Recently I was struggling to make a decision. The decision had to do with a creative project I might or might not bring into the world. The idea kept tugging at my pant leg like a persistent child. I kept responding with resistance. "What will people think?" "What if I fail?" "Is this really me?" "No, it's not the right time."
The truth was, bringing this idea to fruition would push me out of my comfort zone, and it was bringing up some most basic fears. "Am I good enough?" "Am I loved?"
Most of the credit for decision-making goes to the brain. We tell ourselves that we weigh pros and cons, measure risks and benefits, and act according to this math. Many of us don't acknowledge that all of that mental gymnastics mostly justifies the answer we already know, because we have a feeling.
We have ways of knowing that originate below the neck. This body-knowing is what we call intuition. It's a resource all of us have; some of us are more accustomed to using it than others. Some of us might require focused work to hone or "remember" the skill. No matter how much you currently rely on your intuition, you can always sharpen that tool, deepen that relationship.
Personally, every big life decision I've ever made has come from my body. By the time the question is articulated in my mind ("Where should I go to school?" "Should I marry this person?" "Should I leave this job?"), I already know the answer. My internal compass is an arrow pointing the way. So it's unusual for me to agonize over a next step, think myself in circles, and get mired in confusion. I was having a hard time checking in with my body. When I found myself in that heady labyrinth a few weeks ago, I knew I had to try something different.
Though my intuition has always served as a guide for me, in the last handful of years I've become more mindful about cultivating it. Where I used to notice its presence only when I was at a crossroads, I'm now intentionally seeking it in the everyday, actively learning how much more it has to offer me. The main way I've pursued this is through meditation.
The word meditation is a turn-off for some, many of us associate it with sitting on a fancy pillow in silence and trying to turn off your thoughts. I believe that all meditation requires is taking your focus off the thoughts blowing through your head, and placing it in the present moment instead. Noticing the rhythm of your breath. What sounds do you hear? What smells do you smell? What physical sensations are you experiencing? Can you feel your heart beating, without bringing your hand to your pulse?
Through my personal experience with this practice, I've observed that three physical locations stand out as "intuitive centers" to me: the heart, the gut, and the pelvis.
Though we've traditionally thought of our brains as control panels telling our organs what to do, it turns out that some of our organs engage in a two-way conversation with the brain, and can, in effect, tell our brains what to do. The heart is a major communicator this way, and sends the brain messages via the nervous system, hormones, pressure waves, and electromagnetic fields. These messages can influence electrical activity in the brain, perceptions, behavior, and performance. Furthermore, the heart appears to have a "mind of its own," acting independently and sometimes in contradiction of neurological messages sent by the brain (Google The Heart Math Institute for some super interesting, accessible science reading on the heart).
I check in with my heart through a practice called "getting in coherence."
To get in coherence:
1. Take a deep breath that extends down into your belly.
2. While breathing this way, bring your awareness to the physical location of your heart. Place your hand(s) there if it helps.
3. Think of something you love. Anything.
Feel that? From this place, we can receive intuitive information from our hearts, about our general emotional state, about the safety of our environment, or we can pose more specific questions. (Again, Google The Heart Math Institute to learn more fascinating things about coherence).
Herbs to facilitate an intuitive connection with the heart:
Hawthorn (I've written about it here, and here), and Rose. A tea or tincture of rose petals can open the heart. If there’s a tightness in your chest, or you’re brought to tears easily, you can take comfort with rose. Rose imparts the courage to give and receive the love you need. It whispers, “I’ve got you, you’ve got this.” Rose isn’t all sweetness and light, though. While you may be drawn in by her great beauty and intoxicating scent, you'll be reminded that she wears an armor of blood-drawing thorns. Plants with thorns teach us where our healthy boundaries are and how to stick to them. Rose will not be easily trampled underfoot. This firmness of being is the perfect character trait to pair with a wide-open loving heart, and embodying these two truths at once is the lesson of rose.
Our gut, or digestive system, is home to the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system can act independently of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, independently of the brain and spinal cord, and it's sometimes called "the second brain." The gut uses neurotransmitters much like the brain does, and more than 90% of the body's serotonin, and 50% of the body's dopamine, is found in the gut. The gut is constantly processing information about the outside world via food, and making adjustments accordingly.
