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Rainer Maria Rilke, 1900

While it might end in a sudden epiphany, the lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke saw intuition as a years-long process. (Image: Wikipedia)

The common perception of intuition is that it is blindingly fast, an almost instantaneous comprehension of some problem, question, or situation. In fact, definitions of intuition often describe it in precisely this way. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary says, “… the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.” In reality, when solving complex problems, intuition can be extremely slow. Sometimes, years may pass before the needed insight suddenly emerges into conscious awareness.

Rilke’s Advice to a Young Poet

In 1903, the great lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote ten letters to a student seeking guidance. In the course of giving advice, Rilke reveals an attitude of patience towards garnering insights that would remain with him throughout his life. He reiterated this idea near the end of his days when, living in his lonely stone house in the Swiss countryside, he was finally able to complete his masterpiece, “The Duino Elegies,” which had been a decade in the making.

To the student he wrote:

“… I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Rilke was a great believer in the sudden flash of integrating insight, the moment of epiphany. He stressed that one never knew when to expect these special moments where answers to questions finally come together. Patience has its reward when, after long gestation, things suddenly fall into place.

Pascal on Great Thoughts

French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “Great thoughts come from the heart.”

For Pascal, “the heart” was the whole man, with all his experience, perceptions, and intuitions. “Reason’s last step,” Pascal said, “is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.” He was not calling reason into question. He was suggesting that the reasoning process, while immensely useful, has its limitations. Starting at the beginning and reasoning systematically towards the answer will not work for every problem.

For thinkers such as Pascal, the process of answering an important question begins simply with tackling the problem. As information is gathered and organized, the brain gradually recovers any relevant experience and perceptions already on board. Intuition comes into play expanding in leaps and bounds the thinker’s grasp of what he is doing. The objective is to achieve a synthesis, in the sense of combining ideas into a complex whole. However, the final synthesis often requires a crucial intuitive insight that is the cornerstone for understanding the entire situation.

Cognitive research has much to say about this process. Memory presents itself piecemeal and the relevance or utility of what has come forward may not be immediately apparent. Worse, the inevitable unwarranted assumptions we all make will block both intuitive and associative insights. Worst of all, these unwarranted assumptions can remain invisible, buried in the unconscious yet colouring our every thought and decision, continually leading us in the wrong direction. For these reasons, progress in answering complex questions can be agonizingly slow and halting. Only the most dedicated problem solvers stay with a question long enough to do it justice and achieve exceptional results by garnering that key integrative intuitive flash.