"There comes a leap in consciousness, call it intuition or what you will, and the solution comes to you and you don't know how or why."
-- Albert Einstein
I like to practice following my intuition on small decisions. It's easy to heed an intuition about oatmeal verses eggs. It gets more difficult when the intuition involves buying a car or switching careers. Practicing with the little decisions builds the faith and fortitude I need to follow my gut and guidance during the scary ones.
This morning I've just showered and I'm getting dressed. The red undies or the green? I relax my body, feel my feet on the ground, and ask for guidance. I feel a distinct pull toward the green. So be it. What does it mean? Who knows? Maybe I needed some green energy in my life today. Or maybe it'll turn on Gwen. Or maybe a modern day Lex Luther is hatching a plan right now to vaporize only people wearing red boxer briefs. Either way, practicing on the little decisions helps hone my skills so I'm ready for the big ones.
In his bestseller, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell explores processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information, i.e. intuition. He looks at our instinctive ability to mind read, for example to know what emotions a person is feeling from seeing only his or her face. Gladwell demonstrates that we can often make better judgments from less information.
That's good, because sometimes I like to make decisions from very little information. Not my base urges mind you -- I'm not a gorilla -- but my inner wisdom. This may inform my business decisions. It may cause me, for no apparent reason, to hold off on sending an email, pitching a new idea to my editor, or accepting a book deal. I just might have to cancel my lunch date with you if my gut tells me it's time for a hike. And it will almost certainly, from time to time, cause me to walk in a zigzag line through a parking garage to get to my car.
At lunch, I look at the menu and try to tune into my body. The words "tuna salad" glow a bit brighter on the page. "Waiter, I'll have the tuna!"
The next day, I'm walking to my car after work. As I approach a signpost that's planted right in the middle of the sidewalk, I feel a strange but certain pull toward the left. Make way! Here comes Mr. Intuition.
I try to feel the validity of everything I'm saying. Is it hollow and empty or rich and full of meaningfulness? Is it just my brain chattering or is it coming from deep within? When I'm writing, am I mindlessly filling space just to meet a deadline or am I channeling my passion and doing inspired work?
Sophy Burnham, the bestselling author of The Art of Intuition, describes intuition as "the subtle knowing without ever having any idea why you know it. It's different from thinking, it's different from logic or analysis ... It's a knowing without knowing." Malcolm Gladwell agrees: "We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that -- sometimes -- we're better off that way."
I love finding compatriots in my instinct experiment. Last night I found solace in Russell Crowe's biblical blockbuster Noah. No one in the film ever doubts whether God really spoke to Noah. It's a given.
This morning was a huge victory for Operation Intuition. My plan was to head to The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health (about an hour away) to have a sauna, get a massage, and do some writing. I was to hit the road at 8:30 in the morning, just after Gwen leaves to drive the boys to school.
Today Gwen is chaperoning Noah's class on a field trip apple picking about 45 minutes away. She'll be gone all morning. At 8:15, I get a feeling that I shouldn't go to Kripalu. What if Benji (5 years old and in kindergarten) needs me? This is a surprising concern -- in the six years that Noah and, more recently, Benji, have been in school, we've been called by the school nurse only once. So it's pretty unlikely that I'll be needed. Yet, when I stand up to leave, I feel like a thousand pounds, like I can hardly move. Otherwise I feel healthy, happy, and calm and I want to go. Going to Kripalu is not a chore that I'm subconsciously sabotaging or trying to get out of. Equally, my concerns don't feel like anxious mental chatter. They feel more like a calm truth, a deep knowing. My intuition is clear; I'm not going to Kripalu.
I was looking forward to my day at Kripalu so I'm disappointed. Plus, I'll have to pay half the fee for cancelling my massage with short notice. Yet, I'm also excited to be listening to an intuition. Every time that I listen for my intuition, let alone heed it, feels like an accomplishment.
