Today I want to share a Mary Oliver poem with you. It inspired me this week and I hope it does the same for you.
Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about
spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?
Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.
Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky—as though
all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.
I love the way Mary Oliver imagines that the trees, mosses and animals could do anything that humans do, if they cared to do so. It sounds like they could do it better, too! She says that the strong, thick wings of the crows are the result of the crows’ imagining what they would like their lives to be. I feel uplifted by this possibility – that what we imagine and dream could come true, too. I certainly notice that whatever it is my mind is focused on feels like it’s real or true. When I feel worried, I am worried. My body feels worried – stiff and yet fragile, my thoughts are preoccupied with ideas of what could happen, and my mind can feel too crowded to let in any other possibilities.
The yoga sutras say that we have 5 different mind states: correct perception, incorrect perception, sleep, memory and imagination. Each of these has two sides: let’s say “heads” shows us the ways each of these can be supportive and “tails” reveal the ways they can cause more confusion and suffering. With imagination, we can easily go into fantasy, imagining all the terrible things that could arise. If we go into a sympathetic nervous system response with these thoughts (fight, flight, freeze or submit) we can easily get stuck in a loop, replaying and repeating the thoughts. We replay body sensations, too, and this can lead to illness. As you’ve heard before, the human brain has a negativity bias, so we are more easily drawn into negative thoughts than positive ones, as an historical survival strategy. It takes will, patience and practice to shift these mental habits.
The first step toward change is always awareness. If we can keep one toe in the waters of objectivity we have great opportunities. It can also be helpful to remember that the mind needs to hear the positive news 7 times to undo the negative news it heard once. If we recognize that the mind is like any other trainable creature, we can start to use imagination creatively, to foster the lives that we want. This shift into working with imagination in its positive aspect takes more will, patience and practice. I also want to suggest compassion through all our practices, as we can thrive in an environment of love and support more readily than one of shame or aggression.
In our present global state, it is easy to get overwhelmed by all of the stories of suffering. It might feel unkind to turn away from this news, even for a moment. However, consider the magic and potential of your mind and how you could be helpful to yourself and others. Imagine the world as you’d like it to be. Maybe your focus is on simple kindness, tolerance, and respect. Maybe you have more radical ideas. You can use the faculty of imagination to dream up your utopia. Picture yourself in this environment. What is your role? How does it feel? What are the sensations in your body? How is your breath? What would you do if you were in that environment? Can you stay in these body-sensations for a while? Try to stay. Let yourself be bathed in this idealized world for as long as possible. Let it pacify your worries, small and large, for a while. Let it free you from everyday body tension. We aren’t trying to dream problems away, but to have a break from them, in order to become resourced again.
Now, let yourself imagine one small act you can do to remember this lovely world of your imagination. Maybe you buy some flowers or draw a picture. Maybe you call a friend and share your vision. Could it be that today is the day to make a sign to post in your window? Your choice to act is your great human super power – you can turn ideas into actions, into reality. When you spend time in the environment of uplifting ideas it changes your body chemistry. It gives you access to parts of your brain you may not have visited recently. Everything that exists now in the world was once an idea. Someone had the courage to create the statue of liberty, the impressionist paintings, hot fudge sundaes! What do you want to bring into form? Maybe it’s a little newsletter like this one. You are part of this world, you belong here, this is your place. Imagine how you would like it to be. How would your wings feel? Thick and strong? How will you keep the doors of your heart open?
I hope this is helpful. I know I need a little uplift pretty much every day, several times a day!
I will be gone for a couple of weeks, so no newsletters until later in July.
Meanwhile, take good care of yourself and nurture your imagination. And I hope you like the “Imagining” meditation on our Practice Recordings page.