Anyone who seriously thinks about what intuition is and how it works is bound to find that our common use of the term is severely lacking. In this essay we will carefully examine the meaning of intuition. Before diving into that task, it must be stated that different people have different things to say about intuition, and within certain occult or mystical schools the word may have more or less specific meanings. This essay is not intended to contradict any other perspective, though it may do so, but is simply an exposition of one person’s thoughts and experiences in the study and practice of intuitive illumination.
The Literal Meaning of “Intuition”
Most commonly, people speak of intuition in terms of “gut feelings” or hunches. However, if we examine the original and literal meaning of the word “intuition” it becomes clear that the common understanding is woefully inadequate. The proper definition of intuition is:
1 : quick and ready insight 2 a : immediate apprehension or cognition b : knowledge or conviction gained by intuition c : the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.
The etymology of the words is:
Middle English “intuycyon,” from Late Latin “intuitio” (the act of contemplating) from Latin “intuEri” (to look at, contemplate), from “in- + tuEri” (to look at).
This word was apparently developed in an effort to describe what we would literally call “in-sight” or “inner seeing,” which is significantly different from a hunch or gut feeling. Even the modern scholarly use of the word is inaccurate, where “intuition” most frequently describes the expectations one might have or the conclusions one might reach from surface observations. An example of this is when a scientist says that the explanation for a certain phenomenon is “counter-intuitive,” simply meaning that it didn’t fit with the expectations or conclusions that seemed obvious at an earlier and less informed stage of observation. This perversion of the word “intuition” is probably based upon the faulty assumption of many scientists that empirical reasoning is the pinnacle of all human faculties of consciousness.
According to the etymology, the inner sight of intuition does not come from visceral reactions or mere surface observations, but from contemplation. So to further our understanding, we should also carefully examine the word “contemplation.” The proper definition is:
1 a : concentration on spiritual things as a form of private devotion b : a state of mystical awareness of God’s being 2 : an act of considering with attention : study 3 : the act of regarding steadily.
The etymology is:
Latin “contemplatus,” past participle of “contemplari,” from “com + templum” (a space [temple] marked out for observation of auguries [divintations, omens]).
So, intuition is what happens when we receive illumination or enlightenment while steadily looking inward, concentrating with a sense of devotion and a desire to receive understanding and wisdom directly from the divine.
Staying true to the definitions and etymologies, the contemplative methods of mysticism and magic are the means by which we focus our minds, purifying and consecrating an inner space to be filled by the Light. In such moments we lift up our desires and then join our consciousness with the still and silent void. In essence, we make a sacrifice of our desires and intentions, offering and releasing them to the heavens. Our attentiveness remains and we simply abide in complete faith that we will receive what we need, even if it seems to be nothing at all.
As noted by Stewart, this process does not require occult mechanisms such as Tarot, astrology, the I Ching or Runes, though they can serve as excellent catalysts for achieving intuitive insight and mystical illumination. The important thing to remember is that these physical tools, their symbolism and traditional explanations should not be accepted as a substitute for the real magic of intuition, which occurs within one’s consciousness in that place referred to by Jesus when he said:
But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret, and thy father who seeth in secret will repay thee.
Matthew 6:6, Douay-Rheims Bible.
In this place of attentive rest, we may actually witness a sudden pulse of energy entering consciousness in that fraction of a second before an idea or an image begins to take shape in our minds. Sometimes the energy comes in a very simple and gentle manner, as though a voice has whispered a few words that instantly bring a clarity that only moments before was completely elusive. At other times, the energy spawns images that flash into our minds to provide a perspective or a chain of associations that lead to deeper levels of understanding.
While we can receive intuition with such readiness that a complete understanding seems delivered all at once, it is often the case that an intuition has a mysterious quality to it. We know that we have received something profound, and yet we are at a loss to comprehend it, to form an adequate concept or verbal expression of it. In these cases intuition is much like the planting of a seedling that must be nurtured for it to bloom into the gnostic flower that is its potential.
All of the scenarios noted above can be classified as intentional experiences of intuition, those more directly perceived because of a contemplative effort to receive understanding from higher sources. However, intuition can be experienced in other ways and, in fact, we are receiving it all the time whether we are aware of it or not. Everyday, and in countless situations, we do not even notice that we have ideas, words, images and feelings enter our consciousness that cannot be directly linked to our preceding thoughts by the processes of logic and conscious association. Though not all of these situations are truly intuitive in that they come directly from higher sources, those which have the qualities of prophecy, genius, creativity, elegance, perfect accuracy or completeness are very likely to be gifts “from on high.”
