How to listen to your gut: the three levels

Did you know you have two brains? We humans have an entire neural network in our guts that not only impacts our emotions and overall well-being, and also plays a strong role in intuition. But the problem, of course, is that it’s not always clear what the heck it’s trying to tell us.

My vote for the #1 most essential life skill is hearing and interpreting our gut signals, no question. It’s the built-in navigation system for our lives. Most life coaches start with vision and values, and sure, these are important. But if your mechanism for truth-sensing isn’t working properly, how do you know if your vision and values are the right ones for you? Are you certain they aren’t the result of the bombardment of cultural and family influences that we so easily absorb like big wet stains into our paper towels?

People ask me how I was able to sell everything and take the leap to become a digital nomad. While I have a long answer that I’ll cover in another post, the short answer is: I’ve gotten really good at listening to my gut. Don’t get me wrong: gut messages are never like Siri telling you to go three miles and turn left at the stoplight. But with dedication and practice — and learning what happens when you ignore your gut (it’s never good) — it’s possible for big decisions to seem really easy.

Twenty years ago, give or take a couple months, I started learning how to listen to my gut. I remember it vividly: I’d just started seeing a brilliant therapist, Dr. Carole Cole in Dallas, Texas, to help me break the pattern of dating emotionally unavailable people. One day, likely exhausted from my extensive logical analysis of the situation, she asked me, “well, what is your gut telling you?”

Me:

This question assumes three interrelated skills, none of which I had at the time:

  1. That my gut is capable of eliciting some level of discernible feeling.
  2. That I am capable of interpreting signals into meaningful insights that can guide decisions.
  3. That I act on what my gut is telling me.

I used to think all three of these were mashed up into one, but I’ve learned over the years that there are “levels” to gut listening. It’s a bit like a video game, where it helps to master one level before moving on to the next.

Level 1: Feel your gut

When Dr. Cole saw my deer-in-the-headlights reaction to her question, she immediately launched into an exercise to help me improve my gut-feeling skills. Want to play along, dear reader? If you’re already skilled at this, you’ll think it’s ridiculous; if so, please accept my congratulations and proceed to Level 2. For the rest of us, here goes. The trick is to find a blindingly obvious statement about yourself and say it out loud. Then say the opposite. Simple, right?

Here’s how our discussion went:

Dr. Cole: “Please repeat after me. I am a woman.”

Me (laughing): “Are we really doing this?”

Dr. Cole: “Yes. Humor me.”

Me. “Huh. Weird. Yes, I am a woman.”

Dr. Cole: “I am a man.”

Me: “I am a man.” whatever.

Dr. Cole (leaning forward): “Do you feel it in your body when you say something that’s not true about yourself?”

Me:

Dr .Cole: “Hmm. Ok, let’s try this again. I live in Dallas.”

Me. “I live in Dallas. Obviously.”

Dr. Cole: “I live in Brazil.”

Me: “I live in Brazil.”

Dr. Cole: “How does it feel when you say something that’s true versus what’s not true? Can you feel the difference?”

Me:

Distressed about this obvious deficiency in gut-listening skills, I began practicing. All. The. Time. I became obsessed with it. Every day I’d pose questions to myself and try to divine what the oracle of my body was telling me on topics like who I should date, the meaning of life, and what brand of toothpaste I should buy at the store. “What does this one feel like? Ok, what does that one feel like?” Rinse and repeat. Over and over. After months and eventually years of this practice, combined with numerous week-long Zen meditation retreats, it all started to become clear.

Truth feels expansive and uplifting, permeating my entire body.

Untruth feels tight and constricting, mostly in my stomach… literally, in my gut.

Over the subsequent two decades, my gut has evolved from a shy wallflower locked in the basement to a boisterous roommate who doesn’t hold back in speaking her mind. Fortunately I’ve learned through trial and error that it’s pointless to try to shut her up; she’s going to make a ruckus until I stop ignoring her and PAY ATTENTION ALREADY.

How do you score?

I’ll provide a scorecard after Level 3, but this is where it all starts. A couple questions for you:

Is your gut locked in the basement where it’s impossible to hear? Or is your gut a constant chatty companion?

What signals does your gut send? I’m curious to know if it’s the same feeling of expansion vs. contraction for everyone.

Stay tuned for Levels 2 and 3 in the next post.

And in case you’re interested in more information, check out this layman-friendly overview of our second brain:

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