Head vs. Heart vs. Gut. Navigating the Confusing Jungle of Decision-Making.

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Bangkok, Thailand

We all have that internal decision-maker that is neither heart nor mind. It’s not passion, it’s not reason. It’s the gut. It doesn’t listen to our whims or desires. It doesn’t require any effort at all on our part, except the ability to recognize it. There’s no thinking necessary, no milling things over or dwelling on difficult topics. The gut is instinct, built into our very being. Some call it intuition, which defined is “the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.” What an incredibly beautiful concept. The chance to escape our chaotic minds, abandon all attempts to reason through challenging situations or choices, and let this mighty, all-powerful gut do the tough thinking for you. All we have to do is listen to it and then follow.

I’ve been thinking about the gut a lot lately. It first sparked up in my mind about two weeks ago when I was on the beautiful tropical island of Koh Phangan, off the Gulf Coast of Thailand. I was staying at a quirky yoga resort called The Sanctuary, half jungle, half beach, located on the remote eastern coastline of the island, accessible only by boat taxi (or a very hardy hike). The Sanctuary is a haven for Westerners looking to escape the hectic pace of their “back home” lives and instead focus on their own connection with the universe, be it through yoga, meditation, spa treatments, beach relaxing, workshops on wellbeing, or various spiritual healing exercises. It was just what I needed after a busy couple of weeks bouncing from place to place in Cambodia and Thailand.

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The view from my dorm room at the Sanctuary

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The most stressful part of my day. Where to sit.

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Perfect.

The day I arrived, there was a workshop being offered on “Decision Making,” and yet I, oh-so-tired from my journey from the neighboring island of Koh Tao, decided to lounge on the deck and eat lunch instead. However, a couple of my roommates  (staying in the dorm with me) did attend, and were absolutely gushing about the workshop experience over dinner that evening. I gleaned a lot of information from them and really started to ponder over what they were telling me.

The basics: we make decisions everyday. Hundreds of them. Some of them as simple as choosing what to eat for breakfast and others as complicated as whether we want to end our relationship or quit our job or move across the world. And we have three forces at work in our body that will try and help us make these decisions: the head, the heart, and the gut. The head is what we use to reason, to make lists of pro’s and con’s, to rationalize things. The heart is driven by passion, not reason, and is fueled by some of our deepest desires. But it can be easily misunderstood, and we all recognize that passion does not always lead us to make the smartest decisions. That brings us to the gut. Our intuition. That whisper that we hear before either the head or heart can speak up. You know how they tell you it’s usually best to stick with your first choice on a multiple choice exam? That’s the gut! “It’s B. Definitely B.” Now, Oprah has all sorts of scientific backing for the gut and how it may seem like a mysterious inner voice, but it’s really unconscious reasoning that happens because of the science of our brains: check out this article here, it’s a good read.

But of course, it can be lot more complicated than just sensing your gut reaction to something and saying, “Yep, I’ll do that, thanks Gut!” Guts and intuition can sometimes lead us down very confusing and painful roads, and they don’t always lead us to our happily every after. In fact, they rarely do. But they generally lead us to the place that’s best for us. This allows us to enter into situations that may not be ideal, but that are essential for our own personal growth. The beauty about being human is that we are allowed to change our minds. We are allowed to say, “Whoops, I don’t like this situation. I’m not happy. So, I’m going to do this instead.” And we evolve, and we grow, and we experience all of these beautiful things around us that are disastrous and painful and live-giving and healing.

I am a truly horrible decision maker. It’s a little painful how horrible I am. I’ll curl up in the fetal position on the floor when I’m trying to figure things out. Often, tears are involved. It can be pathetic by many people’s standards, I recognize that. I’m also not about to apologize for being who I am. I just feel things pretty intensely. But that’s why I’m so fascinated by the gut, and what I was hearing my friends say about this workshop. It’s a simpler approach to decision-making. Deep down inside of us, there’s a little voice (intuition) that knows us so much better than we – meaning our heart and our mind – know ourselves. And we can choose to hone into this little voice instead of going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth with our mind and heart.

I’ve got PLENTY of examples in my life of when I did not listen to my gut, and instead chose reason. The biggest example is my choice of college major, Chemical Engineering with a pre-med concentration. I didn’t really enjoy it. Wasn’t passionate about it. Nothing about it spoke to me, except maybe the challenge of it. I do enjoy challenging myself. But picking a major and a concentration just because it’s one of the most difficult academic paths offered at the University? Not a gut decision. It felt practical. “I mean, think of the job opportunities, right?” I would tell myself. But job opportunities in what? A field that doesn’t even interest me? I chose to listen to my mind. And I’ve forgiven myself for this decision. It was what, apparently, I needed at the time, and it was what I thought was best. I didn’t have any idea what I wanted, and this felt like the safe path.

That doesn’t mean that my gut didn’t pipe up from time to time throughout college. I didn’t always squash it down in misery while I blindly fumbled around trying to do something “practical” with my life. My gut led me to study abroad in Australia my junior year. It led me to the School of Oceanic Sciences at the University of Western Australia to find a professor doing research that I found interesting, while every single one of my classmates went to the School of Engineering. This led to a further fascination with the marine environment, which led to springtime applications for grants to fund a trip to Africa to work on a cage-diving boat and work with Great White Sharks. This led to an amazing experience that I could talk about in my interview with the Pacific Whale Foundation, which led to an amazing job in Maui. This job led to another amazing opportunity to work in the San Juan Islands this past summer and learn about orcas. And while I was living on these islands and working these marine jobs, I learned to dive. Now I want to work on furthering my dive certifications, and I’m looking forward to that.

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Exploring Koh Tao by sea.

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Diving gear makes everyone look good.

So, I guess the gut, although I was late to recognize it, finally raised it’s squeaky little voice above the mind’s roar. Although I will never look back on college with regret, and indeed I look back on it with a lot of love and affection for my younger self and my experiences and gratitude to my parents for making it possible, I definitely did go through some dark times back then. For lack of a better analogy, I was a very square peg trying to force myself into a round hole. It was agonizing, and I recognized that right away, but I ignored it because it felt easiest to go along with it. I also can’t imagine college going any other way. I don’t know what I would have changed, because I was so confused back then, about everything, and I agonized over every decision. But as life is progressing, I’m able to try these different things and see my choices a little bit differently. I guess I’m a late bloomer in finding something I love. But, it’s happening, and watching it unfold is a little bit magical. I’m being more honest and patient with myself, and I’m developing all of these loves and interests and finding things that I’m excited about. I love the ocean. I love marine animals. I love biology. I love educating people. I love constantly educating myself.

For right now, at least, I’m happy doing this. And maybe in six months I won’t be. That’s ok. Because no matter what, my gut is with me through thick and thin. Who knows – maybe I will end up using my engineering degree, if something comes along that sounds fascinating and allows me to use both engineering and marine biology. Only God knows!

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Pretty content to keep exploring this magical ocean.

Have you had any experiences where you chose to listen to your gut? Or what about times when your mind won? How did things turn out? It can be oh so confusing, because there are really no wrong decisions. It’s just an endless journey, an open book, with millions of plots or paths that we can choose.

But how crazy beautiful is this life!

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Waterfalls. Thailand. Magic.

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Elephant friends.

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