When you find yourself lost at the crossroads of a big life decision, people will often suggest that you simply “Trust your intuition,” or perhaps “Listen to your gut.” To me, this has always been confusing advice…
I’m not sure about you, but my gut can only communicate in a language that sounds less like discernible words and more like an arrhythmic gurgling of digestive juices and gathering farts.
“What should I do with my life, gut?”
“Did you just say: Become an astronaut?”
“Murder a hobbit?”
No, no, no, you need to “Listen to your heart,” the intuits say, but my blood-pumping organ is also verbally challenged and is too preoccupied with squirting oxygenated cells around my entire body to bother with any meaningful advice.
“Your intuition comes from your third eye,” says my yoga teacher, as she instructs us to gently massage the space of flesh between our eyebrows to “clear the vision.” Afterwards, the other students all seem to Ommm with sharper intensity, but all I get is a greasy finger.
“Your intuition is a little voice inside of you,” say the people who somehow just know these things. (They always have tidy hair and unfrazzled lives, so they’re definitely onto something.) “It is the sharper, kinder, clearer voice that knows. The wise voice. You just have to listen carefully. Sit quietly. Go inwards. Your intuition will speak to you then.”
So I take their advice and sit and think…
A confident voice speaks from within my mind, which strangely sounds a lot like my regular inner dialogue, only it’s talking to me now with the same whispery voice of my yoga teacher: “You’re a beautiful snowflake and the universe loves you. You deserve everything you’ve ever wanted. All the time. Like that cookie. Like that whole packet of cookies…”
“…And that burger, too, and that basket of large chips AND THAT PINT…”
“Drink all the beer! You’re a brilliant, sparkly unicorn! Get up on the bar and show everyone how your can line dance! Oh, look, a karaoke bar! No, Sia’s Chandelier is NOT too ambitious for your vocal range! Who cares if your boss is here? Swing, you fabulous horned pony! Swing from the chandelier!”
And so this begs the question: if your “inner voice” may not always be trustworthy and your heart is a bloody pump and your gut is busy with being an actual shit factory, then what oh what is this thing called “intuition”?
If you have an anxious or active mind, conscious reasoning is probably both your superpower and your downfall. It can get you out of all kinds of tricky situations, but too much of it can be like sitting in a room with several radios stations all playing at once.
One station might be playing breaking news. One is playing hard rock. One an exciting sports match. And one is playing gentle, loving soul music.
Given the urgency of the first three stations, which track do you think will be the easiest to ignore?
That’s right. Al Green.
Al Green is your intuition.
Your intuition is soothing, loving, nurturing, undemanding and dressed in a brown tweed suit. He’ll never be untrue. He loves you – whether times are good or bad or happy or sad…
Whenever someone says “Listen to your gut,” ignore their silly metaphor and just listen to your inner Al Green.
Okay, let’s try again.
In his book Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement William Duggan proposes an idea of there being three levels of intuition.
1. Ordinary intuition is the thing we call a “gut feeling.” It’s a vague hunch, but the trouble is, that hunch might be coming from brain files stored neatly under R for Rational Insight or it might be a scene you’re remembering from The Office.
Gut feelings come from a grab bag of muddled impressions – from insightful to fearful – and are ultimately a bit unreliable. As Duggan explains, “It’s similar to a 16-year-old telling you something. Should you listen? Yes. Should you do what the 16-year-old says? Maybe or maybe not.”
2. Expert intuition is far more reliable. This might be the kind of rapid decision-making an emergency worker might make when he launches into quick action during an accident, based on instinctual hunches. It’s effective. It works. But it only works in familiar situations, in areas we have experience in.
3. Strategic intuition is where the magic happens. This is a burst of insight “out of nowhere” that might solve a problem in a brand new way. It’s the sudden flash of insight that arises when your brain is relaxed and your thoughts are able to pair together in new ways. This is the kind of intuition that might give you a breakthrough when you’re stuck.
The brain is a magical mosaic.
We used to believe that the right and left brain hemispheres worked independently of each other, with one side for logic and one side for creativity. It’s a myth that some people are right-brained and therefore more creative while others are left-brained and more analytically inclined. Actually, the brain uses all parts and is more of a “mosaic” of thoughts, firing dynamically around the entire lump of meat.
Strategic intuition is when your brain, in its own goddamn time, manages to assemble parts of this mosaic into a brand new pattern. A spark.
