Intuition and the Creation of a Better World

Inspiration & Dreams

Anderson, William

Poems, the seeds of novels, the design of buildings and of cities, music, new ideas in philosophy: there are numerous examples of these appearing first of all in dreams. Mendeleev dreamed the form of the Periodic Table that bears his name and had to make only one slight correction after he had woken from sleep and written out what had been given him. Not only ideas and images come through dreams: the hidden magician can be immensely practical as well. The inventor of the sewing machine, Eli Howe, was held up for years in making a successful machine because he set the eye of the needle in the middle of the shank. One night he dreamed that he had been captured by a savage tribe. The king of the tribe ordered him to finish the machine on pain of death. He was being taken to execution when he saw that in the spears carried by his guards there were eye-shaped holes close to the spear blades. He realized that what was necessary was a needle with an eye near the point. He leaped from bed and quickly made a model of the needle with the eye at its point and that enabled him to make a sewing machine that worked.

An eighteenth-century Chinese artist, Kao Ch'i P'ei, had a dream in which he was taken into a cave by an Immortal and shown paintings more wonderful than anything he had ever seen. Desperate to copy them, he had no brushes with him but there was some water in a hollow of the cave wall. So he used his fingers to copy them. When he came out of the dream he realized he had discovered a new technique, that of finger painting, which he employed to great effect in his own work and which was taken up and used by many other artists.

Experimental techniques have been given to scientists in dreams. Otto Loewi won the Nobel Prize in 1936 for his discovery that the nerve impulse is both a chemical and an electrical event. He had had an intuition early in his career that this might be the case but could think of no experiment to test his idea. Seventeen years later this happened:

"The night before Easter Sunday of that year (1920) 1 awoke, turned on the light, and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of this paper. Then I fell asleep again. It occurred to me at six o'clock in the morning that during the night I had written down something important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl. The next night, at three o'clock, the idea returned. It was the design of an experiment to determine whether or not the hypothesis of chemical transmission that I had uttered seventeen years ago was correct. I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, and performed a simple experiment on a frog's heart according to the nocturnal design. Its results became the foundation of the theory of chemical transmission of the nervous impulse."

Perhaps the most influential dreams in the history of scientific thought were the three dreams René Descartes experienced on the night of 10 November 1619 in Ulm. He was then a young officer taking part in the early campaigns of the Thirty Years' War. First he dreamed that in a strong gale he was trying to reach the church of the Jesuit college where he had been educated. At the moment when he turned to greet someone the wind blew him away violently against the church. Then someone else handed him a melon. At this he woke up in pain and he prayed for protection. He dreamed a second time: a noise like a bolt of lightning terrorized him and a shower of sparks filled the room. In the third dream he saw on a table a dictionary and an anthology of the poets open at a passage of Ausonius: quod vitae sectabor iter, ('What path shall I follow in life?') An unknown man handed him verses in which the words 'Est et Non' caught his eye. At the end of this dream he dreamed first that the second dream of the shower of sparks was a dream and then he was given the interpretation of the dictionary, the poem and the Latin phrase. He saw the dictionary as the future unity of all the sciences, the poem as the union of philosophy and wisdom and the phrase 'Est et Non' as truth and falsity in human attainment and in secular sciences. The first two dreams he took as warnings about his past life – the melon, for example, means his love of solitude that he had sought for selfish reasons. The lightning is the spirit of truth and it was this that indicated in the third dream his task of unifying the sciences. He immediately began writing the work later published as Discours sur la méthode. The account of his dreams offers a succinct example of the creative moment as being a moment of simplification, of making clear what the tasks are that lie ahead.

William Anderson, The Face of Glory, pp. 161-162

Aurobindo, Sri

The deepest heart, the inmost essence of religion, apart from its outward machinery of creed, cult, ceremony and symbol, is the search for God and the finding of God. Its aspiration is to discover the Infinite, the Absolute, the One, the Divine, who is all these things and yet no abstraction but a Being. Its work is a sincere living out of the true and intimate relations between man and God, relations of unity, relations of difference, relations of an illuminated knowledge, an ecstatic love and delight, an absolute surrender and service, a casting of every part of our existence out of its normal status into an uprush of man towards the Divine and a descent of the Divine into man. All this has nothing to do with the realm of reason or its normal activities; its aim, its sphere, its process is suprarational. The knowledge of God is not to be gained by weighing the feeble arguments of reason for or against his existence: it is to be gained only by a self-transcending and absolute consecration, aspiration and experience. Nor does that experience proceed by anything like rational scientific experiment or rational philosophic thinking. Even in those parts of religious discipline which seem most to resemble scientific experiment, the method is a verification of things which exceed the reason and its timid scope. Even in those parts of religious knowledge which seem most to resemble intellectual operations, the illuminating faculties are not imagination, logic and rational judgment, but revelations, inspirations, intuitions, intuitive discernments that leap down to us from a plane of suprarational light. The love of God is an infinite and absolute feeling which does not admit of any rational limitation and does not use a language of rational worship and adoration; the delight in God is that peace and bliss which passes all understanding. The surrender to God is the surrender of the whole being to a suprarational light, will, power and love and his service takes no account of the compromises with life which the practical reason of man uses as the best part of its method in the ordinary conduct of mundane existence. Wherever religion really finds itself, wherever it opens itself to its own spirit, ÷ there is plenty of that sort of religious practice which is halting, imperfect, half-sincere, only half-sure of itself and in which reason can get in a word, ÷ its way is absolute and its fruits are ineffable.

Sri Aurobindo, Social and Political Thought, pp. 121-123


Generally speaking, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. It takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches and leaves, and finally blossoms. I cannot define the creative process in any way than by this simile I forget everything and behave like a mad man; everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch, ere one thought follows another… If that condition of mind and soul, which we call inspiration, lasted long without intermission, no artist could survive it. The strings would break and the instrument be shattered into fragments.

Tchaikovsky, in William Anderson, The Face of Glory, pp. 144-145

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