Today I had the privilege of attending a live interview with the author Margaret Atwood. She was asked the question, “Does our imagination harm us or help us?”
Her answer was “Yes.”
I loved that answer – especially from a novelist whose job is to imagine worlds and stories. She knows that where our imaginations go can do us much good – and can also take us into places and weave inner stories that can harm us.
How many times has your imagination veered off in the dangerous direction? Creating an inner picture of doom or misfortune that has not happened yet? But feels oh so very real.
Atwood suggests that in our imagination, we make inner blueprints of our lives that can be the foundation of the life we eventually make. Neuroscientists back this up with the theory that our brains lay the tracks for what we will think, feel and then become.
The imagination is our most powerful tool. We can use it to become hopeful, adaptive, and resilient, or use it to deepen and strengthen our misery.
Focusing on the ways we can strengthen our imagination to do us good can be more difficult than it seems at first. We are programmed by biology, and then habit, to look for the difficult, to anticipate what may go wrong, and to imagine alternate scenarios for crisis. This may ramp up our anxiety, and may make bad things seem more real than good things, but it is a learned mechanism to keep us safe.
There is no such instinctual bent towards noticing and dwelling on the good things that may happen, or remembering the wonderful and happy things that have happened.
If we want to move in the direction of strengthening that part of our brain software, we have to practice. Over and over again, and more often than we rehearse what could go wrong.
Those who study mindfulness and self-compassion call this practice savoring.
Such a lovely word. It brings to mind the sense of rolling a memory or a taste or a present experience around in our senses. Slowing down and letting the good things linger.
Take a moment as you read through this post – probably as quickly as you can so you can get to the next thing you must do very quickly – take a moment and breathe. Notice your surroundings. Is there a color nearby that you enjoy? A sound? When was the last time you put on some music that raises your heartbeat or stirs your emotions? What about a taste? Fresh blueberries, or a piece of hot buttered toast with honey? Savor what is around you.
Now call up a memory. Savoring things that have happened — that you may not have even savored in the moment because there was so much to get done, or you didn’t see at the time how wonderful that experience was.
This is the beauty of our imaginations. Time only goes one way, but our imaginations hold a treasure house of memories and slices of life that can nourish us even – or especially – on days that are not so good.
But, this is something we have to intend to do, and then practice. It is a habit that can be made automatic over time, and the benefits are significant. Savoring – a slow deliberate practice helps us hold on to what is good, which lessens anxiety, makes sleep easier, brightens our mood, and improves daily living.
What do you want to savor? Make a list of at least fifteen things, and then go back and expand on each of those items.
You will feel a difference over time!