Mindfulness and Intuition

Intuition is something that I often find myself speaking about with students. It is part of our common experience and isn’t confined to realisations that change our lives or provide unexpected insights. Intuition is action without thought, it is how we live most of our lives. Decisions we take when driving are an example. We don’t think aloud in our minds which queue to take or when to brake it just happens.

The Science of Intuition

Intuition has seens some serious research study recently. Most noticeably from Daniel Kahnaman and Amos Tversky who won a Nobel  prize for their work and resulted in a book by Kahneman called ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. In the book, Kahneman describes how our  brains enable us to get through the day.

There are two quotes from the book worth repeating. The first explains how our brains create a mental model or world view.

“The main function of [your subconscious] is to maintain and update a model of your personal world. [This model is constructed by associations that]  [determines your interpretations of the present as well as your expectations of the future.”

The second excerpt explains how we actually navigate our days.

“Whenever you are conscious, and perhaps even when you are not, your brain is] asking [some key questions:

Is anything new going on?

Is there a threat?

Are things going well?

Should my attention be redirected?”

What he is saying here is that there is a constant feedback loop between our inner experience and our outer experience and it is largely unconscious.

Mindfulness makes this loop conscious.

How Intuition and Mindfulness work together

The way that mindfulness practices work is to continually return us to an awareness of these otherwise unconscious experiences. One of my favourite definitions of mindfulness is “Awareness of unawareness”. This process of bringing previously unconscious experiences into the light of our awareness works at many levels over time as our meditation practice deepens. Mindfulness is a toolkit with one tool. That tool is a magic lens that helps us see through the fog of thoughts and emotions that cloud our experience and that distance us from the richness of our experience in so many ways.

Mindfulness and Mind-wandering

There is much talk about how mindfulness changes the brain but far less about what that change actually is.

Two studies that are worth reading are:

Impact of meditation training on the default mode network during a restful state

  • Taylor et.al 2013

Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity

  • Brewer et.al 2011

These studies show that mindfulness operates on what we call default mode which is the state the brain is in when our minds are wandering.

It seems that connections to and from default mode grow after mindfulness training. This is probably our brains strengthening neural pathways that help to bring us out of the mind-wandering default mode state to full awareness. This has implications for many activities and circumstances but also provides a direct link between the subconscious and our conscious awareness that grows over time with practice. We can then become more aware of our unawareness and step back to witness our minds operating.

The Mind as an Iceberg

A common description of the mind is that it is like an iceberg with only a small part visible and the vast majority of work occurring where it can’t be seen in the subconscious. The work of researchers like Kahneman provide insight into this. He refers to intuition as “Thoughts and preferences that come to mind quickly and without much reflection”. What seems to be happening here is that we are retrieving information that is as it were, hard-coded, into our brains. The contents of our association cortex.


We can see by observing this exactly how we have become programmed to think, act and feel.


Sometimes of course, this direct connection with our programming can be unhelpful. Most of us have some sort of behaviour that, given the option, we would change so that it aligns more clearly with a behaviour that benefits our self-interest. Mindfulness is not a very useful tool for managing addictions directly, but what it does is to help reduce stress. Reducing stress helps of course so mindfulness is useful as part of an addiction programme. Mindfulness is however, the only tool that I am aware of, for observing our inner processes operating. We become incrementally more aware of self-talk, the operation of the inner critic and our unconscious responses and actions. This is one place where intuition and mindfulness come into contact. We become more aware of our intuitive responses.


Intuitive Realisation

The other way that mindfulness and intuition operate is that during meditation or periods of mindfulness, what I call intuitive realisations arise. We learn about ourselves and the causal links between experiences, thoughts and behaviours. I always keep a notebook by me when I meditate so that I can capture these insights. Most of what I have learned about myself, I have learned this way.




The Parable of the Chinese Farmer

A wise man once told me that back in the day, there was a Chinese farmer that lived with his son. He was very poor and only had one horse that he used to plough the fields. The Farmer was elderly and relied on his son and the horse to do all the work on his farm.

One day his son left the gate to the horse’s field open and the horse escaped.
The Farmer kept sending his son out to find the horse but it was nowhere to be found.

