This blog is about my own journey to discover my true self, to relate some of my experiences from the past, and also to describe the training I am currently having to become a Life Coach. It is my hope that in looking through some of these posts you may gain some insight into your own quest for inner truth.
Studies carried out by Lewicki et al (1987) take this non-conscious processing phenomenon a step further to show how we can also learn and improve our ability to make judgments and decisions at a non-conscious level of awareness. With rapid sequences of a target appearing on a screen, participants had to predict where the target would appear. Participants were unaware of a subtle relationship between the sequence of target locations on the first six trials and the location of the target on the seventh. Thus knowing the relationship would allow accurate prediction for the seventh trial. Each trail was flashed rapidly on a screen so the participants had no way of consciously analyzing the sequences. The results showed that they improved with practice in a manner significantly greater than that which would be expected simply through familiarity with the task. The participants had implicitly learned the causal relationship between a sequence of predictors and target despite the impossibility of conscious analysis.
Liberman (2000) carried out similar studies using patients with Parkinson’s disease and patients with Huntington’s disease. These patients have damage in parts of the brain known as the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia are a group of nerve clusters located deep in the middle of the brain. These cells function together as a cohesive unit and have connections going to and from the cortex, thalamus and other parts of the brain. They are associated with a variety of functions including, voluntary motor control, learning habits, cognitive, and emotional functions, and selection of actions. Liberman’s studies showed that the patients were unable to perform well in the non-conscious learning tasks. These and further studies carried out by Liberman using neuroimaging techniques suggest that the basal ganglia play an important role in the ability to process and learn from information acquired at a non-conscious level.
It would not be unreasonable to take these findings and apply them to the broader context of intuition, at least in some aspects, where we are sometimes able to make effective decisions without consciously knowing all the information available to us. In other words there may be times when we think that we “know” something without being able to explain it, or when our body seems to be telling us something, and we decide to listen to our “hunch”, but in fact we are probably taking in some information that we are unaware of and processing it at a non-conscious level, causing our body to react. Furthermore, it would be reasonable to assume that this ability could be improved with practice.
So does all this answer our question about where the intuitive process originates from? Of course there is still a lot more research to be done in the field of neurobiology, but the evidence so far does point to the notion that, at least to some degree, intuition works through the physical senses at a non-conscious level. From this perspective intuition could be viewed as being a cognitive function, having its basis in the neurological structures of the basal ganglia in our brain.
Hmm… well that rather takes the magic and the mystery out of intuition! Or does it? We should remember that the scientific evidence is focused on cognitive information processing. There are many other aspects of intuition which would be difficult to be explained by the sort of scientific results discussed above, such as having glimpses of future or distant events, or mystical revelations about the purpose of existence. Indeed the subjective experience of intuition is just as important, if not more so, than having an explanation of the physical mechanics. Living with, and using intuition can impart such confidence to a person that it can transform one’s life. In the following posts we will look at the spiritual context of intuition, and how it can give you a greater sense of control over your life.
Where does intuition come from? Does it come from outside of and beyond the senses, located in some capacity of humans that science doesn’t yet understand? Or does it originate in the physical senses at some non-conscious level of awareness?
When we have an experience of intuition it is often associated with some type of feeling in our body. It may be something in “the pit of the stomach”, a “gut feeling”, a tingling sensation on our skin or behind the neck, or a constricted feeling in out chest. So it would seem that some biological process is involved. Whether this may be an outcome of intuition or the generating process of intuitive understanding is a question which a number of researchers have attempted to answer.
Several researchers have linked intuition with specific “body cues”, suggesting that the body’s responses can be used as a means of recognizing and using intuition. Bechara et al (1997) carried out an interesting study in which participants had to play a game involving risk but without knowing the rules. The researchers found that the participants generated significant skin conductance responses before engaging in higher risks even though they were not consciously aware of the risk. In effect their bodies were telling them “hey, watch out! This is risky!” Psychology tells us that many cognitive processes take place at an unconscious level. Research suggests that we are continuously taking in information about our environment and processing it at some non-conscious level.