There term "digestive fire" in Traditional Chinese Medicine is used to describe one's ability to digest food, but also to digest thoughts. An excess of worrying or anxiety can impair our digestive function.
In yogic tradition, the third chakra, Manipura, is located here, above the navel and below the solar plexus. This is the seat of power, vitality, and the courage to take risks. When this chakra is impeded, low self-esteem, fatigue, and digestive problems can result.
I like to check in with my gut by placing my hands over that region and breathing into it. I focus on any physical sensations there, common ones include warmth, ease, tension, or poor digestion. If I'm experiencing chronic uncomfortable gut sensations that don't seem to have a dietary origin, I take that as a sign from my intuition that I'm worried, or that I need to get back in touch with my power. In this case I'll examine the areas of my life where I may be giving up or unwilling to step into my power.
When you find yourself in this place, set a timer and envision a campfire burning in your gut. Feel its warmth and hear its crackling. Ask your gut what it wants to create, what it needs to change. If all you have is 69 seconds, that's ok! It's also probably time for some digestive herbs.
Herbs to facilitate intuitive connection with the gut/digestive fire:
Digestive bitters, including but not limited to: Angelica root, Ginger, Fennel, Chamomile. Tasting something bitter causes the mouth to produce saliva, the stomach to produce acid, the liver and gallbladder to produce bile, and encourages peristalsis (the soft muscle movement of the intestines). It basically primes the entire digestive tract to receive food, and improves digestion. Ginger and Angelica are particularly warming digestive herbs, feeding that fire. Chamomile and Fennel are soothing to digestive upset.
The pelvis may not often be thought of as a seat of intuition, but I find it to be one of my most powerful and potent sources of information. Yogic tradition tells us that the root chakra, or Muladhara is located here, and facilitates our sense of groundedness and connection to the Earth.
In one of my favorite places in the desert southwest, there's a petroglyph on a sandstone boulder, created hundreds if not a thousand years ago by an Ancestral Puebloan person. I've never photographed it, but I've visited it many times, and it looks something like this:
I like to check in with my pelvic intuitive center by imagining a path of energy like the one depicted in that petroglyph, rooting me to the Earth below me and flowing with information.
If I have specific questions, like the decision I was agonizing over a few weeks ago, I like to use a technique I learned from fellow herbalist Asia Suler. I bring my awareness to my pelvic region, maybe beginning with a butterfly stretch, some squats, or work on drawing my breath down into that place. Then I recite two opposing statements, one by one. Each statement must begin with the word "Truth." For instance, "Truth: I should create this thing and share it with the world," and "Truth: I should not create this thing and I should keep it to myself." Does one statement produce a physical sensation of tension? Does one statement have a greater sense of warmth, ease, and flow? This is the exercise that ultimately sealed my decision for me, and yes, newsletter subscribers can expect to receive that particular creative offering in their inboxes around March 19th.
Herbs to facilitate intuitive connection with the pelvis:
Ocotillo, Damiana, and roots of all kinds. Ocotillo and Damiana both increase blood flow to the pelvic area. Damiana is in the Passionflower family, and has a stimulating effect on the nervous system, encouraging sociability and playfulness. Ocotillo is a massive plant covered in menacing thorns, and can also help us maintain boundaries.
Sometimes, we dissociate, and have trouble accessing the wisdom of our bodies. It can feel like you're nothing but a floating head, like you're spacing out, or being numb to your feelings. Dissociation is a coping mechanism, it's a physiological strategy for helping us survive traumatic situations. Being triggered, by stress, events, the memory of events, menstrual cycles, getting sick, sustaining injury, can cause dissociation. Sometimes we seek it out in mind-altering substances or experiences, sometimes it happens involuntarily. When you dissociate, your body is doing what it thinks it needs to do to protect you. Sometimes the meditative exercises mentioned above will be enough to bring you back to your body. Sometimes, you just have to wait it out. Sleep on it. In the meantime, treat yourself with compassion. This too shall pass, your connection to your body and the world around you is coming back.
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Please thoroughly research any herb before taking it. The information in this article isn't medical advice, it's not intended to diagnose or prescribe. Any decisions you make regarding your own health are always yours and yours alone.