Our inner knowing may be fleeting or quietly persistent, and it is more sensation than thought. We feel it somewhere deep inside of ourselves—often in the heart area or the belly. It doesn’t explain or justify itself. It is frequently unbidden and unexpected. It can be deeply reassuring and soothing, or on occasion, it can be very unwelcome, rocking the boat, making waves, and turning our life upside down. Sometimes we may not want to know what we know—the truth can be very inconvenient. It can end marriages, friendships, and careers and disrupt families, spiritual communities, and governments. It is also very liberating to live in accord with this truth. It is a two-edged knife that cuts us out of our comfort zone and opens to life as it is.
—John Pendergast, in touch

Have you ever faced a challenging situation, when, for some reason that you couldn’t explain, you had a feeling in your body like you just “knew” the next step forward?

If so, what happened next? Did you trust the sense? Did you follow it? How did things pan out? (I wish I could hear your answers right now! If you feel moved to do so, feel free to share what happened in the comments section below, and I’ll make sure to respond)

If you’ve ever felt a quiet sense of inner knowing but couldn’t quite explain why you felt the way you did, it may have been your intuition speaking.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines intuition as: “an ability to understand or know something without needing to think about it or use reason to discover it, or a feeling that shows this ability.”

So, what does intuition feel like?

Do you remember that game where your friend hid something in the room, and then you had to find it? They’d yell “colder” as you got farther away and “warmer” as you got closer. With intuition, it’s like you’re a kid playing that game again. Only this time, you have an inner tuning fork that can sense an internal resonance when you’re moving in a direction that’s aligned with what you need and desire. Your intuition tells you “warm, warmer, hot” as you move closer and closer to what you’re seeking.

At first, intuition can arise as an unemotional, hard-to-hear whisper, free from bells and whistles. Subtle and matter-of-fact. A deep and quiet “Yup… Nope… Yes, go that way… No, don’t go that way.” When you move in the direction of your inner knowing, you feel a sense of coming together and lining up inside. But if you don’t pay attention, your intuition can grow louder and louder until it’s unbearable. Illness, physical pain, depression, anxiety, procrastination, Freudian slips, forgotten appointments— these are all symptoms that might indicate that you’re not following your intuition.

Where does intuition come from, anyway?

Over the billions of years that our ancestors have lived on this planet, we’ve developed multiple ways of knowing. There are three main theories to explain how intuition arises, and I believe that they each comprise an important aspect of our inner navigational systems—

  1. Intuition arises from the wisdom of your body,
  2. Intuition is life living through us, and
  3. Intuition is—sometimes— unconscious knowledge.

1.  Your Body’s Wisdom.

Intuition is like your body’s inner navigational system. Your body is an extraordinarily sensitive instrument with the ability to track what’s happening internally and externally and to discern the next steps that will serve you most. Every cell in your body is continuously informing the rest of your body about what it needs to be well, and all of these signals come together to create a felt sense or a not-yet-articulated inner knowing. By learning to become aware of the sensations in your body, you can use this information to better choose your next steps forward.

There are three primary centers of intelligence in the body— the gut, the heart, and the head:

Your Gut: In many traditions, the low belly is considered the power center of intuition, action, and creativity.  In Chinese medicine, this area is called the lower dan tian. In Japanese martial arts and meditative traditions, it’s called the Hara. Modern-day neuroscience is finally catching up to the ancient teachings and shows that the gut contains over 500 million neurons which can learn and form memories and are equivalent in size and complexity to a cat’s brain.

Your Heart: According to the HeartMath Institute, the heart generates an electromagnetic field that’s about one hundred times stronger than that of the brain in our heads, and our nervous systems can detect other peoples’ energetic fields. This may be how we’re able to sense another person’s presence or emotional state even without words or body language. Long before Americans revered the brain, many ancient cultures including the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Greeks believed that the heart was the primary organ of intelligence and decision-making.

Your Head: The brain in your head also has an immense capacity for perception and understanding. Where most folks in modern-day Western society get stuck is that they privilege the intelligence of the brain over the intelligence of the gut and the heart. Our brains are not as good at getting an initial sense of what our next right steps are, but they are gifted at figuring out how to make things happen. I invite you to think of your brain as an ally for the rest of your body. When you face a big decision, check in first with your gut and your heart and then turn to your mind to help get to where you want to go.

