Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Hypothetical scenario: Your best friend, Sally, has become infatuated with a new boyfriend, Bill, and you're about to meet him for the first time. Sally can't wait to introduce you to Bill, and has been extolling his virtues to you at great length, priming you to see him in the same rosy glow as she sees him. Bill is the best guy she has met in a long time, she says -- and you have to admit, he sounds great. You feel excited for Sally, and genuinely prepared to accept and like the new gentleman in her life. But when the moment comes and you're sitting with the two of them, some small detail about Bill immediately strikes you the wrong way, and in a flash you see that the relationship is doomed, that Sally is fooling herself. But how do you know this? What makes you think so? All you really saw was the subtle way Bill glanced away, a couple of times, when Sally began to speak -- or maybe it was something about the way he dresses or cuts his hair that makes him look a bit self-involved and superficial, a dandy, someone who probably has no qualms about lying to his girlfriends to get what he wants. Maybe you're not even sure how you got the impression you did -- that is, you don't consciously register whatever clues might have given you this impression -- but you see it as clearly as if Bill himself had told it to you.

But you swallow the knowledge and stuff it down, you ignore it, because obviously Sally doesn't see Bill that way -- she's crazy about him. And she knows him a lot better than you do, doesn't she? She has spent a lot more time with him than you have, and much more intimately -- so she must see another side of him, she must know the real Bill. You're just being paranoid and focusing on the negative. Besides, look at how happy she is with him -- you should be happy for her. Your conscious mind kicks in and provides all these good reasons to brush aside your bad first impression of Bill. And how could you explain it anyway, even if you tried? Would you tell Sally that your ominous feeling about Bill was based on his haircut, or the way he glanced at the floor? How would you react if someone told you the same thing about your new love interest? It would sound like nonsense, and it might even create a rift between you and your friend. So you keep it to yourself -- but it refuses to completely go away. Somewhere in the back of your mind, it is always there, nagging you. When the moment finally comes for Bill to reveal his true colors and break Sally's heart, you realize that your initial impression of Bill -- formed in a few seconds, from one or two petty details that couldn't hold a drop of water in a court of law -- was right all along. In those first few seconds, an intuitive knowledge arose in which you saw Bill more accurately than Sally did in all the months she was dating him.

How is that possible? How could you see something clearly, in such a short time, that Sally couldn't see despite having the advantage of lots of exposure to Bill?

(Full disclosure: I have been the friend in this situation, more times than I can remember, and I have rarely dared to open my mouth and tell the Sallys of this world what I saw in their Bills. I have also *been* Sally, more than once. My friends have seen similar things about the Bills in my life -- sometimes I could see it on their faces -- but even if they dared to try to tell me what they saw, it didn't do me much good. Like Sally, I was infatuated, and I had to find out for myself -- the hard way -- if my hopes were misplaced.)


Malcolm Gladwell has a term for what happens with your impression of Bill: he calls it "thin-slicing," a way of drawing very rapid conclusions about something based on what may seem like very little information. I'm currently in the middle of reading Gladwell's book "Blink." For a long time, out of nothing more than stubbornness and snobbishness, I refused to read this book. There was a whole year, around 2006, when I couldn't get on a subway car in New York City without seeing at least one person reading "Blink" -- and possibly two or three such readers in the same car. I couldn't walk into someone's apartment without seeing "Blink" on the nightstand beside their bed. It began to feel like a conspiracy, a hostile takeover, something out of "The Stepford Wives," and I developed an irrational aversion to the mere sight of this book. As a reader, I tend to assume that I'll have an allergic reaction to any book that attains a near-Beatles level of mass-market popularity. But at the recommendation of a friend here at the Abbey, I finally took the plunge recently, and although I'm not yet halfway through it I will come clean and admit right now that I was wrong about "Blink." Its fame is justified: it is a fascinating read, well-written and thoughtful, and has got me reflecting in new ways about topics that have long been near and dear to my heart.

Thin-slicing is what Gladwell calls "the power of thinking without thinking," which is another way of saying intuition. Through stories and scientific studies, he explores the origins and the meaning of all those little moments like the one with Sally and Bill, in which some kind of knowledge that isn't entirely conscious arises very quickly or subtly -- often so quickly or subtly that we are not even aware of it, and we don't know how to explain it. But we know it.

Take Gladwell's story, for instance, of the Getty Museum's acquisition of a very expensive Greek statue that turned out to be a forgery. The Getty's curators, lawyers and scientists spent months examining the statue and methodically proving its validity, and they were all fooled by it; but several visiting art experts who saw it had told them, after taking one glance at it, that it was a fake. The Getty, in this case, was Sally, and the statue was Bill -- and the Getty's curators were as mortified as Sally would be by the assertion that Bill wasn't a worthwhile investment. But how did the visiting experts know, at a glance, that the statue was fake, when the Getty's entire team of experts believed it to be real, and had scientific studies and forensic reports to prove their claims? Just as with Sally and Bill, it was an intuitive impression that formed within seconds of seeing the statue, and all they could pin their impressions on were little details: something about the fingernails didn't look right, for instance, or the statue's overall appearance seemed too "fresh." Such fleeting and evanescent opinions didn't hold much weight next to the hundreds of pages of reports from the scientists and lawyers that seemed to prove the statue's validity, but in the end these rapid intuitive judgments turned out to be correct, and the lawyers and scientists were wrong.

The Getty story illustrates Gladwell's argument that, sometimes, a flash of intuition can offer a more direct path to the truth than even the most thorough and methodical, rational analysis. In some cases, rational analysis, for all its virtues, can even blind us to the truth that is right in front of our faces -- particularly if our analysis is unconsciously applied towards the goal of proving the existence of something we hope is true. (Think of poor Sally.)

