My brain is fried. I’ve come to South Carolina from New Mexico to be with my sick mother, who’s in a nursing home. I am exhausted from moving from place to place: from guest room to retreat center to housesit to campground. I don’t know where to go next, and I can’t make a rational decision. I’m standing at a gas station, pumping gas into a vehicle that’s been driving around in circles for months.
I close my eyes. I ask the universe for a sign. When I open them, I am staring at the sunset orange wall of the little station. It boasts a large mural of a desert-dwelling bird never seen in this part of the world. A roadrunner, racing westward.
Thank you, universe. It’s time to go home.
While researching this article, I searched a used bookstore for a copy of the I Ching, the classic book of Chinese wisdom. Instead, I found another book, abandoned on the arm of the chair I happened to sit down in: How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. I’m used to this. I wasn’t surprised. I bought it.
Lehrer is known for his expertise in neuroscience, but his book includes an exhortation for us to understand that decisions should not be made through logic alone. He states: “If it weren’t for our emotions, reason wouldn’t exist at all. Not only are these dichotomies (of logic versus intuition) false, they’re destructive. There is no universal solution to the problem of decision-making. The real world is just too complex. As a result, natural selection endowed us with a brain that is enthusiastically pluralist.”
Here, I enthusiastically share some traditional, time-tested tools that can help you make choices when logic fails.
Carl Jung defined synchronicity as “circumstances that appear meaningfully related yet lack a causal connection.” It is a psychologically meaningful link between an internal event, such as a thought, image, or dream, and one or more external events occurring simultaneously.
Examples of common synchronicities are seeing repeat-ing numbers; having predictive thoughts; seeing the same person, animal, or object over and over; hearing a phrase repeated; experiencing perfect timing; or having recur-ring dreams, all of which line up with important concerns. They’ll feel like little miracles because of their improbabil-ity. Synchronicities that capture our attention are personal puzzles asking to be solved. When pieced together, they show a map with the path to our truth.
Author Gregg Levoy explained the phenomenon beauti-fully: “Perhaps you should simply accept it as a wild card and an ordering principle, the height of absurdity and the depth of profundity, and a crack in the door through which you can catch sight of the universe and its mysterious ways.”
The I Ching, or the Book of Changes, is a guidebook to a cosmos where everything is connected and in a state of restless change. This ancient text, first published more than two millennia ago, combines the wisdom of Taoism and Confucianism. Emperors, warlords, and common folk have all depended upon its advice.
I recommend Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching. Jung, Wilhelm’s friend, wrote the foreword, and it’s not surprising that synchronicity plays a part in the divina-tory method contained in the book.
The I Ching lists 64 hexagrams made up of six lines that are broken, unbroken, or changing. Each hexagram has an accompanying text in the book. Six coin throws determine the lines in your hexagram, and you’ll look up the number assigned to that pattern of lines for the solution to your problem. You’ll need paper, a pen, three coins, and a clearly stated inquiry. Often you’ll find yourself interpreting two or more hexagrams together and pondering subtle but powerful layers of meaning.
For example, an answer you think may pertain to the here and now may actually be a suggestion for the future. The I Ching tends to see the big picture for us. I once asked if I should attend an event in the Bay Area and got the answer “It furthers one to cross the great water.” I took the advice literally and went, but I found the event closed. Looking back on the disappointing divination, I can now see the book was telling me to make a significant change in my life by “crossing the great water.”
The Body Knows: Somatic Wisdom
We are familiar with the phrase “gut feeling” as a metaphor for intuitive reasoning: butterflies in the stomach, that sinking feeling, a sudden cramp, cold chills, clammy hands, the skip or race of a heartbeat. Since the gut and the heart contain neurotransmitters as if they have a brain of their own, it’s a good idea to acknowledge their messages.
Applied kinesiology is a sophisticated method of talking to the body. Traditional and alternative healers, chiropractors, and nutritionists may use it when searching for allergens, for example. The theory is that muscles weaken when challenged by a negative substance or thought.
