Intuitive Mindfulness Teaching
26th April 2022
From Suryacitta's book - A Mindfulness Teacher's Handbook...
“Intuition doesn’t tell you what you want to hear; it tells you what you need to hear.”
We cannot describe intuition, because it is indescribable. We can try to point to it, but we need to do this intuitively and not analytically.
If we approach this with our heads we will try to pin down intuition and want to discover exact information about it, as if it were a butterfly pinned to a board and we were describing in detail its wing span, species, colour, country of origin and so on. That won’t get us very far.
My dictionary defines intuition as “a kind of sixth sense or a second sight”. That is one way of trying to apprehend it. I like to see it as a jewel with many facets. One of these is using our instincts; another is listening to that sense of silent felt knowing; another is understanding something without conscious reasoning. Some people call it gut instinct and others say it’s just having an indefinable sense of something. All these ideas are helpful, and point to our intuition.
In this chapter I want to explore intuitive teaching, and how it is not only very useful for our students but can also be a magical experience for the teacher.
Accessing your intuition
Many people ask me how to access intuition. It’s not easy to answer that question as intuition is not a thing, it’s a kind of knowing. There are two main ways of knowing: the rational and the intuitive. You might know something rationally because it’s a fact that you remember or can work out, like 2+2=4. The rational approach is a kind of linear process; it involves consciously using your mind to think something through and reach a conclusion, often as a basis for action. With any project, such as creating and planning a mindfulness course, the rational mind is essential. Most of us have a well-developed rational mind as this is encouraged in our culture.
Intuitive knowing is a different kind of knowing, which is generally less trusted. It is not a linear process; it doesn’t happen in time but is felt in the moment. It isn’t rational or analytical, but an instinctive, holistic response to a question or situation. It may not always turn out to be ‘right’, but that is not the best way of looking at it. Right and wrong belong to the rational mind. Our intuition communicates to us via felt senses, quiet whispers, nudges and flashes; it is felt in the body. There is no set of instructions for accessing it – how we do this will be different for each of us - but for this to happen we need to be in touch with the body.
The following exercise might help in discovering your own intuition:
Grab a pen and paper.
Take the pen in your dominant hand and at the top of the page write: Hello Intuitive Self, how are you today?
Then take the pen in your non-dominant hand and write a brief response. Don’t think about this, just write a line or two. It may look like a child’s writing but that doesn’t matter.
Then keep repeating this procedure, with more questions.
If you get stuck, here are some questions you could ask your intuitive self.
Hello Intuitive Self, how are you today?
Are you around much in my life?
It is true to say you are around all the time but I don’t always listen?
What is your role or purpose in my life?
How long have you been around in my life?
If I listened to you more, how would my life be?
Where do you live in my body?
Would you like to be around more when I am teaching mindfulness?
If you were around more, how would my teaching change?
How would my response to questions change?
How would my guiding of meditations change?
Is there anything else you would like to say?
Tuning in to your intuition
Here are a few pointers for opening to and trusting in your intuition:
Take time to open yourself to the atmosphere in the room
One aspect of intuitive teaching is having a sensitivity to the atmosphere in the room. For example, at a particular point in the mindfulness course or a meditation retreat your planned structure may have you giving a talk about labelling thoughts, or leading a meditation on sounds. However, if you are tuned in to the room you may sense a heaviness, some frustration, or resistance. Although nothing has been uttered by the students, you sense something. Following your intuition, instead of sticking with the structure you could choose to open the session to the group. You might ask a question, or invite comments and observations. You might touch on how frustrating mindfulness can be, or how sometimes we feel low and believe it’s not working. At times like this we need to be able to leave the structure to one side and respond to the immediate reality of the moment by exploring what is in the room. As well as being productive, this can also be thrilling.
