"Sharpening the Intellect"

by Dr. Susan Nettleton


The intellect is one avenue through which we come to know the world around us and  life inside us.  It is not the only way, but it is the focal point of general education that is aimed at our ability to acquire knowledge, to think, learn, and reason so that we can function and work in the world.  Spiritual traditions, while giving some value to our reasoning processes, usually emphasize another kind of knowing—inner listening, intuitive understanding, and the promptings of transcendent experiences.  Early spiritual experiences can be so extraordinary that they cut through the thoughts that often seem to weigh us down and push us to look for “something else” that reaches beyond what we have been taught.

As we explore spiritual teachings and practice, we are often encouraged to give up our reliance on our conscious reasoning minds in order to discover other intuitive capacities.  A tension then develops between these two ways of knowing. Not everything of value in life is understood by logic and reasoning.  A mind of “calculation” (consciously weighing, measuring, and comparing conditions and components) can override and obscure recognition of the subtle, transcendent realms of life, and deaden our intuitive spontaneity.    Yet, conscious intelligence remains a vital part of human life.  To ignore it or dismiss it, is to live partially; just as to ignore and dismiss intuition and subjective experience, is to live partially.  The human being has an incredible intelligence that, as a critical part of our survival, has developed and adapted through many cultures and environments.   The Philosopher’s Alcove is intended to sharpen your thinking and reasoning skills through the exploration of ideas, research and the disciplined reasoning processes of others, particularly in the fields that relate to spirituality in our contemporary times.

In the attempt to understand the mystery of our conscious thinking and reasoning and as well as the mystery of intuitive spiritual insight and experience, we have split the two ways of knowing.  We define them as separate and distinct processes.  Perhaps that is no longer a valid model.  The more we study the intricate system of the human being:  our bodies, neuronal circuitry, emotional responses, unconscious processing, automatic thoughts, intentional learning and learning through experiences, memory, and the hormonal, biochemical and microbial exchanges that happen as a part of daily life and include states of gratitude, awe, reverence, and love, the more we discover interconnections and relationships between all aspects of “consciousness.”   

We are all of these elements and more.  Contemporary understanding of our intelligence includes a model which is multidimensional, a moving mind where thoughts, conscious and otherwise, imagery, perceptions, emotions, sensations, memory are in a fluctuating relationship of signaling and feedback, ideas and responses, inhibition and action, awareness and non-awareness, attention and inattention.  As in other aspects of life, we can strengthen this vast complex of our mind by exercising it.