As noted earlier, intuition is commonly thought of as a hunch or a gut feeling. It is certainly true that some of our hunches and gut feelings lead to actions or realizations that have the qualities of prophecy, genius, creativity, elegance, perfect accuracy or completeness, though often they do not. Dreams may also have these qualities. So might hunches and dreams also be intuitive in nature? Before we can answer that question, we must take a closer look at what happens when intuition enters consciousness.
When intuition enters the personal levels of the psyche, it has effects in the intellect, emotions and physical body. In the intellect, intuition often first produces a simple and instantaneous knowing that something significant has been received, and then tends to quickly stimulate the formation of new or more refined concepts that reflect a deeper level of understanding and wisdom. Sounds, words, and visions may arise in the imagination. In the emotions, intuition often produces some sense of excitement or desire, often of a pleasant nature though not always. Physically, intuition can produce feelings like a jolt of electricity, a shiver of nervous energy in the spine, a vague but persistent agitation or urge, or even specific feelings of pressure or temperature in certain points of the body. The combination of physical and emotional sensations can often produce a very strong drive to take a particular action.
Pure Intuition and Its Distortions
In this discussion, we are defining pure intuition as those impulses of formative energy that enter one’s awareness from “higher” cosmic or divine sources. Given this condition, we can rightfully expect intuition to be of great reliability and validity, if not entirely trustworthy. However, we also know that there are times when we feel certain that intuition has spoken unerringly, only later to discover that we were wrong in our expectations. Unless we completely abandon our faith and experience in intuition, we must conclude that inaccuracy is more likely due to the distortions of our intellectual, emotional and physical responses than to any flaws in the pure formative energy itself. Most of us know from experience that visions, dreams and hunches can sometimes be more about repressed desires or fantasies working their way into consciousness than they are about pure intuition.
How does it happen that one’s own unconscious mental and emotional contents and processes can corrupt or even be mistaken for pure intuition? Simply put, it is because they are functional aspects of the very mechanisms by which we recognize and respond to intuition. The intellect is full of concepts, associations, memories and imagery formed from previous experiences. Our emotions are intimately connected to the basic drives and instincts of our physical nature, and are triggered by the combination of sensation and judgment that we call perception. Furthermore, human consciousness has a filtering mechanism that enables us to focus on specific perceptions, which necessarily results in the ongoing formation of our own personal storehouses of unconscious memories and associations.
One’s problems with intuition are therefore likely to increase with the degree to which one’s awareness is focused on or clouded by things other than the immediate entry of intuition into consciousness.
It is true that we can often sense the intuitive power and potential of visions, dreams and hunches, and can feel strongly convinced that we know what they mean or that they are pointing in a certain direction. It is also clear that some people do have exceptional abilities to discern the intuitive content in such occurrences, either as a natural talent or resulting from years of experience. But it nevertheless remains that such occurrences often come without our conscious bidding and, in the absence of contemplative focus, they must therefore come through our personal filters, and thereby are likely to be more distorted with unconscious associations.
The challenge we now face is ensuring that the pure formative energy of intuition is least distorted as it filters down through consciousness, while also allowing intuition to work its magic on all levels of our being. After all, the gift of intuition is given in response to our desire to receive understanding, but understanding is sterile and practically meaningless if we do not also feel inspired and take action. So how do we facilitate this process?
From Intuition to Understanding, Inspiration and Action
The experience of intuition is a result of contemplation, which is the making of a consecrated space in consciousness and the offering of a specific need and desire to the higher realms of consciousness. It is in the interpretation of an intuition that we develop an understanding related to our need and desire, and it is our emotional response that provides the inspiration to act upon it. Self-awareness is the key element that enables us to accurately understand and respond to intuition.
Understanding is essentially an intellectual process and so it is useful for us to begin with one of the most basic tenets of knowledge in both philosophy and science. Every good philosopher knows that when one fully understands a question its answer is more likely to become apparent. Likewise, every good scientist knows that more specific research questions lead to more specific research results.
Thus the more specifically one understands one’s need then the more one is likely to attain a quick and complete comprehension of the resulting intuitive experience. In this context, self-awareness includes the degree to which one clearly identifies his or her lack of knowledge or understanding about a specific issue, expressed as a well-crafted question or statement that serves as the subject for contemplation. Intellectual self-awareness also includes attending to one’s thought processes, being very conscious of the way in which one uses (or abuses!) logic and association, including memory and imagination.
