Instinct Vs. Intuition: What’s the Difference?

May 22, 2015    BY Courtney Denelle

The yoga tradition is tremendously invested in the idea of the infinite possibility encased within a human soul; a hidden genius, ripe with potential, and existing in service to one and all. The yogis call this inherent thumbprint of genius your dharma, and they've provided a detailed method for following it—for merging with these gifts and talents in service to future generations. The ancient exposition that lays out this method is the over-2,000-year-old Bhagavad Gita, considered by many to be the most important and well-loved scripture in the world of yoga.  

The yoga tradition is tremendously invested in the idea of the infinite possibility encased within a human soul.

The Gita is the story of the warrior, Arjuna, and his mentor, Krishna. As the tale opens, we find Arjuna collapsed on the floor of his chariot, unraveled by the doubts and conflicts he faces about his own actions on the field of a great battle that is about to take place. We find a relatable hero in Arjuna: regarded as the greatest warrior of his time, yet endlessly neurotic within his doubts, questions, and fears. It’s safe to say that we’ve all experienced similar feelings at one time or another.

"What am I really called to do in this circumstance?" he asks Krishna. "Do I fight this battle or not?" "How do I act in such a way that I do not destroy my soul and the soul of the world?" "How do I act in such a way that I fulfill my dharma?"

That’s the thing with the Gita: it encourages us to look beyond the learned perception of our conditioned responses, and to navigate those issues that inhibit our skillful action. Subsequently, it is also a truly relevant scripture on action because, from the point of view of the Gita, the most sublime sort of action is a perfect expression of authentic being. The Gita reminds us that we are both Arjuna and Krishna (the difference being a matter of perception) and encourages us to self-resolve this “identity crisis,” so to speak, by looking within.

Krishna tells Arjuna, "Remember who you are and immediately you will know what to do."

This is where it gets tricky. As yogis, we can begin truly integrating the themes of the Gita only by discerning the difference between instinct and intuition. Would our actions be different if we “remembered,” as Krishna says?

At a glance, the two could be interchangeable. "Trust your instincts," they say. "Trust your intuition." But what if your instincts are not trustworthy? What if it turns out that they don’t have your best interests at heart? That they never did?

Within the Gita, our instincts are regarded as a collective hard drive of unresolved emotional memories that anchor us to traumas from past events and anxieties about the future (BG 18:16-26). That’s all our instincts know, really. What if “trusting your instincts” is really just acquiescing to samsara—an endless cycle of suffering—because it’s just so dang cozy and familiar?!

Enter intuition: Unlike instinct, intuition has no future and no past. It lives fully in this very instant. It’s plugged into a vast network that is leaps and bounds beyond emotionally reactive responses, and because of this, is truly trustworthy in laying the bricks along the path of our dharma. Listening to the voice of our intuition is coming home to a place we never left.

That sounds pretty awesome.

The trouble is, a lack of discernment between instinct and intuition inevitably creates confusion in interpreting the messages that each carry. Self-awareness is certainly the bedrock upon which discernment is built. As we expand our awareness to clean the proverbial lens of perception, we begin to see the qualities of instinct and of intuition objectively, and act accordingly. But then what?

The trouble is, a lack of discernment between instinct and intuition inevitably creates confusion in interpreting the messages that each carry.

Doubt creeps in. It is the invisible dis-ease. It's a creeping, invisible quality that gives doubt its power. Often we define doubt as a healthy sort of skepticism, a byproduct of a lively mind analyzing all options. In the Bhagavad Gita, however, doubt is regarded as a thought that touches both sides of a dilemma at the same time; being stuck, not skeptical.

Which leads me back to our friend, Arjuna, crumpled in a heap on the floor of his chariot, rendered inactive while on the threshold of the greatest battle of his life. Arjuna’s affliction is not attachment—or even attachment’s flip side, fear and aversion. He is immobilized by doubt. Were he to “remember” his instincts without the counsel of his charioteer, his inner guide, Krishna, Arjuna would have turned on his heel and lit out of there in an instant. Fortunately, he had Krishna (none other than the universe incarnate) to deliver him the willingness to remember the nature of his true identity—an identity that is far beyond any grasping for permanence, aversion to emotional pain, or attachment to outcome.

Personally, I’ve often struggled to discern between my instincts and my intuition. In the dark days of winter, my asana practice would suffer, and I began questioning myself: Was sleeping in to skip my pre-dawn sadhana an intuitive moment of self-care, or an instinctive aversion to the practices that would unhook me from the bonds of my karma?

"Only you know for sure," my teacher would say.

Frustratingly accurate since, ultimately, we are each our own best teacher.

How did this help me when my alarm shrieked into the cold darkness of 4:30 am? Truth be told, it didn’t. Not yet, at least. The cultivation of discernment is a constant challenge. What does help is the willingness to be open and receptive to answers that are beyond the level of our conditioned thinking, the willingness to examine our emotional responses and impulses, the willingness to hear the messages they carry without reaction, and the willingness to remember who I am.

The cultivation of discernment is a constant challenge.

If asana practice is a prayer we say with our bodies, then surely meditation practice is the art of attention in actively listening for the answer. These days, I find myself quietly dedicating my practice to the continual cultivation of a willingness to remember. The bifurcation between instinct and intuition can have me lingering in doubt at times. The yogic analysis of doubt is appropriately regarded as a paralyzing affliction, after all. But within those lingering moments, the willingness to remember becomes the flash of certitude that allows me to hear that low slow voice that says,

“... just keep going…”

That’s my intuition talking. And it sure is a voice that can get me out of bed and onto my mat in the morning, in commitment to this process of remembering who I really am.

Courtney Denelle
I am a yogi and seeker on the path of healing, service, and fearlessness.

The quality of my own experiences with childhood abuse, depression, and homelessness has put me in touch with the full range of my humanity and, in doing so, has reminded me that other people feel this way. In revealing my wounds I reveal my purpose:

In solidarity with those who suffer in silence, I see you. We are all in this together.