Sometimes it pays to trust your gut.
For example, many years ago I was at a Halloween party with friends, enjoying myself, when I came across two plates of brownies. One plate was labeled, “If you have nothing to do tomorrow.” The other said, “If you have something to do tomorrow.” In a festive spirit, I reached for a brownie on the first plate. It tasted good—rich and chewy, just the way I liked it.
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It was a small brownie, so I instinctively reached for another. And another. And another. After all, I thought, how much rum could they put in a little brownie?
After consuming five or six pieces, I stopped for a moment. “Why,” I said out loud, “are these pieces so darn small? It doesn’t make any sense.”
A guy next to me heard the question. “You’ll find out soon enough,” he said with a grin.
In my gut, something didn’t seem quite right. Since when did people make such a big deal about rum? My brain couldn’t make sense of what my belly intuited. So I ignored my body and grabbed a few more pieces of brownie.
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Everything went great for the next half hour. Dancing to Earth Wind & Fire, then Kool & The Gang. A bit of Parliament/Funkadelic. Then a few classics from John Denver, who had recently died.
This joyful moment came to a halt when a friend of mine stormed onto the dance floor. Her eyes filled with terror, she pulled on my arm. “Amiel,” she said. “Those brownies were filled with pot. My head is pounding!”
Although always an emotional person, now she was hysterical.
Ah, poor woman, I thought with no small measure of condescension.
Although surprised to hear that the mystery ingredient was marijuana, not rum, I wasn’t worried. I had eaten twice as much as her and weighed less than her, yet felt completely fine.
So I gallantly walked her over to the staircase and said, “Here, let’s sit down. I’ll take care of you.”
By now, my friend was in a state of full paranoia. She spoke quickly and urgently. “I’m going to die. I’m going to die!”
Still playing the gallant gentleman, I said “Don’t worry. Nobody dies from marijuana. It’s one of the safest drugs.”
I put my arms around her shoulders. “You’ll be fine,” I assured. “You’ll be absolutely fine.”
The surprising result
We sat there quietly for several minutes.
Then, suddenly, as if out of nowhere, my head began to pound. Louder and louder, pressure growing every second. My heart rate picked up speed. It felt like my brain was going to explode any minute. By now, Mr. Comfort the Afflicted was nowhere to be seen. In his place: Mr. Terrified. Compounding the fear from the physical sensations was fear of the unknown. Up to that point, I had not tried marijuana of any kind (nor have I since), so I had no way to gauge whether this was a typical high or a path to the morgue. There is a first for everything, I thought to myself. Before long, I entered into a full-throttled freak-out episode that lasted over an hour.
Yes, that was a very long night.
Needless to say, I survived, but not before learning six powerful lessons about judgment and the gut:
- The gut is smart. It picks up signals and provides guidance that the brain cannot. In fact, we now know that the stomach and gut contain 100 million neurons. That’s why scientists call it the “second brain.”
- Some people respond to their gut more than others. From my study of the Enneagram, I’ve learned that about one third of the population centers their intelligence in the gut. Although they still use their minds (who doesn’t?), their daily actions depend more heavily on the gut sensations than do others. And their sense of identity—who they take themselves to be—is based in the gut.
- Many of us are not gut-centered. My center of intelligence is in my mind. Sure, I have a body, but it’s not what has historically guided my daily actions. Even in high school when I played varsity soccer and nearly won the 800 at the state track meet, people thought of me as “heady” and “a brain.” Today, as during the brownie experience, my gut comes in second. To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, my gut gets no respect.
- If you’re not gut-centered, it’s extra important to listen to your gut. We all have our own versions of the brownie story. Times when our gut had an important message to share but we ignored it. Listening to the gut in such situations is even more important when we don’t center our intelligence in the gut.
- Listening to your gut takes daily practice. At the time of the brownie experience, I was aware of the advice to “trust your gut” but didn’t realize that this took practice. As a result, up until then, I never consciously focused on trusting my gut. It was a nice idea but not something to actually do—much less on a regular basis. Now I know better. Today, the opportunity to practice arises throughout the day. How do I respond to a particular email? Do I eat that chocolate croissant sold across the street or stick to my Paleo diet? When I’m about to express anger toward someone and my gut says, “Not so fast, buddy!” what do I do.
- Practice pays off for big decisions. In 2002, I was accepted into a PhD program. I would have had a chance to study with some of the top researchers and practitioners in my field—and live in a city where the sun always shines. However, my gut told me, “Don’t do it.” Due to all of the practicing I had been doing in the past several years, I listened to it. In retrospect, it was an excellent decision.
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I love hearing your comments and questions about these blog posts. Here is today’s question:
Question: When was a time that you trusted your gut and it made a big positive difference in your life?