In addition to self-awareness, at the intellectual level there is another important key to interpreting intuition, and that is a working familiarity with the symbols and concepts of the traditions to which one is most closely aligned. As Carl Jung and others have shown, in dreams and visions the unconscious mind often makes use of mythological, religious and occult symbolism to stimulate conscious insight. Although there can be exceptions, these images tend to be drawn directly from one’s personal experience and cultural milieu. Furthermore, conscious knowledge of such symbolism isn’t required for the imagery of visions and dreams to be very complex and intricate, for at both subconscious and superconscious levels the mind is always at work forming associations and otherwise processing information, including what has been filtered out of consciousness. This fact is revealed in cases where the imagery or a dream or vision is at first enigmatic, but then deeper understanding dawns in consciousness after further scholarly research. Therefore one has much to gain by ongoing study and meditation upon the symbols and concepts of one’s religious, mythological and philosophical environment.
There is a broad range of emotional experiences that accompany the attainment of insight and understanding. In such moments we may feel anything from ecstatic jubilation to incapacitating sadness, revolting horror or blinding rage. A rich mixture of feelings, some of which may even seem to be in conflict with each other, frequently confronts us. To a great extent, these emotional reactions are based upon our conscious and unconscious hopes, fears, expectations, values, and judgments. These factors are in turn intimately connected with the lower instinctive drives for survival, sex, power and their higher correlates of self-actualization, creativity and knowledge. With emotional self-awareness one can sort out feelings and gain a better understanding of how and why an insight has affected him or her in a particular manner. Thus emotional self-awareness can help us avoid succumbing to misinterpretations or delusions based upon our personal hopes or fears.
Emotional self-awareness also helps us channel our energies in the most appropriate ways, avoiding ill-conceived reactions to intuitive energy. Whether our emotional reactions to an intuition are pleasant or not, they can still serve as the inspirational energy to take effective action. Pleasant feelings often give us the experience of confidence and joy in our actions, and the gratification and reassurance that we experience when we believe that others will also benefit as a result of our actions. Unpleasant feelings may stoke our fires to take courageous action against a perceived wrong, and provide us with the fortitude to persevere in our work even when hope begins to wane.
Self-awareness in our behavioral responses to intuition is of obvious importance. Being mindful of one’s actions and their effects is not only a natural part of any intentional behavior it is a moral responsibility. However, even if we are very skilled and experienced in the contemplative reception and interpretation of intuition, there is no guarantee that our actions will be completely appropriate or effective in achieving the desired or expected results. Therefore we must continually observe our actions, evaluate their results and be ready to experiment with alternatives. A central element in effectively managing that process is honest humility. We must be prepared to let go of our egocentric notions of control and mediate our personal judgments of right and wrong, for they can lead to unwarranted expectations. Sometimes life requires hard lessons, and to assume that an unpleasant experience is the result of having incorrectly understood and responded to an intuition reveals the egocentric bias that good and bad are essentially about pleasure and pain. In other words, at the level of ego we often want to believe that pure intuition will only lead to greater comfort, joy and peace. At length that may be true, but at any given moment it may be that struggle and pain are simply necessary. Experience has taught many of us that what first may seem to be a pleasant thing can later produce great tragedy, and what might initially appear evil may yet prove a wonderful opportunity to witness the hand of God.
Conclusion: The Value of Experience
As we have seen, the reception of intuition can be stimulated by a contemplative act of three stages:
1. Clearly identifying a need for insight and a focal point for contemplation.
2. Lifting up that need and one’s desires within a consecrated space in one’s consciousness.
3. Sacrificing that need and desire to the stillness and silence where we attentively abide with faith that we shall receive what we need.
Should we be graced with the reception of intuition, we may then need to begin a process of interpretation, exercising self-awareness so that we can come to an accurate understanding and respond to our feelings of inspiration in an appropriate and effective manner. Of course, this process is much easier to describe than it typically is to practice, for that part of us which consciously manages this process is only a small percentage of our total being, and we are thus always “in the dark” to a greater or lesser degree.
As the Apostle Paul has said:
For we know in part: and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child. We see now through a glass in a dark manner: but then face to face. Now I know in part: but then I shall know even as I am known. And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.
I Corinthians 13:9-13.
Like all other arts and sciences, the skillful use of intuition demands a devoted practice that is based upon faith and hope. Truly, to receive intuition is an experience of charity, in which we participate when we share it through our actions in the world.