ONE OF THE GREAT GIFTS of having a body is that you can draw insight and knowledge from all parts of it. A head can think, which is at least occasionally useful, but shoulders can tell you when you’re tired and feet can tell you when you need to move and a gut can alert you to patterns and details the rest of you are wont to miss. I’m inclined, with Andy Clark, to think that having a body is a prerequisite for intelligence, because the body is what the intelligence is there for. But setting that aside—and assuming all my readers are in fact presently embodied—bodies are good devices for sensing things.
They can also be wrong, sometimes spectacularly so. A gut feeling can warn you about danger or tell you when an opportunity has appeared, long before your brain catches on. But it can also be biased, fearful, and too quick to judge. We’ve all got ready examples of when we acted on instinct and then realized later that we had missed some important detail, or misinterpreted something we’d seen or heard, or operated in the throes of some unconscious bias. How do you trust a messenger that is sometimes deeply insightful and sometimes decidedly foolish?
A brief aside is in order: one of the things that’s taken me well into middle age to get a handle on is how growing up as a girl and woman socialized me to distrust my own instincts. Now, with the gift of hindsight, I can look back at the dozens (hundreds?) of times when I was younger and felt a deep and powerful sense of wrongness when interacting with someone, but instead of reacting to that feeling, I smiled, spoke politely, or laughed it off. Those weren’t unreasonable responses: often, performing politeness is an excellent defense in a dangerous situation. I have no criticism for my past self for behaving that way. But I can see now that every time I acted out of alignment with what my body was telling me, I weakened that connection a little bit more, until it became really very difficult for me to sense those instincts at all.
With time and attention and the pattern-matching skills that come with age, I’ve restored (I hope) most of my ability to hear those messages. And I’m keen on keeping it that way, because those are very insightful tips I cannot get from anywhere else. But that means I have to be willing to accept the possibility that sometimes those instincts will be wrong—and have the means of sorting out when that’s the case, and what to do about it.