It is hard to know where to focus our attention in this attention deficit world of pop-up ads, video billboards, and sign flippers on every corner.
It can be maddening. If we view life as something that we take a seat for and passively receive – then we are in for a frenzied ride that we have no control over.
But once you start to understand how your brain works, things are much simpler.
There are only 2 things you can put your attention on:
1) This NOW moment.
2) Your imagination.
The Now is the real visceral experience you are always having. The sensations. The visuals. The infinite richness of the universe right now.
If you are not experiencing the Now, then you are in your imagination. Whether an fantastic imagined future or potential outcome to the workday – or a memory of transgressions of yesterday – they are all generated by the imagination.
This understanding is critical.
It is critical because it helps us to understand that the imagination is a tool – and we control where it takes us.
Until we learn to discipline our thoughts, it is easy to believe that we are at the whims of our thoughts. But what we think and whether we believe those thoughts is absolutely in our control.
Without discipline, our imagination tends to pull to the dark. Our mind likes to wander to negative places of doubt, fear, & anxiety.
Fear is imagination used negatively. The future is just a story – so what is the benefit of telling yourself a story that is stressful?
People will argue that it is important to face reality. Many people who seem pessimistic actually self-identify as realists.
And as simple as this is, I don’t want to sound simplistic. There is a value to considering negative futures. The squirel who doesn’t consider a cold winter will fail to store enough food to survive til spring.
But the key here is subtle: The squirrel can imagine a pleasant future where he has plenty of food to last all winter. Then he can take action in the Now to ensure that he is headed in that direction.
Or he can imagine that he will not collect enough, or that his stores will rot or be stolen. The action taken in response to the second scenario is identical to the first. Both require collecting nuts today.
But the first squirrel does so with cheer, the second does it with anxiety.
Now this is an unfair metaphor because the squirrel doesn’t have the same cognitive abilities of a human. A human has an imagination. It is our great evolutionary gift – and curse.
We can look at tracks and imagine where an animal has been and where it is going. We can look at a field and imagine what the of rainfall it gets and what it would look like with rows of wheat. We can even imagine a combination of tastes we’ve never tried and have an idea of if it would taste good or bad.
Let’s try this: Imagine biting into a crisp dill pickle. Can you taste the briny saltiness? Now imagine biting into a candy cane. Do you think the two tastes would compliment each other well? I’m pretty sure they would not. But have you ever tried that combination?
Now imagine the sound of a loved one’s voice who has passed on. Can you hear it in your head? Can you feel a trace of emotion as you experience them in your imagination? Do you feel warm inside?
Now lets take a second and consider the difference between a memory of your cat, and seeing your cat walk by.
I heard Sadguru Vasudev, an Indian mystic, instructing his followers. He said where do you see me right now?
Many pointed at him. He said again, “where do you see me?”
He was trying to demonstrate that nothing is seen except for within the processes of the brain. Light is reflected to the eye, which processes an image upside down, the brain then flips it and sends it to other parts of the brain to be experienced.
The imagination can – essentially – send an image a sensation from one part of the brain to another to be “experienced.”
So we return to this awareness that there is just Now & imagination.
On the drive to work, we spend some of the time in the Now – focused on traffic and weather and other cars. And we spend some of our time in imagination – focused on the day ahead, the night before, and memories brought up by the song on the radio.
While imagining, An untrained mind may step out of the now and cycle through thoughts of their boss, angry about a tardiness that has yet to occur.
A trained mind can summon pleasant thoughts of a child’s morning smile, an upcoming vacation, or a boss thrilled with our recent performance.
In both cases, the drive to the work is the same distance. It takes the same time. Functionally the commute was identical. But one is stressful, the other is joyful.
Okay, but lets make it more interesting. Lets say there was an accident, you are late, and people keep cutting you off and driving on the shoulder to get ahead.
My tendency is to go straight to “YOU ASSHOLE! DO YOU THNK THE REST OF US AREN’T IN A HURRY, TOO!? DAMNIT. I SHOULD HAVE LEFT EALIER & TAKEN THE BYPASS. NOW I’LL HAVE TO DISRUPT THE MORNING MEETING, EVERYONE WILL STARE AS I FIND A SEAT…”
As my imagination conjures up this potential future, I actually feel the awkwardness of entering in the meeting in progress. My muscles contract and my stomach churns. I can feel my face heat up as I imagine the guy on the shoulder thinking, “So long sucker!” as he speeds 4 car lengths ahead.
But none if it is real. I am not late, yet. The meeting has not started, yet. The guy on the shoulder may be rushing to the hospital to donate bone marrow and save a life.
And yet, I used my imagination to create a painful Now.
Shakespear’s Julias Ceasar has the quote: A Coward Dies 1000 deaths, A hero dies but once.
Meaning that if we allow Fear to drive our imagination, we will experience the pain of imagined futures every time we think of them. On that drive to work we could die a dozen deaths as we continually imagine walking into the meeting in progress.
But the hero holds the reins of his fear. It is possible that entering the meeting will be horrible. But the hero experiences it just once – in the Now.
And life will teach us over and over – that the deaths we imagine are generally far worse than the ones we eventually endure. The embarrassment is less, the anger is less, the disaster is less.
Over time we can practice noticing where our thoughts are. Are we in the Now? Or in our imagination? If we are unhappy, we are most surely in our imagination. And if we control our imagination, can we steer our thoughts to something more pleasant? Or at least a more pleasant perspective of the same situation? Maybe imagine a better outcome or reaction?
I rmember seeing an interview with “Sulley” the captain the landed a plane on the Hudson River. As lights blinked and the system fell apart, he spoke of giving zero thought to possible disaster. He spent every second available thinking about a successful landing. Was disaster possible? Yes! Were there things that could go wrong? Absolutely! But the outcome is not helped in any way by worrying about those possibilities.
He kept a level head, landed the plane, and saved many lives.
We may not have a wing on fire and lives at stake, but every time we allow imagined thoughts to make us suffer – we die a death of a different sort.
If we are not experiencing the Now, we are in our imagination. And if we are not enjoying our imagined thoughts, we need to be critical of them and steer them to a better place.
Practice having the courage to be optimistic. Practice having the mental discipline to live as a Hero.
Dec 6, 2011