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Through his own efforts, he transformed himself from an apprentice to a mature writer and translator, and from there to a novelist who figured out what to write about, which voice to assume, and how to attack his subject. At some point after he began writing his novel, he underwent a third transformation. Memories and ideas came flooding into his mind. Even as the book kept expanding, he could intuit its overall shape and the relationships between the many tiles of the mosaic. This immense novel had a living, breathing dynamic that was now completely alive within him. He was inside his characters and the whole slice of French society he was writing about. More important, he was completely inside the narrator (who is Proust himself), and in his novel it’s as if we are literally, from the inside, experiencing the thoughts and sensations of another person. He was able to achieve this effect through the intuitive powers he had gained from close to thirty years of perpetual work and analysis.
Like Proust, you must also maintain a sense of destiny, and feel continuously connected to it. You are unique, and there is a purpose to your uniqueness. You must see every setback, failure, or hardship as a trial along the way, as seeds that are being planted for further cultivation, if you know how to grow them. No moment is wasted if you pay attention and learn the lessons contained in every experience. By constantly applying yourself to the subject that suits your inclinations and attacking it from many different angles, you are simply enriching the ground for these seeds to take root. You may not see this process in the present, but it is happening. Never losing your connection to your Life’s Task, you will unconsciously hit upon the right choices in your life. Over time, mastery will come to you.
The high-level intuitive powers we are talking about have roots in our development as the thinking animal; they have an evolutionary purpose that is extremely helpful to understand, and one that is highly relevant to the times in which we live.
The Roots of Masterly Intuition
For nearly all animals, speed is the critical factor in survival. A few seconds can spell the difference between avoiding a predator or meeting death. And for the purposes of such speed, organisms have evolved elaborate instincts. An instinctual response is immediate and is generally triggered by certain stimuli. Sometimes organisms possess instincts that are so finely calibrated to circumstances that they seem to have uncanny abilities.
Take, for instance, the Ammophila wasp. With incredible speed the female Ammophila is able to sting her various victims—spiders, beetles, caterpillars—in precisely the right place to paralyze but not kill them. Into the paralyzed flesh she lays her eggs, providing her larvae with fresh meat to feast upon for several days. In each of these victims the stinging points are different—for instance, with the caterpillar, she must hit at three separate points to paralyze the entire creature. Because it is such a delicate operation, sometimes the Ammophila misses and kills the victim, but generally, her success rate is high enough to ensure the survival of her offspring. In this process there is no time for calculating the kind of victim and the exact spot to hit. It is instant, as if the wasp has a feel for the nerve centers of her various victims, and can sense them from the inside.
Our primitive ancestors had their own sets of instincts, many of which remain buried within us to this day. But as these ancestors slowly developed reasoning powers, they had to detach themselves from their immediate circumstances and depend less on instinct. To notice behavior patterns in the animals they were tracking, they had to connect them to other actions that were not immediately apparent. They had to make similar calculations when it came to locating food sources, or to navigating the long distances they traveled on foot. With this ability to detach themselves from the environment and see patterns, they gained tremendous mental powers, but this development also presented a great danger—increasing amounts of information for the brain to process and a consequent loss of speed in reacting to events.
Such slowness could have spelled doom for us as a species if not for a compensatory power that the human brain developed. Years of tracking particular animals and observing their surroundings gave our ancestors a feel for their environment in all of its complexity. Knowing the behavior patterns of various animals, they could anticipate where predators might strike, and sense where prey might lie. They came to know so well the long distances they traveled that they could negotiate these spaces quickly and effectively, without having to calculate. In other words, they developed a primitive form of intuition. Through continual experience and practice, our ancestors recovered some of the immediacy and speed they had lost. They could respond intuitively instead of instinctually. On this level, intuition was more powerful than instinct in that it was not tied to very specific circumstances or stimuli, but could be applied to a much wider arena of action.
