The first step is intuition and it comes with a burst. Thomas Edison
Born in 1847, Thomas Alva Edison wasn’t a particularly bright child. He was intensely curious and started conducting experiments from the time he was a child. His entire schooling consisted of three months (fortunately his mother was a teacher). When he was a teenager, an injury nearly deafened him. Thomas said he didn’t mind because it helped him to concentrate.
At 22, he went to NYC with $1 in his pocket. By day he looked for jobs. By night he slept in the basement of a gold company. Besides his insatiable curiosity, Thomas was exceptionally observant. When some important equipment at the gold company broke down, Thomas was able to make unique cost-saving repairs. As a reward for his ingenuity, the company paid him the small fortune of $44,000. With his money, Thomas started the American Telegraph Company in New Jersey.
Thomas and his team experimented on thousands of ways to make a light bulb. Of his experience, he famously stated, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Finally, Thomas found a way that worked and created electric light. We are all the beneficiaries of his tenacity and hard work.
As one of the world’s greatest inventors, Thomas went on to invent the phonograph, motion picture camera, the automatic telegraph and a cement mixer. He also greatly improved on Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. When he died, he owned the patents on 1, 093 inventions.
It’s plain to see from this story that Thomas possessed many qualities that made his success possible – discipline, curiosity, perseverance and a willingness to work long hours to name a few. But what can we say about Thomas’s “genius?” Surely, this humble man would never make claims to having an above average intellect. He was driven by ideas – ideas that some would call “intuition,” a term also used by Thomas to describe his insights.
Apparently, intuition “bursts” came to Thomas often. But perhaps Thomas, with all his many qualities, fed those initial seeds of inspiration with the one enduring characteristic that kept him going through many failures and harsh criticism – he believed in what he saw and what he felt. Thomas believed in what he imagined and his imagination was inspired by his intuition. To quote another great mind, William Blake, “What is now proved, was once only imagined.”
While most of us won’t become great inventors, we all experience intuitive “bursts,” some of which may hold important information about what paths or directions to take. But how many of us listen to or follow our inner knowing? When we ask these questions more deeply, we usually find that what we believe about intuition and what’s possible has a great deal to do with our relationship to our intuitive self.
Our personal psychological lives and the practices and norms of cultures are directly related to belief systems. Even though there have been profound changes in personal and collective beliefs throughout history, beliefs are difficult to “uninstall.”
As mentioned in Part 1 of this post, Western cultures value logic and rationality above intuitive knowing. In his article, When Our Intuition Leads Us to Bad Decisions, author and Psych Central editor, John Grohol writes, “We don’t know when to trust our intuition in the future, because we only have hindsight in which to see where we were right or not.” Judging strictly by a certain standard of predictability, Grohol states that “We can’t trust it instinctually, because it is so often just plain wrong.”
Dismissing intuition is not surprising when judging from the evidence-based scientific paradigm. Predictability is what counts in this model. According to this model reliance on the use of intuitive information for anything beyond choosing a color to paint our living room or picking a vacation location can be unreliable, even hazardous to the outcome. Without rational analysis, we’re placing ourselves and our institutions in vulnerable positions.
Part of the bias against intuition is the belief that emotions are inherently irrational. Poorly, but not surprisingly misunderstood, intuition is often associated with emotions, both being feeling based. Because science still does not understand and can’t locate or quantify concepts like consciousness, wisdom, emotion and intuition – they remain highly suspect.
Personally, many of us are wary of our intuition as well. We’ve been rigorously conditioned to mistrust what we believe we cannot control. Along the way, we’ve accepted the (mythic) infallibility of reason over the “mysteries” of intuition. When intuition appears, the inner voice of our social conditioning cries out “That’s absurd,” “That can’t happen,” “Stop dreaming and get back to reality.” The brain, a prediction engine, doesn’t like uncertainty, so it’s understandable that we push back when an intuitive flash sends a brief but impressive message.
