We hear it spoken of often, in an off-hand way, unexplained and hardly ever fully apprehended and made our own - listen to your intuition. Be more present. When I’m teaching yoga and leading yoga retreats, it is one of the most commonly expressed intentions from guests at the outset of a retreat - I want to live more intuitively. Most of us have a few moments in life where intuition makes a resounding intervention, a clear call from within us. We choose to follow its direction or not; the point is that it is experienced as an irregular impulse. On most days, in most cases, we’re uncertain of this strange voice. We dither and reason and let our rationality, or other’s opinions, or the rules of society lead us.
We all know what intuition is. Of course it’s difficult - and futile - to describe in any detail because it is necessarily subjective. We know, in our own separate and unsharable living experience. But I’ve never met anyone who has no grasp whatsoever of the ‘gut voice’, the animal-like wisdom. I’ve also never met anyone who thinks this is a negative experience. We’ve kicked the tyranny of rationality to the curb, thank goodness. In our post-post-modernist world, we’d all like to move through live more ‘intuitively’, poised in a dance between what feels right for us, regardless of reason or rationality, and yet does not cause harm to the environment around us.
A sustained apprehension of intuition requires some degree of present awareness - another slippery concept that seems to be harder and harder for us 21st century humans to grasp. Perhaps its because of this link to ‘mindfulness’, that I hear a lot of talk about intuitive movement, and yoga and intuition - there seems to be some kind of expectation that serious yoga practitioners have a strong and steady conversation with this wild voice, intuition.
I’ve been meditating and doing yoga for years and years. I’m convinced that, although yoga and meditation encourages me, and trains my mind in the habit of seeking presence, yoga is merely a lineage of useful methods or tools. Presence, fully realised, necessities a foundational work in relation my cognitive structure and channels of inner communication - which is where intuition lies. This cannot be taught, and are not exclusive to Eastern philosophies by any means.
Sure, one can be ‘present’ and have deep conversations with what one feels is right/wrong when staring at a tropical ocean vista in a heat haze on a week-long getaway, but how does one do this at 8am on a Tuesday, with a meeting at 9am, a cranky boss to placate, and a heaving city-space to navigate through? What’s ‘intuitive voice’ and what’s ‘paranoid self-doubt voice' in this climate? Most of the time, we are happy to get through a day unscathed by the rigours of modern life, let alone achieve sustained awareness of our internal world. If our experience of presence is circumstantial - we flip flop from on holiday/retreat experiences of presence and manic survival in ‘real life’ - surely this implies we don’t really ‘get it’ at all?
Being able to listen to one’s intuition in a sustained way is particularly important for women. Our bodies are so quickly and readily taken possession over, by men in our personal lives, by centres of political and social power, by media in innumerable ways. We are constantly being told what is right for us, what to eat, what to drink, how to move, how to dress, what is appropriate, even our wombs are laid claim to in public and political spaces. It has always been, and should now more than ever be, important for women to know how to intuitively feel what works for them, and be empowered to act on this intuition effectively.
There was an article in the New York Times this week about ‘intuitive eating’. The sway of the argument was that women should forget dieting and to stop wasting time and energy on following ‘wellness fads’. Rather, ask yourself what you need, what your body needs, and follow this wisdom - back yourself that you know what’s best for your own body, and you may find you actually up your energy levels, and improve your mental wellbeing. The author argued from her own experience, and pointed out that men feed their bodies without shame/doubt/dithering, and therefore feed their minds, and have so much more time and capacity to focus on the actual important stuff in life because they’re not worried about an extra roll of back fat. I couldn’t agree more with this, but the question remains - how? How do we cultivate a conversation with the wild woman inside us?