These ancestors’ brains were not yet burdened by all of the information that comes through language or the complexities of living in large groups. Interacting so directly with their environment, they could develop an intuitive feel over the course of a handful years. But for us, living in a much more complex environment, this process can take fifteen to twenty years. Our high-level intuition, however, has its roots firmly in the primitive version.
Intuition, primitive or high level, is essentially driven by memory. When we take in information of any kind, we store it in mnemonic networks in the brain. The stability and durability of these networks depends on repetition, intensity of experience, and how deeply we pay attention. If we are half listening to a vocabulary lesson in a foreign language, we are not likely to retain it on any level. But if we are in the country where the language is spoken, we will hear the same words repeated in context; we will tend to pay deeper attention because we need to, and the memory trace will be that much more stable.
According to the model developed by the psychologist Kenneth Bowers, whenever we encounter a problem—a face we need to recognize, a word or phrase we need to recall—mnemonic networks within the brain become activated as the search for the answer is guided along certain pathways. All of this occurs below the level of consciousness. When a particular network is sufficiently activated, we suddenly become conscious of a possible name for the face, or a phrase that might be appropriate. These are low-level forms of intuition that come to us in our everyday life; we cannot reconstruct the steps that went into recognizing a person’s face and remembering their name.
People who spend years studying a particular subject or field develop so many of these memory networks and pathways that their brains are constantly searching for and discovering connections between various pieces of information. When confronted with a high-level problem, the search goes in a hundred directions below conscious awareness, guided by an intuitive sense of where the answer might lie. All kinds of networks become activated, ideas and solutions suddenly rising to the surface. Those that seem particularly fruitful and appropriate stick in the memory and are acted upon. Instead of having to reason an answer through a step-by-step process, the answer comes to consciousness with a feeling of immediacy. The extremely high number of experiences and memory networks that become hardwired allow the brains of Masters to explore an area that is so wide that it has the dimensions and feel of reality itself, of the dynamic.
For someone like the chess Master Bobby Fischer, the number of times he experienced similar sets of circumstances and witnessed the various movements and reactions of different opponents created powerful memory traces. He internalized incredible numbers of patterns. At some point in his development, all of these memories fused into a feel for the overall dynamic of the game. He was no longer seeing simple moves on the chessboard and recalling various countermoves he had made in the past, but rather was able to see and recollect long sequences of potential moves that presented themselves as fields of force, sweeping the board as a whole. With such a sense for the game, he could entrap his opponents well before they were aware of what was happening, and could finish them off as quickly and precisely as the Ammophila delivered her sting.
In fields such as sports or warfare, or any competitive endeavor where time is of the essence, Masters’ decisions based on intuition will be much more effective than if they had tried to analyze all of the components and figure out the best answer. There is too much information to consider in too short a time. Although the power of intuition was originally developed for the rapidity it brought, it has become something that can be applied to the sciences or the arts, or to any field in which there are complex elements and time is not necessarily the critical factor.
This high-level intuition, like any skill, requires practice and experience. At first, our intuitions might be so faint that we do not pay attention to them or trust them. All Masters talk of this phenomenon. But over time they learn to notice these rapid ideas that come to them. They learn to act on them and verify their validity. Some lead nowhere, but others lead to tremendous insights. Over time, Masters find that they can call up more and more of these high-level intuitions, which are now sparking all over the brain. Accessing this level of thinking on a more regular basis, they can fuse it even more deeply with their rational forms of thinking.
Understand: this intuitive form of intelligence was developed to help us process complex layers of information and gain a sense of the whole. And in the world today, the need to attain such a level of thinking is more critical than ever before. To follow any career path is difficult, and requires the cultivation of much patience and discipline. We have so many elements to master that it can be intimidating. We must learn to handle the technical aspects, the social and political gamesmanship, the public reactions to our work, and the constantly changing picture in our field. When we add to this already-daunting quantity of study the vast amounts of information now available to us, and that we must keep on top of, it all seems beyond our capability.
