HomeVOLUME 8February 2023 The role of the intellect

VICTOR KANNAN explores the components of our mental well-being, and how the refinement of intellect helps our consciousness to evolve.

When we talk about consciousness, we are also indirectly including three other aspects of mental functioning – the mind, the intellect, and the ego. Why? Because these three play out within the canvas of our individual consciousness, and consciousness only evolves when these functions of mind, intellect, and ego evolve. Mind evolves from thinking to feeling, intellect evolves from instinct to wisdom, ego evolves from identifying with our individual self to identifying with the universal being, using the qualities of wonder and humility.1

The idea of “intellect” is not explored much in faith traditions. A lot more emphasis is given to love, devotion, faith, and surrender. Many who are moved by faith and devotion seem to lead a life of irrationality and emotional excess, devoid of much self-awareness. They do not seem to take self-responsibility seriously. This leads the skeptics and the rational to deny the existence of mystery, esoterism, and the magical.

When we observe the universe, we wonder at some phenomena, and we doubt others. Doubt is a poison, even for intellectual reasoning. Wonder is the best way to approach the things we don’t know about. There is so much that is majestic all around us. A healthy dose of skepticism, along with wonder, keeps the mind’s door open and observant for non-judgmental learning.

This is more important when we take up a self-transformational journey through yoga, meditation, and spirituality. Spirituality is an art and science of exploring our true connection with nature, and our inner reality and ultimate potential. This is a process of transforming the self from who we are to who we can be. In this process, we transform from inside out. We start from the center of our being, and the transformation eventually appear sat the circumference. This naturally influences the environment and the community we live in.

Spiritual self-transformation is also called the “evolution of consciousness.” Consciousness has been defined2 as the degree of awareness and unawareness, and the quality of our response to such awareness. As consciousness begins to unravel its potential, it evolves and expands. This results in an increase in our ability to perceive clearly and act with focus and purpose.

Mind is a thinking instrument. Given a set of mental and emotional circumstances and backdrop, it finds new solutions. Thinking results in a new thought. This thought becomes a seed for future thinking. Intellect is a tool that helps us dissect, analyze, and understand. It is a tool of discernment. Ego is the part that gives us a sense of identity: what is I, me, mine, and ours. The identity is questioned when we feel threatened and constrained. The ego suffers. It triggers the other counterparts of intellect and mind to analyze a problem and think of a solution. When overcome, the new solution re-establishes our identity.  All these three work together in a complex fashion; it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins.

Let us assume, for the sake of discussion, that the intellect is the connecting link between thinking and identification. Intellect is the discriminating or discerning faculty. It is like a knife, dissecting and analyzing the world around us, in the pursuit of meaning. It can cut off a lifeline or make things around us sharper for better use! It makes sense of our thinking. However, intellect has to be refined and evolve. How? By purifying, regulating, and focusing it. If the intellect is not pure, it can justify all evil acts.

We start from the center of our being, and the transformation
eventually appears at the circumference.

The spectrum of intellect stretches from instinct to wisdom, and eventually to direct perception. Though humans are supposed to be at the pinnacle of the evolution of species, all forms of life have a form of intellect called instinct. Research shows that trees, too, have a nervous system.3 They communicate among themselves. Electrons pass from the external field to the central nervous system of a plant, and then a feedback loop creates an action. That action protects the plant, or preys on food, and helps the plant understand what is around it.


So instinct is the first element of intellect. That instinct is necessary for survival. Many a time we ask, “What is your gut feeling?” Where is that gut feeling coming from? Research shows that the source of brain function is not only in the brain.4 For example, the vagus nerve from the heart stimulates the brain into certain action and not the other way round.5 The autonomic functions are shared between the brain, the gut, and the heart. They control both the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses, whether they are fight, flight, or freeze responses or post stress feelings of calm, peace, happiness, and joy. Our instinct is all over our body-mind complex. Neurons from the gut send signals to the brain, and the brain sends back a signal for response. This is all instinct. Instinct is directly related to brain function and hormones. It is our inheritance to protect and safeguard our lives. It is this instinct that protects the ego, and it draws from the resources of the memory bank and thinking of the mind.

