Without a Paddle (Listening to Our Inner Promptings)

You just never know when that little inner prompting will come … and how important it is to listen to it when it comes. You might call it the inner voice, intuition, divine guidance, or anything else, but one thing is guaranteed: things will not go well if you ignore it, and you will prosper if you pay attention to it! Our inner voice helps to guide us in important matters, life and death situations, small inconveniences, and everything in between.

Here’s an illustration. Last week, Joyce and I took advantage of a lull in our schedule to head up to one of our favorite lakes in the high Sierras. We left on Sunday afternoon with our canoe on top of the camper on our truck. We were both tired, Joyce a little more than me, so we decided she would take a nap first. After her nap, we switched drivers so I could have a nap. I settled into the passenger seat, leaning back slightly so I wouldn’t disturb our three golden retrievers in the crowded and small back seat of the truck. Joyce was listening to her IPod when an inner prompting came to her: Ask Barry if he remembered the paddles.

First of all, it’s my job to pack gear. Second, in the dozens of times we’ve gone canoeing, I’ve never forgotten such an essential item as the paddles. And third, Joyce has never asked me about the paddles … ever! She knows how important canoeing is to me.

She hesitated a moment. What an unusual prompting for her to get. But oh well, a prompting is still a prompting. Her next thought: what if Barry is asleep and I wake him to ask such a silly question? She knows I don’t like to be disturbed during a nap. Finally, the inner voice won, she put a hand on my leg, and said, “Barry, I’m so sorry to disturb you, but did you remember the paddles?”

I hadn’t yet dropped off to sleep. Tired as I was, my mind quickly saw a picture of the empty floor of the back seat of the truck, where I always packed three paddles, the extra one as a spare.

I said, without emotion, “No.”

Perhaps the significance of this mistake didn’t really register to me. Part of me wanted to return to my nap, rather than be concerned about the lack of paddles. But without paddles, there could be no canoeing. And canoeing was to be a significant part of our five day vacation.

Joyce became confused with my blasé attitude, so she asked, “No, you have the paddles, or no, you forgot them?”

“No, I forgot the paddles.”

“Should we turn around and go home for them?”

We’d been driving an hour and a half. It wouldn’t be worth driving three hours round trip just for paddles. I said, “Let me take a little nap and then we’ll find a store and buy some.”

“But Barry, it’s 5:30pm on a Sunday. Most stores close at 6pm.”

That finally got my attention. I realized she was right. What if we don’t get to a store in time? I had a vision of trying to carve two paddles out of pine branches with just a pocket knife. Not a great alternative!

We exited the freeway, pulled into a shopping center, and found a bike shop just about to close. A young man directed us to a sporting goods store. We got there minutes before it closed. They had two canoe paddles, one just right for Joyce and one just right for me, a bargain at $40 for the two.

Some people would say, “What great luck!” I say it was all divinely orchestrated, from Joyce’s first prompting, to getting to the store just in time, and them having just exactly what we needed. I say we are all spiritual beings having an earthly experience. I say we all can listen to the voice coming from our true selves, our higher selves, which will guide us unfailingly. We are prompted continually, but sometimes we ignore this intuition, and sometimes, as Joyce did, we question or doubt these messages.

Sometimes we think we are following these inner promptings, but it is just our human desires. Sometimes we cause more suffering by confusing desire with intuition. I certainly have made this mistake many times. After we lost our rented home of 14 years in the 1989 earthquake, Joyce and I decided to go for our dream of building a home and center for our counseling and retreats. A realtor friend told us about a 150 acre property in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with meadows, redwoods, and streams. I went to look at it with him and was instantly in love with this large piece of land that was way out of our price range. My desire clouded my intuition. I brought Joyce and our three young children there for an outing. Our two daughters were unhappy and our baby son cried the whole time. Joyce felt it wasn’t right, but it was so important to me that she gave in. After three months of escrow, and thousands of lost dollars, the clouds of desire dissipated and I could finally feel my intuition … a decisive no. Yes, the property was beautiful, and no, it wasn’t right for us.

True, forgetting a couple of paddles would have been no more than an inconvenience, but nothing is too small for our spiritual guidance. Perhaps listening to the small promptings gives us practice to hear the voices that can change or save a life. That’s what happened to me many years ago. Our January, 2009, column (http://sharedheart.org/pages/c0901.htm), titled “Miracle on the Mountain,” tells my experience hiking on Mt. Shasta and preventing a young man from committing suicide. I was determined to walk past him, but the insistent inner prompting finally trumped the doubts and rationalizations of my little mind. How close I came to ignoring that divine prompting, an action that could have resulted in tragedy!

As with any important skill, it takes practice to listen to the inner voice of guidance. Take the risks to make mistakes, but then learn from each one. Joyce and I promise you this, there is great joy to be found by listening to our divine guidance. We leave next week to teach in Europe, culminating in a weeklong retreat in Assisi, where we feel the legacy of Saint Francis, one man who found the greatest joy by daring to live every moment of his life following his inner voice and promptings.

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