Relying on Intuition in Difficult Times

How do you make the right decisions when your old playbook is obsolete and no expert can guide you to a perfect answer?

As we approach the end of 2021, it is difficult not to ruminate on the ways in which the coronavirus has not simply shaken up our daily routines but also shaken up the way we make daily choices and tradeoffs. Every decision has become fraught with risks and unknowns: I’m feeling a bit of a sore throat, should I self-quarantine immediately? Should I travel to see my ailing mother, or keep a safe distance? What should I tell my child about coronavirus, and when things will return to normal? Will they, ever? Should I ask my team to come back and work from the office? Should I go to that social gathering?

Experts of all persuasions are studying the path of the pathogen and offering what guidance they can for our disrupted lives and livelihoods. Most of us welcome what science and medicine can provide. But when it comes to identifying with certainty the decisions each of us must make to navigate the shifting currents of our own circumstances, deep down we know that this is a game like no other. There’s never been a plague in history that has grounded billions of people, and at such a ferocious speed. Everyone’s situation is different—the tough choices you have to make are yours, and the ones I have to make are mine.

So how do you make the right decisions when your old playbook is obsolete and no expert can guide you to a perfect answer? You could, for instance, lean on your rational mind. You could consume all the data you can and assess the risks and rewards in your search for the right solution. The rational mind will shine in an everyday situation. But in an epic situation, when conditions are complex, stakes are high and no perfect solution exists, the rational mind struggles. It leaves us confused, paralyzed, scared. In such situations, perhaps you can go where great ones like Abraham Lincoln have gone when confronted with chaos and complexity—to your closest friend. 

Lincoln was thrust into a crisis as he took on the mantle of the presidency. Americans would soon plunge into the Civil War, which ultimately claimed half a million lives. Throughout his administration, a cacophony of supporters and critics prodded Lincoln from every direction. Lincoln listened to them, but ultimately turned for guidance within. "I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration,” he once said, “that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside of me."

In my teaching at Columbia Business School and Mentora, I call this friend “down inside” of you your inner core. On an average day, we may operate from a place of ego, insecurity, attachment, and habit, but lurking behind this, deep down within, is our core. Your inner core is the space within from where your true self arises. When you are at your core, you are committed, calm, curious, connected, and centered. Lincoln’s friend William Herndon said of him: “Neither his perceptions nor intellectual vision were perverted, distorted, or diseased. He saw all things through a perfect mental lens.” Your inner core helps you step away to observe your life from a distance, dispassionately. It neutralizes your attachment to a desired outcome or dearly-held belief, so you can look for the truth in all matters. Your mind becomes open to possibilities. 

Most of us have no doubt glimpsed our core on occasion, especially when we’ve practiced meditation and sought to connect with our tranquil spirit within. You may not be able to operate from that space for long, as of yet, or to access it on demand, but it is there, and you know it. Just think of the moments you have been at your best, when you have felt a deep sense of clarity and openness from within.

Your inner core speaks to you through your intuition, arising within as a subtle feeling, rather than through your normal reasoning process. Einstein conveyed to a colleague that his thought process primarily dealt with a state of awareness beyond words and language. And on another occasion he said, “I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am.” 

Intuition gives rise to new ideas and insights—automatically, instantly, and effortlessly. Rather than breaking down a problem into pieces, intuition integrates the pieces to reveal hidden connections and creative possibilities. Sometimes intuition will give you a profound reassurance for the choice you are leaning toward, and at other times it will alert you to a risk you were ignoring. Gandhi saw intuition as your voice within.

What is truth? A difficult question, but I have solved it for myself, by saying that it is what the voice within tells you.

The 19-year-old Steve Jobs discovered the power of intuition on a visit to India. “Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work,” he said. As a teenager, he encountered Yoga­nanda’s Autobio­graphy of a Yogi, which he then read, and reread every year throughout his life. Yogananda himself wrote eloquently about intuition:

The world starts the process of improvement with books and material methods. You should start by increasing the receptivity of your intuition....Intuition is soul guidance, appearing naturally in man during those instants when his mind is calm. 

To make right choices in our game of life and death today, we must bring to bear all the knowledge we have about a situation, unlock ourselves from limiting beliefs, be alert to every risk, search for creative breakthroughs, align with our values and priorities, and, ultimately, weigh the pros and cons in a way that makes us feel at peace from within that we did the right thing. These are just the things that our intuitive core can do much better than our rational mind. But tapping your intuition isn’t as simple as “trusting your gut” or “following your heart.” When you approach it with a calm mind, intuition can be an indispensable guide on your path through the crisis, but when emotions and desires are in the driver’s seat, misguided intuition can lead you to a dangerous ditch and a dead-end. 

The good news is that intuition can be learned. In recent years, psychological research has contributed to approaches that can help us hone our intuition and apply it effectively in making critical decisions. One such approach involves three steps. 

Step 1: Analyze the problem. Approach intuition as a complement, not a substitute, to rational thinking. Start by framing the question you need to answer, then gather the right data, draw in diverse perspectives, define your options, and assess their costs and benefits. In other words, maximize your rational understanding of the situation before appealing to your intuition. 

Step 2: Quiet the mind. Direct your attention away from the question you are grappling with, for a period of time. Put all impulses, attachments and emotions about the issue to rest.  Calm the cacophony in your mind so that your inner voice becomes clear and audible—by taking a shower, going for a brisk walk, playing a sport, meditating, praying, or just going to sleep. Gandhi reflected on this power of quietening the mind. “Silence is a great help to a seeker after truth like myself. In the attitude of silence, the soul finds the path in clear light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.” When you release your agenda from the conscious mind, your subconscious mind keeps working in the background to find a solution, unhindered by your blind spots and attachments.