When the Farmer’s friends and neighbours found out they come round to commiserate with him and told him how unlucky they felt he was. The Farmer replied “Maybe”.

After many days of searching, the Farmer’s son found the horse. It was grazing with a group of other horses. When the Farmer’s son returned with the horse its new friends followed and when he closed the gate there were seven horses in it.

The Farmer’s friends were delighted and all visited to celebrate telling the Farmer how lucky he was. The Farmer replied “Maybe”.

The son set about breaking in the horses so they could be sold at market as tame rather than wild. When he was working with the last animal, he fell off and broke his leg. Again the Farmer’s friends and neighbours visited to commiserate and told him how unlucky he was. The Farmer replied “Maybe”.

The very next day, the Chinese army passed nearby. They were on the way to a huge battle with the Mongols and arrived at the Farmer’s house saying they had heard there was a young man there and he must come with them to fight the Mongols. The Farmer showed them in so they could see that the son had a broken leg. They left.

Again the Farmer’s friends and neighbours arrived delighted telling the Farmer how lucky he was.

The Farmer replied “Maybe”…

Three Day Fast – Fourth Day

Hooray it’s Thursday morning and I can eat!

I started this fast on a Monday morning so I am now on my fourth day of fasting which is the day that I’m going to break the fast. I’m going to have breakfast at Carluccio’s to celebrate.

That isn’t counter-productive, it’s what I promised myself to help to keep me going! What I will do is to avoid any carbohydrates.

Yesterday, I began to really notice some unhelpful mental effects of the fast. I taught three times for about seven hours in total yesterday and did a couple of hours of admin on the energy equivalent of about 1 innocent smoothie which is 86 calories. What happened is that on the last of my three teaching sessions I found myself lost for words by not remembering a specific word twice, though they both came to me when I stopped trying to retrieve them of course. In addition I was almost lost for words once. These things aren’t entirely unusual but to have three memory retrieval problems in one 2 1/2 hour session is a first.

Meditation was also interesting. With the teaching and my personal practice there was quite a lot of meditation. Probably two or three hours in all. Mystics use fasting as a way of bringing them closer to mystical experiences. During one of my meditations yesterday which was with with a student, and because of the company is invariably extremely powerful, I found that my mind was slipping into something like a dream state which actually wasn’t a dream state… I know what it feels like to drift off into semi-sleep whileI’m meditating and this wasn’t it.

Images arose that were like fast forwarded still photographs taken over time. A bit like amateurish time lapse. In addition, there was a moving images of crowds and so on. Not an experience that I can say I remember having, even during deep meditations.

However, putting those minor hiccups to one side, I didn’t feel hungry at all yesterday and I felt that I had sufficient energy.

Today, interestingly, I feel even less hungry. Eating breakfast this morning, although in a relaxing enjoyable way, will be an addition of nutrients and not a fulfilment of need.

Last night at about 3:45 I woke up with two solutions in my mind. One was a solution to a minor problem which is just something that I haven’t confronted yet and the other was a complete solution to a problem I didn’t even know I had! It would have arisen over the course of the next few days though. I was able to lean over and type the solutions into my mobile and go back to sleep. It was as though my subconscious mind had decided those things that I most needed to smooth out my next couple of weeks and provided me with clear and actionable solutions to them. One for the most urgent thing, and the other for the highest priority thing.

I also had some incredibly deep insights. I was talking through a problem and talked my way into the solution to it. It was a very, very big problem.

I also only had about 7 1/2 hours of sleep last night which is fine but I’m aware that I usually sleep longer during a fast so I feel a little sleep deprived.

Lessons learnt

Fasting clearly changes the nature of the operation of the mind.

On or after the third day the lack of energy is noticeable with poor memory retrieval.

The nature of deep meditation can change on or about the third day. Could this be the mystic visions or is it too early?

It is possible that fasting is a source of incredibly useful insight.

All in all, this fast was a fascinating and useful exercise and something that I absolutely will repeat at some point.

Three day fast – Second and Third Day

11am on the second day

I woke up this morning after a deep sleep and I wasn’t hungry when I awoke and I am not hungry now at 11am. What I do feel is ever so slightly woozy which I put down to still having a bit of a cold when I started the fast. I also, however, feel calm and relaxed.