JK Rowling was stuck on a delayed train from Manchester to London when the idea for Harry Potter sparked.
Suzanne Collins was channel surfing between reality TV and war coverage when the idea for The Hunger Games sparked.
When naval engineer Richard James was developing a sensitive spring to keep fragile equipment steady on a ship, he accidentally knocked it off a shelf and – spark!
And thank God for that. Where would humanity be without the Slinky?
From Picasso to Bill Gates to Napoleon to the guys at Google, many a breakthrough has sparked randomly thanks to the brain’s ability to pair ideas from its mosaic.
“This is the flash of insight you get when your mind is relaxed,” says Duggan. “It often happens when you’re in the shower, exercising, or falling asleep.” Or…
But this can be a problem for us worriers.
Our minds can be terrible at relaxing.
We, the generally anxious, are conscious reasoning production lines that churn out boxes and boxes of largely pointless strategy day and night, like a left-footed sneaker factory.
We reason the reason out of reason, and then reason it some more, because if we can simply reason through absolutely every situation in advance and go in prepared for everything – always – then we won’t have to live in the scary void of uncertainty.
Anxious people have been proven to have a low tolerance for uncertainty, but it’s wanting for something you cannot have. Nobody can have certainty. We are floating on a ball in outer space, you guys, and have no idea why.
Says Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost: “Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t – and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown.”
The pure unknown.
You can’t prepare for the unknown, see?
You can’t know what other people think of you.
You can’t know if that decision you made was the right one.
You can’t know if he/she will still love you in the future.
Sure, there are some pretty reliable forecasts about what will might happen tomorrow, but plots twist. They always have and always will. We can’t know the future.
Are you ready for this?
To harness the power of your intuition, stop worrying so much.
Stop trying so hard to work it out, mistakenly believing that laboured mental effort will give you new insight. The opposite is true. Relaxing will give you insight. I know it seems counterintuitive when you’re in a crisis of some kind; you brain wants to do nothing but solve, solve, solve!
But when you need a solution, you need a new way of thinking and for that you need a spark. If you’re spinning a loop of obsessive worry, the only accurate gut feeling you’re going to have at that point is irritable bowel syndrome.
Find a way to relax your mind. Find a sanctuary away from all the conscious reasoning, so that you might humbly fall into surrender with that which you cannot control.
Walking, meditating, adventure, scrapbooking, baths, travel, shower singing, gardening, knitting, taxidermy… whatever your thing is, I’m not here to judge.
If you’re a well-established worrier, then learning how to master the fine art of not worrying anymore is probably as difficult as learning how to play concert piano.
Yes, it’s hard. But Find your way anyway.
For me, it was a mix of walking pilgrimages, meditation, therapy and a near-death experience with a snake in an Indian hotel room that finally pulled me out of a lifetime of chronic worrying. I still worry, but the key part is: I usually know how to turn it off.
One more thing, just so we’re clear: I’m not saying you should give up, fall backwards into I-know-nothing-about-anything-anymore and join a commune where you form a relationship with a man named Moon who sells magic tea and gives chakra massages that last too long, while he drawls, I don’t know, man, I mean: Isn’t this all just an illusion anyway? So why, like, follow rules and all that?
I know. So tempting, right?
But being a responsible, forward-thinking adult is necessary for such life achievements as: not becoming an asshole. A little bit of worry is good. A healthy fear mechanism keeps you away from the likes of Moon.
It’s chronic overthinking that is problematic. When stressed, we go into over-thinking mode, but over-thinking might be the very thing that’s blocking any brilliant sparks. Maybe your futile attempts to control the unknown is the thing that’s jamming up your intuition hole.
As Duggan says, “You do not imagine the unknown. You discover it and make it known. And it turns out to be different from what you imagined.”
Safe and happy sparking to you.
Love Torre and Sarah.
This was post #1 of The Illustrated Guide to Calming the F#@! Down.
Every few weeks, I’ll be bringing you creations on this theme (with Sarah Steenland on cartooning), so that you can go on an inward-bound travel adventure with us towards introspection and self-exploration, with the goal of better understanding ourselves and each other. Subscribe to never miss a post or become a subscriber on Patreon.
Read post # 2 here on How To Love Yourself.
Read post # 3 here on How To See Differently.
Torre DeRoche is the author of two travel memoirs, Love with a Chance of Drowning (2013) and The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World (due out September 2017). She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian Travel, The Sydney Morning Herald, Emirates, and two Lonely Planet anthologies.