What is insight?

Mystical intuition and insight are the heart of esoteric spirituality—flashes of illumination beyond any practice or effort that show the way to enlightenment and the realization of our true nature. Without these spontaneous openings, mysticism would be just another philosophy of life, attempting by reason to unravel the riddle of human existence. Only with insight can the conundrums of form and emptiness, truth and appearance, mind and matter, find resolution. Through them we gain, in varying degrees, experiential access to the underlying unseen order that is our true source and being.

 These intuitions unveil the long-forgotten world that preceded language, those few years of early childhood untouched by the ceaseless cognitive mapping that has subsequently quantified, qualified, and defined every known aspect of what is. Mystical insight is seeing without boundaries or discrimination, seeing with beginner’s mind. It is what the Sufis are pointing to when they speak of discernment through “the eye of the heart.” Abrupt and wordless, these fleeting glimpses of what is bypass the conceptual filters of memories, associations, and learning. They are momentary openings into the way things are, providing a sense of the seamless, unified world in which we are intimately, but unconsciously, embedded. Perhaps you can get a sense of what insights are like from the following two metaphors: dot-to-dot drawings, and sunrise.

When we were children, dot-to-dot drawings were a common pastime and a lot of fun. We would carefully connect one dot to the next, not knowing what the picture would turn out to be. As more dots connected, we could begin to guess, and often, before we even finished, we would suddenly realize we were drawing an elephant or a pony or an airplane. Those who undertake the search for mystical truth, similarly, start by connecting the dots in the dark. Though they may study eagerly, work with a teacher faithfully, and practice daily, for many confusion still reigns. The meaning of such paradoxical teachings is so elusive that few students grasp their intent at the outset. They go on working dot by dot until, without warning, they catch a sudden glimpse of the whole picture—the Promised Land.

We often speak of knowledge “dawning” on us, and in truth, the gradual process by which mystical insight penetrates the ignorance of conditioning is much like the rising of the sun. As its first rays begin to catch the contours of the land, more and more details come to light until the world around us glistens brightly in the morning dew. Similarly, each insight reveals to us with greater clarity the nature of what is, as the light of spiritual realization dispels delusion and unveils the truth of things as they are. For some, this truth may indeed open up in a sudden blaze of understanding like the midday sun, but for many, the moment of true awakening is preceded by the subtle shifts of insight that help to prepare the way. As Emily Dickinson tells us, “The truth dazzles gradually, or else the world would be blind.”