How do we know there's a "just right" word? We feel it, intuit it. A few moments of quiet pondering produce the perfect word as if it is captured by simply logging on to a universal database. Now the sentence feels complete.
Often in life we have a sense for something, yet we can't put our finger on it. Though we can't bring it to mind, somehow we know there's an answer.
Throughout The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett's brilliant novel and Oprah's book club pick, people stumble upon their intuition. Stumble upon is a good way of saying it, because in growing up most of us lose the ability to feel what we are really feeling—and I'm not referring to emotions. I'm talking about what Namaste author Michael Brown calls "felt perception."
As we grow up, the majority of us gradually disconnect from our essence, disassociate from the feeling sense of our body, and learn to distrust our felt perceptions. Consequently, we plunge forward in life without the vital connection to our inner being that makes all the difference to how our life turns out.
Eugene Gendlin, in his book Focusing, shows that the body is our way of telling when we are in touch with ourselves. At the gut level, we know when we are being true to ourselves—when we've found the word that exactly fits, as it were, which is a wonderful symbol of what it means to be true to who we really are. The body spontaneously intuits the answers we are seeking, Gendlin shows, if we are willing to tune into it.
How often do we fly in the face of what we really know in our gut? Not so much in our head, which tends to analyze, but in that other brain that consists of the junction for the largest network of sympathetic nerves in the body—the solar plexus, often called the "abdominal brain." This bundle of nerves, located in the lower abdomen and pelvis, contains more sympathetic nerves than any other part of the body. This is where our gut feelings originate.
In Pillars, Aliena is just one character who feels her gut feelings then shuts them off in favor of her logical reasoning in her head. This happens over and over, and it brings enormous pain into her life, as it does the lives of others who either don't much feel or don't listen to their gut.
When we mess up, somewhere deep inside we tend to know better. We're not completely oblivious of what we are doing. And yet, we still do it. This is because, although we "know," we haven't yet brought what we know in the background into the foreground where we can really "know" it. This is why Jesus could say to his crucifiers, "They know not what they do." They knew, but they didn't know.
In Your Forgotten Self, I show there are two levels of knowing. Our minds experience a constant state of background awareness, or consciousness. This background awareness precedes our awareness of specific things. We are never without this background awareness. It's even present in our sleep, noticing our dreams. All of our awareness of specific things is grounded in it.
Have you ever had an "Aha!" feeling? You read something or someone says something to you, and suddenly you know that you knew it all along. It was in the background of your awareness, but you weren't directly aware of it.
Knowing something before you can bring it to mind is a common experience. For instance, as I said at the beginning of this column, you know there's a word for what you want to say, but you can't quite put your finger on it. The person you are talking to coaxes you, "Come on, you can think of it!"
"I've nearly got it," you say. You can feel that it's on the tip of your tongue. And yet, it doesn't come. Then a short time later, sometimes when you are no longer trying to think of the word, it pops into your mind.
Sensing we know something before we can actually think of it is a form of direct knowing. This direct knowing, intuition, or felt perception allows us to know something for certain without the support of either logic or sensory experience, as Constance Kellough shows in The Leap.
When Aliena marries Alfred, she knows it's a mistake; but her analyzing head takes over and she shuts out what she knows, reasoning her way into a terrible lot of suffering. How often do we do the same, going against what our deepest being is telling us?
The Pillars of the Earth is a marvelous book to read and reread, paying attention to the way the characters repeatedly ignore what they know It's a mirror of how so many of us live our lives.
To put it in the language of Genesis, we make our decisions based on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—the way of the head, figuring out the right way versus the wrong way, adding up the pros and cons. Instead, we ought to live from the tree of life, which is simply a flow of conscious knowing.
How much suffering will we have to bring upon ourselves before we awaken to the fact that we only need to suffer as long as we fail to get the message that we can follow our felt perception and avoid the pitfalls that create our suffering? If Pillars is any measure, many of us will go through a lot of pain before we awaken to what we already know.