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Ways of Knowing

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A woman's hand is drawing a mandala

iStock /Getty Images Plus, Dannko

Intuitive ways of knowing go beyond conscious thinking and guide us to truths that are difficult to prove or even explain.

My fifth-grade teacher once told me that if you can’t explain it, you don’t know it. I didn’t argue with her, but I had the feeling my teacher wasn’t exactly right. I’ve since given lots of thought to what it means “to know” and I’ve concluded that there are different ways of knowing.

My teacher may have been right about one kind of knowing, but my experience tells me there are other ways of knowing. My daughter seemed to understand this when she was just a preschooler. I was ironing a shirt when Gwen reached up to touch the iron. I think she was about three years old. “Don’t touch the iron,” I said. “It’s hot.” 

A few minutes later, as I walked across the room to remove some clothes from the dryer, Gwen reached up and touched the iron. Of course, it burned, and she screamed and cried. As I was running cold water over her finger, Gwen surprised me by saying, “It’s a good thing that I touched the iron. Now I know it’s hot.” Just telling her wasn’t enough; she had to experience it for herself. Gwen’s comment reminded me that there are times when coming to know something means reaching out to touch it. It also reminded me that the process can be painful.

But tuning in to different ways of knowing can also be beautiful and joyful. It can add meaning and purpose to our lives. Most of us can recall learning or hearing about something but not really comprehending the meaning until we experienced it ourselves. I remember hearing about the redwood trees in California—how big and awesome they were; how people could stand next to a redwood tree and feel something shift in their consciousness about the meaning of trees and their relationship with trees. Until I stood in a redwood forest myself, I didn’t really comprehend the power of the trees to stir something within me. I can’t adequately explain the overpowering feeling of mystery and awe I experienced as I walked through the redwood forest, but I know from this experience that a redwood tree is more than an object to be studied or a resource to be used.

Since knowing, then, has different dimensions, how do we come “to know” something? There’s the analytical and scientific way of knowing, where our focus tends to be on observing and measuring the physical attributes of things around us. But there are also aesthetic and intuitive ways of knowing, where our focus is less on what we do (measuring, observing) than on what we receive (insights, intuitions, discernments). Some ways of knowing, such as aha moments or epiphanies, can’t be orchestrated. Yet we can be open to them by tuning into and honoring different ways of knowing.

Aesthetic and intuitive ways of knowing go beyond conscious thinking. They’re based on an inner sensing, enabling us to arrive at truths that are difficult to prove or even explain. Artists, poets, mystics, and prophets tend to be aware of such truths. At times, young children are as well, as they have the unique advantage of seeing the world through eyes that haven’t been clouded by theories, doctrines, or categories. Children’s way of knowing is often steeped in wonder. In her book Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson writes that a child knows the world as being “fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.” 

She notes how “for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” She refers to this loss as a “misfortune,” which indeed it is. Losing or shutting down a primal way of seeing limits our ability to intuit the essence (or telos) of what is known. Telos is sometimes defined as the ultimate purpose or end, the meaning beyond facts and information.

We can accumulate a lot of information and still lack wisdom. And we can have lots of experiences but miss the meaning of what it's all about. There are practices we can use to foster other ways of knowing and that help us become more attuned to the deeper meanings of our experiences and of life around us. Here are three such practices:

1. Draw a mandala. Mandalas, which are the Sanskrit term for “circles,” are complex, abstract designs. Representing the connection between our inner and outer worlds, different symbols, shapes, and forms emanate from its center point. Start by drawing a large circle on a sheet of paper. At the center of the circle, draw a symbol or image of what anchors your life or is especially meaningful to you. The images can symbolize something abstract like courage or resilience, or something more tangible like nature or a specific element of nature (a tree, mountain, river). Or you might choose to represent something specifically spiritual or religious, like prayer or a divine presence.

Once you’ve drawn your center image, divide your circle into sections. You can do this by drawing concentric circles around the center or drawing lines to form pie-shaped segments. Fill in the individual sections with symbols or images of what is important to you or what represents some of your experiences or phases of your life. Choose any colors and designs you want. This is your mandala, and it should reflect who you are. As you do this exercise in a meditative way, you’ll discover that you’re doing more than creating an expression of what is important to you or significant in your life. You’ll also be tapping into an alternative way of knowing who you are. You may even gain new insights into how different aspects of your life come together to form a meaningful mosaic.

2. “Pay attention to what you pay attention to.” This quote from author Amy Krouse Rosenthal reminds me that what we pay attention to and what we don’t pay attention to says a lot about who we are and what we value in life. Paying close attention to another person helps us discover the uniqueness of that person. Paying close attention to how we spend our time, our energy, and our money helps us discover something about ourselves. 

I sometimes start my day by asking, “What do I want to pay attention to today?” Asking this question helps me set an intention for the day, as well as focus on the deep stuff of life versus what is shallow or petty. What we pay attention to opens the door to what we come to know. If we want to know truth, goodness, and beauty, then that is what we need to pay attention to.

3. Honor downtime. I’m a writer and like to spend as much time as I can writing. Sometimes, I feel that time spent not writing is wasted. However, I’ve come to realize that the time spent not writing is often just as important to the writing process as the time I spend writing. Ideas and insights often need an incubation period. I find that downtime encourages a slow way of looking and thinking that helps me learn things I never knew before.  

I love books and value scientific research; I’ve learned a lot from these rich sources of knowledge. I realize, however, that there are other ways to learn about ourselves and the world in which we live. Tapping into these other ways of knowing doesn’t diminish the value of science and empirical knowledge. What it can do, instead, is make available to us a whole new dimension of awareness and understanding.

Want to rely more on your intuition? Check out these eight ways to build your natural ability to use intuition.


Photo of Ruth Wilson

Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., is a retired educator who now works with the Children and Nature Network as curator of the Research Library. 

She also devotes her time to writing and consulting, especially on issues relating to children and nature. Wilson has written several books and numerous articles on these and other topics relating to the way humans interact with the rest of the natural world.


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