What happens to many of us when faced with such complexity is that we feel subtly discouraged before we even try anything. More and more people in this overheated environment will be tempted to opt out. They will develop a greater taste for ease and comfort; they will increasingly settle on simplified ideas of reality and conventional ways of thinking; they will fall prey to seductive formulas that offer quick and easy knowledge. They will lose a taste for developing skills that require time and a resilient ego—it can hurt our self-esteem in the initial phases of learning a skill, as we are made so aware of our awkwardness. Such people will rail against the world and blame others for their problems; they will find political justifications for opting out, when in truth they simply cannot handle the challenges of engaging with complexity. In trying to simplify their mental lives, they disconnect themselves from reality and neutralize all of the powers developed by the human brain over so many millions of years.
This desire for what is simple and easy infects all of us, often in ways we are mostly unaware of. The only solution is the following: We must learn how to quiet the anxiety we feel whenever we are confronted with anything that seems complex or chaotic. In our journey from apprenticeship to mastery we must patiently learn the various parts and skills that are required, never looking too far ahead. In moments of perceived crisis, we must develop the habit of maintaining our cool and never overreacting. If the situation is complex and others are reaching for simple black-and-white answers, or for the usual conventional responses, we must make a point of resisting such a temptation. We maintain our Negative Capability and a degree of detachment. What we are doing is gaining a tolerance and even a taste for chaotic moments, training ourselves to entertain several possibilities or solutions. We are learning to manage our anxiety, a key skill in these chaotic times.
To go along with this self-control, we must do whatever we can to cultivate a greater memory capacity—one of the most important skills in our technologically oriented environment. The problem that technology presents us is that it increases the amount of information at our disposal, but slowly degrades the power of our memory to retain it. Tasks that used to exercise the brain—remembering phone numbers, doing simple calculations, navigating and remembering streets in a city—are now performed for us, and like any muscle the brain can grow flabby from disuse. To counteract this, in our spare time we should not simply look for entertainment and distractions. We should take up hobbies—a game, a musical instrument, a foreign language—that bring pleasure but also offer us the chance to strengthen our memory capacities and the flexibility of our brain. In doing so, we can train ourselves to process large amounts of information without feeling anxious or overtaxed.
Faithfully pursuing this course over enough time, we will eventually be rewarded with intuitive powers. That whole living, breathing, changing beast that is our field will become internalized and live within us. Possessing even a part of such power will instantly separate us from all of the others who find themselves overwhelmed and straining to simplify what is inherently complex. We will be able to respond faster and more effectively than others. What seemed chaotic to us before will now seem to be simply a fluid situation with a particular dynamic that we have a feel for and can handle with relative ease.
What is interesting to note is that many Masters who come to possess this high-level intuitive power seem to become younger in mind and spirit with the passing years—something that should be encouraging to us all. They do not need to expend a great deal of energy in order to understand phenomena, and can think creatively with increasing speed. Unless debilitated by disease, they can maintain their spontaneity and mental fluidity well into their seventies and beyond. Among such types are the Zen Master and artist Hakuin, who made paintings in his sixties that are now considered among the greatest works of his time, remarkable for the spontaneity of expression they reveal. Another example is the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, whose surrealist films seemed to get richer and more startling as he reached his sixties and seventies. But the quintessence of this phenomenon would have to be Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin had always been an acute observer of natural phenomena, but these powers only increased with the years. In his seventies and on into his eighties he continued with a series of speculations that are now considered uncannily ahead of his time—including advanced ideas on health and medicine, weather, physics, geophysics, evolution, the use of aircraft for military and commercial purposes, and more. As he aged, he applied his renowned inventiveness to his growing physical weaknesses. Trying to improve his eyesight and quality of life, he invented bifocals. Unable to reach books on the tops of his shelves, he invented an extendible mechanical arm. Needing copies of his own work and not wanting to leave his house, he invented a rolling press that could make an accurate copy of a document in less than two minutes. In his last years, he had insights into politics and the future of America that made people think of him as a seer, as someone with magical abilities. William Pierce, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, met Franklin near the end of his life and wrote: “Dr. Franklin is well known to be the greatest philosopher of the present age; all the operations of nature he seems to understand…. He is eighty-two years old, and possesses an activity of mind equal to a youth of twenty-five years of age.” It is interesting to speculate what depths of understanding such Masters could have reached if they had lived even longer. Perhaps in the future, with life expectancy increasing, we will witness examples of the Benjamin Franklin variety stretching to even more advanced ages.