In a study by Lewicki (1986) participants were shown photos of facial expressions and were able to detect minute variations of the basic proportions of the human face. The participants reported feeling that something was wrong with the faces, but were not able to specify what exactly. In another study by Ambady & Rosenthal (1993) undergraduates watched a 6 second clip of a teacher giving a seminar with the sound turned off. They were then asked to rate the teaching ability of the teacher. Their rating was then compared to those of other students who had actually been present in the seminar of the teacher. They found a significant correlation between ratings of the students who only had visual information about the teacher compared with those who were present in the seminar.
These studies suggest that we are able to process a lot of information at a non-conscious level and subsequently make judgments based on that information. It would seem that our body can react to this information even before we have consciously processed it. Many of our natural instincts function in this way, such as the evolutionary fears that some people have of the dark or snakes. So could intuition be the same as instinct? There seems to be general consensus among researchers that instinct is seen as distinct from intuition in that instincts are biological processes which are “hardwired” or based on autonomic nervous system responses, such as closing one’s eye in the presence of bright light. These responses are innate capabilities which do not arise as a result of experiential cognitive processes. Whilst we may be able to learn to suppress some instincts such as our fear of the dark, our instincts are an innate part of us which are not learned or developed as you would a skill. Kautz (2003) describes intuition as “instinctual knowledge” but instinct is a biologically based process and is unchanging, whereas although intuition has connections with physiological phenomena it is something which can be deliberately developed and improved.
So intuition, at least in some form, most likely uses non-conscious cognitive processes, and manifests itself as observable bodily responses. If we could learn to recognise those physiological signs as indicators of intuition, then in theory we could train and develop our intuition as a skill.
So why am I interested intuition? Well I have experienced things which apparently go beyond the realm of the physical. For me these experiences are real and I relate them to my connection with my Higher Self, the Divinity within me. But I recognize that these experiences are universal and are shared by people across different cultures and spiritual traditions, being expressed with different language. So I became interested in the concept of intuition because it strikes me as being universal and to some extent quite a neutral term that might be used equally by a Christian, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, or anyone from any other religious school of thought. Of course it is also a word commonly used in secular language, having no religious connection, and so might appeal to people who have no religious or spiritual leanings, and who perhaps prefer to talk about the potential of human capabilities without all the trappings of spiritual labels.
So I guess any discussion about intuition should probably start with the question: What is intuition? Now the answer to this could vary enormously depending on your spiritual and cultural background. To you, the reader, I ask what do you think intuition is? How would you define it? And have you experienced it? Is it something that features largely in your life?
When talking of intuition some people may think of those sudden moments of understanding. They may think of when they decided to do something without knowing exactly why, but they somehow knew it was the right thing at the time. Some people may think of when they met someone for the first time and had a persistent feeling that something wasn’t right or for some reason, which they couldn’t explain, they just didn’t take to that person. Some people might think of times when they had a “hunch” about something, or when they had a “gut feeling” of what to do or say in some situation.
Intuition is also a term used by some people to refer to some “paranormal” phenomena, such as having a premonition, or seeing some event outside of the normal range of the senses. Other people might also use intuition when referring to dreams, visions, meditation, or hypnosis. In such cases there is often a feeling of receiving some knowledge that would otherwise have been unavailable to them. More religious people might also use the term when describing their connection with the deity or deities of their particular religious belief.
So the word intuition could cover a very wide spectrum of phenomena, ranging from common everyday experiences to the more mystical. From the types of examples mentioned above one thing which seems to be a common thread is that it always involves obtaining some previously unknown information by some means other than the usual conscious awareness of the physical senses. Hmmm… sounds rather mysterious. But is it?
In the monastery I learned, among other things, to gain an impression, albeit somewhat vague, of what animals and people are thinking/feeling without having to interact with them up close. I used to practice this a lot on my walks with my dog… whenever I saw an animal from a distance I would hold up my hand, palm towards the animal, and take note of what I felt. Sometimes I could feel some warmth in my hand, sometimes I felt some emotion such as a mild pleasure of eating, or a feeling of curiosity wanting to know what was under the soil as the bird pecked around, or a nervousness (and sometimes panic when my dog decided to chase after it!). Occasionally I would see from afar one of the other monks approaching, and briefly I would get an idea of how he was feeling; stressed, or tired, or happy about something, or upset.
