N is for iNtuitive

Knowledge surrounded by personifications of science and religion. Tiffany and Co.

Origin: 
1400-50
late Middle English  < Late Latin intuitiōn-  (stem of intuitiō ) contemplation,
equivalent to Latin intuit( us ), past participle of intuērī  to gaze at, contemplate +
-iōn (via Dictionary.com)

In psychology, intuition is “the ability to acquire knowledge without inference and with the use of reason.” Intuition, the opposite of “sensing” in MBTI terms, focuses on possibilities and alternatives over what is obvious and present — the abstract over the concrete — and the whole over the parts, or the parts as they relate to the whole. Jung considered intuition to be an irrational function, as it looks beyond what is evident to what could be, based on previous experience and abstract understanding. Intuitives see the facts as a starting point, not an ending.

In INFPs and INTPs, intuition is an extroverted function, meaning that this type takes in external stimuli and filters them through a psychological sieve composed of memories and generalizations. We all do this to some extent — if we’ve been burned by a stove in the past, we know not to put our bare hands on a red eye now — but it’s particularly pronounced in extroverted intuitives, who filter everything they come across through this sieve of belief and meaning. And things like “belief” and “meaning” are highly valuable to introverts (like me), who gain energy by turning inward and examining and reaffirming their beliefs as they move along in the world.

Loki and the Rhinemaidens. Arthur Rackham

People with extroverted intuition are “adept at seeing the big picture of any given situation [and] sensing patterns” that are not readily visible. We enjoy word games, problem solving, analogies — anything that utilizes patterns and theories. I personally enjoy languages — how they are constructed as well as how they convey meaning.

I also love literature and writing for much the same reason — sentences, paragraphs and stories are systems in which all of the little pieces (from word choice to motifs) compose a greater whole. Intuition is critical to writing. Not only is coming up with living characters, situations, settings and dialogue a completely abstract activity, but the very act of working with words is an exercise in abstract thinking. Words are symbols — they’re useless and flat without meaning (ideas, emotions and mental images) breathed into them. We give them meaning, but that meaning is not concretely related to the words themselves at all. In any kind of writing, we are taking something — an idea, an emotion, an experience — and using what we know about these abstractions and our audience (a friend, a stranger, a group) to craft and transmit meaning. This is true for all types of writing — marketing, blogging, technical writing, creative writing. It’s all based on the writer’s understanding of what words mean, how readers feel about certain words and which words are most meaningful in a given context. Which is to say that if I weren’t intuitive, I’m not sure I could be a writer.

I’m interested in reading people, too — I’m in the habit of noticing the little things people around me say and do, collecting these observations and then putting the pieces together to understand the themes that operate under the surface. And I have a passion for mythology and fairy tales — cultural systems. I love the stories themselves, but I also love how each story reveals something about its culture and how the various myths create a total image of a culture. Most of all, I enjoy putting the pieces together, finding new meanings in them and rediscovering the whole through them.

This doesn’t mean that intuitives are always mystically accurate. Many intuitive people hold biases and incompletely formed preconceptions that lead to incorrect assumptions about others and the way of the world. This is why, for intuitives, it’s important to regularly audit their perceptions, test them for truth rather than rest in the comfort of the familiar belief, in order to prevent their judgments from being clouded and leading them astray — making their lives and that of others more difficult.

My own intuition has often been wrong, and I constantly work to adjust my understanding of the world to push toward the truth, whatever that may be. And truth (distinct from both fact and honesty), perhaps the greatest of the “big pictures,” is incredibly important to me.

For the first post in the series (on introversion), click here.

Basho, A Cherry Tree and Meaning

After having put down Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches for a while, I’ve returned to it to (finally!) finish it up. About 20 pages toward the end, I read this:

“As I sat reflecting thus upon a rock, I saw in front of me a cherry tree hardly three feet tall just beginning to blossom — far behind the season of course, but victorious against the heavy weight of snow which it had resisted for more than half a year. I immediately thought of the famous Chinese poem about ‘the plum tree fragrant in the blazing heat of summer’ and of an equally pathetic poem by the Priest Gyoson, and felt even more attached to the cherry tree in front of me.”

