Intuition versus Mind-Chatter

There is a lot more to our actions than what appears on the surface. We are driven by our habits, experience, passion, intentions, assumptions, beliefs, and chemical makeup. I can easily confuse myself when I allow my wheels to turn, second-guessing, and playing devil's advocate as I decide what actions to take and what direction to head in. I struggled for years with learning how to trust my "gut." I still need to pause and test out whether I am being driven by fear or am being guided by something bigger than mind-chatter. 

What is intuition? Do we have a connection to a higher power or higher self that offers hints, feelings, or guidance? How is this different from our mind-chatter? Which voice do we listen to?

I have struggled with these questions for a while now. I grew up with a self-sabotage self-talk habit, and often was drawn to act and speak in ways that harmed myself or others. My intuition, if there is such a thing, was lost behind the loud chaos in my mind. I went from being a confident and courageous girl into a fearful and depressed teenager. My un-becoming into adulthood has been a process of re-finding my voice, and learning how to harness my love, passion, and trust, to create a direction of intention and purpose. 

What began as strategic goals and challenges, morphed into intentional living with a flow and trust in my own inner-knowing. But how did I get to this place? What have I learned? How can you find your unique intuitive knowing versus getting trapped in the mind-chatter?

A good place to start, I think, is to understand the tricks our brain can play on us. In Daniel Kahneman’s book "Thinking, Fast and Slow", he educates us on the power of heuristics. Heuristics are short-cuts in our mental search for understanding, and can often be misunderstood as intuition. Kahneman says, “the technical definition of a heuristic is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. The word comes from the same root as ‘eureka’.”

One of the most common is the Availability Heuristic, which is the reliance on information that comes to mind with ease when contemplating a topic or decision. For example, as you think about what to eat for lunch, your mind will generate ideas based on what you have eaten recently and what is readily available in the fridge. Or, when you are deciding whether to sign up for a self-development course that will be an investment of time and money, part of your decision process will be based on your most recent experience with investments, time commitments, and registered courses. Although these experiences might have nothing to do with the reality of the course you are considering, it will skew your perception of what you consider to be facts. Basically, we learn from our limited experience, so the examples we come up with will be aligned with what we know, which is not always the same as what is "true". Common sense right? Kahneman says, “My intuitive impression could be due entirely to journalists’ choices of topics and to my reliance on the availability heuristic…The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”


There are also Affect Heuristics, “…where judgements and decisions are guided directly by feelings of liking and disliking, with little deliberation or reasoning” (Kahneman). How often have you made a decision based on a feeling of repulsion or attraction without a reasonable explanation either way? I know I have. We don’t like feeling uncomfortable or uncertain. But the reality of our existence is that there is a lot of uncertainty. As soon as our happy chemicals simmer down, we are back into a state of searching for threats to our existence. Although this is not happening consciously, we feel the uneasiness that this search creates and we often look to explain it by our immediate surroundings or upcoming decisions.

And then there are Intuitive Heuristics, which occur “…when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution” (Kahneman). For example, how often have you broken down a big decision into a list of pros and cons? We look to the parts that make up the big decision as a way to avoid the enormity of the decision as it is. 

These are not necessarily bad ways to operate. On the contrary, we save a lot of energy as heuristics are efficient in their problem solving skills. However, we also have the option to slow down and think things through more pragmatically and thoughtfully. Kahneman refers to these two Thinking Systems as System 1 and System 2. Upon further evaluation, it becomes clear that these two systems line up nicely with Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant and Rider metaphor, from his book "The Happiness Hypothesis". System 1 is like the Elephant, or the limbic system, aka, the reptilian brain, as it behaves instinctively, pulling information from experience and immediate surroundings to make decisions based on habit and emotion. System 2 is like the Rider, or the Cortex, as it is deeply influenced by System 1 (the Elephant), but it also has the ability to slow down, assess the situation, and make a decision based on goals and reason.

Kahneman says, “When System 2 is otherwise engaged, we will believe almost anything. System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy.”

My understanding of intuition is that it is guidance from what we have learned in past experiences, which is why it can lead us astray. For example, perhaps when you were younger your house was broken into while you were home. You saw the burglar, dressed all in black and face covered with a ski mask. Perhaps they saw you and ran off, leaving you terrified and scarred from this alarming experience. Whether you consciously realize or not, you may have "learned" that people dressed all in black, or someone wearing a ski mask, is not to be trusted. Ten years later, you meet a new potential business partner and not only are they dressed all in black, but you see a framed picture on the wall of this person at the ski hill wearing - you guessed it - a ski mask. Now, alarms might go off in your head, and because you don't remember the burglar incident - or you never consciously made the connection - your gut will do a flip and you might assume this is your intuition telling you to beware of this person. After more investigation, perhaps this person does end up being a poor choice for collaboration. So, do we call this a coincidence, serendipity, intuition, self-fulfilling prophecy? WTF?

As you can intuitively understand, we are complex creatures with complex minds. What I suggest, "don't believe everything you think." Acknowledge your thoughts and emotions, but be wary of attaching or being swept away by the moment at hand. I view Intuition as a tool for exploration and discovery. It is a whisper to dig deeper, to stay open, to dance with the moment and play with possibilities. Intuition feels like flow, rhythm, and trust. It is not a magical flashlight that shines only on facts and objective truths. Nothing of value is that simple or stagnant. Intuition shines on the questions we should be asking, not the answers.

When we can create a state of calm, openness, and receptivity to our surroundings, we foster an inner-environment that can calculate decisions with ease, grounded in our direction of choice. This is why I find it so helpful to have clear goals, intentions for the day, and questions that I am curious to investigate. I view this as fuel for my intuitive heuristic power. I know I have insight and inspiration within me, and when I get out of my own way and embrace the uncertainty of life, these moments of creative genius seem to flow in with much greater consistency. 

Elizabeth Gilbert speaks to our creative powers in her book Big Magic. She says, “we are all walking repositories of buried treasure.” When we can live our life driven by curiosity, rather than fear, we embody openness and discovery versus stagnancy and resistance. Intuition is found when we let go of our need for perfection. When we let the mess of trial and error be an important part of the process, we have more energy and awareness to notice opportunities. The writer Rebecca Solnit addresses this topic by saying,

“So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”

I believe that to tap into a fluidity and inspiration of intuition, we must acknowledge how our habits and fear try to rule us. I do not trust the first thought that comes into my mind. I play with it. I converse with it. I ask myself questions that help me understand where I have been and what I am working towards. I talk it through with people I trust. I write about it. And after all of that, then I am ready to have an opinion or make a big decision. But when there is no time for investigation, I let my heuristical power take the lead and I acknowledge it for what it is. In the end, I am doing the best that I can, and that is all that matters. 


"When the mind rapidly fluctuates it causes us to disconnect from the beat of our inner rhythm. A distortion of our inner hum. A disconnection from the rhythm of the cosmos. The channel between the heart and mind becomes twisted and we live from the static fuzziness of the mind where nothing is clear. Anxiety, stress, fear, holds over your way of being and creates a distorted life. Your rhythm is found in the present moment, within the waves of your breath, mindful movement, creativity, and the dance of balance" @samarakate (words of wisdom on instagram)