I call it inner wisdom. Or inner guidance. Others refer to it as “the small quiet voice,” “intuition,” “gut feelings,” “inner knowing,” or, “the heartbeat of God.”
It’s the truth of what we know–truly know–deep within. A knowing that is innate to us all, that can guide us effortlessly once we learn to recognize it, listen to it, and trust it.
I believe we are all born with the capacity for inner wisdom. But it’s tricky. It gets mixed up in the noise–the noise of our busy minds, our saturated senses, our stories, and the thoughts, advice, and dictums of others.
How do we learn to recognize it?
Stories Compete With Our Inner Wisdom
A long time ago I was wrestling with uncomfortable feelings about a friend who seemed competitive and jealous of my accomplishments. I found myself wanting to avoid talking to her about them, I felt angry, and guilty about how I felt.
One day while on a long walk, stewing in my juices over the situation (how on earth was I going to handle this?), quite suddenly and unexpectedly, a voice rose up out of my gut. It was quiet and soft. It said, “But, Karyn, she’s just trying to prove herself to you.” It was so kind and loving and forgiving to us both and answered the puzzle. I knew it was my inner wisdom. It helped me see the situation with new clarity. I was able to talk to my friend and work things out.
Our stories come at us as “the truth,” “the way it is,” or “how I understand it to be.” We often forget that “the truth” is really our truth. That “the way it is” is how we perceive it to be. My “jealous” and “competitive” friend, was really wrestling with her own unworthiness and sought my approval. That was such a key piece of inner wisdom.
My first clue that I was dealing with a story–the story of my friends jealousy–was that I felt conflicted, and angry, and didn’t know how to handle it. But there was more to know.
The quiet, soft voice of my gut cut through the confusion. I felt absolutely clear. My anxiety about the situation vanished.
What Inner Wisdom is Not
I think it’s helpful to look for the warning signs that tell us when we’re dealing with a story and not the clear, pure guidance of our inner wisdom.
If the voice is judging (telling you “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong”), condemning (uh, you–or they–are such an idiot, how could you!), or disempowering to you or anyone else (or if it feels that way), it is NEVER inner wisdom. Not ever. Those are always stories.
Does the inner voice preface it’s advice with “you should?” Or “it would be best?” Or “you must?” Hmmm… and is there guilt dripping from it? Don’t trust it. We never “should” or “must” anything.
If your inner voice makes you feel guilt or shame, this is not wisdom. This is a voice from somewhere else. It’s not intrinsic to the true, deep, wise you. And it’s a toxic voice. Look closely at it and send it packing.
The Fearful Inner Voice: Inner Wisdom or Story?
This really gets tricky. What does the fear mean?
On the one hand, fear is helpful and vital. Our brains were designed to keep us alive by keeping us out of harm’s way. Fear is the innate emotional tool our brains use to get our attention, lead us to quick action, and remove us from danger.
Jumping away from the oncoming car or avoiding the toxic person who means us harm are critical to our survival. Fear drives us to take appropriate action.
Here’s the rub: how do we know when our fearful inner voice is not about true danger, but rather our assumptions about “what will happen” if we make a choice, take a risk, or accept personal responsibility?
Pay attention to the fear. Then, look for the “shoulds” and “should nots,” the guilt and shame. Risk taking and uncertainty are scary but they’re never judging or disempowering.
Fear of Change
Our biggest fear: change. We all fear change–we’re wired for it. It helped our ancestors survive during unpredictable times.
What we really fear is the uncertainty about the outcome of change. What will happen? Who will we become? What will we lose? What is the worst-case-scenario? It feels so risky!
You’ll always know this one if you look closely. It’s a change you want. Perhaps a change you need. But it’s scary. And you may see or hear vivid details about what that awful outcome will bring into your life. The fearful thoughts are about the future that has not arrived yet.
The worst-case-scenario is always a story. Never inner wisdom.
What Inner Wisdom Is
I’ve come to believe that true inner wisdom is always the voice of love. It may bring a warning or ask for correction of our behavior. But it does so in a non-judging, loving way.
