Hearing Inner Guidance

How to Find the Wisdom That’s Always There

From Yoga Journal, 2004

Jill met her ex-husband met at a business lunch in 1998. They connected like old friends, and spent the rest of the afternoon in intimate conversation. But afterwards, as Jill walked back to her office, a thought surfaced: “If you’re not careful, you’re going to end up marrying this guy, and that would be a huge mistake.”

“I don’t think of myself as intuitive,” she said, “But at that moment, I sensed that this was information I should pay attention to. Then, my usual veil went down. My emotions took over. I fell in love with him, we got married, fought for 5 years and finally got divorced. What I can’t get over is that I knew all along and I couldn’t listen to myself!”

I knew just what she was talking about. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I could remember dozens of occasions when I ‘knew’ something and ignored what I knew, either because I didn’t trust the information that was coming up from inside, or because some social consideration, desire, or fear spoke louder than the inner wisdom. But I’ve also discovered that the more I’m able to listen to that inner knowing, the deeper my sense of personal authenticity. So I asked Jill, “Did you ever practice tuning into yourself, just on a normal day, and asking yourself ‘What’s my deepest desire right now?’ Or ‘What does my inner Self really want for me?’ You know, seeing if you can get into a relationship with your inner wisdom so that you can hear what it’s telling you?” Jill shook her head. I suggested that she spend a few minutes a day doing that, and see what happens.

As someone who has had to learn this the hard way, I can guarantee you that 1) trustworthy inner guidance is really there, and 2) picking up on it is not that difficult. Like everything important in life, it’s all about paying matter of attention. If you slow yourself down a bit, and check into your body and your feelings, you soon begin to notice that helpful inner messages are coming to you all the time-through sensations in the body, flashes of insight, intuitive feelings, and even from that state of clarified intelligence that the Yogasutra calls rtambara prajna, or truth bearing insight. This is information that you can use to adjust your course, tune your inner state, and interact with the environment.

“I’ve learned to pay attention a certain feeling of emotional discomfort,” David, a financial consultant who meditates regularly, told me. “When I feel it, I stop and check myself out internally. Nearly always, I’m stuck in some negative mental loop. So the uncomfortable feelings signal me when its time to change the way I’m thinking in a situation.” Lacey’s relationship with inner guidance started one day in a yoga class. Feeling wobbly in a balancing pose, she began to explore her body, looking for a place of stability. Spontaneously, a thought came up: “Press down through the balls of the feet and widen your stance.” She did, and sure enough, she felt more grounded. After a few experiences like this, she began to test her instincts in other situations. One morning she asked her body what it felt like eating-and discovered that though ‘she’ wanted yoghurt, the answer that came surfaced was ‘oatmeal.’

The Innate Knowingness

Both of these people are tuning in to their innate natural intelligence-in David’s case, it comes through on a feeling or emotional level, while Lacey’s seems to be accessed through the body. These are instances of what I’d call ‘normal,’ or personal-level inner guidance-the kind that helps us find our bearings and direction in day to day life. It operates in different ways-as the physical ‘knowing’ that tells us when we’re in danger, as the subtler spatial sense that shows a ball player where to move for the catch, as the ability to ‘get’ whether it’s the moment to push your friend to talk about his feelings or whether it’s better to let him be. All of us have our own natural ways of tuning into this level of interior wisdom-whether we feel it in the gut, in the heart, or as some other form of inner sensation. We just have to learn to recognize it and make it conscious.

Extraordinary Guidance

Then there’s what we could call extraordinary, or extra-normal guidance, messages that actually arise in crucial, life-changing moments, to guide us in making major decisions or warn us about potential danger, or help us take the next step in our spiritual journey. Jill’s inner message about the man she married was like that. As it did for her, this kind of message can arise as a thought in the mind. Or it can come, and often does, as an image, a dream, or a sense of being called, or drawn in a certain direction–as in those famous stories about religious figures who hear a ‘call’ from God, or the traveler who feels a strong inner ‘pull’ to go down a certain road, where he comes across a man who’s been wounded and needs help, or a beautiful woman who becomes his wife. That kind of inner guidance can feel radical, profoundly at odds with the voices of conventional wisdom, culture, and our ideas of who we are and what we want.

It can also be quite dramatic. A man I know once woke up in the middle of the night after dreaming of a paper guillotine sitting by his child’s bed. He went to the kid’s room, and saw a sheet of paper lying on top of the bedside lamp. The bulb had burned through the paper, which was just bursting into flames. He is convinced that acting on the dream saved his child’s life.

