Think about what you’re doing

“Think about what you’re doing.” As a girl I heard this instruction most days from my frustrated mother.

I was a head-in-the-clouds child; not so much in the creative sense of making up friends, or worlds (though I did a little of both) – more like wondering, or anticipating.

I might be trying unsuccessfully to tie a shoe lace, wondering which pony I would ride on Saturday. Mum would notice my faraway look and say, “Think about what you’re doing.”

And I would think, “Right, what am I doing? Putting my shoes on… I wonder why humans are the only animals who wear shoes? Except horses of course, but that’s only because we make them… are we the only animals who make other animals do things?’… and so on.

I was thinking about what I was doing, but not in a way that got my shoelace tied. The instruction got lost in translation between Mum’s pragmatism and my tendency to abstract concepts. If she’d had the language, she might have said instead: “Bring your awareness to what your hands are doing right now.”

It’s an experiment I often suggest to clients whose minds tend to leap off across lily pads: practise bringing yourself present to your current task, or your immediate choices. Then you’ll be less likely to regret actions or decisions, less likely to lose or break things.

Of course lily-padding is both natural and productive to those inclined that way. But it can also distract them from important tasks – such as applying for a much-needed job or significant decisions (such as whether to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’).

Abstract thinkers aren’t always aware that being present comes easy to natural pragmatists; that the present is where they spend most of their lives. For them, the unfamiliar stretch is to dream. But being present in the moment can feel almost impossible for those with a strong tendency to lily-padding.

Any habit needs time and work to take on a life of its own, but a major obstacle is not even remembering to be present. This is where a daily, scheduled mindfulness meditation can really help. It’s discipline training for the mind, strengthening of the attention.

Once we’ve got the habit of being present, able to bring ourselves back from the clouds at will, we’re far better able to deal with the present: whether choosing what to prioritise next, or tying a shoelace.

Can You Trust Your Intuition?

An intuition arrives fully formed: a neatly wrapped little parcel of knowing.

Maybe you have a decision to make. While your conscious attention is busy elsewhere, your subconscious mind/body (some might say soul) draws on memories of all the information and sensation it’s ever received, as well as every decision and action you’ve ever taken – and the outcomes of those decisions and actions. The soul does its alchemy, and the answer arrives when it’s ready – possibly when you’re meditating, but equally likely when you’re doing the shopping.

Intuition may also tap into what psychologist CJ Jung called the collective unconscious: humanity’s shared memory-experience that makes possible common dreams, shared cultural symbolism, and synchronistic events. Such sentience could extend beyond humanity to all other living beings, so when people speak of being guided by the universe in their decisions, they might be on to something.

Intuition is generally reported as being trustworthy, and no wonder: our personal mega-computers have almost infinite data to work with. But although true intuition is generally reliable, we need to be careful: what seems to be intuition can come from elsewhere, and be mistaken for the real thing. This can lead to bad (sometimes catastrophic) decisions which cause us to doubt our intuition, or even whether it exists at all.

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Two emotions often mistaken for intuition are desire and fear.

You might, for example, feel that your intuition is telling you to enrol on a certain class. You feel a strong and recurring urge, and so you go with it. But maybe you’re not fully aware of the power of your sensual desire for someone else you know is signing up. Your rational mind might have already told you that a relationship probably isn’t going to happen, but your strong desire has you go along anyway, masquerading as intuition.

Or maybe you experience what feels like a strong intuition that you’re ‘meant’ to be in Brighton. You throw over all obligations to head there straight away. This might be intuition, and in Brighton perhaps you connect with someone who’s dreaming of the same start-up that you are. But equally it might be a yearning for happiness connecting to a hidden memory of a blissful childhood holiday – even though that bliss can never be recaptured in the same way.

That’s not to say following inner prompts is always wrong. Your strong sense that a certain plan is going to work out may be either intuition, or a really strong hope that it will work out – and the strong hope and belief themselves may be enough to carry the plan through. But the more we’re aware of where inner prompts are coming from, the better equipped we are to make good decisions, leading to actions that support our wellbeing.

We can also get what feels like an intuition not to do something. For example, you may sense an inner voice telling you not to go to a certain networking event. This could be a good intuition that it’s not your sort of event – or that there’s something else you need to be doing. However, you could call it intuition and stay at home, missing a fantastic opportunity because what you were really feeling is irrational but real fear of public exposure.

It can be hard to trust intuition when so many other drives feel like the real thing. Caught in this place, we can sometimes become paralysed by anxiety and self-doubt, unable to move forward.

So how can you tell the real thing when it arrives? Intuition is when you just know. People have long described it as a ‘gut feeling’. Now that we know the gut has its own mini-brain, connected to the rest of the body and the main brain, this gut feeling that intuition is a gut feeling suddenly makes a lot of sense. But the trouble is, so many other things feel like ‘just knowing’, especially if we want them to enough.

If you’re unsure, one way is to keep a log. What do you feel when you consider a particular course of action? What are your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations? Later, you can reflect on what you did, and how you feel now about the decision you made. You’ll start to see patterns and themes emerging, showing how you tend to make decisions, and how that works out for you.

The more aware and honest you are about your deep fears and desires, the more skilled you’ll grow at unpicking what’s motivating you: whether your ‘knowing’ is a good basis for a decision, big or small – or whether more exploration is needed. Once again old wisdom holds true: in this case, the words of Socrates: ‘Know Yourself’.

www.gillcoombs.co.uk