Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.
The human mind is a wonderful thing. What other mechanism can create something from nothing? By what other means can you, in an instant, transport yourself to another place or another time? Nothing has ever been created by human hands that was not first imagined by a human mind.
But this wondrous, magical source is a two-edged sword holding within it the potential for great good or tremendous suffering, because while we can imagine a brighter future, or amazing possibilities, most of the time we envision the worst that can happen. This is what underlies every anxiety attack, every phobia, every depression. In short, most of what humans suffer from is not harm from an actual event – but rather the imagined possibility of the harm that might come to pass.
It has always perplexed me that my clients are often so resistant to using their imagination for healing. For example, I might suggest an exercise in which a client imagines a scene from early childhood, usually one in which there was some sort of emotional pain, but this time, replay the scene by bringing themselves into it as their adult self and offer comfort to their younger child-self. What I often hear is “what good would that do? It’s not really happening.” Amazing! My response is, “that is true but your memory of that event, which keeps replaying in your imagination over and over again, is not really happening either. And yet you are responding to it as if it were. You are feeling sad, scared, and alone as though you were back in that scene even though you are sitting here with me now in the safety of my office. Why is it that you are so unwilling to use your imagination for your own well being when you already know the power it has to create suffering?”
This highlights the point I am making –how we respond to life is mostly a product of our imagination. If someone I love is angry with me, how I respond will in large part be an outgrowth of what I imagine. If I imagine this person is purposely out to hurt me, or that they will threaten me with some sort of harm, I will respond differently than if I imagine that they are just having a bad day. Or if I imagine that the world is largely a threatening place I will respond to life differently than if I imagine that life is generally good.
Each of us seems to have a default, whether inborn or created by early childhood circumstances, as to whether or not our imaginations run toward scenes of fear or joy. If your imagination tends to take you into fearful situations – the worst case scenario – you can learn to manage this by learning to re-orient yourself to your present situation.
Start by reminding yourself of what you actually know to be a fact – not the fearful possibilities but the actual reality in the moment. Next, ground yourself in the present circumstance by consciously feeling the ground beneath your feet, by feeling the breath your inhale and exhale, by observing the color of the sky or the leaves of the trees. Finally, talk to yourself as you would a fearful child, reminding yourself that you can handle anything that comes your way. This is the truth otherwise how have you managed to come this far in life!
The fact is that imagining the worst does not prepare you. It only forces you to live the event over and over again – even if it never comes to pass. And if it does, you will not be any better prepared to face the suffering that is to come.
So this week, observe your imagination at work. See where it tends to take you and, if it is a fearful place, practice the exercise above. You’ll be amazed at how much better you will feel – and how better equipped you will be to face life as it comes in whatever form that may take.