And I thought of how much of an impact human craft has on a person’s perception of the world, specifically the impact of literature on the individual and the objects s/he encounters. It’s the same idea here as Adam in Genesis naming the plants and animals of the world: they mean little to us until we give them meaning. Basho appreciates the beauty and hardiness of the cherry tree on its own, but remembering poetry written about other trees makes it significant, endears it to him. I think of features of the landscape that have meaning for me — the mourning dove, the toad, the darkness, the birch and willow — and realize that behind those images are stories, poems, songs.

While I’ve long thought that there is no inherent meaning in anything, and that we all layer meaning like a lacquer over our lives, desperate to preserve the present that too soon becomes the past, I rarely feel how deep it goes. We’ve all been conditioned to love some things more than others, fear things more than others, disregard things more than others, and it’s largely literature — old and new — that quietly dictates which shall be loved, hated or ignored. And so nature is a mirror, reflecting our thoughts, fears and desires back to us. We respond by thrusting more of ourselves onto the object and, believing it’s a dialogue with nature, split our monologues in two.

Such a Thing as a Thing to Say

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
-T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or even if there is such a thing as a thing to say.
-Lorrie Moore, “How to Become a Writer, or Have You Earned This Cliche?”

These are the thoughts that plague me, not only in my fiction but in writing this blog as well. Perhaps more so with this blog because there’s no story in which to gradually reveal meaning; I have to be as concise and direct as possible. Every time I consider making a post, I run the topic through the gamut: Is this something obvious that everyone already knows to be true? If not, would anyone care? Is this a significant contribution to the blogging community? Do I have anything significant to contribute at all? Is there anything I can say that I feel is absolutely true, without exception? Should I even bother?

Taoism is largely to blame for this impotence in writing. As written in the Tao Te Ching, “To use words but rarely / Is to be natural” (23.1-2). The Taoist sage does not presume; he or she says and does as little as possible. Listening is valued above speech and silence above noise. This is because the sage realizes that human perception is limited; one can’t see all the facets of an issue and one can’t foretell exactly the outcome of any given action or decision. I’ve had a lot of foot-in-mouth moments in my life and I know exactly how it feels to make a statement half-cocked and come to regret it later. It’s in the interest of self-preservation for one to be silent, to listen rather than speak. During the Warring States period in China, where Taoism was born, one’s life could be saved by keeping silent because change was rampant and one’s enemy one day might turn out to be one’s leader the next, and one’s leader could just as quickly become one’s enemy.

My situation isn’t so precarious, but self-preservation is still valuable in terms of dignity and peace. Aside from human rights issues, I can’t pretend to know the value or outcome of any law or political decision, so I veer away from blogging about politics. And there’s so much that I don’t know about religion, or art, or literature, or people in general that I hesitate to make any hard-and-fast claims about any of that, either. All I know is what I see before me, and I know that my sight can only travel so far. I don’t know that anything I see or feel is valuable to anyone but me, or even correct.

So how should I presume? Why have a blog? Why write at all? Why not just stay silent? I’m not sure, really. Part of it is vanity, a desire to be heard and praised. Another part is a desire to create something beautiful for the sake of beauty. It also comes from a desire to express myself, to take those sparks within me and make them manifest. To make myself vulnerable and, through that, connect with other souls who have the same questions and preoccupations. Communication is about connection, after all. And perhaps my hesitation stems from a fear of not finding those connections, of further alienation. I think it’s also about the desire for meaning, but not the meanings that others create. It’s to construct and discover my own meanings, to find truths for myself. Silence is good for contemplation; expression makes those contemplations solid, real, allows me to test them out. And still another part of me writes — creates — to exorcise those demons that lie within, to put them to good use, to turn them into something beautiful and valuable, if only for me.

Whatever the reason, I continue to write. I still don’t know if there’s value in anything I have to say, but that doesn’t quell the impulse to speak. So I waver between doubt and hope, fumbling in and out of whatever spotlights I make for myself, searching for answers and meanings hidden in the shadows.