2. Life Living Through You.

Quantum physics confirms what ancient spiritual traditions have taught for thousands of years— At a molecular level, we’re all connected in one vast sea of timeless, endless energy. This energy is called many things in many traditions— Universe, Oneness, the Tao, Source, God, Goddess, Great Spirit, Love, or simply, energy. I invite you to use the language that works best for you. In Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, he writes, “…intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything because it’s all written there.”

It helps me to think of this energy simply as Life (yes, with a capital “L”). When you stop to think about it, who is growing your fingernails or beating your heart or digesting your food? The “Katherine” or “Veronica” or “Jamal” that you identify with is not consciously doing any of that. Life is living through you, animating your body right now and in every moment. You are a unique manifestation of the life force running through everything, and your intuition is the sensation and expression of life living through you.

Rather than struggling to swim upstream, you can learn to tap into a sense of connection to this universal energy and move with the flow of life. As Parker Palmer writes, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.”

3. Unconscious Knowledge.

Social scientists like Daniel Kahneman and Gerd Gigerenzer teach that intuition is the expression of internalized, unconscious knowledge and experience. Here’s how it works: Your unconscious mind stores memories of all of your experiences deep within your brain. Then one day, you’re facing a decision, and you feel that you “just know” what to do even though you can’t quite explain why. The reason it feels right is that you’re accessing information from past experiences stored in your unconscious mind.

This unconscious “knowing” consists primarily of rules of thumb that work quite well, and its how many scientists explain hunches that lead to scientific breakthroughs. However, it also includes assumptions, limiting beliefs, and shortcuts that don’t actually get us where we truly want to go. This can lead to implicit bias, which is at the root of so much racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and other prejudice. I wouldn’t include implicit bias in a definition of intuition, but it can be mistaken as such. Because of this, it is crucial to consciously take a moment to reflect on your choices before following what feels like intuition.

The key to learning how and when to trust your intuition is to practice.

Many people want to learn how to access their intuition overnight. But it often takes time. If you make a decision based on a gut feeling and later feel disappointed about how things turn out, it can be easy to get frustrated.

To learn what your intuition feels like and when to follow it, I recommend tuning in to your body on a daily basis (at least) and asking what your gut and heart are telling you. Then, take steps to follow what you hear as soon as possible and see what happens. You can start low-risk; you don’t have to do things like quit your job today if that doesn’t feel safe yet. These small experiments will help you develop an ability to hear your intuition and trust yourself.

Let’s try it out now, shall we?

I invite you to practice tuning in to the wisdom of your gut and heart now.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Find a quiet space free from distractions. Feel the sensation of your feet on the ground and take in the support of the earth.
  • It can be easier to learn how to tune in to your intuition when you’re responding to a decision that you’re facing. Choose a smallish-sized decision, one that’s around a 4 on a 0-10 scale of importance (10 being most important). In your mind’s eye, bring this decision in front of your body.
  • Place your hands on your belly, relax your belly, and ask— What is my gut telling me now about this decision? Write down what comes up.
  • When you’re ready, place your hands on your heart, breathe into the space around your heart, and ask— What is my heart telling me about this decision now? Again, write down what comes up.
  • And, finally, place your hands over your eyes and forehead. Then ask— What is my head telling me now? Write it now.
  • Take a look at what you wrote. Notice to what extent your gut, heart, and head agree with each other.
  • Do you have enough information to make the next step? If so, take it!
  • If not, ask yourself what else you need to make a decision. Do you need to gather more information? If so, what are your questions? Do you feel afraid to follow what you’re hearing? If so, ask yourself— What’s the worse thing that could happen?

Keep in mind that on one hand, it’s very important to be patient and compassionate with yourself when learning what’s best for you. And, on the other hand, learning to trust your intuition is all about experimenting in small, relatively safe ways and seeing what happens. The more you take steps to follow your intuition, the more you will learn to trust yourself.

To learn more about your own implicit biases, I invite you to click hereAnd, if you have a friend who could benefit from connecting with their intuition and learning to trust themselves, I invite you to please share this article with them. I’d be very grateful! And I think they would be, too.

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