Instinct, Emotions, or Intuition? II By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA


Instinct and Emotions

“What’s going on? Is my instinct for survival kicking in, am I falling back into an old emotional pattern, or is my intuition telling me something?” These are common questions that arise in my spiritual facilitation work.

Eckhart Tolle says an instinctive response is the body’s direct response to an external situation—our fight-or-flight response kicks in (1). Our ancestors had to outrun that saber tooth tiger. Clarissa Pinkola-Estés speaks of a woman’s wounded instincts (2). She says that through abuse and neglect, women are taught from a young age to not trust their instinct, and thus lose their ability to flee an endangering situation—emotional or physical.

Tolle says an emotion is the body’s response to a thought (1).

The heart of spirituality is consciousness or awareness. Meditation and mindfulness exercises (3) train us to watch our emotions and to notice where we feel them in our bodies. We watch our thoughts, becoming aware of the false stories these thoughts often tell us. Monks train for years observing their repetitive patterns of emotional and cognitive responses as they process their experiences.

The Enneagram as a Tool for Waking Up

My People House ministerial mentor Wayne Tittes introduced me to the Enneagram (4). He said that the Enneagram was, in some ways, a shortcut to this personal knowledge. When using the Enneagram with clients, I talk of tendencies. Someone may have the tendencies of a number three, but they are not A number three—I’m not keen to put people in boxes.

Both meditation and the Enneagram are tools that lead us to awareness of our go-to thoughts and emotions. For example, a three may start out on a project, only to find fear constricting his chest and dogging his heels. He asks, “Is this instinct or intuition telling me this is a bad idea?” But he knows that for a three on the Enneagram, failure is his worst fear, followed by the shame of not being good enough. He has learned through mindfulness practices to 1) pay attention to the stress signals going off in his body; 2) to stay with those emotions nonjudgmentally; 3) to sit with this fear nonjudgmentally; and 4) to ask his higher self what to do next.

Sometimes it’s just to breathe. He may bring in some facts: “I’ve got experience, I know how to do this. And even if I fail, that is not a measure of my worth, of my value, and it’s not who I am.”

A seven avoids boredom, limitation, or pain—emotional and physical—and seeks out pleasure. When she feels emotional pain in a misunderstanding with her partner, her tendency is to get out of the relationship NOW. But she knows that’s her tendency and follows the mindfulness practices listed in the previous paragraph.

Intuition, Not the Same as Gut Feelings or First Impressions

Intuition serves the brain’s need to predict and prepare for what will happen next. In that, it is similar to a first impression, which is a rapid assessment based on subtle visceral clues. Also, intuition is sometimes called a “gut feeling.” But first impressions as a quick judgment of someone can be wrong due to biases, including cultural and societal stereotyping. Gut feelings can be an emotional response based on stress-related anxiety held in one’s stomach.

And so we train in awareness.

Psychology Today says,

“Intuition is a form of knowledge that appears in consciousness without obvious deliberation. It is not magical but rather a faculty in which hunches are generated by the unconscious mind rapidly sifting through past experience and cumulative knowledge” (5).

Of intuition, Pinkola-Estés there is no greater blessing a parent can give a child than the ability to depend on the truth of her own intuition. “You have good judgment. What do you think is going on here?” Simple, yet a powerful affirmation of a child’s inner knowing.

About intuition, Thomas Moore, says,

“I don’t mean a simple hunch. I’m referring to a deep kind of knowing that doesn’t follow the rules of logic and can’t be found through research and reasoning” (6).

Intuition comes from a Latin word that means “to keep watch over” and so we “watch over” what’s stirring inwardly. We look for synchronicities—meaningful coincidences of external events that are not related through cause and effect. We pay attention to our dreams . Sometimes a person comes into our lives and nudges us a certain way, or a book unexpectedly lands in our hands that we didn’t know we were seeking. These confirm our intuition’s nudges.

Pay Attention

Instinct, emotional responses, and intuition can and do overlap. Sometimes an inner predator or a thug shows up and tells us: “You’re not good enough.” “What makes you think you can create art?” “Why aren’t you more sensible?” In Chapter 2, Stalking the Intruder, Pinkola-Estés says,

“When a woman is strong in her instinctual nature, she intuitively recognizes the innate predator by scent, sight, and hearing . . . anticipates its presence, hears it approaching, and takes steps to turn it away (emphasis added).”

Pinkola-Estés and Thomas Moore both list ways to strengthen our intuition. Of most importance is to listen to it. It doesn’t mean to force your intuitive insights on an unsuspecting partner, friend, or family member, or to make drastic changes in your life without considering the impacts on your commitments.

Pay attention to your responses to any of these thoughts. If anything seems “right,” that might be your intuition leading you somewhere!


Notes & Sources:

  1. Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth, Awakening to Your’ Life’s Purpose, Plume, 2005.
  2. Pinkola-Estés, Clarissa. Women Who Run with the Wolves. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992. She includes many references to instincts and intuition. Chapter 3, Nosing Out the Facts: The Retrieval of Intuition as Initiation is a good place to start.  
  3. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, says, mindfulness is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”
  4. The Enneagram is a nine-sided figure representing a spectrum of possible personality types. It is a model, not an exact representation of a person’s personality. For more information on the Enneagram, contact me or People House.
  6. Moore, Thomas. A Religion of One’s Own. A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World. Penguin Random House, 2014.

About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working, and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her spiritual connection at People House and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, where she focused on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels. In addition to working in refugee repatriation, she was a copy editor for international, English print daily newspapers in Indonesia and Mexico.