How Can You Hear Inner Guidance?

My first teacher used to say that there are only twenty-one questions in the inner life. I've never kept count, but I have noticed that sooner or later, every voyager on the inner path begins to wonder about inner guidance. The question goes something like this: "If there really is such a thing as inner guidance, higher guidance, how do you access it? How can you tell when you're receiving it? How do you know that you can trust it?"

Behind these questions are deeper ones, like "How do I find a trustworthy compass for making hard decisions?" "How can I know what is right for me?" At moments of decision, the ability to hear and work with inner guidance can make a huge difference. So one of the important skill sets of the inner life is the skill of attuning yourself to your own wisdom. I'd even say that a good way to measure your spiritual maturity is by the way you relate to the guidance that comes from the deeper layers of your own being.

Of course, we all receive inner guidance. We're hardwired for it, just the way we're hardwired for sensory and mental awareness, because each one of us possesses access to the Essence, the causal state that is deeper than the mind and emotions, and naturally tuned in to the deepest layers of reality. What we don't always know how to do (despite the proliferation of books and workshops on developing intuition) is hear the wisdom that comes from our deeper centers. Even when we do hear it, we often don't know how to apply it.

Jill and her ex-husband met at a business lunch in 1998. They connected like old friends, and spent the rest of the afternoon in intimate conversation. But afterward, as Jill walked back to her office, a thought surfaced out of nowhere: "If you're not careful, you're going to end up marrying this guy, and that would be a huge mistake."

"I don't think of myself as intuitive," she said, "but at that moment, I sensed that this was information I should pay attention to. Then, it was as if a veil went down. My emotions took over. I fell in love with him, we got married, fought for five years, and finally got divorced. What I can't get over is that I knew all along and I couldn't listen to myself!"

Of course, romantic infatuation is like that; Jill probably wouldn't have listened to anyone's advice at that point. Nonetheless, she might have paid more attention if she'd had more practice in tuning into inner information, sifting through it, and learning which 'messages' to take seriously. Start to pay attention, and you'll eventually notice that helpful inner messages are coming to you all the time—through sensations in the body, flashes of insight, intuitive feelings. This is the information that you use to adjust your course, tune your inner state, and interact with the environment.

"I've learned to pay attention to my uncomfortable feelings," David, a financial consultant who meditates regularly, told me. "When I feel a certain kind of inner discomfort, I open myself and ask internally what this is about. Nearly always, it's because I'm stuck in a particular mental loop. So my feelings show me when it's time to change the way I'm thinking in a situation."

Lacey's relationship with inner guidance started one day in a yoga class. Feeling wobbly in a balancing pose, she began to explore her body, looking for a place of stability. Spontaneously, a thought came up: "Press down through the balls of the feet and widen your stance." She did, and sure enough, she felt more grounded. After a few experiences like this, she began to test her instincts in other situations. One morning she asked her body what it felt like eating—and discovered that though 'she' wanted yogurt, the answer that surfaced was 'oatmeal.'

Both of these people are tuning in to their innate natural intelligence; in David's case, it comes through on a feeling or emotional level, while Lacey's seems to be accessed through the body. This is what I'd call 'normal,' or personal-level inner guidance, the kind that helps us find our bearings and direction in day-to-day life. Some people experience it as instinct, or as a gut feeling, or a heart-sense. It operates in different ways—as the physical 'knowing' that tells us when we're in danger, as the subtler spatial sense that shows a ball player where to move for the catch, as the ability to read when to push our friend to talk or let him be. Other people tune into deeper knowledge through guiding thoughts, or through dreams, and all of us have our own natural ways of tuning into the deeper wisdom. We just have to learn to recognize it and make it conscious.

Then there's what we could call extraordinary, or extra-normal guidance, messages that actually arise in crucial, life-changing moments, to guide us in making major decisions or departures. Jill's inner message about the man she married was like that. As it did for her, these messages can arise as a thought in the mind. Or they can come as an image, a dream, or a sense of calling—as in those famous stories about religious figures who hear a 'call' from God, or the travelers who feel a strong inner 'pull' to go down a certain road where they come across a man who's been wounded and needs help, or a beautiful woman who becomes their wife. That kind of inner guidance can feel radical, profoundly at odds with the voices of conventional wisdom, culture, and our ideas of who we are and what we want.