This is precisely the content that brilliant female psychiatrist and author, Clarissa Pinkola Estés deals with in her classic, Women Who Run with the Wolves. This is a seminal work about embracing the unsocialised essence of womanhood. Estés’ characteristic style is to use folk tales and mythical stories passed down over generations to tease out and elaborate on her points. She seems to take queue from the ancients, and be able to apply such wisdom to our contemporary world with startling clarity and relevance. She underlines the importance of rekindling a closeness with the ‘wild woman’, the ‘old hag’ within us all who knows, who digs her heels into the earth and sniffs the wind, who moves with lightening speed to save a child from falling, and then wanders from home when the season changes, she feasts on berries in summer, leaves and twigs in her hair, sagging breasts and hips free, purple juice dribbling down her chin, lined smile and vibrant eyes. No she’s not mad as society would have it, she’s a wily old nonconformist, and we’ve lost touch with her.
Across all cultures and languages, in all records - written and oral - of ancient stories, there is this psychic old hag. She pops up, hair wild, fingers long and arthritic, teeth sharp as her wit. Modern society considers the old hag to be something deplorable - an embarrassing great aunt we wish would just be ‘normal’ and wear twin sets and knit, like other little old ladies should. She is both an archetype in our body of cross-continental human storytelling, and a character some of us might’ve met. She refuses to keel over and be forgotten, she swears as freely as she’ll steal your thimble of whisky, she sniffs out a threat before its entered the room, she farts loudly and laughs at your blushing face, she’s told you your job is as boring and ill-suited to you as Father Collins in a Sunday sermon. But you didn’t listen, did you?
Estés is to be read keeping in mind that all characters in these ancient tales represent aspects/facets of a single woman’s psyche. We have many facets to us - the old hag is but one, an important one. Anyone who is a lover of literature and oral traditions knows that archetypes make up and reflect our mental world. This wise old hag is our intuition, personified.
In the third chapter, Estés analyses a Russian/ Yugoslavian/Polish/Romanian folk tale called Vasalisa. This chapter, in particular, lends the reader some startlingly practical and clear guidance on how to cultivate a better relationship with one’s intuition. Without retelling the tale (I’d encourage you to read it yourself), I’d like to touch on some of the lessons from this chapter I find particularly poignant.
Let your too-good mother die
The story starts with the death of Vasalisa’s mother, who was a honey-sweet, pretty, soft-spoken and wallflower of a woman. Estés characterises this as the ‘protective mother’ in our psyche. Vasalisa has to go through the painful process of watching her ‘protective mother’ die. This is the voice in your head that is too afraid to do stuff, too scared and shy to go for what you want in life. By listening to this voice, and letting this archetype dominate our mental worlds we block our personal development, and our intuitive voice. Estés reminds us that when we challenge ourselves, and do stuff rather than dithering over it, we sharpen our powers. It can be tempting to cling to this too-good mother, because in doing stuff, you will stumble and stub your toes, but ultimately you’ll become more wily and empowered. No intuition is cultivated by living within the confines of comfort and safety.
Expose the worst parts of yourself, fearlessly
Stop trying to gain approval of others. If you’re worried about what others think, this motivation will surely impede your ability to tap into the wild woman voice. Once Vasalisa’s mother has passed, her father shacks up with a mean and jealous new wife, who bullies and torments her. Vasalisa has to learn to break free of the impulse to try to please the stepmother and maker her love her. She never will. This calls on us to be authentic. Realise that your authentic self is not a ‘pretty’ or ‘perfect’ woman, and its OK to be a bad ass. Your authentic self is so much more than the ‘perfect’ wife/mother/sister/daughter. Suppression of your true self is the death of creativity and intuition.
Navigating your shadow-self
Cultivating a clear line of communication with your intuition necessitates a transformation in the way you frame fundamental questions you ask of yourself when making decisions. Notably, we tend to ask ourselves ‘Is what I am doing/saying/choosing right/appropriate/making others happy? Instead we should turn this debilitating question into a statement, ‘Let me see all there is to see’. This, of course, implies a much more diverse tapestry of experience, vital, enriching and, at times, ugly. This means sometimes following a path that is scary, or difficult. It also means sometimes following the path of least resistance, in spite of your conceptualisations of failure/success. The old hag does not measure or judge her life and decisions. She is unapologetic.
