Chapter 3 of the Book

Lesson 8 Chapter 1 Module 4

Sense, Adapt, Respond

This chapter gives you structure to work on your intelligence. It is based on a couple of experiences I had in France.

I wake up. The room is dark. The place feels strangely unfamiliar. I don’t quite know how I know, but I know I am not at home in my own bed. Then I hear what may have woken me – the sound of sheep, just outside. 

An accompanying video - a conversation with Chris Thomson. 

And then I realise that the sound, too, is unfamiliar. That’s when it dawns on me. It’s the sound of goats. That’s when I remember the long drive the day before, from Chartres in the north. Now I understand that I have woken up in a farmhouse, near Lodève, in the south France. I feel pleasure because I have had a good sleep, and because I have a long holiday ahead of me.

As you can see, something stimulated me to wake up. I sensed something. It was the unfamiliar sound of the goats. Then I understood what the sound was and where I was. And finally, I responded, by feeling pleasure. There was a process – sensing, understanding, responding.

Another example. It is May, 1992. I am camping in the Vanoise National Park in France. It is a beautiful part of the world, with many mountains over 3,500 metres. I have become interested in a smaller peak, Petit Mont Blanc, and I have spent a few days getting to know the mountain. Today I am climbing up the steep east face, by a route I studied carefully and committed to memory. I am alone, and feeling fit, energetic and optimistic. It is great to be alive. All is going well until, about half way up the cliff, I come across a family of bouquetins, the large mountain goats common in these mountains. They are very at ease on the steep rocks. I marvel that such big animals can balance on such small ledges. I assume that they will move away when I get closer. But they don’t. No amount of shouting and cajoling will dislodge them. 

Suddenly, I find myself in a new situation. Up to this point, I was climbing a route that was clearly etched into my memory, so I felt comfortable and confident. This was no longer possible because there was no obvious way to get past the animals. What do I do? Retire gracefully, or look for a different route? Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We all have 20-20 vision with hindsight! Perhaps I was so full of energy and optimism that anything felt possible. To cut a long story short, I took another route. It was a struggle, involving a near miss when I fell, but I lived to tell the tale.

That was a very different situation, of course, from waking up in the farmhouse. In fact, the two stories have some things in common, things that go to the very heart of what it means to be intelligent. In each case, there was an initial awareness – hearing the sound of goats, and seeing the very large goats, respectively. In each case, there was an understanding, a realisation – “Ah, of course, I’m in France!” and “There’s just no way to get past these animals.” And in each case, there was a response – pleasure in the first instance, and a somewhat rash decision to get to the top of the cliff by an uncharted route in the second.

Now, you could think of virtually any situation. But whatever the situation, the essence would be the same. In any situation that we experience, there is an initial sensing, or awareness, followed by an understanding, or recognition, followed by a response, or action. Sometimes the appropriate response is no action! While it is true that the three stages often very fast, as if they were a single unbroken process, I do believe that we always go through these three. 

Think of any experience you have had. Do you recognise the three stages?

I think of these three stages – awareness, understanding, and response – as the “intelligence process”. I have found it a very useful way of understanding how intelligence works, and of assessing myself. For example, how aware do you think you are? How well, and quickly, do you understand situations and people? And how well, and effectively, do you respond in any situation? The fact is that when you improve the quality of these three stages, you become more intelligent. Knowing this is central to working on your intelligence. So let’s look at this in a little more detail.


Although you may never think about it, you can be aware (or conscious, if you prefer) in ways that correspond to each of the six intelligences. You can be physically aware, when you use any of your five physical senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. You do this all the time, often without thinking about it. You are even physically aware in your sleep. It is why we wake up when something stimulates physical us, such as sound or touch.

You can be emotionally aware, when you feel something about a person, a place, or a situation, or when you simply feel, without reference to anything in particular, such as contentment, hope, uncertainty, anxiety or joy. As with physical awareness, you are emotionally aware all the time. Even those of us who seem unexpressive and cold are experiencing feelings all the time, probably feelings we are trying hard to ignore or repress. The more emotionally aware you are, you more likely you are to understand how you and others are feeling. That, in turn, will make it more likely that, at the emotional level, you will respond well, whatever the situation happens to be.

You can be mentally aware, which is what happens when you are thinking about someone or something. (Thinking and feeling are not the same!) Although you may not be familiar with the idea of “mental awareness”, you experience it a lot. Each time you think about anything, you become a little more aware of that thing. For example, you are sitting at a table outside a café in a small town in Catalonia. You see a sign that reads “Menu Vegetaria 9E, de dilluns a divendres, de 13 a 15-45”. You start thinking about what this means and, as you do, you become mentally aware that the vegetarian menu is served from 1:00 to 3:45. But you are puzzled by the words “dilluns” and “divendres”. You think a little more, and then remember that someone told you that the Catalan language has much in common with French, which you know quite well. Of course, it means “from Monday to Friday”. You have become a little more mentally aware. Should a similar situation arise again, your enhanced mental awareness will make it easier for you to understand. Next time you see a menu in Catalan, you will have a head start!

