Monday, December 7, 2015

Intuition and Proof (December 6, 2015)

Has anyone here seen the Star Wars Movie- the first one, from 1977? Remember when our heroes escape the Storm troopers by diving into the trash shoot, and Han Solo says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” just before the walls begin to move together and we realize our heroes are trapped in a trash compactor? I wonder if everyone hasn’t felt that at one time or another- the sense that even though you have no specific evidence that things are about to go wrong, there is some kind of visceral feeling that trouble is coming. For most of my life I had dismissed these feelings – I would talk myself down from such feelings of dread saying “that’s just silly- you have no reason to feel that way.” Then one day I had this feeling of intense dread about a meeting I was scheduled to attend. As usual I dismissed the feelings, but they kept coming back. I was totally blindsided to find that some members of the committee who were upset had been getting together in secret developing a plan to present their grievances at this meeting, along with an ultimatum that ended up splitting the program into factions. It was the turning point in a conflict that took many months to heal. And it was a turning point in how I treat those funny feelings I can’t explain.

Unitarian Universalism claims as one of its sources: “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit”. So having been born and raised UU, I was always very careful to discount things that didn’t pass through the filters of reason and science. Then I went to Seminary in Berkeley California, where people were constantly telling me to “trust my intuition.” I wasn’t even sure what they meant. I think I had so completely stopped paying attention to my “bad feeling about this” or even to “Ooo, That’s what I want!” that such information barely bubbled up to the surface of my consciousness. I tend to agonize about decisions, tallying up an inner list of pros and cons. which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The trouble is that “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” wasn’t even making it to the list of cons to be considered among other input. and “this thing is really calling to me” was not making it to the list of “pros.” To be truly reasonable, I thought, I must not be swayed by my gut feeling about a thing. Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever chosen the thing that made the most sense, the logical thing, perhaps the thing a loved one or authority figure advocated for, setting your gut feeling of what you really wanted aside, only to find yourself walking down a path that never did feel quite right?

I like to know where my information comes from. I like at least a Wikipedia article, but I prefer to trace any data back to its source- the book where the quote first appeared, the study where the data was tested and peer reviewed. So allowing a feeling or an intuition into my decision making process was a big leap for me. Fortunately scientists have started looking at this too. Malcom Gladwell, a science reporter, wrote a whole book called “Blink” about this phenomena of how sometimes we know something really important in only a moment, as with our statue story this morning. Scientists have come up with a number of names for this. Gerd Gigerenzer calls it “fast and frugal” [ p. 11] Scientist John Gottman calls it “Thin-Slicing” [p. 23] Both these terms imply a way of quickly noticing the data that is most important to the outcome and acting accordingly, rather than sorting and processing ALL the millions of inputs we are each getting every moment. The more official name for this field of psychology is “Adaptive Unconscious” [p. 11] – that faculty we all have that turns “a bad feeling about this” into action before you are eaten by the lion, before you head down that dark ally. It’s a really important survival mechanism that we are all hard-wired for, but that we barely understand.

A group of scientists in Iowa did an experiment where participants were given 2 decks of cards. The Blue deck was rigged to pay out regularly. The Red deck was rigged for a few big payouts but more big losses. The scientists found that after about 50 cards, participants had a “hunch” about which deck was better, and after 80 cards most participants could explain what was going on. But the scientists were also measuring response form the sweat glands under the skin of the hands, and found that after only 10 cards they started to have a stress response to the red deck. Probably all of us have noticed that sometimes we have a hunch that something is happening before we can explain it. But what was new information to me, was that sometimes our body is having a measurable response long before- 40 cards before- we even get that hunch. The scientists also found that the behavior of those participants started to change not when they got that hunch, but at the same time their palms began to sweat. The adaptive unconscious is steering us away from that “bad feeling” even before the conscious mind has an inkling this is happening. [Gladwell p. 8-11]

Well, I have to tell you-- knowing about this and other scientific studies made me feel a lot better about listening to my intuition even though I don’t really understand how it works.

According to Author and contemporary Mystic Carolyn Myss, following this kind of wisdom is key to choosing an intentionally spiritual life. She, and other spiritual writers use the word “guidance” for this. In her book Entering the Castle she proposes that one of the most important steps on the spiritual journey is listening to the guidance we are receiving all the time. To be honest, I am agnostic about whether this guidance comes from the Spirit, from our intuition, or from our adaptive unconscious. Whether we are talking about “direct revelation” as Ingerman calls it in today’s reading, or a stress response in the body, may be something we never know for sure. But I hate to see us shut off these kinds of information just because we don’t know the mechanics of how it works.

The spiritual journey is one that includes the whole self- the mind, heart, body and spirit. Part of being “open minded” is that we take in information even if we don’t understand it. We don’t have to act on that information, but it is important not to shut it out just because we don’t fully understand it yet.

