The Gift of Intellect

by Esther Veltheim

“Real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s clichés.”
– Tom Robbins

If the process of formulating a question at any point feels heady, stop. It is not about going looking for questions. Questions that need to be asked will come to you. They might not come in a concise format at first. In the Formulating Questions thread, you have some guidelines that will help you simplify them if this is the case.* Now and then people new to BreakThrough—usually only before they have much personal experience of it—describe BreakThrough as “Way too intellectual” or “Very heady.”

BreakThrough’s primary, practical focus is to sharpen the intellect. Because ‘intellect’ is often used as a derogatory term it occurs to me to talk here about my understanding, in part, of this concept.

‘Intellect’ denotes a mechanism of mind that has the potential to function in various ways. The intellect is the thinking function. One of the intellect’s primary jobs is to “cut through” mental complications. Children do this so well. They look at something the adults are doing and a simple question from them can sometimes help the adults realize how ridiculously they are behaving. The child sees the complicated behavior and a simple “Why?” cuts through the complication. This ability is why intellect is often depicted as a sword in mythological studies and Tarot decks. When we make the most of our intellect, it has the ability to cut through the most complicated-seeming issue; to simplify, and to deeply inform us.

The dulling of the intellect happens when we get used to relying on outside answers. The dulling of the intellect is compounded each time we unquestioningly believe what we are told.

When we are very young, we use our intellect by looking to the outside for answers. In the early stages, each answer triggers more questions. The child is still learning about life, experiencing every moment as new and fresh. The young child is keen to explore what it is to be a human being. The young child’s intellect is still a relative tabula rasa, which means it is sharp.

It remains to be seen whether or not Google and other similar search engines will speed up the intellectual dulling process, or otherwise. In us adults, Googling can be a big trap because we barely even need to type one word, let alone formulate a clear question, before pages of possible answers magically appear before our eyes. The dulled intellect is pandered to and enabled every time we do this. Even our news-feeds are curated, ensuring we are fed information that aligns with our existing worldview, our existing belief systems, and our existing expectations and assumptions whenever we go searching for information. Easy answers that corroborate our own biases can be quite addictive and mesmerizing as most of us with computers are discovering.

Ironically, the dulled intellect tends to demonstrate strong ideas when faced with someone who has a sharp, healthy intellect. When we critique something as ‘heady’ it can sometimes be because a concept is challenging our comfort zone.

The dull intellect causes us discomfort because it is lulled into narrow sets of rules for living. As uncomfortable and limiting as the dull intellect can be to us, it can feel safe, simply because it is the known, the familiar… “the devil we know.” If we are easily challenged by new ideas it might well be an indication our intellect has been resting on its laurels a little too long.

A helpful concept to recognize is that “being an intellectual” and having a sharp intellect are not necessarily synonymous terms. The term ‘intellectual’ often describes someone who has a vast wealth of information to draw on; someone who is well versed in all that they have studied.

An ‘intellectual’ might know a lot and even be very good at teaching; disseminating all they have learned. But this does not mean they have a sharp intellect. On the other hand, one who is able to take what they have learned, question it, break it down and disseminate it in a far clearer and simpler format, they will be someone who is focused on sharpening their intellect.

The amassing and learning of information, as a means of serving ones profession or pursuit can be invaluable. But knowing a lot does not necessarily mean one has learned to use the intellect effectively. An illiterate or relatively unschooled person can have a very sharp intellect.

How much one has learned is not a measure of intelligence.

This can be helpful to understand, especially for those of us who do not have much schooling. It is easy for us to listen to or read an intellectual treatise and think “heck, I am so stupid.” Just because we cannot understand what is being said does not necessarily mean our intellect is dull or we are stupid. It might just as well mean that what is written is not presented as clearly as it could be. Either way, we still have the ability to question what we read and hear. How we question what we read and hear is a measure of the health of our intellect.

