Sunday, September 9, 2007

Intuition and Presence

Josh Waitzkin's experiences with chess and martial arts have directed his attention to a number of interesting factors in arriving at a state of heightened alertness which he refers to below as a "deep fluid presence." Here are a few more excerpts from The Art of Learning:

Everyone has heard stories of women lifting cars off their children or of time seeming to slow down during a car accident or a fall down the stairs. Clearly, there is a survival mechanism that allows human beings to channel their physical and mental capacities to an astonishing degree of intensity in life-or-death moments. But can we do this at will?

When I started thinking about how I could consistently make my perception of time be different from my opponents', I realized that I had to delve into the operating mechanism of intuition. I suspect we have all had the experience of being stumped by something, eventually moving on to something else, and then suddenly knowing the answer to the initial problem. Most of us have also had the experience of meeting someone and having a powerfully good or bad feeling about them, without knowing why. I have found that, even if a few times it has taken years to pan out, these guiding instincts have been on the money. [When playing chess] I would take in vast amounts of technical information that my brain somehow put together into bursts of insight that felt more like music or wind than mathematical combinations. Increasingly, I had the sense that the key to these leaps was interconnectedness—some part of my being was harmonizing all my relevant knowledge, making it gel into one potent eruption, and suddenly the enigmatic was crystal-clear. But what was really happening?

... In my opinion, intuition is our most valuable compass in this world. It is the bridge between the unconscious and the conscious mind, and it is hugely important to keep in touch with what makes it tick. If we get so caught up in narcissistic academic literalism that we dismiss intuition as nonexistent because we don't fully understand it, or if we blithely consider the unconscious to be a piece of machinery that operates mystically in a realm that we have no connection to, then we lost the rich opportunity to have an open communication with the wellspring of our creativity. (136-7)

In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill. While more subtle, this issue is perhaps even more critical in solitary pursuits such as writing, painting, scholarly thinking, or learning. In the absence of continual external reinforcement, we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge. We cannot expect to touch excellence if "going through the motions" is the norm of our lives. On the other hand, if deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then life, art and learning take on a richness that will continually surprise and delight. Those who excel are those who maximize each moment's creative potential—for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to that purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments when everything is on the line. (172)
Waitzkin provides a lot of pretty interesting scenario-based explanations showing exactly how this frame of mind can be cultivated.

1 comment:

Doug Noon said...

I've long thought that teaching and intuition were bound together for me. Often, the best lessons have spun off of some idea that "came to me" while in the middle of a session working with the kids.

Maybe everyone has this feeling?? I don't hear people talk about it very much in professional development sessions, or even casual conversation, though.

I really enjoyed the quote, thanks.