When I teach about The Body’s Wisdom, one of the most common questions my clients ask is, “how do I tell the difference?” While the circumstances vary, the distinction they are all pointing to is essentially the same: how do I tell the difference between a true gut-instinct and yet another disruptive trigger that comes not from reality, but from the realms of the ego? Is this an intuition that I should definitely listen to – one that will help me better understand reality and take useful actions that forward my goals? Or, is this “feeling” the product of an emotional trigger that got activated by the current circumstance, but is not really relevant in the present time.
Let me be clear, it’s not that the ego is bad. To be sure, the habitual patterns we developed in our earlier lives served an important function. They were elegantly designed to help us respond as effectively as we could to threats (both large and small) in our environment, and act in a way that would ensure our safety, dignity and belonging. Yet, in the pursuit of present-day effective leadership that draws on deep body-listening as a critical tool, there is a WORLD in this distinction.
Here’s an example. I arrive at the Denver International airport ninety minutes early. When I check the time boards, I discover there is another flight leaving for San Francisco before my scheduled departure. Excitedly, I hurry to the other gate. Getting home as early as possible is a priority of mine today, and I have a hunch that this is my ticket home. My gut says: you’re your butt on that flight. However, when I arrive at the gate, it turns out that the flight first stops in LA – NOT my ideal scenario. Still… it seemed right. I ask the gate agent if there is space for me to get on the flight. She says yes! “But,” she adds with an incredulous look, “you’d have to then wait standby for the next flight in LA. Do you really want to do that?” I fold. Maybe I’m nuts. Maybe I’m just nervous about the next flight for no reason. Is it just the overly controlling part of me trying to micro-manage my travel, rather than have faith that my original flight will go smoothly, according to plan. In short – what if this is just my old fear-driven habit playing tricks on me? I commit to trusting more, go get a salad, and head to my original gate.
When I arrive, however, I come to find that my flight was delayed indefinitely due to maintenance. We’ll be sitting in Denver until they find us a new plane, which turns out to be four hours later. In the end I conclude that it really was my intuition after all.
I share this story for two reasons. One, to illustrate an example of the mundane and subtly confounding types of situations where this dynamic is at play. And two, to demonstrate that the question itself entails a relatively high level of play. Think about it – if I weren’t aware of my original impulse to pursue the LA flight, the rest of it wouldn’t have mattered. I would have missed the opportunity from the start. The question becomes relevant only when you start to hear your body’s messages in the moment. It’s then that you realize that there are a whole bunch of signals that carry different meanings, with varying degrees of weight.
So… how do we know?
The first (and possibly best) answer I’ve got at this stage is: sometimes we don’t. But it’s possible to get better and better at making the right choices in the moment through careful, and subtle, self-observation over time. While I do have a few tools and further distinctions to help you out, which I’ll share momentarily, I still hold that this is the best answer because realistically, the better we get at embodied listening the more information we take in, the more variables we have to contend with. And inevitably, some of them will closely resemble our unconscious fears, old thought patterns or situations we’ve been burned by in the past. While a simple rule of thumb may help you feel more confident in the moment, I believe it can also create a false sense of security. And for some of us, yet another reason to beat ourselves up if we don’t end up getting it right. Lastly, the truth may be that there isn’t a right or wrong. Maybe catching the LA flight would have left me stranded for even longer on my layover between cities. Sorry! But it’s true. There’s literally no way to account for all of the variables, known and unknown, in these equations. Holding that it can be tough to know the difference between fear and intuition can keep us on our toes.
That said… there are a number of heuristics you can use to help you tell the difference. Here are a few:
- It just feels/seems different – for those who are just getting started, this may be as specific as we can get. Without being able to explain it fully, something just “feels different” about a body-based intuition. (To build awareness, keep asking yourself: different how?)
- It comes from lower in the body – modern research in neuroscience has now established that there are neurons in three parts of the body – the head, the heart and the gut. These 3 “brains” offer different information, at different times, in different ways. Does your heart, or your belly, feel more activated than your head? This may be a sign.
