Cultivating the habit of intuition


Many people assume that chess players must have incredible foresight, seeing moves and moves ahead, calculating variation upon variation.  In fact, there isn’t that much difference between good and great chess players in terms of that kind of computational power.  The quality of play actually depends more on what chess players call the ‘feel’ for the position: the understanding of patterns that may arise from a particular position, the sense of where on the board confrontations will be critical, the relative value of gaining control of particular squares, and so on.  This is not peculiar to chess: all sports are the same.  The human mind is geared towards spotting patterns – it’s more efficient than spending energy to figure out every eventuality.  That’s why we are generally complementary to AI, not in competition.  Although machines are better at playing chess than humans nowadays, the best ‘players’ are a combination of humans and machines working together.  


In life also, having ‘a feel’ for our world is a complex interplay between our rational linear intelligence and our intuition.  Under the surface of consciousness, we are discerning patterns out of the incredible moment-to-moment influx of sensory inputs to form conclusions in a way that our rational mind cannot always make sense of or keep up with.  In this way, intuition is a tuning in to the complex, ambiguous, paradoxical, non-linear nature of reality.  


Like listening and empathy, intuition is what I like to think of as a ‘yin skill’.  Yin skills are about allowing yourself to be changed – yang skills like public speaking for instance are more about pushing out into the world. Experiencing a ‘yin skill’ is different to experiencing a ‘yang skill’: it seems to come from a subtle, all-encompassing place – a whole-body sense, rather than a direct, focused like place usually in the head. It often feels like intuitive insight is borne spontaneously from silence, rather than drawn from the impulsive force of old habits.


Our thoughts constantly call up new words. We become so taken with words that we barely notice the silence, but the silence is always there. The best words are born in the fecund silence that minds the mystery.

John O'Donohue


The pandemic seems to have increased the value we place on yin skills, from gratitude towards essential caring professionals to the acknowledgement of better performance in countries where the political cultures are more open to traits typically recognised as feminine.  Yet while we invest so much resources and attention in cultivating the intellect, we often see yin skills, particularly intuition, as a given – inherent to our nature, or not.  This is simply not true.  Intuition may be a gift but it is one, like an aptitude for chess for example, that must be nurtured if it is to blossom.  Perhaps the next breakthroughs – in political dialogue, education, public policy delivery – will come from cultivating the heart with the same attention the head receives.  


The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift

Albert Einstein


So how can you cultivate your intuition? The first step is simply to recognise when it is present and what message it is sending by nourishing and honouring a conscious connection with yourself.  This means taking time out without intention or expectation – in meditation, or being outside in nature perhaps.  Note down any hunches or intuitive “hits” you get and the sensations, emotions, etc, you got that contributed to your intuition.  Don’t get too hung up on words – they are just pointers to uncover something that is already present.  Instead get curious about the felt sense – the experience of the sensations and emotions.  They are not distractions but critical information.  This will help you to discern between intuition and habitual responses or prejudices.  


Just as important as noticing intuition, is being loyal to it.  How many times have you heard someone say that they ‘knew’ they should or shouldn’t have done something but couldn’t explain why and therefore took the wrong decision?  So experiment – starting with the low risk decisions.  One of my favourite ever personal experiments was spending one ordinary day attending to and allowing myself to be guided in every decision by my intuition.  It was a jolt to see in action how much my everyday behaviour was normally shaped by ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and illuminated a freedom that has led to a flourishing of personal creativity.  Alternatively, carry out one intuitive hunch a day – even something as simple as moving your body spontaneously however you want, wandering into an art gallery, reading a book you just picked up – and see what happens. 


Perhaps you may find out that you can trust yourself to know exactly what you need.


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