Practise pausing when teaching
What helps us to allow the intuition into teaching is to pause. If we don’t pause there is a tendency to come from the mind, from what you already know. If we are locked into the mind we will in all likelihood respond to questions and comments in much the same way as we have done before. The answers are ready baked; we just take them out of the oven and give them to our students one after the other. This is often why some teachers get bored with teaching, because if done like this it can become repetitive. There is also the danger that our students’ intuition may sense that there is something inauthentic about the teaching or the teacher. Pausing creates a space which allows us to tune in to the other kind of knowing, that sixth sense which is alive and kicking and just waiting to liven things up a little.
Come out of the mind and listen to what is behind the thinking mind
This sixth sense sees things, knows things which the ego mind doesn’t see or know. The intuition responds not just to the worded question but to the wider context: the way a person is sitting, the mood of the questioner and the group, the emotion behind the question. It doesn’t need to think any of this through; it just instinctively knows.
Intuition is always alive and in the moment, and every moment is different. If we teach intuitively, it’s not that we will be teaching something new each time we open our mouths, but that what we say will be a fresh and stimulating expression of it. For example, a student may be talking about an uncomfortable feeling such as anxiety. A conventional thinking-mind response might be to ask them to accept it. But our sixth sense might intuit the student’s resistance to such a suggestion and instead prompt us to throw out questions like ‘Where in the body do you feel it?’, ‘What shape is it?’ This could possibly jolt the student into a more direct relationship with their feeling of anxiety, opening up a different route to acceptance.
An intuitive response from the teacher may not be immediately understood by the mind of the student, but somewhere inside their intuition will receive it. Whether the student trusts in their intuition is another thing.
Respond to the questioner rather than trying to answer the question
When mindfulness teachers on our mindfulness teacher training ask me about the enquiry process, I ask them to see themselves not as giving answers but always as responding to the student. The nature of the response depends on the nature of the question - not just the words, but how it is asked and the context. Responses can take many forms: a shrug of a shoulder; a smile which may say to the student ‘You already know the answer to this’; a story or metaphor; silence and a raised eyebrow.
In one of my teaching sessions, a dedicated and delightful female doctor started talking about a particular experience of hers. She went on and on, and was very much in her mind, trying to work it all out; tighter and tighter she wound herself in complexity. I could feel the group getting tense and restless, and my tummy was tightening. Instead of interrupting and stopping her, I put my hands to my tummy and toppled off my meditation cushion onto the floor. The group roared with laughter and so did she. She realised exactly what she had been doing, and let it all go. I hadn’t said a word. I didn’t think about it at all. It just happened. It was an intuitive response – simple, direct and effective. Of course it was my intuitive response, produced by my character; yours would be different.
Keeping it simple, elegant and practical
Intuitive teaching is very much in tune with the three pillars of excellent mindfulness teaching: simplicity, elegance and practicality.
Simplicity is its essence. Intuition knows something and knows it now. It is an immediate sensing of something; it sees things in the moment and responds in the moment. If we can stay in touch with this immediacy, then our teaching is forever new, fresh and simple. Intuition doesn’t complicate anything or get caught up in other people’s complexity; we complicate things when we are lost in mind. The intuition sees things very simply, and intuitive teaching always brings clarity.
How we respond to a student will be different for each teacher and each situation. One teacher may respond with a rational remark, another with a smile or a joke. However, if we are allowing our intuition to be in the room, then that response will always be simple and immediate. Intuitive teaching comes from the heart and enters the heart of the student.
Elegance goes hand in hand with simplicity. Elegant teaching is often achieved by knowing what to leave out, and intuitive teaching instinctively knows what to leave out for maximum benefit. We may say less but it will mean more. We all know the saying: silence speaks louder than words. Intuition knows when to be elegant and let the silence speak.
In my dictionary, one of the definitions of elegance is “being pleasantly ingenious and simple”. I really like this definition, which points to the imaginative and inventive aspects of elegance. There is a touch of magic about the intuition because it sees things from many different angles. The intuitive part of us is also courageous, and without courage we don’t have the conviction to carry through these magical and ingenious responses. If fear is running the show, we will shy away from doing the unusual and the daring, and these approaches can be very effective for our students.