On day one I stuck to my fast but I did start the day off with a small innocent green smoothie and a single shot coffee. I also had a single shot coffee later in the day and didn’t feel like it upset my stomach in any way. Late last night I had a herbal tea mix from T2 called Relax which was based on camomile. I was pretty tired when I went to sleep at 11 but it wasn’t a particularly demanding day.

The mental calmness is notable. It has been a while since I fasted and I forgot how good it is so hopefully this article, if I read it again, will remind me.
I shall check in either later or tomorrow.

8:45 on the third day
I slept for eight and a half hours. I had a very deep sleep and I feel refreshed. Yesterday I was struggling for energy so I had another small innocent green smoothie at about 5:30pm and a single shot coffee. I am drinking about two litres of water per day so drinking the occasional coffee or smoothie doesn’t seem to upset my stomach in any way. I am teaching all day so I expect I may need to have some coffee and or small smoothies to stay alert. I will try to limit/avoid that though.

Today I feel great. On the third fasting day, I have found in the past that the mind clears a lot and it feels in many ways similar to the third day of a solo retreat. Calm and clear mind with natural mindfulness.
I don’t feel hungry at all. I almost feel that if I was given food I wouldn’t want it. I may need to have one or two smoothies today to see how it goes and I have a large innocent smoothie in the fridge for that eventuality.

This feeling is the main reason that I fast. The sense of calmness and clarity is significant.

Fasting also clarifies my relationship to food. In our culture, temptations to eat are all around us. We are immersed in messages about foods that contain more simple carbohydrates than we could ever find in our natural environment. There are ubiquitous advertisements, smells wafting out of bakers that now have fans pushing the air out on purpose and freshly cooked pastries are in stalls everywhere. This triggers the emotional brain to reward itself which is what I notice when I am fasting. I am able to observe this trigger directly and, of course, ignore it and also observe the results of ignoring it.

Craving for food at this point of a fast, for me, isn’t actually hunger in that there is a sense of not having eaten. It is more a desire for something to taste. It seems it is the habit that is being denied rather than the need to eat.

Today is my last day and I shall add another article either this evening or tomorrow morning.

Day One of my three day fast

Every so often I fast for three days.

I have done three day fasts about ten times or more over the years.  I fast for a number of different reasons: to boost or kick-start diets, to detox and for spiritual reasons as the mind absolutely becomes calmer and clearer. I seem to remember going on to a fourth day while fasting on a solo retreat and found the mind’s response very interesting and slightly different to day three. Day three is different to day two and so-on.

Usually, I eat breakfast on day one and an evening meal on day three. This is because in the past I have focused on motivation and it doesn’t ‘feel like’ one has to go so long without food. I have found it difficult not eating in the past. Craving for food kicks in at some point on day two and I find myself wistfully observing others eat or looking into the windows of food shops. Whatever, my strategy has worked as I have never broken a fast and always seen through the three days.

For some reason, this time I don’t feel that motivation will be an issue in the slightest as it feels to right to be doing it now so I haven’t bothered with breakfast on the first day. Instead I have bought myself a green smoothie.

Over the years, this is what I have learned.

  • Hunger, if how you feel after three days of not eating is hunger, isn’t quite how one would think it is. There are occasional cravings that arise but it doesn’t stay in the forefront of your mind. I expect that over longer periods that changes.
  • The craving to eat is more common at the beginning of the three days.
  • The monkey mind will say. “OK, you can’t eat but you can drink!” and all sorts of suggestions for that will arise from coffee to smoothies that are like eating in any case! I did this once and it really didn’t help as my stomach churned. For this fast I will only drink water and if I do drink anything else it will either be herbal teas or very smooth and high quality filter coffee.
  • I need to sleep at least an hour more per night to get a good night’s sleep.
  • Mindfulness increases. The business of the mind most definitely diminishes.
  • There is always some realisation or insight. I always learn something about my inner experience. I can see why this is a spiritual experience practiced in many religions as we are replacing the usual business of thought with a calmer experience and reconnecting with our bodies.

I hope to have the time to blog each day of this fast though I may blog on the day after so you can get an idea of how that day went.