- It’s got a softer, simpler voice – the language body’s is far less complex than the thoughts that run through our mind. I want. I like. It hurts. Yum. Yes. No. Get on that flight. It also tends to seem less “loud,” or subtler. When you have an intuition that pans out, think back to the form the message took. (Sometimes there are no words at all, just a sensation. This counts too. See #1 for what kind of feeling).
- It’s energetically rounder, less pointed – many times, the language of the ego comes with a level of “drive” that pushes or compels us forward in a way that can feel sharper or more pointed. In contrast, like the great meditators describe their time in contemplation, intuition can show up as more rounded, or even spacious, like a circle rather than an arrow.
- It’s less anxious, less grasping, less frenetic – similarly, when we’re caught up in an old fear or drama that seems compelling, it can feel like grasping. The energy may be anxious, frenetic, or particularly urgent. The Body’s Wisdom may feel more grounded, settled, less hurried.
- It’s unattached – some people describe the feeling of body-knowing as an unattached but certain feeling. As if to say: it’s just so… take it or leave it. In contrast, ego-driven feelings are literally designed to make sure you don’t miss or ignore them.
- It comes back again if you ignore it – while this may sound like a contradiction, body-knowing also has a tendency to keep coming back, if you don’t get the hint. A mentor of mine once shared an Irish proverb: what’s for you won’t go by you. It may not (or it may!) hit you over the head. Either way, if you turn away, only to later turn around and feel or hear it again, you may be on the right track.
- It leaves you feeling oddly calm – some of the most profound moments of gut-level knowing have surprised me with regards to how little they scared (or even surprised) me. While an ego-driven impulse often brings even more anxiety – whether or not you heed it – heeding The Body’s Wisdom can produce a wave of post-action calm.
While some teachers speak about these differences with authority, I tend to hold them loosely as “signs” that I may be on the right track. Realistically, both gut-level instincts and ego impulses may be in play in any given situation. If so, your job is to sort them out. As you advance in your practice, I recommend paying attention to which ones help you make the right choice most often and relying on those more heavily over time. I also recommend taking stock after any mis-diagnoses (i.e. I thought it was my gut-instinct, but really it was just that same old fear). How did you eventually know? What, if any, early signs did you miss that could inform you next time?
If you’ve been tracking my work for a while, or if you’re already a pretty advanced player when it comes to The Body’s Wisdom, I encourage you to turn up the volume on your awareness this week. Mastery takes thousands of repetitions… and leaders with a learning mindset can always find ways to improve their craft. While engaging in extra practice may feel arduous at times, the payoff can be great. It’s when the stakes are highest – in our lives, our work and our relationships – that these subtle nuances can make the BIGGEST difference in our results.
For me, it’s with great vulnerability that I share this piece. Learning from the body’s wisdom is at the core of my teaching, as well as my personal practice. I’ve dedicated over 20 years and tens of thousands of hours to doing it well. Yet there are days when I feel like I am still just a beginner.
In my own life, at this very moment, I’m facing a simple – but not easy – question. Is the man I’ve been dating for the past five years really the right one for me? Our relationship is beautiful – the best I’ve ever had. Yet, as we lean into questions of marriage and children, something inside my body keeps pulling me out. Those who know me well understand the kind of delicate territory this touches in my own ego-system. As a woman with a father who cheated, I’m a sucker for Cinderella love stories, and have been derailed by unfounded fears that created drama in my intimate relationships in the past.
Today, still unmarried at 38 years old, I find myself asking a big big question – how do I know if there’s a problem… or if it’s just my inability to tolerate an evolving love story that seems too good to be true? How do I know if the pull comes from the deepest wisdom of my own body… or a relic of the self-sabotage that plagued my earlier years.
The truth is… I don’t know.
But I do know this: I am committed to building truly sustainable work, love and relationships in the coming years, and I trust that these questions will deepen my practice, if I let them.
Will you join me on this quest?
In reverence and deep reflection,