Another kind of awareness is intuitive awareness. As we noted in the previous chapter, intuitive intelligence can be defined as knowing without knowing how you know. You often just “know” something without ever having seen it before, or without having had it explained to you, or without having worked it out for yourself. The “knowing” is usually instantaneous, and it is often accompanied by the feeling that something unusual and significant has just happened. The more clearly you experience this, the more intuitively aware you are.

Sometimes you are acutely aware that you are not alone, that you are part of something bigger. It could be your family, your city, or your organisation. It could be a political party or a rugby team. The more aware you are of being part of something bigger, and of what this implies in practice, the more socially aware you are.

It is not easy to say exactly what spiritual awareness is, except to say that it is awareness beyond the ordinary. Let me give you an example from personal experience. I was a guest speaker at the World Health Congress in the USA in 1988. One of the other presenters was a Qigong therapist from China. Using Qigong techniques, he built up a surplus of energy in his own body, and then he transferred that surplus to a woman who was paralysed from the waist down. He did this without touching her. All of us gasped with astonishment when the woman’s legs moved up and down. The therapist was at least two metres away from her, but it was as if he was manipulating her with invisible strings. 

At the time, it seemed impossible. However, something happened to my awareness that made me realise that such things are possible. About two months later I met a Chinese man living in England. We became friends. He taught me the essentials of Qigong. As I progressed in my practice, I began to experience myself and the world differently. I became aware, without any shadow of doubt, that I was an “energy being” (it’s an odd term, I know, but it feels accurate) and that I was intimately connected to the energies of other people and the world. That was when I realised that the “impossible” acts of the Qigong therapist were, in fact, very possible. That realisation enhanced my spiritual awareness.

At the end of this chapter I will give you exercises to test your awareness at these six levels


In the two stories at the beginning of this chapter, I used the word “understand” to mean different things. In the first story, I understood what the sound was – it was the sound of goats – and I understood where I was. I was in the South of France. In the second story, I understood what the situation meant. I could not get past the mountain goats, to be able to continue on the route that I had memorised. I understood that I was in a tricky situation. Just as there are different kinds of awareness, corresponding to each of the six intelligences, so there are different kinds of understanding, as the following questions illustrate:

What did I just see, over there?

A tree
Physical understanding


Why am I feeling really uncomfortable these days?

Because I am in the wrong job with the wrong people

Emotional understanding


What do these strange words mean?

They mean “from Monday to Friday”

Mental understanding


How could I possibly have known that?

Because I had a very strong hunch

Intuitive understanding


Why is the team performing so badly?

Because it lacks good leadership

Social understanding


Why is the world going through so many problems?

It seems that people need to suffer before they wake up and see the consequences of their behaviour

Spiritual understanding



If you are good at awareness and understanding, your response is more likely to be an intelligent one. Sometimes the wisest response is no response. Do nothing and say nothing! Taoism has a special place for no response. It is called “wu-wei”, which means “no-action”. However, it does not mean this literally. “No-action” means that you do or say only whatever necessary to achieve the optimal result. This idea is based on one of the central tenets of Taoism, the belief that we human beings are just as much part of nature as trees, rivers, birds and bees. We are therefore at our wisest and most effective - i.e. our most intelligent - when we behave as the rest of the natural world behaves. All living things practise economy of effort, with minimum input for optimal output. It is we who make ourselves the sole exceptions to this. Too often, we do too much, with too much effort, contrary to the “way of nature”, which is how the word Tao is sometimes interpreted. In many cases, the intelligent response would be to do less, with less effort. 

The point I want to make here is that the quality and efficacy of your responses, your actual behaviour, will depend very much of the quality of your awareness and understanding. Enhance the first two stages of the intelligence process, and your behaviour will be correspondingly enhanced.

A Structure for Working on Yourself

When we combine the three stages of the intelligence process with the six intelligences, we get a useful framework for working on your intelligence. I recommend that you create a blank version of the table below and use it as a structure for working on yourself. I have started the process for you by putting a few suggestions in the boxes.




Physical Intelligence

How well do you use your five senses?

Do you have a “whole body” sense?

Do you recognise (a) the limits and (b) the potential of your body?

Have you a good sense of danger and survival?

Do you use a lot of energy to achieve things? Or do you use only the minimum necessary?

Emotional Intelligence

Can you normally tell what people are feeling?

Do you understand why they are feeling as they do?

Do you normally stay calm under pressure?

Mental Intelligence

Do you find it easy to understand what things mean?

Do you understand why things happen?

Do you understand the deeper, root causes of problems?

Are you an effective communicator?

Are you creative?

Intuitive Intelligence

Do you sometimes know something without knowing how you know?

Do you acknowledge that some things are true and possible, even though we have no explanation for them?

Do you normally trust your intuition, and act on it?

Social Intelligence

Have you a good sense of what it means to be part of a team, an organisation, or a community?

Do you understand the group’s needs?

Do people like being with you and working with you?

Do you lead by example?

Spiritual Intelligence

Do you have a strong sense of a reality beyond the physical/material?

Do you regularly see the bigger picture and take the longer view?

In what ways have you made the world a better place?

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