The Return to Reality
People can argue endlessly about what constitutes reality, but let us start our definition with a simple, undeniable fact: some 4 billion years ago, life began on this planet in the shape of simple cells. These cells, perhaps even one cell in particular, were the common ancestors to all life forms that followed. From that single source, various branches of life emerged. Some 1.2 billion years ago there appeared the first multicellular creatures; 600 million years ago there emerged perhaps the greatest development of all—organisms with a central nervous system, the starting point that eventually led to the brains we now possess. From the Cambrian explosion of life some 500 million years ago came the first simple animals, followed by the first vertebrates. Some 360 million years ago we see the first traces on land of amphibious creatures, and 120 million years ago the first mammals. Branching off in a new mammalian direction about 60 million years ago, we see signs of the earliest primates from whom we are directly descended. The earliest human ancestors arrived some 6 million years ago, and 4 million years later our most recent ancestor, Homo erectus. And just 200,000 years ago the anatomically modern human emerged, with more or less the same brain size that we now possess.
In this remarkably complex chain of circumstances, we can identify, at certain turning points, a single ancestor from whom we humans have evolved (the first cells, simple animals, mammals, then primates). Some archeologists have speculated about a single female ancestor from whom all modern humans have descended. Moving up the chain, backwards in time, it is clear that who we are today—our particular physiological makeup—is intimately connected to each one of these original ancestors, as far back as the first cells of life. Since all life forms are descended from this common beginning, they are all interconnected in some way, and we humans are intimately implicated in this network. This is undeniable.
Let us call this interrelatedness of life the ultimate reality. And in relation to this reality, the human mind tends to go in one of two directions. On the one hand, the mind tends to move away from this interconnectedness and focus instead on the distinctions between things, taking objects out of their contexts and analyzing them as separate entities. At the extreme this tendency leads to highly specialized forms of knowledge. In the world today, we can see many signs of this tendency—the microscopic divisions between fields in our universities, the narrowest of specializations in the sciences. In the culture at large, people will make the finest distinctions between closely related or overlapping subjects, and argue endlessly about the differences. They will distinguish between military and civilian society, even though in a democracy such a distinction is not so easy to make. (Perhaps keeping people and fields of study so rigorously separated can be considered the ultimate ploy of those in power, a version of divide and conquer.) At this level of thinking, a sense of the interrelatedness of life and phenomena is lost, and in becoming so specialized ideas can become quite weird and disconnected from reality.
On the other hand, there is the opposing tendency of the brain to want to make connections between everything. This generally occurs among individuals who pursue knowledge far enough that these associations come to life. Although this tendency is easier to spot in Masters, we can see in history certain movements and philosophies in which this return to reality becomes widespread in a culture, part of the zeitgeist. For instance, in the ancient world there was Taoism in the East, and Stoicism in the West, both movements that endured for centuries. In Taoism, there is the concept of the Way, and in Stoicism, that of the Logos—the ordering principle of the universe that connects all living things. As Marcus Aurelius expresses it, “Keep reminding yourself of the way things are connected, of their relatedness. All things are implicated in one another and in sympathy with each other. This event is the consequence of some other one. Things push and pull on each other, and breathe together, and are one.” Perhaps the greatest example of this was the Renaissance, a cultural movement for which the ideal was the Universal Man—a person who has managed to connect all branches of knowledge and approximate the intellectual reach of the Creator.
