Have you ever made a truly awful decision – and berated yourself afterwards because at some level you actually did know what you were getting into? Or have you ever quite spontaneously done something that seems to make no sense, only to find that it has rewarded you exceptionally? We human beings are different from animals in countless ways but one of the ways in which we are at least somewhat similar is that we, too, are creatures of instinct.
From the first moments of life we are driven and in many ways protected by a vast range of instincts, most of which we barely need to acknowledge consciously. Nevertheless, when we think about getting through life and taking the best possible care of ourselves as well as other people, we ignore at our peril those special instincts that are close to intuitions but somehow even more primal.
You leave work early to pick your child up from school, only to find she has a temperature no one has yet noticed. You meet someone who seems “perfect” in every way and then months or even years later discover that your initial unwelcome hunch was only too correct. You refuse a promotion for no reason that you can explain, and a month later a much better opportunity presents itself. You spend the whole day with your elderly father but when you get home you return for yet more time with him – and the very next day he dies. You can’t solve a problem – until days later you are driving home and it becomes perfectly clear to you.
Anyone who lives with animals knows how finely tuned their instincts are, not just sensing any degree of unfriendliness or danger but also knowing when someone is ill, sad or grieving – and offering unobtrusive comfort. Pets can also teach us a thing or two about identifying their own needs and getting them met. When one of our cats was injured a few years ago, he spent weeks recovering on one of my meditation cushions, getting something from that single spot that he couldn’t get elsewhere and certainly hadn’t needed at other times. (That story also says a great deal about the power of meditation.)
Animals’ survival depends on their instincts. Ours does, too, but we are rather more muddled about how we think about our instincts, as well as how we develop them. Our special human capacities to assess and analyse are so precious to us that rather than seeing how interdependent those different abilities are, we too easily undervalue or ignore whatever instinctual promptings we have. People who are effective leaders and decision-makers, or genuinely inventive, will frequently make choices instinctively, arriving at fresh conclusions in ways that by-pass the more ponderous mind. The moments when we successfully follow our “nose”, especially when that seems to make no easy sense, are often deeply memorable. Equally, it may only be when a situation has turned out horribly that we become willing to admit that we “knew” something was wrong and should have acted differently.
In everyday language we talk not just about “following our nose” but also about “gut feelings” – those mysterious moments when it seems your body knows more than your mind does. Whether it is questions about your health, childrearing, choices at work, love affairs or a vast range of everyday decisions, you can easily discover how your body literally relaxes and opens in the face of some inner urgings, and tenses and contracts in the face of others. Trusting this more instinctive way of perceiving takes courage. It certainly doesn’t mean setting analysis or good sense aside. Sometimes you will be completely wrong. But there will also be times when you are entirely right and, as with any other skill, this one rapidly improves with experiment and reflection.
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