (they say), it’s possible to actually live day by day in nearly continuous clarity. We may still have impulses born out of our conditioning, but they don’t control our thinking and acting.
The next time I see a man in uniform with a mustache, I may be aware of a twinge of feeling, but then perhaps I can just smile at myself and let it pass.
I’m only human….