The voice of true wisdom will never bring information about you or others that is not based in love.
What Inner Wisdom Looks Like (or Sounds Like)
Is there love? Encouragement? Excitement? You may be in the presence of your inner guidance, perhaps asking you to stretch or expand into unfamiliar territory. The fear is natural. It fuels and supports the needed risk to change.
Where do you feel it? We experience our inner wisdom in different ways.
It may be a signature sensation within the body. I tend to feel inner wisdom in my chest (heart) or mid-section (gut). It can be subtle. Like a soft “yes” or “no” sensation. Or a subtle moving in or pulling away to the idea, object, or person.
Others hear it quite clearly. It comes as a voice or words that they hear or sense. That cut through the noise. That may have a luminal quality or resonance that makes it clear it is to be heard and heeded.
For others it comes as an image or voice from outside them. Perhaps something someone says, or a passage in a book, or the sight of something on their path. That resonates. That brings to mind the idea, question, or solution they’ve been seeking.
Inner guidance will always be positive and in favor of you. It may warn you, but it always does so in a way that supports and protects. It will never ask you to make a crippling sacrifice. It never arrives as a “you should” or “you must,” or with guilt or shame.
How to Cultivate Inner Wisdom
We have many inner voices. How do we wade through them to access the true voices of inner wisdom?
First, we must listen. We must get quiet and remove the clutter and distraction from our minds. It’s not hard. Breathe. Meditate. Have the intention to listen.
We must create space in our bodies for inner wisdom to come forth. This means having a healthy body. A well fed, rested, and strong body favors the flow of wisdom.
Movement–like walking, a workout, dance, yoga, or cleaning house–lends itself well to the emotional flow of inner wisdom. Movement gets us out of our heads. Into our bodies. The questions work themselves out. Problems are solved. The wisdom can punch through all the noise and confusion when we’re not looking so hard. I love to end every day with a walk to let go of what muddles my brain. I get clear about what matters.
It helps to ask for the guidance. I think this activates the power of our intentions to find the answers. Ask for help. Ask for a problem to be solved. Ask for an answer. Put forth the question to yourself, or the Universe. Write it down.
When the guidance comes, scrutinize it: Is the voice judging? Blaming? Belittling? Ridiculing? Harsh? Punishing? Do you feel disempowered in any way? If you answer “yes” to any of these, what you hear or feel is not your inner wisdom. These are stories–stories that get in the way of all progress in your life.
Is the guidance fearful? Ask it: are you here to protect me or are you getting in the way of the change I need or desire?
Assess your body: When I seek guidance do I feel tired or depleted? Nope, not inner wisdom.
Our Inner Guidance Signature
How does inner wisdom appear to you?
Do you feel it in your body? Has it become a sensation that you recognize as truth and have learned to trust?
Does it arise as a thought or voice that stands out from all the others?
What happened when you did or didn’t listen to your inner wisdom in the past? Was there a voice or sensation that you wished you’d heeded?
An Inner Guidance Exercise
Consider a problem or question you need clear guidance for.
Ask for help. Express your intention to listen.
Place your hand over your heart. Breathe deeply. Breathe again. Feel the sensation that arises (or doesn’t arise) in your chest. How does it feel? Warm? Positive? Does it feel like a “yes?” Is it negative, cold, restricted, a pulling away? What does your body feel like? Are there words that come forth?
Inner wisdom can hit us between the eyes or it can be subtle. Recognizing it takes practice, patience, and careful listening. I promise that it’s there.
What If I ask for Guidance and it Doesn’t Come?
Inner wisdom and guidance can take time. We put out the questions but the answers may not come right away.
We may be distracted and not hear or feel the subtle ways the answers present themselves within us. Or perhaps our inner wisdom is chewing on the question.
Be patient. Keep asking. Keep living your life. Live the questions. The answers will always come.
From the Archives:
Karyn Shanks, MD. Body Wisdom: What Our Bodies Can Teach Us. 2017.
Karyn Shanks, MD. Five Ways to Harness Your Intuition. 2016.
J. Philip Newell. Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality. 1997.