By Noelle Sterne
Learn to understand your own personal signals for knowing if you’re on track and making the decisions that are right for you.
I’d just come from lunch with a friend and had a fierce headache. I didn’t understand why. After all, wasn’t she my dear, longtime buddy? Hadn’t I been looking forward to our lunch to catch up, giggle, and break our perpetual diets?
When I lay down on the sofa and tried to meditate, many feelings surfaced. I was surprised, even shocked at my anger, resentment, and disgust. Answers came.
We’d both changed and grown in different ways. Vanished was that spark of commonality and camaraderie that had made our get-togethers so delightful. I was increasingly interested in the latest spiritual teachers, and she was increasingly interested in the latest Jimmy Choos.
Before, too, we’d united in delicious criticisms of everyone we knew and saw. Now I strived to see the good in everyone, or at least not speak ill of them. Not that she wasn’t a generous and thoughtful person. She was. I still loved her insights and sense of humor. But . . .
My strong negative physical and emotional reactions couldn’t be denied.
If you’ve had similar experiences, notice them. Are you resenting your job, friends, goals, even leisure activities? Are you getting angry at yourself for choices you’ve made and wish you hadn’t? Listen.
We have been given many touchstones that signal whether and when we’re on track. As we acknowledge the touchstones, heed them, and cultivate them, they’ll guide us unfailingly. Here are several important ones.
Touchstone 1: The Appeal to Our Mind
Our minds know. And protest, defend, reason, and rationalize for not doing what our infallible touchstones tell us. Jesus knew this. In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (verse 70), he cautions us to follow our innermost leanings and tells us why we should:
If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you.
If you do not bring forth that within you, what you do not bring forth will kill you.
When we deny what’s in us, as spiritual teacher and author Bruce Wilkinson reminds us in The Dream Giver, we reap sadness, anger, regret, frustration, and illness. Wayne Dyer knows the cost of keeping our “music” unexpressed. He says in The Power of Intention (pp. 151-152):
That silent inner knowing will never leave you alone. You may try to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist, but in honest, alone moments of contemplative communion with yourself, you sense the emptiness waiting for you to fill it with your music.
Touchstone 2: The Message of Our Inner Voice
Our Inner Voice is a flawless touchstone. The brilliant children’s author Shel Silverstein says it eloquently and simply in the widely reprinted poem “The Voice” from his book of poems, Falling Up (p. 38). Most of us taller children can surely benefit from its message:
There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you—just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.
Our Inner Voice can be accessed in many ways, as you may know—through quiet, meditation, in nature, or by just asking. And listening. You may hear words or sense feelings. You may notice a headline that’s the message you need or suddenly think of a song lyric that holds the answer. You may just feel impelled to act.
Whenever you feel perplexed, stymied, revolted, fuming, uneasy, anxious, afraid, sick, or any other way that’s uncomfortable or unbearable, and your great and powerful rational mind isn’t coming up with decent answers, ask your Inner Voice. The more you turn to it, the more you will rely on it, trust it, and recognize its wisdom. It’s always available and always on your side. It is your ultimate friend, ally, guide, and support and knows what is absolutely right for you.
How does the Inner Voice feel? When I get quiet enough to ask in humility, the Voice is immediate. It’s certain, calm, strong, and nonjudgmental, ignoring all my “What ifs” and “Buts” and gives immediate solutions, like instant-blooming flowers.
Sometimes the answer is only a word. And that’s enough. Other times the answer floats in as a sentence, or trumpets as a declaration, or winds around as a mini-lecture. Whatever the response, the feelings with the Voice are unmistakable.
Touchstone 3: The Messages of Our Body
When I hear the Voice, I feel a lightness in my chest and sense of well-being. All fear in my stomach is gone, replaced by a blissful peace.
And the reverse—when I’m not following the Inner Voice, my body tells me in other ways. In that lunch with my friend, my head ached fiercely. The minute after I agreed to critique a story as a “favor” and knew the story was really a mini-novel, I felt my stomach sink and breath choke up. When I met a neighbor I’ve never particularly liked and nodded to her dinner invitation, as soon as we parted my palms went cold.
