Someone once told me that I “live in my head a lot.” She didn’t mean it as a compliment, although I was inclined to take it as one anyway. What was so bad about being thoughtful? I wondered. Why shouldn’t I ponder and weigh possibilities in the privacy of my own mind? Aren’t we always being advised to “think things through”, to “weigh all the possibilities?” To “give it some thought?" But I’ve finally begun to realize the value of following my instinct rather than my intellect. And I have my digestive system to thank for that.
Don’t worry, I won’t go into graphic details - suffice it to say my gut hasn’t been in the best working order. I wasn’t giving it much thought, other than being annoyed with feeling less than my best, until I read something that started me thinking my gastrointestinal system might be sending me a deeper message than one about changing my diet.
“Thoughts can spin our reactions to whatever we encounter,” writes Martha Beck, “while the gut-deep impulses we get from instinct are usually more honest.” Instinctual behavior is thousands of years old, while complex thinking patterns developed during more recent stages of evolution. Yet most of us rely on complex thinking to govern our lives. We let logic and social training talk us out of (or into) situations where instinct might lead us in another direction.
For those of us raised to contemplate, to consider, to cogitate, the big question is how to discern what our instinct is trying to say. That’s where the gut comes in.
“Trust your gut,” says that folksy phrase I’ve heard but rarely heeded. My left brain has become super effective at blocking my instincts, feelings that not only help us decide what to do in any given situation but preserve us from danger and distress.
“If you’re having trouble tapping into your instincts,” Beck suggests, “recall a positive situation from your past or a person who’s proven to be a positive presence in your life. Recall moments when you realized you were doing the right thing at the right time, or moments when you felt love and trust for that person you’ve identified. Notice your physical sensations - did you smile, relax your shoulders, feel a warm glow in your solar plexus?” Conversely, when you consider a negative situation or relationship, what happens to you body? Does your heart race? Does your stomach lurch?
I began paying closer attention to the ever-present tightening in my physical gut. Was this really just indigestion, or could it be my primitive instinct talking? I applied Beck’s litmus test to some of the situations in my current life with interesting results. Listening to my instinct is helping me determine what really matters to me right now.
“Your life is waiting to help you choose what’s right for you,” Beck says, “even when other people tell you that their code-red desires should take priority. It does this by making things taxing when they’re not important and delicious and relatively effortless when they are. If you tend to include others’ priorities in your decision making, you must untangle yourself to know what’s important."
I know life can’t always be “delicious and relatively effortless.” But identifying the areas of life that are “taxing” your heart and soul (not to mention your intestines!) is the first step to changing what can be changed, and also to feeling good about making those changes. Most of the situations that tax my happiness resources arise from my need to please people, to help them in their endeavors, to be the “good girl” who always does what’s expected, often at the expense of my own plans and desires. I always think I have to do what people ask of me, think that once I’ve agreed to a course of action, taken on a responsibility, then it’s mine for life whether it proves to be rewarding or not. It’s taken almost 58 years of living to realize I don’t have to live that way, that it isn’t indulgent or selfish to want what I want for a change.
Now I find myself itching to get started living this life I envision for myself, the one my gut tells me is right for this particular moment. The one that has me spending more time in the sanctuary of my home, with the people that mean the most to me, doing the things that satisfy my spirit.
Picturing this scenario makes me feel all warm and fuzzy - peaceful and relaxed from the inside out. It’s definitely a gut reaction, and one I’m excited to follow.