‘Intellect’ describes a mental function or potential. The intellect has various potential uses, beginning with thinking. We use our intellect to take in information; to learn; to regurgitate—learn “by heart” and share —and so on. Perhaps the greatest gift of intellect is that it offers us the potential to question. Because we use our intellect to formulate and ask questions, ‘intellect’ also describes our ability to doubt, to be sceptical; not to take at face value; not to assume or take on information unquestioningly. To treasure the gift of intellect and keep it sharp is to “be a beginner, always a beginner” as Rilke would say.

When we use our intellect healthily, keep it sharp, our whole system is involved. This is because our mind is kept open to questioning everything about our humanness. This is why, using the intellect healthily is a creative process. It stimulates our healthy curiosity and has us looking at life ever with fresh eyes.

Although the intellect is a tool we all use, once it starts dulling, we simultaneously take it more and more for granted. Instead of living the vibrant life that is our birthright, without even realizing it, we resign ourselves to hacking our way through life. While the intellect is dull, the whole system will be dull.

Sometimes people have asked me (usually before experiencing much BreakThrough) why BreakThrough does not concentrate more on emotions. This question seems to stem from the assumption that emotions and thoughts are unrelated. What is not being understood is that when the intellect is clear and sharp, healthy emotions take care of themselves.

The duller the intellect the harder it will be to fully experience anything. This does not mean that there cannot be very strong emotions. But both strongly expressed and deeply imploded emotions are deceptive. Strong emotions are not an indication we are feeling fully, not if our intellect is dull. The dull intellect is like fly paper, everything we resist sticks to it. While the intellect is dulled in any way it is because there is mental resistance. While the mind is guarded, we will spend most of our time mired in some kind of emotional discomfort, be it numbed to our deeper feelings or chronically emotional. While the intellect is in any way dulled over, reactions will masquerade as fullness of feeling and passion.

As you surely know, life is messy, challenging, painful, difficult and also has its great pleasures, joys and wonders. To be human is daunting to each and every one of us. Nothing is permanent, nothing is sure, nothing is predictable. When our intellect dulls, its thinking processes are all geared towards resisting these self-evident facts about being human. It is this resistance to life that keeps us feeling trapped within ourselves and trapped by circumstance. No circumstance traps us. Not using our intellect to its full potential, that is a different matter.

To sharpen our intellect is not something many of us have been taught to do. Many educational institutions and religions and philosophies have taught us quite the opposite: dependence and subservience. They have taught us to even undertake practices to dull our intellect.

The practice of sharpening our intellect might well be called an unlearning process. We are not getting rid of anything at all. We are simply breaking the habit of using one of the most brilliant tools we have in a very limited way. Essentially, in BreakThrough our focus is to unlearn intellectually dulling habits. Each of the BreakThrough principles has as its focus honing the art of questioning. As children, the art of questioning just came naturally to us, so it was not an art.

As adults, for us to tap into this treasure again, a deep commitment to ourselves is required. Learning how to use our intellect effectively is, essentially, a growing up process. We are discovering how to take responsibility for ourselves in a way that nobody else can. This is why the process of sharpening the intellect is an art, a creative process.

As we shift from being slaves to our mental processes, the intellect serves us in remarkable ways. Our mind feels less contracted and increasingly expansive. As our relationship with our intellect transforms, this expansiveness is reflected throughout our entire system.


*only if you are an IBA member.

“The first difficulty in any inquiry is to see that the problem is difficult. If you say to a person; “How do you know that I have two eyes?” He or she will reply “That is a stupid question. I can see that you have.” But it is not to be supposed that when our Socratic inquiry is finished we shall have arrived at anything radically different from this unphilosophical position. What will have happened is that we will have come to see a complicated structure where we thought everything was simple. We will have become aware of the penumbra of uncertainty surrounding the situations which inspired no doubt. And that we shall find doubt more frequently justified than we supposed. And that even the most plausible premises will have shown themselves capable of yielding implausible conclusions. The net result is to substitute articulate hesitation for inarticulate certainty.” 
– Bertrand Russell

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