Getting Your Intuition Back
The debate within the scientific and philosophic communities between reason vs. intuition won’t be resolved in the near future. Maybe the either/or lens that researchers apply to their analysis is part of the problem. The contentious struggle continues to be centered on determining the superiority of one of the “dual processes” of our brain over the other, rather than understanding more about their complementary mechanisms. Until science sorts this out, we’re left with our own intuitive sense of the importance of our own intuition.
While the proponents of the reason over intuition clash might argue that rationality gives us more control over our decision-making, real control is still largely illusive regardless of the facts, analysis and judgment we bring to most decisions. In one important sense, embracing belief in our own intuition (not to the exclusion of so-called “rational” consideration) is deeply personal. It must be based on a sense of trust in our own inner wisdom.
Gifted author, Anne Lamott, writes, “You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn’t nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.”
Though we can’t control our intuition, we can take steps to cultivate it. “Making space” for intuition, as Anne Lamott calls it, requires a careful exploration of the ways that we communicate with ourselves internally. Understanding how we shut down what’s uncomfortable, unknown – maybe a little scary – is critical to the process. Identifying the beliefs that block the voice is an important first step.
Inviting Intuition to Express Freely
- Learn to listen more deeply to your body. Intuitive messages, like emotions, speak through the body. Often instantly, our rational mind shuts down or overrides those impulses. It is through the primary senses, seeing, hearing, and feeling that we receive most intuitive information. Taste and smell, play less of a role, at least in terms of what people report about their intuitive messages. Taste and smell may play a triggering role in sparking intuition, but this is less studied and understood at this time.
- Develop an understanding of your body’s own language. Most of us have a primary sensory channel that filters our experience – get to know yours. While intuitive insights can speak to you through any of the modalities, becoming familiar with your primary channel/s attunes your sensibilities.
- Emotional awareness. Every emotion has a unique biological signature. What I experience at the bodily level when I feel optimistic, may be different from how optimism expresses in your body. Increasing the knowledge of how emotions feel in your body refines your ability to listen more clearly to intuitive messages.
- Develop the emotions that inspire creativity. All emotions can act as a resource. Some are helpful enablers that contribute to creating receptivity to intuition. Curiosity opens our mind and our sensory channels by inviting in new feelings and information. Wonder and true awe (lost emotions in this culture) are also important.
- Get Quiet & Slow Down. Studies show that there is more noise pollution in our lives now than at any other time in history. We’re assaulted by sounds for most of our waking hours – and we wonder why we can’t turn off the voices when we try to sleep. Creating quiet time is essential if we want to cultivate intuition. Stillness is also a vanishing practice. Our to-do lists are endless and the art of doing NOTHING is anathema to some. Surely intuitive flashes can break through even the busiest, loudest lives – but it’s more challenging than allowing silence and stillness to work their magic.
- Live more mindfully. Mindfulness is the gentle practice of bringing our attention back to the present moment. The rational mind is always busy comparing the past to the future. Worry doesn’t live well in the present; it relies on future speculation to thrive. When we learn to bring ourselves back to the present, we allow greater ease to listen to ourselves more deeply.
- “Capture” your intuitive bursts. Many artists and business entrepreneurs find ways to record or note their intuitive messages. How many times have you experienced an intuitive hit and lost it? You sensed it was valuable but in a short time, it disappeared. Noting or journaling your intuitive insights is an important way to detect the patterns that are enduring and emerging.
- Pay attention to dreams and symbols. Intuition speaks literally (“Do not trust this person”) or indirectly, often through symbols. In your dream, your beloved grandmother shows up holding your favorite childhood sweater and tries to get your attention but you’re too busy rushing off to work to stop and talk to her. Maybe Granny is bearing a warning that is deeply important to heed. Reoccurring symbols, a device of your intuitive mind that can take many forms, hold valuable clues. Often intuitive messages persist, when the subject is of vital importance.
Intuition can play a profoundly important role in your life. These “bursts” of inspiration can be tiny – simply positively changing some behavior in the moment – to altering your life’s path. Intuitive wisdom is calm, not fearful. Real intuition’s aim is to expand your options in order to expand your life. All you have to do is allow it.
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