But when I had a conversation with a stranger in the parking lot, spilling over each other’s words about common spiritual interests, and made a coffee date, I glowed. When I was offered a dream-job project editing a heartfelt memoir for a former client I’ve always been fond of, my heart beat faster with grateful anticipation. And when on a winter Saturday afternoon I decided not to attack chores that loitered on the to-do list for a year and instead write a section of my novel, my energy skyrocketed and I couldn’t wait to get my fingers tapping.
Deepak Chopra in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success points us to the touchstone of our bodies. He suggests that we ask ourselves, “If I make this choice, what happens?” And he advises us to wait for the answer our body gives us. If it “sends a message of comfort,” we’ve made the right choice. If our body “sends a message of discomfort,” we haven’t (p. 43).
Touchstone 4: The Messages of Our Emotions
Our emotions are also faultless guides to our best choices. My friend Shelley recently told me that a long-ago college acquaintance, Tanya, suddenly called and asked her to a party celebrating Tanya’s newly-awarded partnership in a law firm. With much stammering, Tanya lamented how busy she was and implored Shelley to organize the refreshments, commanding that they be “top of the line.” Shelley couldn’t even fathom why Tanya called her—they hadn’t been close in college—much less dropped this rather large task on her. But Shelley, slightly flattered, consented.
The moment Shelley hung up, she said, she felt great anger. First it was at Tanya for her nerve and assumptions that Shelley would remember her and help her. Didn’t Tanya have other friends? With the raise of her partnership, couldn’t she afford a party planner?
Then, more accurately, Shelley knew her anger was at herself. She had ignored her body. As soon as she’d heard Tanya’s directions and supposedly dire plight, Shelley had felt sick and mentally pulled away. These feelings, she confessed to me, should have been enough of a sign. But she ignored them. Her emotions, and body, were telling her to say no, but she said yes.
I’m glad to report that Shelley called Tanya back, wished her the best, and politely bowed out. After the conversation, Shelley felt another dramatic emotion—elation. “I stood up for myself and honored my real emotions.”
You can probably recall similar or parallel experiences. When you feel mad, sad, glad, or any other emotion, pay attention. Your emotions are telling you the truth.
Several touchstone questions can help us know whether we’ve made the decisions that keep us on track. Chopra in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success (pp. 42-43) suggests we ask ourselves two questions for any choice:
- “What are the consequences of this choice that I’m making?” And he points out that in our hearts we already know.
- “Will this choice that I’m making now bring happiness to me and to those around me?” Again, we know quickly by listening inside.
Combined with Chopra’s two questions above, others can help you ferret out and intuit your best choices to know if you’ve made the right decisions about any activity, task, or event:
- Are you unaware of time passing when you’re engaged in the process or activity?
- Are you unaware of your body during this time?
- Do you feel completely immersed in the activity, even to not hearing doorbells or feeling hunger?
- Do you feel a sense of joy and peace during the process?
- Do you get annoyed at your body for becoming tired because you just want to keep going?
- When you leave the activity, do you have a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment?
- Are you eager to get to it very soon again? Later tonight? Early tomorrow?
With such questions that help you know whether you’re “in the flow,” learn your own mind-Inner Voice-body-emotions touchstones for straying or staying on track. As you do, you will make many more choices more quickly that are right for you. You’ll be happier, more fulfilled, and more giving to others in the right ways at the right times that bless you both.
Noelle Sterne, Ph.D. (Columbia University), author, mainstream and academic editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, has published over 400 writing craft and spiritual pieces, personal and academic essays, poems, and fiction in print and online periodicals and blog sites. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Ruminate, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Magazine, Textbook and Academic Authors Association Blog, Two Drops of Ink, Unity Magazine, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. In Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), Noelle helps readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. In Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) she helps doctoral candidates complete their degrees. Noelle is finally rounding the completion corner of her first novel. For more, see Noelle’s website: http://www.trustyourlifenow.com. Noelle’s webinar on writing appears in the Writing Gym of Textbook and Academic Authors Association: ”Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish!”