What is real inner growth? Is it identifying and detaching from the ego? Is it owning your feelings? Is it learning to be still, to voluntarily cease thinking, to float above everyday pains and sorrows? Is it not succumbing to angry outbursts — or rather learning to express your anger for once in a while?
There sure are many recipes for growing as a human being. Which of them, if any, will yield the cake you’re after? And will you, in fact, be able to both have it and eat it? 😉
Not long ago, before “personal growth” became a buzz word in our modern world in the latter part of the last century, inner work was generally limited to the mind — or, to be more specific, to transcending the mind. Also, it was limited to certain people — clergy and mystics, basically — and the aim was to be free of suffering by breaking the identification with the ego. Then along came the sixties, and all manner of “inner growth” suddenly became fair game. In the seventies, we were introduced to our feelings, in the eighties to goal-orientation and leadership skills. And ever since its fresh start in the flower-power era, there has been a steady under-current focussing on evolving consciousness and reaching enlightenment.
Working on the centres but forgetting the roots
It’s interesting to look at these different growth paths in terms of the centres. The head centre has heavily been involved throughout, and the heart centre on and off. The gut, not so much. Sure, there have been some focus on assertiveness, on “standing your ground”, on “knowing what you want”. But even in those contexts, pretty much without exceptions as far as I’m aware, there has been zero awareness of the instinctual aspects of these things. And in the gut, instincts are kind of central.
Our instinctual nature generally hasn’t really been considered an area to evolve in, or with. Either, it has been regarded as a problem (which has made us want to “manage” things like anger or fear in different ways, with varying results), or it has been flat out ignored — out of ignorance of its existence altogether, or out of the belief that we just have to accept those bits for what they are and try and manage as best we can with (or even in spite of) them.
Introducing the instincts on the scene of inner work
Maybe we weren’t ready until now. Maybe we needed to scream, feel, sit, understand and process cognitively before the stage was ready to also start featuring a direct awareness of instinctual impulses. And this time, not as something enslaving us, and that we should attempt to control. Instead, we need to be aware of the instinctual drives as something constantly happening, something that keeps us alive and something which is hugely beneficial for us to acquaint ourselves with on the path to increased awareness and presence.
Whatever the reason, here we are. Today, some of us have already realised how much of our inner growth that remains locked out of reach so long as we don’t allow, explore and befriend these instinctual drives. When we do, we are coming full circle. We have explored our thoughts, our intellects and the aspects of the head centre. We have discovered the heart, the real importance of emotional awareness, the concrete implications of empathy, and of emotional trauma and healing. And now, the last piece of the puzzle remains: the instinctual awareness. (Individually, might only have done bits of this, of course, and in a different order, or not much at all. But as a collective, these things have been going on for some time.)
Becoming aware of the instincts in action
Awareness and instinctual impulses is a tricky combo. We might previously have been trying to become aware of our thoughts happening, and realised that even that’s no picnic at first. When we sit down to focus on them, the thoughts get slippery, like soaps dropped into the bath water. It takes some time to get the hang of it. When we graduate to feelings (regardless of the order in which this happened), we might realise that they are even more subtle and slippery, curling together, hiding inside one another, shapeshifting and multi-layering.
When we’ve been looking at feelings, we might have realised that it helps immensely to be aware of the physical body. Feelings are called feelings because we can feel them — physically. This is even more true for instinctual impulses, although they can be even more subtle and they happen fast as lightening. I’m my experience, one of the easiest ways to become aware of them is catching them real-time (or going back into an experience we had earlier, when we have that opportunity) and getting a sense of the energetic direction they have (and, often, which physical direction the impulse would have you move in).
Why is instinctual awareness a help in inner growth?
But I’m getting ahead of myself 😊. The “how” is of course very individual, and many of you already know how to feel into your bodies, become present and allow the awareness of various internal aspects. This is great.
What I want to provide here is the “why”. If we’ve some insight into the biological drives, it’s likely to be that they are happening automatically. That is kind of the point, after all: to supply the organism with automatic impulses that keep us alive even if we’re tired, stupid or just semi-conscious. But so, if they are happening automatically, isn’t our best bet to learn to control ourselves, lest they have us behave in anti-social ways that are outlawed (or, at the very least, frowned upon) in modern day society?
Misunderstandings about instinct
Let’s backtrack slightly. While we might not have been thinking of our instinctual signals as specifically that, we are all familiar with the concept of impulses: something just occurs to you (whether you understand why or not), and you want to do something specific.
Now, I bet most people don’t generally view this as a positive. When we think of impulses, it’s often thoughts about impulse control. And from an intellectual point of view, it looks like the most comfortable solution is tuning out these annoying signals, seeing as they sometimes point us in the direction of behaviours that we (i e, the head) might not particularly enthusiastic about. However, as I said already, the point of instinctual impulses is that they’re automatic. They are designed to be impervious to our mental faculties. (That is not strictly true, as when they were designed, there were no mental faculties. But either way, the result is they do not respond to cognitive decisions.)
The notion that we need to take control of our instinctual impulses rests upon two misunderstandings. One has to do with how they function; the other has to do with how we function.
The first misunderstanding:
“Instinctual impulses prompt us to do bag things”
When we contemplate overcoming instinctual impulses, it’s usually because we think they are destructive. Perhaps we think of the impulse to hit someone in anger, or push someone aside to “get there first”. In other cases, we perceive them to lead us down the wrong path: have that second piece of cake, or snooze in bed rather than go to the gym. While these things may well be related to instinct, they’re are also tons of other things each day that we manage because of instinctual impulses.