Let me give an example from my own life at this church. We moved to this area from Silicon Valley California, in part because the pace of life was unsustainably busy there. Everyone complained about how busy they were, and no one knew how to fix it. Even at church we were too busy to stop and just be. So my first year at UUCAS, I was at a board meeting where we were trying to choose our holiday outreach to the community. Tioga Outreach had given us the names of 2 families who were struggling and a list of their Christmas wishes. Someone suggested we make one of those wish trees I’d seen before- a Christmas tree decorated with paper ornaments, and on each ornament was written a wish, and the name and age of the child the present was for. Then people take home the ornament and bring it back with the matching gift. I loved the idea- I’d participated in those programs before, but my stomach started to hurt as I thought about pulling it together between our November board meeting and Christmas. I just felt tired all over. I took the risk of saying out loud to our board: “when I think about someone cutting out all those ornaments and writing names on it I just feel tired” The board chair asked if there was anyone who felt excited by the idea of making those ornaments, and the room was silent. Helpfully one of the members suggested “why don’t we just put out a clipboard in the social hall for folks to sign up?” It was quickly done and we had a hugely successful gift drive that year. I use this as a reliable indicator more and more in church life; if an idea makes people feel tired, it is not quite right for us. If we feel energetic, we are getting close to something which is a better fit for us.

I believe that sometimes what Myss is calling “guidance” can feel as simple as that- the ebb or flow of enthusiasm or energy in your own body. Our intuition speaks to us in many ways- a word like “fresh” a picture in our minds of how things are or might be, an emotional response like excitement or dread, or a very visceral feeling in the pit of our stomach. Everyone receives the language of has a certain natural and inevitable energy to it. That if you are really being called by the spirit, or by some deep inner know if your true self, or just getting the okay from your adaptive unconscious, there is a feeling of rightness. And that this is the touchstone against which we measure – if it feels wrong, it is not for us to do. If it is impossible for us, it was not for us to do.

But this thin-slicing, this intuitive response requires discernment. There are very real mechanisms that can thwart or even coopt our thin-slicing. An example that is in the news right now a lot is unconscious racism. Perhaps you heard the ProPublica study[i] which showed that “young black men are 21 times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police is drawn from reports filed for the years 2010 to 2012”. Or I’m sure you’ve heard similar statistics on the news in the past few months. These numbers reveal the unconscious bias that has led to the recent death of innocent unarmed citizens in America today. And they are a harsh reminder that sometimes our split second response does not come from inner wisdom, but from a kind of social conditioning that leads us tragically astray.[ii]

The size of the advertising industry in our culture is more evidence that our thin-slicing can not only be mistaken, but can be lead astray by design. There is a whole industry devoted to helping us go astray of our inner wisdom-- because apparently when left to our own devices, we don’t buy enough. Study after study shows that consumers can be redirected with certain colors or sounds or associations. A 2008 study out of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Shows us that simply showing us the product over and over increases the likelihood we will buy it.[iii]

But the most difficult misinformation to detect comes from inside ourselves. Each and every one of us has things we can’t bring ourselves to look at. Whether that’s because it clashes with something we were taught as a child, or with the expectations of our boss and co-workers. I suspect each one of us can think of a time in our life when a sudden flash of insight like “I need to leave this job” was rapidly stuff back into the dark recesses of our unconscious because it seems like following that intuition would rend the fabric of our lives. A friend told me the story of standing on the steps of the church on her wedding day and having a strong intuition “I should not marry this guy- I should run right now.” and wondering after 20 years of a difficult marriage and a painful divorce- “Why didn’t I listen to that intuition?” But we all understand why; how can even the strongest intuition stand up against the deposit already paid to the caterer, and the expectations all our friends and family seated in the pews in their Sunday best? Sometimes our intuition asks us to do difficult things we’d rather not do, or to look at difficult things that are painful to look at.

So how do we discern the difference between regular old dread for something hard that is ultimately going to be good for us- like getting up before the sun is up on a winter’s morning to go for a run, and the dread of something that is really not good for us- like going out to lunch with that friend that always talks us into things we ultimately regret.

This is why listening to intuition is only one part of our discernment process. Usually intuition and reason are great partners- like in the story of the statue that didn’t seem right- the funny feeling all those art experts had wasn’t enough to kybosh a multi-million dollar sale that had taken months to put together, but it lead the researchers in the right direction and could then be backed up with hard data. That voice of doubt also lead them to get a 2nd opinion, and a 3rd. Which reminds us how helpful it can be to invite others into the discernment process with us. The people in our life whose judgement we trust and who know us well can say “Darcey, remember that you are always nervous when you preach in a new place- could that be what you are feeling?” or the voice of the Black Lives Matter movement imploring us to look at the data which shows that our cultural fear of African American men is not rooted in reality, but in an unconscious bias.

I believe that with practice and discernment we can get better at telling which of our those inner voices are useful guidance, and which are rooted in bias, ignorance or fear. Most of us are out of practice with this. So the first step is just to notice that guidance, and how it is generally communicated to you. Sweaty palms? An increase or drop in how energetic you feel? Or maybe you, like all those characters on Star Wars, sometimes just have “a bad feeling about this.” The practice of listening to guidance is not only practical, it is a spiritual as well. An important part of the spiritual journey is listening to that still small voice which is so often drowned out by cultural expectations and norms.

As you go back out into the world this coming week, my suggestion is that we listen respectfully and with an open mind to our intuition when it speaks. Even when we can’t heed it right away, we can allow that voice to be part of our discernment process. As UUs we are encouraged to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science” but not so that the guidance of reason drowns out the guidance of the adaptive unconscious, the guidance of the spirit which sometimes leads us in the right direction before the conscious mind can catch up. The voices of reason and intuition in harmony may just lead us to wisdom.


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