This is the kind of inner guidance that tends to get our attention. We give different names to it-higher intuition, the voice of God or our higher Self, the enlightened voice within us. Yet from another viewpoint, it is simply a deeper, more subtle level of the basic guidance that we are always getting through the body and gut and feelings. Since everything is made of one substance, one intelligent consciousness, it makes sense to understand that even the guidance that seems ‘mundane’ is actually coming from the same one source, and deserves to be honored as much as the guidance that seems ‘spiritual.’

Whether inner guidance manifests through the body as gut instincts, through the heart as feelings, through the mind as clarified wisdom or intuition or as a vision or ‘voice’ or dream, it is smart-probably smarter, in certain situations, than your cognitive mind. That’s because it comes from a level closer to the Essence, the deep Self, or what is sometimes called the wisdom mind. Tuning into inner guidance is one of the best ways you have to access the enlightened sage or visionary artist who lives inside you, who is the deepest you! When you follow your true inner instincts, you are receiving guidance from a master.

Which is the Real Guidance?

Of course, there is a challenging aspect to all this. How can you tell which is the ‘real’ inner guidance, and what is just a stray impulse or masked desire, or even some form of mental static? In fact, when there’s a lot going on in your mind, it can be hard to find the inner voice. (This is one more reason why it is so important to regularly quiet the discursive mind through meditation.) Most of us discovered early on that following our own instinctual sense of things often got us in trouble with parents and caregivers. So as we learned to adapt to other’s wishes-a necessary part of human socialization-we also learned to override our intuitions, and to substitute parental voices, societal voices, the voices on TV, the wisdom of ad campaigns, tv news, and our peer culture for the guidance that arises from within.

One result of this is that we can get so far out of touch with our inner wisdom that we actually doubt that it exists. So before we can hear the deeper wisdom-both our instinctual ‘animal’ body wisdom, and the subtler wisdom that comes from the Self, the transcendental part of us-you may first have to accept that guidance is there to be heard. Then we have to find out how to move past, or still, the competing voices that get in the way. Finally, we need to learn how to discriminate between the ‘real’ guidance of the deep self, the enlightened wisdom inside us, and the voices of our fears, our desires, and our various fantasies.

Getting to Know Yourself

Here, it helps to have some understanding about your own tendencies. Perhaps you have a judgmental inner parent lurking inside, who manifests as a critical inner voice, or a feeling that things will turn out badly. If you know how to recognize that guy, you won’t mistake his voice for the voice of truth. Perhaps you have a have a bent towards fantasy or wishful thinking. If you can recognize when the part of you who still wants to believe in Santa Claus is operating, you can be skeptical of the messages that tell you to spend your last $70 buying lottery tickets. If you know you have a driving, perfectionist streak, you can look askance when you’re inwardly ‘guided’ to stay up all night to finish a project, and instead, tune into your body’s need for rejuvenation.

We all have aspects of ourselves that are wise, mature, and deeply trustworthy. We also have parts that are undeveloped, prone to making decisions based on childhood fears or omnipotence fantasies. With awareness, you can learn to recognize where guidance is coming from, and to disentangle the clear voices (or feelings) of intuitive, essential wisdom, from the feelings that arise from fear, anger, desire, or delusion. One reason to practice working with intuition is so that you find out how to tell the difference between an insight that comes from the wisdom mind, the purified heart, or the deep body wisdom, and an insight that comes from the part of us that might be called pre-rational-the part of us that hasn’t quite surrendered to growing up.

In fact, when you get hunches about something major, it’s always good to ask yourself the tough questions, like “Is this hunch at all grounded in reality? Is it congruent with my basic principles and values? Would I advise someone else to act on this hunch? Does it reflect the principles of the spiritual traditions I honor? Is it likely to cause harm to myself or someone else? Is following this hunch making me depressed? Is it inflating my sense of being special and ‘chosen?’”

The Real Deal

The more willing you are to examine the insights you receive, the more you’ll learn how to recognize the guidance that actually comes from the wisdom mind. The turning point for me in discerning the ‘feel’ of clear inner guidance happened in a mundane and apparently trivial way. I was about to fly home from New Delhi, and I’d been packing quickly, discarding everything that didn’t fit in my suitcase. But as the taxi waited at the door, I discovered that I didn’t have my airline ticket. (E-tickets didn’t exist in India in the early 1980s!)

Frantically, I turned out my bag, the drawers, the wastebasket. Nothing. At last, I closed my eyes, got quiet, and asked Consciousness, “Please find my ticket.”

Seconds after I made the prayer, a very faint sequence of words began to appear in my mind. Word by word, I heard, “Look in the wastebasket again.” I did. My ticket, it turned out, was folded between two other papers, concealed so well that I hadn’t seen it.