Sorting, cleaning, purifying = uncluttered mind space
Vasalisa leaves home and wanders out into the woods. She comes across the old hag archetype (otherwise characterised as a ‘witch’), who lives on her own in a house in the deep dark woods. Vasalisa is given an initiation by the ugly old hag, who instructs her to do all kinds of unfair and demanding tasks in a short space of time, including washing her dirty clothes (witch cloaks must be a nightmare to launder!). The lesson is: Clothes and homely goods, like ideas, are worn and worn until slackened and grey. In order to have clear and consistent communication with our intuitive selves we need to sort, clean and ‘purify’ our ideas regularly (meaning, weed out the old, ill-serving stuff). Wise intuitive people have a psychic environ that is uncluttered. For some, this is done through regular contemplation/meditation, for others a trek in the wilderness for some time, for others, creative outlets like painting, or dancing. Once the mind space is clear and clean, we can ‘cook up’ new ideas and this nourishes the wild soul.
Embrace life and death
As much as this tale is about Vasalisa coming of age and finding her intuitive voice, it is about death. Her mother dies, at the end of the tale her ghastly stepmother dies. These two archetypes are aspects of Vasalisa’s psyche - the too-good safe mother, and the debilitating self-critic mother. We see Vasalisa navigating through a process where she has to let stuff, interior and exterior, die in order to progress. Women are the bearers of life, and we too have to embrace death within ourselves in order to grow and develop. Being comfortable with death can be difficult. Many cling to old ideas, partners, clutches, habits, identities, and so on, with obstinance. Yet, no regular intuitive flow of communication is possible without an unflinching acceptance of death. This is part of natural interior female rhythms, and we learn that what must be, must be. Estés describes this as a kind of a wolf-buddhism.
Don’t shy away from the work
A well developed conversation with your intuition requires work, determination and patience. This is the cultivation of a continuous process, not just something you do now and then. Cherry-picking when intuition is ‘needed’ or relevant is something many of us do. We’ll let the gut speak on some issues, but on most others, we follow society’s lores, our old tracks, or what makes others happy. Each time you neglect to respect the wild women gut call, it becomes weaker and more muffled, and your confidence and clarity in your interior world becomes muddy water. Like any new habit, it is bloody hard work at first. Nevertheless, when we work at stuff, when we really put the elbow grease in, we burn away our fears and self-limiting thoughts (these are the mother and step-mother archetypes). There is a term for this in yoga philosophy, its tapas. This speaks to a process of effort-filled practice that burns an interior fire, diminishing self-doubt, negative thoughts, and proving to yourself that you can in fact be more, do more, flourish.
Refuse to let others repress your vivid energies
We all have those people in our lives that waste our time, that keep us from our important creative work, and living our lives in a full and authentic way. Estés says, ruthlessly cut them. Ain’t no body got time! This is linked to the lesson on embracing death. We have to be ruthless in cutting out the things in life that no longer serve us. And we have to do it now, not tomorrow because so and so will be hurt, or is not ‘ready’, do it now. I hear this all the time from women, doggedly supporting useless people (habits too) because they don’t want to cause a ruckus or hurt feelings. Estés describes this as a mother with dried up milk and adult babes still hanging from her teats, sucking away. Cut them, and ultimately you’ll liberate them to find their own source of power. You think you’re being nice/sweet/sympathetic/kind/loving by letting them hang from your teats, but you’re actually holding them back. Cut them, I said. The benefit of this commitment to slash all that is stale or does not serve you is surefooted spontaneity. This is essential for intuition to flourish.
An extra note on how to stay on track
Of course, like on any worthy and challenging path of personal growth, we will waver and loose our way at times. Estés speaks of this as natural and necessary - don’t be deterred. She advises that we look out for encounters with wild women and old hag figures in the flesh, and that we cherish this. If you think over your life you’ll instantly recognise and remember when you have been blessed to be in the presence of an older woman like this. Your gut screams ‘mama!’ with joy. She may be far from the conventional mothering type, but we feel that magnetic pull towards her. It is arriving at our wild home - these are our wild women guides, and they’re out there, and they’re ready to lend and ear and pass on advice. They have plenty of it, and they’ll tell it you straight, with a snort and chuckle. Estés is most surely a wild woman guide herself.