Getting hungry and having something to eat, effortlessly choosing one thing over another because it “felt better”, healthy curiosity, discerning someone’s mood by registering emotions on their face, even playful interaction — all these are things that our instincts manage for us. We never needed to learn them, and we don’t need to remember how to do them. The knowledge is just there, hard-coded into our organism.
So, no — instincts aren’t by definition evil, or even disruptive. Like so many other things, though, they might sometimes feel disruptive or have undesired consequences … which brings me to the second misunderstanding.
The second misunderstanding:
“If we allow instincts into our awareness, they will rule us”
We want to avoid being governed by impulses as we’d rather choose rationally. Right? Well, the thing is, nothing says we can’t do that. But, contrary to what our belief may be, our chances increase exponentially if we do become aware of what goes on beneath the surface, rather than suppress it.
Let’s say your boundaries have been stepped over, and the primitive impulse is to lash out against the person who you feel has violated them. Now, it’s not necessarily obvious to you that this impulse is even there. We have spent many years not becoming aware of such urges, as we don’t want a society where we smack each other across the face when they upset us.
But the misunderstanding is in believing an impulse has to be acted upon. We know this is not the case. If, sitting on the underground on the way home from work, you suddenly become aware of being really hungry and the guy next to you is just starting to eat a banana — you’re not going to nick it, are you? If you’re in extreme pain and think the banana might fix that, you might at most ask him for it, although you would probably offer to pay for it. (Although my guess is you’d rather stick it out until you got home to your refrigerator. And the interesting thing is, many of the votes against appropriating his banana also stem from instincts. But since this article is getting lengthy already, let’s leave it there). My point is, we aren’t slaves even to the most obvious and reasonable urges.
This is because we aren’t only instinctual beings. We also have a heart, and, not least, a head. We are able to make informed choices, weighing up the input from all three centres. So there is a difference between being aware of an impulse and acting on it. (For the record, we do occasionally have impulses where this is not the case — like if something is threatening to hit you and you throw yourself to the side to avoid it. Or if you were to try to suffocate yourself by holding your breath: you just can’t NOT breathe in again, no matter how hard your resolve is. But then again, these are seldom the once that we’d opt against, had you been given a vote.)
Knowledge is, indeed, power
But even if we don’t exactly believe we’re slaves to the impulses, we often do believe that it would be uncomfortable or difficult to abstain from going along with them — so we’d rather not become aware of them if they’re ones we prefer not to act out. Only problem is, we actually have the maths backwards.
Just like with our feelings, while the awareness of them can feel uncomfortable in the moment, repressing them generally leads to rather more uncomfortable consequences later on. An instinctual urge repressed over and over again, just like a feeling that is not dealt with, finds an outlet somehow. This is how we are designed. But then we don’t get much say in where and how it seeps out. If we’re aware of what’s happening while it’s going on, though, and take conscious part in the decision process, we do get a say. So if the instincts ramp up their efforts to get your attention, it’s not to make you do what they say. It’s to make you acknowledge them and own them ❤️.
So what’s all this got to do with inner growth?
Fine, so life is likely to go smoother and be less awkward if I’m aware of these impulses. But how is that good for inner growth, specifically? Okay, if we feel better and have less problems, that’s probably a good thing — but other than that?
Increased self-knowledge equals growth
In fact, fostering the connection with our instincts helps us in multiple ways. For one more general thing, inner growth is about self-knowledge; about integrating all our parts, so to speak; about not keeping bits of us hidden from ourselves. And when we’re not in touch with our instinctual impulses, that is keeping something — and a huge something, at that — hidden. By allowing every part of ourselves to enter our conscious awareness, our self-knowledge grows. And when our self-knowledge grows, we grow.
This doesn’t mean you’re actively aware of every impulse in every moment, which would be a lot of work. Allowing something to enter into your conscious awareness doesn’t mean it always needs to. You likely won’t need to contemplate hunger. But you might like to reflect on smacking someone across the face, or throwing your coffee cup into the wall upon hearing enraging news. Keeping the door into awareness open lets you do that, and (likely) decide on a better course of action. Don’t worry, it’ll sort itself out 😊.
Signposts pointing us in the right direction
The generally increased awareness helps us work with noticing and balancing the instinctual messages, which also makes all three drives more useful for our development. This goes for all the drives, but in particular the sexual instinct. This instinct, after all, came into existence with the sole purpose of having us break out of our shell, risk stepping outside of our comfort zone and expanding beyond that which we’ve previously identified. (Note that this does not necessarily mean that those leading with the sx drive automatically have it made — there are plenty of ways for us to keep within our comfort zone by exercising that same instinct 😎.)
Exploring our neglected or least favoured drive is helpful, too. Here, we find tools and functions that have not been a priority for us, and the boosting of which will very likely supply things that are missing in our life for it to be as full, joyful and meaningful as it could be.
Are you curious about the instinctual drives and wanted to explore further? Please check out either the free webinar I’m offering on the topic (Jan 25:th) and/or the online course (starting Feb 8:th). The latter one is in 5 modules, live and interactive, with an optional individual session where you get to explore your instinctual preferences in depth. I’d be do glad to have you join 😊❤️