Perhaps today we are witnessing the early signs of a return to reality, a Renaissance in modern form. In the sciences, the first seeds of this began with Faraday, Maxwell, and Einstein, who focused on the relationships between phenomena, fields of force instead of individual particles. In the larger sense, many scientists are now actively seeking to connect their various specializations to others—for instance, how neuroscience intersects so many other disciplines. We see signs of this also in the growing interest in theories of complexity applied to such disparate fields as economics, biology, and computers. We can see it in the broadening of our thinking to ecosystems, as a way to truly conceptualize the dynamic interactions in nature. We can see it in health and medicine, in the sane approach many are taking to consider the body as a whole. This trend is the future, because the purpose of consciousness itself has always been to connect us to reality.
As individuals, we can participate in this trend simply by pursuing mastery. In our apprenticeships, we naturally begin by learning the parts and making various distinctions—the right and wrong way to proceed, the individual skills to master and their particular techniques, the various rules and conventions that govern the group. In the Creative-Active we begin to melt these distinctions as we experiment with, shape, and alter these conventions to suit our purposes. And in mastery we come full circle, returning to a sense of the whole. We intuit and see the connections. We embrace the natural complexity of life, making the brain expand to the dimensions of reality instead of shrinking it to the narrowest of specializations. This is the inevitable outcome of deep immersion in a field. We can define intelligence as moving toward thinking that is more contextual, more sensitive to the relationships between things.
Think of it this way: the ultimate distinction you make is between yourself and the world. There is the inside (your subjective experience) and there is the outside. But every time you learn something, your brain is altered as new connections are formed. Your experience of something that occurs in the world physically alters your brain. The boundaries between you and the world are much more fluid than you might imagine. When you move toward mastery, your brain becomes radically altered by the years of practice and active experimentation. It is no longer the simple ecosystem of years gone by. The brain of a Master is so richly interconnected that it comes to resemble the physical world, and becomes a vibrant ecosystem in which all forms of thinking associate and connect. This growing similarity between the brain and complex life itself represents the ultimate return to reality.
STRATEGIES FOR ATTAINING MASTERY
The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift .
Mastery is not a function of genius or talent. It is a function of time and intense focus applied to a particular field of knowledge. But there is another element, an X factor that Masters inevitably possess, that seems mystical but that is accessible to us all. Whatever field of activity we are involved in, there is generally an accepted path to the top. It is a path that others have followed, and because we are conformist creatures, most of us opt for this conventional route. But Masters have a strong inner guiding system and a high level of self-awareness. What has suited others in the past does not suit them, and they know that trying to fit into a conventional mold would only lead to a dampening of spirit, the reality they seek eluding them.
And so inevitably, these Masters, as they progress on their career paths, make a choice at a key moment in their lives: they decide to forge their own route, one that others will see as unconventional, but that suits their own spirit and rhythms and leads them closer to discovering the hidden truths of their objects of study. This key choice takes self-confidence and self-awareness—the X factor that is necessary for attaining mastery. The following are examples of this X factor in action and the strategic choices it leads to. The examples given are meant to show the importance of this quality and how we might adapt it to our own circumstances.
- Connect to your environment—Primal Powers
Among the many feats of human navigation of the sea, perhaps none are more remarkable and mysterious than the voyages of the indigenous peoples in the area known as Oceania—comprising the islands of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. In an area that is 99.8 percent water, the inhabitants of this region were able for many centuries to deftly navigate the vast spaces between the islands. Some 1,500 years ago they managed to travel the several thousand miles to Hawaii, and perhaps at one point even voyaged as far as parts of North and South America, all in canoes with the same design and technology as those of the Stone Age. During the nineteenth century, mostly because of Western interference and the introduction of charts and compasses, these ancient navigating skills died out, and the source of their uncanny skill remained mostly a mystery. But in the area of Micronesia known as the Caroline Islands, certain islanders maintained the ancient traditions well into the twentieth century. And the first Westerners who traveled with them were astonished at what they witnessed.
