My sister woke up one morning with a feeling of deep distress. Her dream wasn’t very clear, but she knew that it was about a relative, and that something terrible had happened in that woman’s life.
The person she dreamed about was someone we all liked a lot. Our grandfather married her late in life, after many lonely years; it seemed quite wonderful to us that our mother’s brother was just a kid. The relationship was not so close and casual, though, that our parents would telephone to check up on them just because of a bad dream.
Two days later, this step-grandmother got in touch, and told us about an accident they had set off unintentionally. It plunged mother and son into remorse and made life a trial for them in their small New England town.
Aside from being upset over the tragedy, I was in awe of my sister’s ability to know what people were feeling hundreds of miles away, and possibly even hours before they felt it. It seemed as if there must be a layer of human emotion circulating in the Earth’s atmosphere that some people, like my sister, could sense. Of course, it was obvious that I couldn’t, which made me more than a little envious.
This direct experience of the feelings of others is one of the most dramatic forms of what generally goes by the name “intuition.” Other abilities might be called intuition as well—such as my youngest daughter’s almost unerring instincts about the people she meets, or the ability to visualize solutions to problems, or connections between people and events, without reasoning.
People speak, often disparagingly, of “feminine intuition,” as though only women could have such insights—or only women could be irrational enough to take them seriously. If intuition is gender-specific, then all great scientists and scholars would be women, as would all composers, artists, and writers. Archimedes did not write rational equations before sitting in the bathtub. Isaac Newton didn’t plot the progress of the apple falling on his head. Explanations follow insight. It’s not only females who take mental leaps over the hurdles of rationality to understanding.
Women may have developed a reputation for having more intuitive understanding of people simply because that kind of intuition was useful to them in the daily life they were encouraged to lead. Mothers needed to know what their children were feeling, even if the children were reluctant to talk. Wives needed to read their husband’s moods, preferably before some emotional volcano erupted. Maybe this kind of intuition actually evolved more particularly in women because it was more useful to them.
Even this personal dimension of intuition is not, however, the exclusive preserve of women. My sister wasn’t the only one who had precognitive dreams and intuitive feelings. My father told many odd stories of such spooky experiences, and he was both an artist and a creative, working scientist. He and my sister could demonstrate mental telepathy with playing cards.
I always felt that I was “intuition impaired” in a family with such abilities. I’d sit like the stubborn kid that I was, willing my brain to grab hold of some wisp of feeling from the emotion-osphere, the layer of human feeling I thought must be floating out there. I never caught so much as a twinge.
Later, it occurred to me that having a parent, or even a sibling, who could read my mind could be inconvenient. After that, I sent out brain waves in a different pattern—like the “jammers” we were told the Soviet Union used to block Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. Nobody was going to pick up any intelligible signals from my brain!
No doubt this further harmed my chances of developing even rudimentary intuition. I couldn’t pooh-pooh the whole idea of intuition, since I had seen such theatrical displays of super-sensing and knowledge free from plodding reason, but I never experienced it myself, until recently. Sadly, I still haven’t had any dramatic flashes of knowledge about people far away, the future, or how to handle my career brilliantly. But I have found, since I began writing about people—real ones, when I worked for a newspaper, and later inventing them for fiction—that I’ve had some hazy insights.
Perhaps I had inflated expectations of intuition; I anticipated nothing short of visions, or huge theories of existence, all in one brilliant revelation. Intuition, as I now experience it, exists in small bursts, such as a sense of when the moment is right to give someone advice—the moment they might take it—and what that advice might be. Or knowing when to keep quiet. Or seeing when behavior is manipulative. Or having a reliable understanding of whether the person in front of me is sincere.
All of these seemingly simple kinds of insights are, in fact, complex computations of hundreds of small hints in tone of voice, body language, mood, and other factors, crunched by the subconscious into a readable result. The conscious, reasoning brain has little to do with it, but can foul up the result when you sit around, as I often did, wondering if you know what you think you know—that is a destructive line of thought. Intuition is useful only when you trust it.
Before coming to India, I read a best-selling book called Autobiography of a Yogi. In it are one Hindu Godman’s descriptions of how he had visions of his Guru before he met him. The Guru also always knew what his disciples were experiencing and could guide them, whether they were beside him or far away. I’ve yet to find anyone who can have such luminous intuition as this, but I’ve noticed that most Gurus use the more small-scale kinds of insights I mentioned earlier to help or impress those who approach them. Sometimes they are very good at it, as skillful therapists must be; sometimes they misfire. The first Guru I met, for instance, was a man who was advising a middle-class family about how to resolve their domestic discords. I happened to be there, and so they told him to tell me something, off the cuff, about my life.
He looked as uncomfortable with this impromptu session as I was, but he finally said, very gravely, “You will be married three times, always to engineers.”
Since my husband of thirty-six years is not an engineer, it’s probably safe to say he was wrong. Possibly he found me, a foreigner, opaque. Those small signs of dress, behavior, and body language that told him so much about his Indian clientele, were all American in my case. He couldn’t “read” me any more than he could read a book in English. Thus, he relied on what he thought he knew about Americans—they get married a lot, and they’re technically inclined. Poor man, he tried to predict with his conscious mind, his subconscious processor having blown a fuse.
As for my sister’s superlative intuition, it still works. Her only complaint is that her pre-cognitive dreams never seem to have any practical use. She had a beauty about the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, for instance. If she wanted to be a professional psychic, that might have made good advertising copy, but for a hard-working executive and part-time professional cellist, it was definitely not “news you can use.”
Simple intuition, though, is something anyone can use. It makes life easier. All it takes is the patience to stop thinking for a moment and really look at the person in front of you, or let the problem that faces you bubble on the back burner of the mind as you take a walk. This is very difficult if your conscious mind is as loud and wordy as mine is, but once you learn to trust it, the subconscious mind is far smarter, faster, and a lot more fun.