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:

Navigating life like a bat

Another mini-crisis of “what the hell am I doing” hit me during my 48 hours in Lyon, France. To be clear, I’m not questioning whether I should be doing this crazy adventure; I know that that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, metaphorically and spiritually speaking. No, it’s the stability-versus-freedom question I wrestled with in Morocco, now triggered by a very practical question: where do I keep my stuff?

By early August, I’ll need to find a new home for my 2 full suitcases and box of camera gear that are currently 30 minutes outside of Geneva in my buddy’s storage unit. I’ll need to swap summer clothes for fall layers, and this somewhat-frequent exchange process isn’t convenient for either of us. A paid storage unit is the best short-term solution until I put down roots. But where?

Turns out that picking a storage-locker location is a bigger deal than I’d thought. But hey, it’s my closet, so it needs to be someplace conveniently located and less expensive than Geneva. And yeah, that could be pretty much anywhere, so let’s add a filter: I should have other reasons to return, like friends, work, creativity, vibe… I mentally run through all the places I’ve been already – Tel Aviv? Cyprus? — and places that are on my list that I think I’d like – Paris? Berlin?  Madrid?

This train of thought opens up the Pandora’s box of taxation and visa issues, leading me right back into the “permanent place” question that’s haunted me since I started this adventure and I’m not ready to deal with. Argh… what should I dooooooo??

How do we know what to do?

Remember when we used to print out maps from Mapquest? Or, even better, when we had to follow someone’s directions (“when you get to gas station – the one with the red blinking light, not the other one — look for the fork and then veer left”). Back then, we had to pay attention to where we were going. We knew how to get places; routes were committed to memory. Then came the GPS revolution and… snap! Overnight, no one knew how to get anywhere. We just hold out our phones and follow the blue dots like zombies. Technology has made navigation exceedingly simple, but it’s also decreased our self-reliance.

As I walked home from dinner last night, I thought about bats: tiny blind creatures that lack the ability to ask Siri or Facebook or Google what they should do for work, or where to live, or what will bring them joy. But they don’t deserve our pity, as bats have something better: a built-in navigation system. They simply make some noise and use the echoes to course-correct. There’s no need to map out the whole route in advance when they can fly through dark, narrow passageways instinctively and unerringly.  

Fact is, we humans aren’t that much different from bats. We’re all flying blind in the dark; we can only know what is happening right now from our limited vantage point. We can’t see the future: not even the second after this second. How do we make decisions and chart our own course? 

Like bats, we have an unerring navigation system: our intuition. The tragedy is that gut-listening isn’t taught in schools. Conformity is rewarded by society, not independence, which results in three types of people:

  • Those who never realize their blindness because they simply follow what everyone else is doing. The blind following the blind, generation after generation, century after century, convinced of their ability to see.
  • The lucky ones who figured out their path early on: maybe they learned it from their navigator parents, or perhaps they were just born with a fully functioning sense of who they are.
  • The rest of us — me and perhaps you, dear reader –who are in between; we’re refugees from the first group regarding the second with envy, wondering how they did it.

Members of this last group don’t often realize that we need a totally new set of skills. What worked on autopilot is not a navigation system, but we try anyway, overly dependent on our logical minds, past experiences, and trial and error. Lots of error. We obsess over doing rather than being. And when we’re really stuck, we revert back to group-1 thinking and ask what other people would do.

Fact is, it’s hard to hear the echoes of our own voices.  And upon hearing those echoes, trust them to guide us into the light instead of a brick wall.

Our metaphorical navigation system

I couldn’t do this adventure without a sturdy navigation system. I’ve deliberately stripped away anything that could influence me — the noise, lights, distractions, things we own, things that own us, our senses of identity that may or may not be truly ours – in order to find my own path. The way in front of me is pitch black. I have no lamp. No one else is in this cave with me. The light behind me is getting smaller… fainter… but I can’t go back.

I just realized that this whole process of selling everything and launching into the unknown was one giant “SHHHHHHHHH” to the entire world. Shush! Be quiet!! I cannot hear myself! And if I can’t hear my true voice, I cannot navigate my path…  cannot make decisions and trust that they are right for me.

When I try to reason out the answers to my questions – where should I go and why? What must I learn? What the hell am I doing? Who am I, anyway? — I fail. My usually trusty brain encounters its limitations, which is perhaps the hardest part of this journey; I’ve been able to think my way out of pretty much anything except for this. Like eyes in the darkness, logic doesn’t work in the dark night of the soul.

I’m starting to gain a tiny sense of what the blind know: when eyes fail, other senses gain strength. I entered into this cave with a decent level of confidence in my intuition (which took me two decades to develop) but now it’s really getting a workout. I tap into my sixth sense daily, feeling the echoes in my body when presented with this choice or that: like deciding whether to walk a new city at night, or choosing a new destination. I don’t move until I feel it in my bones.

A few months ago I was nearly paralyzed by all the infinite choices that could play out, but now I simply consult my navigation system: I take myself to dinner with my journal and work through my now-well-established process. I know what “yes” and “no” feel like. I know what “wait; not yet” feels like, which is the answer to my question about where to rent a storage locker. I haven’t yet pinpointed the difference between “resistance due to fear” versus “no,” but I’m working on it.

And many of you, dear readers, are watching to see what happens. I’ve heard from you. I know that you are standing at the entrance to your own dark caves, taking baby steps in, searching in vain for the light switch that’s not there. And that’s why I feel compelled to share this journey with you… not only because writing helps me understand myself better, but just maybe this transformation game doesn’t have to be so solitary for either of us.