At twenty-two, my mother was racing around on a wasp-waisted little Yamaha motorbike, keeping up with a pack of long-haired boys. At sixty-two, her idea of a good time is cranking out a spreadsheet for Thanksgiving grocery shopping. One summer night as the sky turned from orange to indigo, she hit a patch of sand and spun out, cracking her head and dislocating her shoulder. She survived, but that was the end of that. It was a reckless hobby, better to grow out of, but the transformation from hellion to home economist is emblematic of how, as we age, willingness to take risks diminishes, including being in touch with our intuitive power. More accumulated experience means more disappointments, failures, and awareness of our own mortality. We reason that maybe, by playing it safe, making lists of pros and cons, making "rational" decisions—creating endless spreadsheets—we can exert some control and avoid pain. The reality is, none of us have complete control over our lives and cheating suffering is like trying to beat the house in poker. We will all experience pain, but there'll be joy and sweetness as well.
In a recent essay published in the New York Times, writer Judi Ketteler explored how, when it came to saving or casting away her twenty-year marriage, her gut sense gave out. As a younger woman, she had relied on her intuition to make big life choices—with great success. Now, she found her instincts careening from one extreme to the other, never settling in the sweet spot of certitude. Like a good reporter, she researched the phenomenon and discovered there is scientific evidence that helps explain the mechanism of what can seem like a bolt of insight with no clear origin.
In a study led by Joel Pearson, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, researchers asked college students to watch a computer screen and quickly determine whether dots moving across it were going left or right. At the same time, subliminal images that used emotional triggers—e.g. a puppy, a snake, a gun—flashed on the screen so quickly they couldn't be consciously discerned. What the researchers found was that the subjects were more accurate when the images were being flashed than they were when simply looking at the screen with moving dots. Pearson writes, "Our behavioral and physiological data, along with evidence-accumulator models, show that nonconscious emotional information can boost accuracy and confidence in a concurrent emotion-free decision task, while also speeding up response times." Essentially, going with your gut works. Pearson goes on, "What people refer to as intuition: We use it every day to describe a certain feeling, but we didn't know for sure it existed. With our work, we have shown strong evidence that unconscious feelings and emotions can combine with conscious feelings, and we can use it [sic] to make better decisions."
Ketteler also learned that unhealthy emotional states—stress, depression, anxiety—can muddle our instincts. As a twenty-something, generally speaking, you have only you to take care of and are blessed with the vision of a future rich with possibility. As a thirty-, forty-, or fifty-something, you are often dealing a spouse, kids, aging parents. You may feel stuck in an unsatisfying job in order to pay off loans and save for retirement. It's a stew of stressful circumstances that can confuse the decision-making process and lead to unhelpful rumination. As she puts it, "You can't trust the language of your own brain."
Whether you've lost touch with your intuition or never trusted it to begin with, there are many ways to strengthen it. These methods were developed by the author and life coach Sharon Franquemont and promoted by the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing. It's helpful to use an intuition journal while practicing the exercises.
1. Work with direct intuition.
- Find a place to sit comfortably.
- Follow your breath by counting "one" on the inhale and "two" on the exhale.
- When you are relaxed and quiet, identify an event or situation that you'd like more insight about.
- Focus on the event or situation intently for a few minutes.
- Ask for a direct intuitive experience about it in the near future.
- Let it go.
2. Work with indirect intuition.
- Get a piece of paper and a pen or pencil.
- Ask yourself, "What does my life need right now?" three times in row, pausing between each question. Imagine you are going toward a more meaningful answer each time you ask.
- When you've finished with the 3rd question, pick up your pen and draw one symbol on your paper.
- Interpret this symbol. What does it suggest you add, subtract, or enjoy from your life?
3. Learn to look for and pay attention to intuition's subtle messages.
- Invest in your sixth sense. Imagine that your eyes, ears, hands, skin, emotions, and intellect could stretch out into the invisible world and capture sensations, information, inspiration, knowledge, and wisdom like a cable or a cell phone captures invisible waves of sounds and images.
- Let yourself "walk" through your day sensitive to other dimensions.
4. Choose a sense to work with. Practice with other senses as you see fit.
Your Intuitive Body
- Make a date with yourself on your calendar. It should be two to three hours long.
- When the time comes, get in your car (or walk) and begin to drive without knowing where you're going.
- Resist the first few ideas you have about where you're going. Wait for the idea that makes your body very relaxed. Your body is your best barometer of what's right—if your choice arises from intuition, you will experience inner stillness, silence, and 'knowing' it is right.
- When the barometer is correct, go visit the person, place, or event that is suggested.
Your Intuitive Eye
- Sit quietly anywhere, any time.
- Relax your eyebrows and forehead.
- Let the muscles of your face 'melt' into ease.
- Inhale and exhale rhythmically.
- With your inner eyes, create a vision of you radiating health and happiness to every part of your body and to all those around you.
Your Intuitive Ear
- Pretend that you have an inner DJ and invite your DJ to play a song which is relevant for you.
- Listen to what you hear—it maybe only a few words—and ask why your intuition chose that song at this moment.
5. Work with dreams.
- Before you go to bed at night or lay down to rest during the day, put a pen and paper next to you.
- After you lay down, mentally ask your intuition for a dream or daydream image that will benefit your life and the lives of those around you.
- Repeat your request as often as possible before you drift off.
- When you wake up, even if you don't remember anything specific, write or draw whatever comes into your mind.
- Look over and evaluate what you receive—act on the information where appropriate.
6. Ask a question.
- Ask yourself: If I knew I would receive help from my intuition, what is it I am most concerned about or most interested in growing now—relationship skills, rewarding career, personal evolution, financial stability, etc.
- Formulate a question and ask it internally as often as you can.
7. Practice with real situations.
- The light of the sun comes long before the sun itself rises. Imagine a question which is like the first rays of light; it is a good question, but the real question has not yet risen.
- Observe the first question while you wait for a more valuable and real question to emerge.
- Record the real question and begin to work with it.
If going with your gut still seems too risky, like it might set you on a dangerous course, one of history's most rational and scientific minds believed it was essential to intelligence and creativity. "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant," said Albert Einstein. "We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."