On awakening the intuitive mind as part of a modern lifestyle

The awakened mind lives by direct, intuitive insight. With its silent, non-judgmental awareness of what is immediately at hand, it isn't hindered by the cumbersome, thinking self. It is nimble, creative, and remarkably effective.

"By dwelling in nothingness you are not obsessed with anything at all; thus you spontaneously enter a nonresistant state of mind and so merge with the Way."

-- from "Treatise on forgetting", in Taoist meditation: Methods for cultivating a healthy mind and body, translated by Thomas Cleary.

Thoughts are, in part at least, the brain's way of rehearsing the fulfillment of its desires. The brain produces thoughts as it grapples with reality, usually in response to some need, some dissatisfaction, or some urge for security. Here, thought means not only abstract ideas but also feelings, memories, or any distinct cognitive object.

In this way, thoughts are like an immune-system response, or like tears or mucus, or any other physical response to insult or invasion. Strong desires or fears are themselves irritants that stir the brain to release a further flow of thought, or cognorrhea.

Often thought-flows trigger other desires or fears, which in turn produce further secretions of thought. And so thoughts are mental vexation or arousal, and as such they tend to dominate the field of awareness. Although thoughts are the product of the aroused brain, the brain itself becomes fixated upon its own outpouring of thought and feeling.

The mind can be coaxed to rest in the space between one thought and the next, like the trough between successive waves on a choppy sea. Gradually the mind becomes still, and movements of thought arise and subside without commandeering the brain's cognitive resources.

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Intuition and rational intellect are often viewed as separate or even opposing mental modes. An alternate view is that they are two slightly different aspects of the same characteristic of mind.

A careful phenomenology of reason seems to reveal that the stages of perception that allegedly lead inevitably and continuously from premise to conclusion are actually composed of discrete random leaps. The apparent smoothness is actually a product of subsequent discourse and post hoc mental modeling.

In other words, the usual distinction made between intuition as a sudden shift in conceptualization, in contrast to reason as a plodding, algorithmic ratcheting toward truth, is a fallacy. Both involve unmotivated transitions in the perceptual frame. Both take place beneath the level of conscious interference.

The difference between them is slight. Rational thinking has a higher content of previously achieved insights, whereas intuition is more labile and further afield from accumulated conditioning. Crudely put, intellect is fossilized intuition, and intuition is unanchored intellect.

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One interesting premise, presented here without any attempt at proof, is that intuition arises naturally and spontaneously when the mind is unburdened by fixations or compelling constructs of thought. When awareness is free, open, and still, the subtler, intuitive mind gently emerges.

Just as an itch is an arousal of the nervous system due to localized irritation, a thought or feeling is an arousal of the mind. However, such arousal does not necessarily require immediate or reflexive response.

river sunset

One practice might involve occasionally pausing in the midst of everyday activity and being mindful that you don't have to "scratch the itch". Instead, you can become aware of the urge and recognize what would be a patterned, stereotypical, predictable response. You can quietly allow that response to go unanswered and instead open receptively to a fresh, unpredicted response.

With practice this process can take place with surprising alacrity, and the intuitive response can unfold more quickly and effortlessly than the conditioned, habitual response because the inertial response requires cognitive resources.

The intuitive mind instantly recognizes what the automatic or habitual response would be in a given situation, and then chooses a different response, possibly slightly different or possibly radically different.

Of course, intuition also demands cognitive resources, and it would be interesting to find an empirical way to measure and compare intuition to ordinary conscious self-management, but from a personal, experiential perspective the intuitive response feels "lighter weight" and more graceful. Once one begins to experience both modes, the flavor of each becomes apparent.

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Inside the head of every human seems to be a "little captain", an ever-present ineffable sense of being in charge of one's body and of the focus of one's attention. Even in the unfortunate case of a person who has lost control of the body, it is the little captain within who has lost that control.

An interesting fact is that the brain itself makes decisions and initiates action before the little captain even senses the urge to act (see Benjamin Libet). The captain, or willful self, who directs actions and registers experience, is really a delayed shadow or echo of the silent brain beneath.

In a sense, the captain is only an excited state of the brain. If the captain's activity (and now, let us replace captain with mind) subsides, then the brain directs activity without the vexation of thought or feeling.

The "underlying brain" controls action without the intervention, filtering, and resource drain imposed implicitly by the conscious mind. The brain when calm is naturally intuitive, spontaneous, fluid, and responsive without being reactive.

The little captain is charged with the responsibility of "getting things done", but ironically it is the silent underlying brain that has the more remarkable ability to act in harmonious and effective ways, centering on events in the immediate, vivid present rather than being distracted by reverie or by distorting and limiting thoughts.

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Meditation involves watching the activity of your own mind almost as if it were the mind of someone else. You become a guest in your own body, in a sense. That ego-disidentification is what allows experience to happen without filtering, and what allows action to spring from the organism unself-consciously and intuitively.

It's important to realize that meditation does not involve making corrections to one's state of mind. The meditator observes without correcting or attempting to change mental activity.

Through meditation, one becomes more aware of what one is naturally and ordinarily seeing and hearing. One becomes more fully connected with experience. Nothing needs to be changed. The meditator simply witnesses carefully what the mind and body are doing.

The awakening mind awakens itself, and the process cannot be rushed. It is a process that is absolutely personal. By its very nature it defies verbal description.

'Awakened mind' is quite different from 'concentrated mind'. The difference is that concentration blocks out all but the object of concentration, whereas awakening allows the mind to spontaneously alight upon any object, without fixating anywhere.

The awakened mind continuously returns to whatever is present at hand and examines it from new points of view, taking in all aspects. When ego-fixations no longer dominate mental activity, the mind naturally shifts attention to objects at hand.

The strange secret of awakening is surrender. At first the intuitive mind seems totally untrustworthy. After all, there's nothing there; intuition grows out of silence and stillness. Trusting intuition is like starting over again each time, having the mind of a beginner.

We hear from ancient sages that gentleness and yielding are stronger and tougher than hardness or brute power. The gentlest way is the middle way; not too much of one thing and not too little of the other.

And yet, although babies are the softest and most supple, they cannot build shelter or gather food. Only the fierce, or in the case of the modern world, the relentlessly systematic and focused, can endure.

How can we risk trusting the intuitive, awakened mind when we have responsibilities and important things to take care of? How can we survive in a competitive world by cultivating a yielding nature?

Our responsibilities are what seem to tether us to the willful self. They hook our awareness when we would rather be open to the cool stillness beneath. We need intuition for hardcore realists.

Ancient sages urged us to refrain from willful action and instead to trust the Tao, but the people who seem to thrive in today's world are those who seize their own destiny. How can one's destiny be both in one's own hands and also in the hands of Heaven?

That's also a matter for intuition to solve.

Michael Webb, 2003

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