For me these experiences were examples of being in tune with my Divinity and being able to use my mind to “extend” my physical senses. I was using the non-conscious part of my senses to bring information into my conscious awareness. It certainly wasn’t anything mysterious. With my academic training in psychology I was curious if this skill I was using could be explained from a scientific point of view. All the time our brain is registering and processing information which is outside of our conscious awareness. This information can be from internal sources, such as memories, and the external sources of our physical senses. Recently I have come across some fascinating research that links this type of intuition to particular areas of the brain, and their associated cognitive processes. In my next post on this topic we will take a little journey through the brain and how it provides us with this amazing tool of intuition.
In the meantime I’d love to hear if anyone else has had any experiences of intuition. How does intuition manifest in your life? Are you able to control it? Do you think it is something that can be developed?
When I entered my mother’s house I experienced something very new. It was good to see my mother again, but that wasn’t what was overwhelming me. It hadn’t been that long since I last saw her as she used to visit me in the monastery two or three times a year. No, this most extraordinary sensation was not about her. As I stepped through the doorway and walked along the hallway I was surprised by the way in which the objects of the house called out to me! Especially the paintings. They immediately caught my attention with a sort of vibration I can only describe as being a brightly coloured noise. Of course they were not physically making any noise. Nor were they glowing with a light of their own. I had seen them before when I lived here many years ago. But from the corner of my eye they seemed to be luminescing in vivid colours. I could almost “hear” something from them as I passed by. When I stopped and studied one of them I was sucked into the detail of the picture; first the expression on the face of the person in the portrait, the look in her eyes as the light reflected from her pupils, the thoughts behind those eternally gazing eyes, the feelings she had in that moment whilst she was posing for the artist, the hair style and her fashion sense which reflected her emotional and psychological state at that age. Then I was drawn to the textures of the canvas, the ageing oil colour, showing the strokes of the palette knife and brush made by the artisit so long ago. Those strokes had been created in one instant as an expression of the artist’s thoughts and feelings, and they had dried to leave an almost eternal imprint of his or her personality on this canvas. Such a strong urge had driven this artist to invest so much time, patience and creative energy to produce this picture. The vibration of the desire to create and express had been captured and frozen in time, and now generations later the energy of those feelings was still being transmitted, almost as if the artist themself were here before me.
I didn’t want my mum to think that I was going mad or that I had been brain-washed in the monastery or something, so I tried to act normally and not stare at the pictures like a nutter! Walking around the house was an extraordinary experience as I was able to interact like this with all the objects there. Most of the things were from my childhood, and so carried with them many memories which clouded somewhat the impressions of those objects. However, it was the paintings which were emanating the strongest vibrations. They had been the focus for such strong feelings when they were produced that I could almost hear the personalities of their creators calling out. So sensitive was I after my years in the environment of Skanda Vale, that I actually felt uncomfortable to be sitting in a room with several pictures hanging on the wall. It was, however, remarkable and fascinating to be able to see and feel so much from these pictures, something which I had never experienced before.
I had never really been particularly interested in art, holding the (somewhat ignorant) view that the majority of artists were rather pretentious. And all that time people wasted wandering around vast, stuffy art galleries, getting tired and bored… what was the point of it all!? But now I could see so much in a painting!
“Wow!” I thought. “The first chance I get I’m going to visit an art gallery!”
It would, however, be quite some time before I would get to realise this wish. I first needed to learn to control my openess to the vibration of energies, as I was about to get a fright from some of the ancient ghosts of this old English market town.
Many of us, in fact I would say probably all of us, have experienced moments of inspiration that have guided us down the right path; “gut feelings” that have prompted us to make the best decisions. But how often have those feelings been mixed up with doubts and anxieties that what you are doing is the right thing? How can you be sure that it isn’t just your ego, or some influence of expectations imposed on you by other people?
This question came up in today’s ICA class about Spiritual Coaching. In response the discussion explored how, with practice and experience, it’s possible to learn to discern the voices in your head and to be able to trust that of your Intuition. One of the most important factors in learning to recognize your intuition seems to be creating a quiet space in which you can calm your mind and still your thoughts. If you do this you will find that as the frenetic chitter-chatter of your thoughts slows down so too do your anxieties and doubts. Then the voice of you Intuition, or Higher Self, or whatever you want to call it, becomes stronger and clearer. When you follow that voice it feels good and you just “know” it is right.
