Working from the gut

The inspiration for good work comes from lower down than our heads. Of course our heads have a part to play but humans are more than thinking beings. Although we like to think that our actions are reasonable, very few of our day to day decisions are made in our heads. We act most of the time on impulse or intuition. When we face imminent danger there is no time to think about what to do – our instinct guides our response. We are not conscious of the choices our bodies make that cause us to flee. We don’t construct a sentence in our heads before we speak it. Conversations are an amazing act of faith in our ability to reach an outcome that we have not “thought” about before we start.

This is significant when we talk about good work. Where does the impulse for good work come from? Perhaps more than we realise it comes from our gut – the centre of our being that processes our sensory experiences and the feelings they generate in an instant. We make our way in the world by feeling our way through it not just thinking about it. As we place one foot in front of the other we stride into the future with a purpose that arises from who we are becoming. There is a longing in our walk. What do we really, really care about? What do we desire above all things? What are our hopes and longings?

We don’t all desire the same thing of course. There are competing models of the future. Our vision may be distorted by powerful voices from our past. It may be distracted by images peddled by the media. And we can become divided in our longings, deflected by personal ambition and ego that saps our energy and clouds the larger vision. We need the time to notice the stirrings within that tap into the deeper longings of our hearts. Can we feel a yearning for human flourishing (our own and others), for harmony with nature, for good relationships, a just economy, good work?

The obvious question then becomes – how do our visions of the good and the beautiful become part of us so that they in-form our decisions and our actions? Is it possible to educate our desires, to awaken our imagination, to train our gut to develop the habits that prime us to pursue our dreams? The answer to this question is ‘yes’. Habits are formed through repeated practice in which we develop ways of attending to and responding to the world. This isn’t a navel gazing exercise. Our vision is hightened as we give closer attention to the world around us, our reactions to the people and things we encounter, and our experience of the systems that shape our ways of being in the world. As these disciplines become habitual they shape and motivate the way we inhabit the world. The ancient Greeks described these habits as virtues. They become second nature to us and we begin to notice a disposition to do good work.

Douglas Christie, who traces the long history of spiritual practices in the western tradition ends his book, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, with a fascinating chapter entitled “Practicing Paradise”. We don’t need to buy into the spiritual legacy to recognise the challenge. As we refine our desires and develop the habits that can lead to their fulfilment we begin to live out a vision of the good. Herein lies the roots of good work.