Step 3: Let the answer emerge on its own. When you intentionally push for a solution, your rational mind takes over, and intuition is suppressed. Wait for a flash of insight to arrive in an unprompted, relaxed moment. When it arrives, pay heed. Write it down. Sometimes, a partial understanding will emerge, while at other times, a complete solution will arise. 

Intuition is not a linear process, and you may have to go back and forth along these steps. I have found that you will be seldom disappointed if you invite intuition to provide insights on your questions right after a session of meditation, when your mind is still, serene and sharp. You may not get the complete answer in one flash, but you will gain understanding and clarity. There may not be a perfect solution, but you will feel a reassurance that the path you are being guided on is true to you.

A Crucial Decision

Meditation-sparked intuition came to my rescue in the early days of the pandemic. On March 12, 2020, I was at New Delhi airport, about to board my flight to New York. In rapid succession, I received two emails, one telling me a meeting in New York had been switched from in-person to virtual, and the other telling me a keynote I had to give in New York the next week had been moved to October. The thought flashed in my mind that perhaps I should abandon my flight and remain in New Delhi. After all, my wife and daughter were living in Delhi at that time, with my daughter’s high school graduation expected in three months. “No, don’t stay back!” my rational mind told me, “Go with your current plan. You’re about to board the plane. Head back to New York for two weeks, since you have other meetings on your calendar. Then return to Delhi to be with family in two weeks as planned.” I had been following this cycle for many years, living between two continents, so my rational mind was simply telling me to do what I would usually do.

Within a few hours of my arrival in New York on Friday, March 13, my work-life started to unravel. Columbia University announced that faculty should work from home. Other business meetings I had on my schedule also were switched to virtual. The city that never sleeps was preparing for a long spell of sleep. Over the weekend, I started to feel a sense of despair, but I could not figure out why. “You like alone-time, so how can you be so unhappy if the city is quiet now? Work on your writing! You’re going to be here in New York for a couple of weeks and then you will go back to India.” My heart felt increasingly heavy for not having followed my intuition in New Delhi to walk away from my flight, but I could not rationally figure out why I was feeling that way. 

Then during my meditation on Sunday, March 15, my mind was flooded with a new understanding. This is a major world crisis. Do not see conditions simply for where they are—see them for where they are headed. They are deteriorating, at a rapid pace. This will be hard on your mother, wife, and daughter over the next few weeks—particularly on your daughter, who was so looking forward to her high school graduation. As things get bad over the days ahead she will value having you by her side. The support you will give her to tide this period will shape who she will become and what memories she will carry about this historic crisis for the rest of her life. You should be by her side—now.”

I did an about-face, bought a ticket, and returned to India in haste. Within five days of my return, the Indian government banned all international flights and imposed a 21-day national lockdown. If I had lingered in New York, I would have been unable to see my family for months amid escalating restrictions in India and an escalating infection rate in New York. It would have been heartbreaking to have my daughter go through this turbulence without being right there to support and guide and inspire her. My rational mind had told me to head to New York and stay there, but my intuition, finally awoken by meditation, alerted me to a rapid negative shift in pandemic conditions, the imminent threat of restrictions on international travel, and the heartache of being stuck in a different continent when my family dearly needed my physical presence.

Difficult Choices Require Inner Guidance

But what if instead of a right choice and a wrong choice, you are being forced to pick between two gut-wrenchingly wrong choices? Perhaps one puts your health at risk while the other puts your career at risk; one puts your family at risk while the other pulls you apart from them; one inflicts pain in the short term while the other gambles away your future. How could your intuition ever help you when every path has thorns in it?

During the height of the Civil War, Lincoln faced a terrible tradeoff. Should he bring an end to the war, and let the South secede from the Union, or should he continue and keep drenching the nation’s fabric with rivers of blood? On one occasion, an advisor sought to give Lincoln solace by assuring him that “God is on our side.” The President replied, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

In the face of daunting challenges and choices, the leaders we admire in history have all practiced some form of inner surrender like Lincoln—striving to do not what was their right, but what was right. Once during the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. received a threatening phone call at midnight. King hung up and went to his kitchen to heat a pot of coffee. He had been receiving a number of death threats, and feared for his security and that of his family. A part of him wanted to step down, but he also didn’t want to be seen as a coward. In that moment, King went within and prayed—and then listened to his intuition. “It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.’ At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

To most of us, our brain is like the hard drive of a computer. We store more and more information in it over the years, so we can use this information when needed. But many of the great leaders and achievers I study, I find, saw their brain more like a browser—a portal to the creativity and wisdom that lies in the “world wide web” of the universe. They were striving to be attuned to this guidance from within.

Perhaps what will bring lasting peace to us during this virus-driven period of dislocation is to do our best to put aside our egos, insecurities, and hungers, and listen with faith and surrender to the counsel of our inner voice—whether we perceive it to be God, Spirit, Nature, a parent, a philosopher, a poet, or our own Higher Self—letting it guide us to do what’s right for our family, our community, and our world. We shouldn’t disregard our rational thinking or the input from experts or science; but we can overcome the gaps in these sources by tuning in to our inner core to gain insights available to the soul but obscured to the ego. Then by the time we meet our friends again to toast the end of the coronavirus, we would have learned that our closest friend is the one deep down inside of us—the one from which no virus could ever separate us.

This article was published in the 2021 Annual Issue of Self-Realization Magazine.