This pratice of connecting with your Intuition is a skill which requires a little training, but which everyone can do. There are many ways to develope your Intuition, and the way you choose to do it will depend on your cultural and spiritual background. Indeed the concept of Intuition is quite universal, being expressed through the many different languages of modern and ancient society. I am going to be exploring this topic further in upcoming posts, as it is in my opinion so important not only for coaching but for life in general. I invite readers to add to this discussion and together we’ll delve deeper into this powerful part of our nature, journeying through the many facets of transformational and transpersonal human experience.
At work we are often accountable to our boss or to clients. This accountability can sometimes be necessary to get us to fulfill our commitments, especially when it involves a task that we don’t enjoy so much, or a long-term project where maintaining the momentum can be challenging.
The same principle applies in coaching. The process of personal change, and of achieving goals can sometimes take longer than we at first think. It may also be more difficult than we initially realized.
Bringing about personal improvement requires that we be accountable to ourselves. When we want to achieve personal goals for ourselves we don’t have an external boss checking up on us. We only have ourselves to answer to when we succeed or fail in fulfilling the promises we make to ourselves.
There may be many reasons why we aren’t able to keep our own self-commitments, from not trusting ourselves, not being in alignment with our values, not thinking carefully before making the commitment, and being unaware of underlying beliefs which hold us back. Working with a coach, a client can explore why they haven’t been able to achieve the things they want.
Accountability is a major factor in the coaching process, and runs parallel to other techniques and strategies in order to empower the client to carry out the actions agreed on in the sessions and successfully achieve their goals. When the client knows that in the next session the coach will ask about their progress on a piece of homework, then s/he is more likely to accomplish it. If their were no-one checking up it would be very easy to put it off, or relegate it to a low priority with a lesser chance of getting done. Similar to the boss at work, the coach provides the external accountability which is often necessary to give that extra push to the client to get them to take action. In the process the client also learns ways to strengthen their own self-trust and to be more accountable to themselves.
Here are some interesting questions for you to reflect on:
Do you hold yourself accountable for the things you said you would do? How can you improve this area of your life?
In what areas of your life are you held accountable? How does this work for you?
What are some areas of your life that you have struggled to make change in, despite wanting to do so?
Entering the London Tube system was a daunting experience. Here I was about to come into uncomfortably close proximity to characters of every conceivable type… homeless, alcoholics, Goths who look like the walking dead, punks itching for a fight, cold-looking businessmen, scantily-dressed wild teenagers, heavy-metal freaks covered in tattoos and multiple body-piercings, and (possibly the most frightening) over-zealous religious fanatics trying to convert anyone in their path!
For the last 11 years all I had seen each day were a few animals, the other monks, and some visiting pilgrims. I definitely wasn’t ready for this encounter with London’s concentrated mix of worldly energies. As I left Paddington Station’s train platform I took one last gulp of fresh air and headed in the direction of the Underground entrance which would take me down beneath the concrete of the city.
The mechanical escalators rattled and rumbled as they carried me progressively deeper into the subterranean bowels of London. Fresh air became a distant memory as it was replaced by the fetid and dirty smell of the Underground network. Escalator after escalator, turning many corners, cutting a path through the crowds of strange people, getting bumped and pushed. All the while with the oppressive sensation of being deep underground with the weight of the bustling metropolis above. It struck me how so many humans are trying to survive all cramped together like sardines… and in such unnatural conditions. It’s hardly surprising that there is so much stress and aggression in the world!
Before long I was starting to feel quite nauseas and light-headed. It was at about this point that I instinctively exercised my survival skill of blocking out surrounding vibrations. In the monastery I hadn’t had much need to do that. Now suddenly I found myself doing it automatically. Instead of having all my senses extended out beyond the normal physical range, now I retracted them all into myself, shutting out all the diverse feelings from the environment around me. In this state I effectively “switched off” my sensitivity, being aware now of only the superficial sights and sounds around me, leaving my senses feeling somewhat dull in comparison. Curiously this reaction had kicked-in automatically like some kind of survival mechanism, one which I would come to rely on frequently. I now continued my journey like a horse with its blinkers on, seeing only what I needed to in order to get to my destination.
That destination was my mother’s house in the town that was home to the person I used to be many years ago before I entered the monastery.