The third pillar of mindfulness teaching is practicality, and in some quarters intuition is regarded as airy and insubstantial, not grounded in real life, floating around in the fuzzy minds of hippies and New Agers. However, this is a mistake. Intuition is very grounded and has nothing to do with having our heads in the clouds. In my dictionary, one of the definitions for practical is “being concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas”, and that is what we want our mindfulness teaching to be.
Intuitive teaching is about making your teaching relevant to the everyday life of each and every student. Intuitive teaching has no interest in keeping it mystical and other worldly; it is not attracted to theories or philosophies. Its concern is with real life, with the lived, felt experience of being human and all that entails. When we allow intuition to be in the room, we are concerned with keeping mindfulness relevant to a person’s life - which includes the self, home, relationships, work, and every activity from chopping vegetables to driving a car. Mindfulness is all about present-moment awareness and what is more practical and grounded than being aware of the present moment? When your thinking mind is tempted to move your teaching into the realms of theories and generalities, intuition will keep you in touch with the essential practicality of mindfulness.
The benefits of intuitive teaching
The teaching which comes from intuition is always alive and fresh because it is not based solely on our bank of knowledge. Teaching which arises out of the intuition is more challenging because it is willing to say what needs saying. It is not trying to please anybody. The intuition is always context-oriented; in other words, it is not solely concerned with ourselves, but has the benefit and welfare of the group at heart.
One of the ways we block our more instinctive teaching is by letting the people- pleaser in us do the teaching. When this happens, the teaching will be there to make our students feel good, so that they like us and we feel good. This is not in anyone’s best interests. In Pema Chodron’s words: “Instead of offering a friend medicine, bitter though it may be when ingested, you feed them more poison—at the very least, you don’t take it away from them.” The poison might taste nicer than the medicine, but it does harm instead of helping to heal. She goes on to explain that this sort of teaching is selfish, because you are more concerned with your own feelings than with attending to your friend’s (or student’s) actual needs.
If we need to please our students, then the teaching will inevitably cease to be challenging and transformative. We need to be willing to disagree, to stimulate and stretch our students. When we teach from the intuition, we are prepared to take ourselves and our students to a place that is new, edgy, just a little uncomfortable - and that is where the growth is. The best fruit is always out on a limb.
This is where intuitive teaching is wonderful. If we are teaching from ego (I don’t use that term often but don’t have a better one right now) then in all likelihood we will be overly concerned with how we are judged; we will want to be liked, to be seen as a kind teacher. But when we teach from intuition we are willing, though always with kindness, to say things to our students that they need to hear, not what will make them feel better for a little while.
The intuition doesn’t suffer from fear so will do what needs to be done, and this is its connection to compassion. True compassion possesses both intelligence and courage; it is willing to cause short term pain to alleviate long term suffering. Intuition does not need to be liked, does not worry about being judged and is not concerned with being seen in a certain way. What intuition is concerned with is doing the best it can and giving the students what they need. This may sometimes be unpleasant, but it is always truly kind and truly compassionate.
When we teach intuitively we don’t know what is going to happen next, and this can be uncomfortable for us if we tend to over-rely on the rational mind in our teaching. It may feel risky, but if you can learn to trust your intuition you will find that it can bring huge benefits to both you and your students.
I must emphasise, though, that to teach intuitively we do need experience or knowledge of what we are talking about. We cannot just make it up. As we grow in practice and experience as mindfulness teachers, we can develop the confidence to allow intuition to feed naturally into our teaching. Intuition is like a muscle, the more we use it the stronger it becomes.
It’s not that when we begin teaching intuitively we throw away the structure of a session or our rational mind. It’s rather that our knowledge, experience and intuition knit together and work as a whole. Over time, our teaching becomes a beautiful blend of the rational and the intuitive, a formidable alliance.
Tagged as: awareness, intuitive teaching, meditation, teaching mindfulness, train to teach mindfulness
Share this post: