You’ve heard this advice, or some form of it, many times: Visualize what you want most. Set your mind on it. Imagine it clearly. The universe will bring it to you.
It is true that the human power of cognition is very powerful. By changing our thinking and the way we perceive situations, we can improve our health, experience inner peace, and even take steps to resolve problems with depression and anxiety. The converse is also true: by thinking in ways that are negative for us, physical and mental health can deteriorate.
On February 15, 2013, in the town of Chelyabinsk, Russia, a meteor fell from the sky with the force of an atomic bomb. Over 1100 people were injured. I really don’t think that any of these people had visualized or wished for a meteor to land in their town. It’s doubtful that any of them had set their mind on a future that included such an unlikely disaster. From my perspective, that’s the problem with imagining goals of prosperity and good fortune and expecting the universe to grant your wishes. Fundamentally, life is not within our control. On any day, something unexpected can occur.
I believe that life is characterized by two apparently contradictory fundamentals that exist in seeming opposition to each other. As the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism conveys, the world is full of suffering. Indeed, people suffer each day from hunger, thirst, disease, and hidden sorrows like grief, abandonment, and sadness. At the same time, the world is also filled with wonder and beauty. Even in the midst of suffering, there is the wonder of nature and its rhythms, the possibility of kindness and compassion, and the experience of love and commitment. Because of this, our lives are characterized by times of happiness and disappointment. It’s the natural rhythm of life. It’s one of those things that’s neither good nor bad. It’s simply the way life is.
It is in our control to learn to savor the moments of beauty and happiness while also limiting how the difficult moments impact us. Spiritual practice, particularly contemplative practices like meditation, are very helpful in this regard. Contemplative practices enable us to train our minds so that we are better able to move through life’s stresses and limit the negative impact they have on us. Contemplative practices enable us to focus on the present moment, preventing anxieties from the past or worries about the future from robbing us of inner peace.
Maintaining a mindful focus on the present moment is quite different from visualizing what we want most and, through the power of thinking in a particular way, making it happen for ourselves. Not only do we not have control over the future but this approach suggests that we are satisfying a deep wish which is actually good for us. When we unrealistically hold onto a deep wish for something in the future, we are actually setting ourselves up for disappointment and heart-ache. The future is never quite what we think it will be.
Visualizing what one wants most and expecting it to happen is much different from what psychologists call goal setting. Goal setting is an approach that sets attainable goals for achievement and then breaks larger goals down to small goals that are manageable. By successively meeting the smaller goals, over time, the larger goal can be met. For example, if a person sets a goal to obtain a college degree, that large goal is broken down to successively smaller goals: taking one course at time, which is broken to writing one paper at a time, which is further broken down to attending one class session at a time. As anyone in a 12-step program knows, the goal of recovery is only achieved by taking one day at a time. The same is true for all other goals.
Healthy spiritual practice enables one to live more in the present moment, taking one day at a time. When living this way, future ambitions become less important. Instead, the experience of this moment as it is happening takes on great value. Life isn’t about dreaming some ambitious thing and wanting the universe to provide it. Instead, the beauty of life is experienced when we learn how to allow ourselves to learn to rest in gentleness and peace in each moment as it occurs.
© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.