NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Intuition” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
In my dozen years of public schooling and 12 more of higher education in English, writing, and psychology, I have learned a lot of things. But never to pay attention to intuition.
Like most of us, I was taught to attend only to reason, the methodical, analytical working out of a solution based on logical connections. Reason has many uses. But intuition is quicker and, because it accesses information we are only subconsciously aware of, often more accurate. And it can be disastrous to ignore it.
The word “intuition” comes from the Latin intueri, which means “to look inside.” Carl Jung defined it as “perception via the unconscious.” Artists draw on it to fashion their creations, psychotherapists use it to encourage forward movement, spiritual writers see it as the link between earthly knowledge and the divine.
We all have it, though some of us are unaware of it, while others fail to trust it when we make decisions. Both can be problematic. Paying attention to your “gut” can save your life. Or someone else’s.
Twenty years ago, it was my strong intuition to leave St. Peter’s Hospital while I was still in the ER and, later, to refuse a colonoscopy prep. But I didn’t heed either intuition, with near fatal results. Similarly, years later my intuitive response to the attorney who won my case against the St. Peter’s surgeon was that he was arrogant and untrustworthy. But my rational mind heeded a friend’s advice: “You want an attorney who is an asshole,” she said. “He’ll be ruthless with the people you’re suing, but he’s on your side.” That decision cost me two years and many thousands of dollars.
In these and other instances, my intuition was accurate, but I had not yet learned to trust it. Instead, I listened only to reason.
On the other hand, many years ago, a friend’s young son was diagnosed with a form of leukemia. Stem cell transplants were just being introduced as a treatment, and their use with young children was risky and experimental. But the standard procedures were usually unsuccessful. My friend’s son was on a ward with six other young children with the same disease. After weighing the risks and benefits of the new treatment, my friend’s intuition told him, despite his fears, to go with it. His son is now a healthy adult with his own family. The other six children, whose parents went with the standard protocol, all died.
Neuropsychologists believe intuition is primarily a right-brain activity, while processes such as logical analysis and reasoning are primarily left-brain.
As an adult, I have come 180 degrees from my early, left-brain-dominated years. Inspired by William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as a college freshman I began to explore what the right side of my brain, the intuitive, could do. Now, more than 40 years later, it is intuition, augmented by reason, that guides my every move and that is the driving force behind my most healing work with clients and much of what I do with art and writing.
Learning to really rely on intuition began with brain changes following my near-death experience. Although until that event I was not a believer in psychic phenomena, afterward, for about nine months, I found that I usually knew who was calling when the phone rang, would anticipate getting letters from friends I’d not recently been in touch with, and seemed to know how people around me were feeling in ways that I’d been blind to before.
I believe my left brain took a hit when I was bleeding to death, and that right-brain functions rose to replace them. This theory was later borne out by informal neuropsych testing. A friend of mine in the PhD psychology program at the University at Albany had used me as a test subject a year before my brush with death. A few months after it, he retested me. Although my total IQ score was unchanged, my subtest scores had shifted. In the first test, they had been heavily weighted toward left-brain abilities. In the second, they had evened out.
My near-death experience seemed to heighten my intuition, but it hadn’t taught me to trust it. That came only when I saw the negative outcomes of ignoring it, and then only slowly.
Trusting intuition has led to better decisions. Two years out of English graduate school, I had yet to take my exams or finish my dissertation. Reason told me to bite the bullet and spend the year or two it would take to complete my PhD, then to look for a position in academia. And why not? I loved teaching, had spent 30 years writing, and was comfortable in academic settings. But intuition told me no, that the person who had started on that path was no longer who I was, and that something else needed to happen.
I can’t know how things might have gone had I continued on the professorial path, but I do know that deciding instead to return to school to become a therapist has been one of the most gratifying decisions I have ever made, and that none of my male peers in the English PhD program is working in a tenured faculty position today.
* * *
In my first meeting with Jim Grant, my former therapist and mentor, I spent about five minutes describing my problems, and then for the next 45 he told me about myself – my patterns, family history, issues I had not yet talked about. I was astonished by the accuracy of what he was saying.
In a session a few weeks later, I told him about my admiration for his uncanny perceptiveness and asked if he considered himself to be psychic. He shook his head. No, he said, through spiritual practices and his work as a therapist he had developed his intuition so extensively that he could follow the threads of a client’s present back into the past and on to the probable future, as well as “read” people by the imprint they’d left on his clients. He compared himself to a bloodhound who, due to natural ability enhanced by training and experience, can follow a scent, even one days old, for miles. He also said that it was likely I admired his intuitive ability because I resonated with it – that I, too, had that capacity.
Now, I find I can do with my clients much of what Jim did with me. The intense, intuitive sensing that followed my near-death experience has faded with time, but I have found ways to maintain it at a lower, more consistent, and more useful level.
Meditation helps by clearing some of the noise of thinking, feeling, and external distractions; Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing by allowing better attunement with an internal compass that senses into things and gives direction; art-making by providing opportunities to practice intuitive deciding and then to immediately see the results. These activities encourage a bodily awareness of my intuition, and they also nourish it. I am increasingly able to locate and listen to the decision maker within, unconfused by emotion or limited by reason.
Like Jim, I’ve found that intuition has been enhanced through work with psychotherapy clients. My practice gives me a space where, for several hours each day, I pay attention to my intuitive sense of what is happening. When I began as a therapist, I followed the theories and made use of the techniques I had learned. Now, although I still use some of those tools, intuition is my primary guide.
Intuition enables me to know things that my logical mind and my observing eye alone cannot. Often, as a client talks to me about a problem, I see images in my mind’s eye and sense in my body a feeling that intimates what my clients are experiencing. In the last few years, I’ve also noticed that a word frequently comes to mind that seems related to how the client feels, and a few minutes later, he or she says that specific word. At first I thought this was merely déjà vu, so I wrote down the words as they appeared in my mind and waited for the client to say them, to verify that this experience was real.
Intuition helps me respond in the moment to the needs of the moment, improvising, subtly directing the therapy in a deeper, more forward-moving way than theory, technique, intellect, and experience alone allow. When I feel like I am “on,” the sense of what to do comes effortlessly from a place larger and richer than my conscious mind can reveal.