The Islanders would travel in outrigger canoes fitted with a sail with three or four men aboard, one serving as the chief navigator. They had no charts or instruments of any kind, and for the Westerners who accompanied them this could be a disconcerting experience. Taking off at night or day (it didn’t matter to them), there would be apparently nothing to guide them along the way. The islands were so far apart that one could travel for days without spotting land. To go off course only slightly (and storms or weather changes could certainly cause that) would mean never spotting their destination, and probably death—it would take too long to find the next island in the chain, and supplies would run out. And yet they would embark on their sea voyages with a remarkably relaxed spirit.
The chief navigator would occasionally glance at the night sky or the position of the sun, but mostly he talked with the others or stared straight ahead. Sometimes one of the men would lie belly down in the middle of the outrigger canoe and report some information he had gleaned. In general they gave the impression of being passengers on a train, serenely taking in the passing scenery. They seemed even calmer at night. When they were supposedly getting closer to their destination, they would become slightly more alert. They would follow the paths of birds in the sky; they would look deeply into the water, which they would sometimes cup in their hands and smell. When they arrived at their destination, it was all with the air of pulling into the train station on time. They seemed to know exactly how long it would take and how many supplies were required for the voyage. Along the way, they would make perfect adjustments to any changes in weather or currents.
Curious as to how this was possible, some Westerners asked to be initiated into their secrets, and over the decades such travelers managed to piece together the system the Islanders used. As these Westerners discovered, one of their principal means of navigation was following the paths of stars in the night sky. Over the course of centuries, they had devised a chart comprising the path of fourteen different constellations. These constellations, along with the sun and the moon, described arcs in the sky that could translate into thirty-two different directions around the circle of the horizon. These arcs remained the same, no matter the season. From their own island, they could map out the location of all of the islands in their area by locating what stars they should be under at particular moments at night, and they knew how this position would change to another star as they traveled toward their destination. The Islanders had no writing system. Apprentice navigators simply had to memorize this elaborate map, which was in continual motion.
During the day, they would chart a course by the sun. Toward the middle of the day they could read the exact direction they were headed in by the shadows that were cast on the mast. At dawn or at sunset they could use the moon, or the stars sinking below the horizon or starting to rise. To help them measure the distance they had covered, they would choose an island somewhere off to the side as a reference point. By following the stars in the sky they could calculate when they would be passing by this reference island, and how much time remained to reach their destination.
As part of this system, they envisioned that their canoe was completely still—the stars moved above them, and the islands in the ocean were moving toward and then away from them as they passed them. Acting as if the canoe were stationary made it easier to calculate their position within their reference system. Although they knew that islands did not move, after many years of traveling this way, they would literally experience the trip as if they were sitting still. This would account for the impression they gave of looking like passengers in a train viewing the passing landscape.
Their sky chart was complemented by dozens of other signs they had learned to read. In their apprenticeship system, young navigators would be taken to sea and made to float in the ocean for several hours. In this way, they could learn to distinguish the various currents by how they felt on their skin. After much practice, they could read these currents by lying down on the floor of the canoe. They had developed a similar sensitivity to winds, and could identify various wind currents by how they moved the hairs on their head, or the sail on the outrigger.
Once they approached an island, they knew how to interpret the paths of land birds, which left in the morning to fish or returned at dusk to their homes. They could read the changes in the phosphorescence of the water that indicated closeness to land, and they could gauge whether the clouds in the distance were reflecting land beneath them, or simply ocean. They could touch the water to their lips, sensing any changes in temperature that indicated they were approaching an island. There were many more such indicators; the Islanders had learned to see everything in this environment as a potential sign.
What was most remarkable was that the chief navigator hardly seemed to be paying attention to this complex network of signs. Only an occasional glance upward or downward would indicate any kind of reading that was going on. Apparently, Master navigators knew the sky chart so well that with the sight of one star in the sky they could immediately sense where all of the others were located. They had learned how to read the other navigational signs so well that it all had become second nature. They had a complete feel for this environment, including all of the variables that seemed to make it so chaotic and dangerous. As one Westerner put it, such Masters could travel hundreds of miles from island to island as easily as an experienced cab driver could negotiate the labyrinthine streets of London.
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