Now that I'm home for the day, I set up my laptop at the kitchen table and get to work.
An hour later, my cell phone rings. I'm deep into editing a chapter and at first I don't recognize the number so I don't pick it up, but then I realize it's the school.
"Hello, Brian? This is Laura, the school nurse." If you are a parent, you know that this is the last phrase you want to hear. And if you also happen to be Jewish and from New Jersey, it sends you into immediate heart palpitations and acute bowel distress.
Laura continues, "Benji has been stung in the face by a wasp and his eye is swelled shut. Since this is his first sting, we want to watch him for anaphylaxis. Can you come to the school?"
Fifteen minutes later I'm there and holding his little hand.
It took a bit of faith to heed my intuition this morning but it certainly paid off. And next time my intuition pipes up, I'm that much more likely to be able to find the courage and fortitude to listen.
What kind of signs am I looking for? It's the same as with the Supreme Court's definition of pornography: You know it when you see it. In 1953, Eugene Gendlin, researching at the University of Chicago, called this subtle internal awareness that contains information and holds the key to the resolution of a problems, the "felt sense."
Let's say you're deciding whether to accept an invitation to lunch. Maybe a calm, supportive voice in your head says, "Go ahead, take the lunch." Maybe when you focus on your breath and clear my mind, your thoughts and worries quiet down but an excitement about accepting the invitation remains. Or maybe the thought of going to lunch has a deep, calm feeling of rightness. These are each an intuitive "thumbs up."
Or maybe when you think about accepting the invitation, you are embarrassed rather than proud. Or when you imagine being at lunch, you want to get it done fast, like the way you eat something you're not happy about eating -- fast and mindless.
Sometimes intuition is a feeling, sometimes a pull in a certain direction, sometimes one thing seeming brighter than another. Sometimes among all the background chatter at Starbucks suddenly two words float out clear as a bell above the white noise: "Say yes." Or sometimes in that moment, as you stare blankly into the crowd, pondering if you should say yes to lunch, your eyes fix upon a stranger's tee shirt with a giant "NO" emblazed on the front.
Watch for surprising coincidences such as these. Paulo Coelho, New York Times bestselling author of The Alchemist, has sold 210 million books and knows it's time to start writing his next when he sees a white feather. Warren Buffet famously makes billion dollar trades that begin with an intuitive interest in a company, and, in 1983, Russian lieutenant colonel Stanislov Petrov defied military protocol to stave off a catastrophic nuclear war because his gut told him that the Russian missile detection system was malfunctioning.
These are all ways in which intuition and guidance can speak. Sometimes I recognize an intuition because I hear myself thinking, maybe I'll die soon and I won't have to (fill in the blank). That's usually a pretty good indication that on a very deep level I don't want to take that particular course of action. This simple observation has saved me from countless wrong jobs, bad moves, and unhealthy relationships.
You're already hearing intuitions, though you might be writing them off as errant thoughts or silly superstitions. Maybe you have a feeling that you should stay a few minutes more at lunch but your brain chimes in, "Nope, time to hit the road, we've got emails to send and papers to file." Or maybe you get super excited when you think about a run tonight -- just the thought of it makes you feel the most alive you've felt all day -- but you override it with, "It's too cold" or "I just don't have the energy."
Intuition is like a muscle; it helps to work it out every day. Below is my daily intuition workout -- four times every day I check in to build my muscles of intuition. Give this workout a shot and let me know (in the comments) how it goes for you.
1. Before breakfast, feel your feet on the ground, place a hand on your stomach, and ask, "What's the best breakfast for me this morning? What would feel just right?"
2. Check in as you get dressed. The blue verses the brown pants? Ask for intuition and follow with blind faith. What do you possibly have to loose?
3. Consult your intuition before you send your next email. Maybe you get a feeling you should wait a minute or an hour. For today, follow this completely.
4. In the evening, check in with your body as you weigh a run verses a bike ride. Or even as you consider your Netflix options.