I always had an infatuation with intuition. I saw it as an inner guide, the voice of my true self, with answers to all the questions that befuddled me. If only I could nurture a reliable connection to this secret hideout of wisdom. If only I could tune up its voice in my mental noise. If only, if only…

Intuition or Self Talk?

And then something happened that made me question my obsession. I was returning from my annual trip to my parent’s home in Pakistan. As I settled my children in their seats and pulled out a book that had sat in my suitcase the past two weeks, I noticed the man diagonally in front of me. Through the slit between the seats, I could see him shuffling uncomfortably, checking his phone constantly, raising his armrest and peering under, and turning back every little while as if to make sure no one was watching. I was highly suspicious. Who was he and why was he so uneasy? Preconceptions of the typical Taliban came to mind, as did the horrors of 9/11. I tried to dismiss it as the unreasonable voice of fear, but could not get it out of my mind. And then the sudden thought. What if it was intuition? What if it was some inner wisdom calling me to act.

My heart raced. What was I to do? If it were intuition, I had a huge responsibility to act. Not knowing quite what to do, and typical of my fear response, I dove right into the source of my fear and tapped his shoulder. He turned around in surprise and looked at me with eyes more scared than my own. I tried to get a sense of his intentions and asked him a few short questions given that he and I spoke somewhat different dialects. He was brusque, but he was open. In short and terse phrases he told me that he had never stepped out of his village in Northern Pakistan and was flying this far in search of a better life for his family and those of his two dead brothers. It was evident that the novelty of the experience baffled him. The behaviors that had raised my antenna were nothing more than his nervousness in a situation he understood nothing of.

Exposure and Cognitive Clarity

It’s amazing how exposure calms fear. Once I’d spoken to him and entered his life a little, I was able to see the world from his perspective and open up to him in compassion. I was able to appreciate that beneath the many superficial differences lay a common humanity and rise to be my better self. Back at the airport, and in the mayhem, we could not find any trolleys. As we waited impatiently for our luggage to arrive, we saw him again, making his awkward way through the crowd in order to bring us one. From a man who had never left his home and for whom figuring out how to get a trolley would’ve taken all the courage he could muster, it was a gesture that touched the core of my heart.

My eyes filled up with what I can only describe as Jonathan Haidt’s emotion of elevation. He also handed me a piece of paper, where scribbled in child like letters was his number. If I ever needed him he said, he will be there at once. I couldn’t help but think of the humanity that lies within each of us, waiting to be tapped. Nor could I overlook the fact that the power to tap into it lies within us too.And yet, fear calls upon the intuitive reaction that Daniel Kahneman describes as an evolutionary function in place to predict outcomes based on very little information. It allows us to cancel ambiguity and build coherence between our perceptions and our existing frameworks. When these frameworks are based on fear, our grand intuition may be nothing more than the fear response.

My experience (and many similar others later) made me realize that when we expose ourselves to others and to the world, we build more complex frameworks and sometimes new ones altogether. It is then that we’re able to step back from the instinctive response to a more thoughtful one. In those brief moments, magic happens. As cognition, emotion and intuition integrate to handle ambiguity, we open up to the richness of our lives, give voice to the buried compassion within us, and allow others to do the same.

About the Author: Homaira Kabir is a positive psychology coach, a cognitive behavioral therapist and a writer who specializes in the area of self-worth. She helps women break free from the grip of low self-confidence through scientifically backed strategies, programs and courses, so that they show up fully in their relationships and rise to their full potential at work and in life. You can read more about her at www.homairakabir.com

 

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