The second element of intellect is intuition. We know that some people are more intuitive than others. All of us have felt a sense of things and events before they happen. This is intuition. A feeling. A premonition. A forethought. A foresight. An aha moment. Intuition develops when we quieten our mind, observe, and witness.

Meditation is an important way to develop intuition, as it helps us to open our minds to their subconscious and superconscious states.

Meditation is an important way to develop intuition,
as it helps us to open our minds to their
subconscious and superconscious states.


The third element is intelligence. Intelligence is a variable, but all of us have it. Animals have it and plants have it. Intelligence can be improved by acquiring knowledge and knowing how to apply it, and most knowledge comes from experience and observation. This knowledge includes emotional intelligence, which is acquisition of emotional and mental soft skills such as listening, pausing, reflecting, focusing, and being attentive. The more emotionally intelligent a person is, the more successful and happier they can be. Yet once again, without the evolution of that intelligence by proper and pure intentions, it can be wasted on inhumane enterprises. The power of intention cannot be underestimated in the growth of our consciousness. Pure and generous intentions are the principles of an evolving mind, intellect, and ego. It is when it goes instead toward self-aggrandizement that the problems begin.


The fourth element is wisdom. When does intellect evolve to become wisdom? By conscious effort to purify, regulate, and focus our intellect. The evolution of the mind and the ego also helps in the evolution of the intellect and vice versa. How does wisdom help us?  When we are wise, we make better choices. Should I speak or not? What to say? How much to say? When to say? Whether to go here or there? As we become wiser, our choices become consistent with the goal we have taken up for our lives. We may not know how to define wisdom, but we definitely know when we see a wise person or hear words of wisdom. 

In a nutshell, the role of the intellect is a crucial one. Intellect also sheds light on faith. Faith is a state of mind. I struggled with the term “faith” for a long time. I didn’t understand it in the context of how it has been practiced – to get from the Almighty what we want, with faith increasing if expectations were met. This did not inspire me. In one of my meditations, it occurred to me that the role of faith is to beget hope; hope begets positive action, and positive action produces positive results. So, to my understanding, intellect actually embellishes the understanding of faith and puts it in its right place.

One way to explain the evolution of consciousness is to say that it is a release from the limitations of the mind, the intellect, and the ego. It results from their continuous refinement so that they become feeling, wisdom, and appreciation of the world around us. It is an ever-growing subtle-fication of the body-mind-spirit complex, ever tending toward moderation and balance in all aspects of life. In this process, intellect plays a very big part. If the mind is not refined, the intellect is not refined, and the ego is not refined, then love, obedience, and surrender will remain misplaced, and will be counterproductive to our evolution.

The 20th century spiritual teacher, Babuji (Ram Chandra of Shahjahanpur), added the term “real” before love, life, and surrender, perhaps to indicate the importance of the pure form of these attitudes to guide us to the truth. Also, when all the elements of consciousness are purified, regulated, and focused, direct perception is enabled. This is what saints and spiritual scientists like the Buddha and Babuji are able to do. We also have the possibility to perceive directly when we embrace an evolutionary practice like Heartfulness. 


When all the elements of consciousness are purified,
regulated, and focused, direct perception is enabled.

1 https://www.heartfulnessmagazine.com/editions/december-2016/

2 By Daaji

3 https://www.science.org/content/article/plants-communicate-distress-using-their-own-kind-nervous-system

4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3845678/

5 https://www.news-medical.net/news/20210624/Researchers-observe-brains-responses-to-vagus-nerve-stimulation-during-sleep-and-wakefulness.aspx

Illustrations by JASMEE MUDGAL


Victor Kannan

Victor Kannan

Victor is a Director for Heartfulness Institute, USA, a non-profit organization educating, researching and spreading the values of yoga, meditation and overall wellness. He has been an avid practitioner of Heartfulness Meditation and a trai... Read More