I relate this story for two reasons. First, because the guidance was so specific and concrete that it was impossible to discount it as fantasy. Second, because it gave me my first clear model of how trust-worthy guidance appears. For me, at least, it comes in trickles. I feel it surfacing as if from a depth. It feels small and subtle-literally, for me, the ‘still small voice’-though other people tell me that they receive images more often than words. It is often so subtle that if I’m not looking, I won’t find it. But when I do, there’s a quality to it that brings release or ease. And it also, if I truly pay attention to it, feels inevitable-even if it is calling my attention to something that challenges my personal status quo.

Testing your Guidance

My experience with the ticket actually gave me a model for hearing and working with inner guidance. When I want to understand something or make a decision, I ask for guidance, and then I experiment with following the guidance I’ve received. There’s a process I use that I’ve found has really made a difference in my ability to hear what my deeper self wants to tell me. In following the steps below, you might not want to begin with a major life questions, but rather with more ordinary situations. You could start by asking for help in resolving a creative problem, or a problematic relationship or living situation. You could ask for insight about your practice, or about an inner tendency that disturbs you. Here is a process you might follow for receiving guidance.

1. Spend some time formulating your question, getting as clear as possible about it. Write it down. (This is important-the act of writing concretizes your question or issue.)

2. Close your eyes, sit comfortably with your back erect but not rigid. Hold the question in your mind. Say it to yourself a few times, and notice the feeling-space that arises when you do. Notice your feelings about the issue. Notice any thoughts that come up, including resistance to the process. Jot them down if they seem important or relevant.

3. Focus on the rhythm of the breath. Using the breath’s rhythm as your anchor, keep your attention on the breath until the mind begins to relax and become quieter.

4. Now, sink your attention deeper. You can do this by focusing in the heart center, in the middle of the chest region, or by focusing on the belly center, three inches below the navel, deep inside the body. Or you can use a visualization: Imagine yourself descending down a staircase into a quiet cave, moving step by step until you find yourself enclosed in quiet.

5. In this quiet space, ask the Sage within you, the person of wisdom who resides at your deepest core, to be present. Or, if there is a particular deity form or teacher or sage you respect, you might ask them to be present. Alternatively, you might simply have the feeling that you are asking guidance from the universe, the Tao, the source of all. Understand that it is enough to ask that inner wisdom be present, and it will be available.

6. Ask your question. Then wait silently, without either expectation or discouragement, to see what emerges. Remember that insight does not always come in words. It might come as a feeling, or an image. Also, it might not come in the moment that you ask for it. Intuition emerges in its own time. Once you have seeded the question, be attentive during the next 24 to 48 hours, because answers to your question will arise. They may come as insights, as gut feelings, as words in a book, or as something said by another person.

7. As answers or insights come, write them down. Then hold the insight in your mind, and let it percolate. See what comes up, and note the feelings. You may be drawn to interpreting the insight, but it is also enough just to hold it in your consciousness. As you do, it will create shifts in consciousness, all by itself.

There are a couple of things to watch for. If your insight feels judgmental, punishing, or blame-assigning, it is probably not coming from your deepest source. In general, the wisdom of your inner consciousness is expansive, loving, and embracive. Your intuition may ask you to take responsibility for a situation, but it will never tell you to place blame on yourself or someone else.

8. Finally, think of a step you can take to put your insight into action. Here is where the real experiment begins. The only way to learn how to follow your intuitive guidance is to try it, and be very aware of the results. It may be that the guidance you receive unravels a situation quickly. Sometimes, if the situation you’re asking about is knotty, you may have to take a series of small actions, to keep asking for further guidance, and to keep observing the results. Sometimes the guidance you receive is just for now, and the next steps may emerge in time.

9. As you perform this experiment, keep a journal. Write down what happens inside and around you as you follow the guidance of your intuition. Notice the feelings you have, whatever they are. Notice how the world mirrors back to you what you put forth.

What you’ll find as you do this that you’re naturally developing an attunement to your own deeper wisdom. You find yourself moving through life more skillfully, more imaginatively, and with greater trust. In time, you might even realize that you’ve brought forth the enlightened sage who lives inside each one of us. All it takes is a willingness to turn back into yourself, just a few times a day, and ask, “What does my deeper self want for me now? What would the sage in me do in this situation?” It’s when you begin to invoke and listen to your deep wisdom, that your inner life begins to shine through all your actions, and you realize how wise you truly are, how instinctively loving, how deeply attuned to the rhythms of life itself.

© Copyright 2003-2006. Sally Kempton/Dharana Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Date Last Modified: 8/19/09

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