In a typical procedure, a patient holds her arm out straight as the healer tests the arm’s strength while making true or false statements. Then a suspected allergen or hopeful medicine is placed in the hand, and the healer tests the arm again for weakness (a negative answer) or strength (a positive response).
Have you ever stood in the supplement aisle of the grocery store wondering what your body needs? Hold the bottle near your heart. It’s unnecessary to be in physical contact with the substance. You will either rock toward the container or backward, away from it. (This works best in cowboy boots or heels!)
A more subtle method of muscle testing involves looping the middle finger and thumb of both hands together like two chain links. Can you break them apart easily or is there enough tension to show you there’s opposition to an idea?
An even stealthier approach uses only your fingertips. Rub the thumb and finger of one hand together. Do you feel the whorls of your fingerprints? Is there resistance as your fingers slide against each other? This suggests a “no.” If the sensation is one of smoothness and ease, it’s usually “yes.” However, always test yourself first to figure out how your body is sending you messages. Some of us have an oppositional unconscious!
My introduction to the pendulum came as a child in Appalachia. Long before ultrasound and DNA testing, a midwife determined the sex of a fetus by suspending the wedding ring of the mother-to-be on a thread. Held over her belly, the ring would soon move; the direction of the swing revealed the gender. This eventually became a standard game to be played at every baby shower.
Ideomotor activity—tiny, unconscious, imperceptible muscle movement—is thought to be the source of this and many similar practices, such as dowsing. The pendulum can be used for many purposes. In folk medicine, it is used to determine a diagnosis. It can be a tool for geolocation when held over a map. But most often it is employed to answer simple “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” questions. Any small weight on a light chain held between thumb and forefinger should do.
You’ll receive responses to queries based on predetermined movements: clockwise and counterclockwise circles, swings toward and away or back and forth, or a shivering standstill. Make your mind a blank, meditate, or look away until you feel something happening. The real trick is to craft unambiguous queries, then release any expectations.
Automatic Writing and Drawing
The Spiritualists of the late 19th century were fond of using the tool of automatic writing to dig around in the all-knowing unconscious. The Surrealist painters of the 1920s latched onto automatic drawing along with dreamwork as a source of imagery and truth. Modern-day practitioners of automatic writing and drawing sometimes feel as if words or images are downloaded or channeled from an outside entity or creative force.
Gather your materials, whether a brush and paints or a favorite pen and paper. Clear your mind, breathe, and allow the marks you make and colors you choose to flow without analysis or judgment. If you’re writing, don’t lift the pen from the paper until intuition tells you to stop. You may want to put the message away for a few hours or days before you go back to it for a rational interpretation.
Automatic writing or drawing requires some transcend-ing, not only of thought but of the inner critic. If you can let go of self-consciousness while writing or drawing and let go of the fear of what might appear, this may be an excellent exercise to try.
The Power of Myth
Cultural myths we absorbed as children affect us all. Discarding them as mere superstition isn’t wise. A literal interpretation—you’ll receive seven years of bad luck for breaking a mirror, or a black cat crossing your path is a warning, for example—may seem silly, but reflecting on this archetypal material isn’t.
It’s no accident you noticed your spirit animal four times in a row or saw a cloud shaped like a dancing dakini. Notice yourself noticing. It may be judicious to explore what those symbols and synchronicities mean to you or your particular culture and how they might fit into the concerns you have in life right now.
With important, complex considerations, use all the resources—both analytical and intuitive—available to you. I use logic in life; my culture has trained me well. But alternatives are there to support me.
You don’t have to be in dire straits or caught in the anxious paralysis of decision-making (as I was in South Carolina) to rely on these intuitive technologies. Playing with them in a relaxed state will build your skill at using them.
So flip a coin—or several—and enjoy the magic of, as my mother used to say, “using the ol’ noggin” differently.