The Encarta dictionary defines intuition as ‘knowing something instinctively or receiving immediate knowledge of something without using reasoning or analysis.’ If intuition is instinctive knowledge, how does a writer receive it? Evelyn Underhill in her treatise on mysticism had advised: ‘The conscious mind being passive, the more divine mind below the threshold can emerge.’ But how to make the overly active and conscious mind passive and awaken the divine, intuitive and creative mind? The intuitive mind awakens in a quiet, unhurried, and relaxed state of alertness. Evelyn Underhill elsewhere called this a state of ‘restful travail.’
Intuition is a gut feeling and is expressed through those moods and ideas that seem to pop up from nowhere. They are a writer’s guide. You might have only a vague idea of how a story or oftentimes life will progress, but if you stay with the vagueness day after day, definiteness and openings begin to float into the imagination. This happens to me when I’m not consciously trying to arrive at definiteness. I could be cooking or walking or just falling asleep or waking and a solution to some snag suggests itself.
Meditation, breathing, dream work, journaling and active imagination are some intuition-awakening activities. Intuition often needs solitude to arrive. Every day, and especially on my day of silence, I walk, meditate, listen to birds, gaze at the sky and the clouds, and even play the same piece of music repeatedly—this induces a quiet, trance-like state conducive to receiving intuitive insights. I practice Nadi Shuddhi (alternative nostril breathing) for few minutes before sitting down to write. Deliberate attention to one’s breathing slows down and focuses the mind. The mind enters a state of restful travail, a state that Wordsworth described as a ‘blessed and serene mood.’ Much can happen, but often nothing happens in this state.
‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.’-Albert Einstein
As a writer, I have stopped gauging productivity in terms of number of words written per day. Making space for a passively active, spacious emptiness, and holding back the demands of the judgmental, utilitarian mind can lead to some of the most fortuitous turns in a writer’s life. As a writer I’m only three books old, but the creative process is the same for beginners or seasoned writers. The writing life is a leap of faith into the cloud of unknowing whether you’re on your third or thirteenth book.
Hazrat Inayat Khan, the early 20th century musician, Sufi poet and mystic, considered working with the breath an integral part of spiritual and artistic development. The atman, nafs, or soul, he said, lies in the breath. Since the breath is of such paramount importance, he was emphatic that ‘the way to bring order and harmony to our body, to bring order and harmony to our mind, to harmonize mind with body, and to harmonize body and mind with soul, is [through] the breath. It is the development of breath, knowledge of breath, practice of breath which help us to get ourselves straightened out, to put ourselves in tune, to bring order into our being.’ Without straightening and tuning and bringing order to my being through breath-work, I doubt my writing could flow. I begin my writing day with breathing exercises such as alternate nostril breathing and then meditate by watching my breath. This simple exercise helps to convert wordless communications between the unconscious and the conscious mind into a smooth flow of words.
Dreams, visions and the active imagination
We also awaken our intuition by paying conscious attention to our dreams and daydreams, and to moods and feelings that arise during and after our dreams and daydreams. Insight about a story’s plot or a character’s quirkiness may float into consciousness during these quiet, unhurried states of attention. These are invaluable boons for a writer, especially when feeling blocked or wavering between giving up and plodding on. How to tell if a dream or daydream is offering true guidance? When dreams or waking visions are creative and intuitive in nature, there’s a warm, gentle and unhurried quality to them, but when produced by egotistical and fearful anxiety, they are often harsh, guilt-laden and judgmental.
Ann Faraday in her book, The Dream Game, offers useful tips for receiving guidance from dreams. Encourage and permit yourself to dream before falling asleep, she says. When you have a dream, record it in your dream journal as soon as you awaken and before it vanishes from memory. If the meaning of your dream eludes you, in a relaxed state ask that an image come to mind that would give you a clue to its meaning. Guy Claxton, author of Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, says rather than asking what a dream means, you should instead ‘befriend’ it. Befriending a dream means: ‘Enter in its imagery and mood, play with, live with, carry and become familiar with[it].’ How you feel about a dream is more important than the concrete contents of your dream. Feelings aroused by a dream can offer surer guidance to unconscious feelings, untapped conflicts and unfulfilled desires. A dream could even tell you how to proceed with your writing or your life.
Jungian psychologists take the cultivation of the active imagination further by encouraging us to dream our dreams into the future. We do this by using our imagination. Active imagination is an ongoing dialogue between the unconscious and conscious mind and gets expressed as poetry, music, painting, sculpture or some other creative outpouring. The content of these communications are dreams, fantasies, images, and emotions. Journaling about our dreams, fantasies and emotions is working with the active imagination. Muse in your journal about how your dream could develop further if you were giving yourself complete freedom to see it unfold into its own future.
I begin my writing day with such ramblings in my journal. I’ll share with you an instance where meditation, dream work, journaling, solitude and music helped me pull myself out of a period of self-doubt and creative paralysis. I had a dream of which all I could recall was the colour blue and a voice that said: “Blue is the colour of courage.” A calm, yet invigorating blue and those six words. I woke up feeling puzzled by the dream, but knew it was important, and yet I couldn’t say why. I recorded the dream fragment in my journal. Two weeks later, I had another dream in which I saw a frail but fearless old woman diving into a pool of murky water to retrieve two water chestnuts for me. I was wavering at the entrance to that pool. I was filled with doubts. But she just took the plunge. There was an important message here again but I wasn’t sure what it was. A few days later, when I was meditating while listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sing Iqbal’s poetry I finally grasped the significance of both my dreams. When I heard these words of the qawwali, I knew what the dreams were trying to communicate to me:
tu rahnavard-e-shauq hai, manzil na kar qubool
apne mann mein doob ke pa ja suragh-e-zindagi
(You are a traveler on the path of Love, don’t settle for known destinations
Plunge into your innermost self to discover the secrets of existence).
At the end of the water chestnut dream, I remember peeling the water chestnuts and feeling somewhat disappointed: they were rotten. I didn’t want to acknowledge the obvious message of the dream, and it took me some time to accept the bit of wisdom my unconscious mind was trying to communicate to me through this dream. We may eventually get what we desire, but the fulfillment of any desire may not bring us the lasting fulfillment we thought it would!
Nighat Gandhi is the author of the short story collection: Ghalib at Dusk and Other Stories
originally published in The Daily Star, Dhaka, Bangladesh.