Wisdom Seeking Wisdom

By now, those who read this blog regularly may be wondering: what does all this have to do with Buddhism or spirituality? It so happens that Buddhism has been very much concerned, for about 2,600 years, with questions of truth and illusion, and how we know the difference.

Intuition, as Gladwell shows us, is a powerful and valid way of knowing things that the conscious mind can't necessarily figure out on its own. It is another way of getting at the truth about a situation -- but it is a way whose workings are poorly understood, and easily misapplied. Our culture doesn't encourage us to trust our intuition, and doesn't regard intuition as a reliable form of knowledge: we implicitly lump intuition into the same camp with things like astrology and UFOs and ESP, things that smack of pseudo-science and aren't really taken seriously by mature thinkers (although ESP may be little more than intuition on steroids). Instead, we favor rational analysis and the scientific method, and we assume that the more we have studied and thought about a subject, the better we understand it. Buddhism, too, encourages this emphasis on rational analysis: the Buddha said that we should not accept his teachings simply because they came from him, but instead we should apply our own intelligence and analyze the teachings to see if they really make sense and are in accord with our own experience of reality. If, through analysis, we find that's the case, then we should accept the teachings and try to live by them.

But the powerful effect of intuition is not limited to mundane situations such as meeting Bill or evaluating a purchase. Intuition can also play a crucial role in our experience of the spiritual path -- it may, in fact, be the motivating factor that leads us to pursue the spiritual path in the first place, and guides our decisions along the way. Despite the countless arguments for materialism and nihilism presented to us by our culture, we feel intuitively that those positions are inadequate -- that there is something more to be experienced, that there is more going on here than meets the eye, and that life has a greater purpose and meaning than what we have been conditioned to believe. If we follow our intuition, it leads us on a quest to discover that purpose and meaning and to integrate it fully into our lives. Our own innate wisdom leads us to seek our own innate wisdom.

Wisdom, in fact, is the Alpha and the Omega, from the Buddhist point of view: it is both the goal and the path; it is where we came from and where we are going; it is both our original nature (now hidden from us) and the nature of the final unfolding of Enlightenment with a capital "E." We talk a great deal about wisdom in the study and practice of Buddhism. We also talk a great deal about ignorance. Ignorance is what keeps us from seeing our true nature, and it is the root of all our mistaken views and emotional afflictions, the primary cause of all our suffering.

But we don't often talk about the role of intuition as a form of wisdom: we tend to think that wisdom or "prajna" operates primarily at the level of the conscious, reasoning mind. Intuition is even regarded with a skeptical eye; to take something as valid we generally require a higher standard of proof that can only be provided through reason and conscious thinking. Because we are afflicted with ignorance, the logic goes, intuition -- which is murky and mysterious by nature -- is therefore untrustworthy; it is as likely to be polluted and mistaken as it is to be correct. And there is some truth in this: our prejudices, our likes and dislikes, our ego-centric comfort orientation, our wishful thinking, can all masquerade as intuition if we don't know how to tell the difference.

However, when we completely exclude intuition as a valid form of knowing, we are embracing a lop-sided epistemology (sorry for using a big word like that, but it was necessary). We are utilizing only one side of our minds -- the conscious side, the thinking, rational self -- and saying that only this side has the power to know, to recognize truth, to mitigate reality. We are correlating wisdom with that five percent of the iceberg of the mind that sits above the surface of the water, and excluding the ninety-five percent that resides outside of conscious awareness or control. Yet experience shows us again and again that many valid forms of knowledge arise -- quite mysteriously, we think -- from that ninety-five percent. Our responsibility as spiritual practitioners, then, is to recognize and listen to our intuition, and learn to distinguish between what is authentic and what is not. More often than not, it is when we ignore our intuition that we get ourselves into trouble. Ignoring our intuition is, in fact, one way of understanding ignorance, the root of all our suffering.

On the spiritual path, we often have flashes of intuitive insight into the true nature of things -- insights that are sometimes more genuine than anything we could cook up through rational analysis. But these intuitions, though they feel quite authentic, are fleeting; we are not quite sure how we arrived at them, and we would probably have great difficulty in explaining them to another person in a way that would make sense. Just as with Sally and Bill, we don't know what to make of a more spiritual intuition, and so we might ignore it. Our reasoning mind kicks in and we begin to talk ourselves out of it, just as we did when we saw something ugly about Bill. We can actually waste a lot of time on the path this way, stuck in the quicksand of doubt, undermining our own wisdom by refusing to take it seriously.

But a glimpse of truth is simply that. A glimpse. Of truth. For an instant or two, the veil that obscures our vision was casually brushed aside and we caught a glimpse of something much too large for us to wrap our minds around -- so large that we lack words to describe what it was. We couldn't even see it clearly -- all we know is that it was bigger and truer than anything we've known before. But because we lack words for it and cannot frame it satisfactorily in the language of the thinking, reasoning mind, we don't trust it -- and we know, therefore, that others would not trust it, either. So we blow it off. Keep it to ourselves. Forget about it. And in doing so, we ignore the truth that was right in front of our faces.

In this way, each of us is Bill, and each of us is Sally, and each of us is Sally's friend -- all rolled into one. The fact that you're even reading this means that, to some extent, you have already seen through your own Billshit and that you are consciously seeking out "spiritual" ideas and information to help you make sense of what you have seen, to get at the truth behind the facade. The question is whether you will take the matter seriously enough to let poor Sally in on it.

How good of a friend are you to yourself?

How much do you trust your own intuition?

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