Back in the day I appeared in a book. It happened when I was living in Rome in my twenties. Together with a great friend interested in such matters I attended a series of sessions given by the renowned and controversial Italian psychologist Massimo Fagioli, in a lecture room thick with cigarette smoke and jam-packed with university students and other hangers-on like myself. At one session in response to a question I recounted a dream, and it later appeared in Fagioli’s book La Marionetta e Il Burattino (The String Puppet and the Glove Puppet – the title suggesting how most humans struggle in their bid for freedom, held back by someone or something pulling their strings or directing them internally). It’s a fascinating book, republished in 2011 if you’re curious.
The dream? I dreamed that my parents were visiting me in Italy, and were complaining that the hotel I’d arranged for them was not near the sea. And in the dream I said to them with surprise, “But look behind you! The sea’s right there.” And to their astonishment, as they turned around, the sparkling sunny ocean was indeed there, right behind them.
All they had to do was turn around. Good metaphor, now I think of it. I sometimes think we live like trapped flies, forever pushing forwards to get through a pane of glass to freedom beyond, as if forwards were the only possible direction. And like flies, we can push till we die of pushing. Pushing for humans includes trying very hard, being super-conscientious, taking responsibility for everyone, obsessing over technique, working without a break, dissecting, analysing, rationalising, quantifying, over-thinking and much else besides.
So what to do when life’s not working for us, when it seems full of problems and stress, or flat and dull? Don’t we need to force ourselves into further effort and all the rest?
No, I don’t think we do – for lots of reasons. Here are just two:
- All this relentless pushing towards our future – working with effort, maintaining our position, feeling super-responsible – all these things take huge reserves of energy, leaving us drained and dreary.
- We cannot access our full intelligence by using force and effort of the kind that analyses, calculates and rationalises, nor can we produce a single creative thought in a state of tension and stress.
Of course, intelligence and creativity require knowledge and application, but they need ample space to daydream too. Archimedes shouted his Ureka while having a bath. Einstein concluded that the universe was finite and curved after fantasising he was travelling on a beam of sunlight. Marie Curie dreamed the solution to a mathematical problem that had eluded her for three years on the very night after she had decided to turn away from the problem. The idea how to build a laser suddenly popped into Gordon Gould’s head one Saturday night.
So take a moment to look the other way. For example, take one minute to watch your breath and quieten down. (Great one minute meditation here.) Feel the wind on your face at some point in the day. Look up and see the sky. Break your pattern; do something different. Do anything different.
It’s when we break the pattern and create a gap that we begin to notice a tiny tug of desire. Desire needs explaining – it’s had a bad press and become linked too closely with sex. Desire can be strong; it can also be the slightest yearning inside, a faint pull towards something – a bit like realising you’re thirsty. The hint of a thought emerges: “When did I ever see the sun rise? – What if I got up early tomorrow?” “I lost touch with my best friend, I wonder if I could trace him/her?” “What about this solution to my problem?” “I used to play Claire de Lune on the piano by heart – let me see if I still can.” The still small voice can dissolve again very quickly, so it has to be caught on the wing. Jack Canfield (in The Success Principles) suggests that recent research in neuroscience indicates that an intuitive insight or idea not captured within half a minute is likely never to be recalled again.
Desire … What about …? Could I …? It’s desire that gives the world colour again. Desire is the short cut to freedom. It lets you know when you’re on track in life by a slight pulsing within; when you’re not on track it disappears and the world seems dull and pointless. Desire doesn’t always seem relevant or make sense, but it’s what makes life flow again, what opens up new possibility, what leads you in the direction that gives you most satisfaction and happiness. And it energises. Suddenly you find that a small action taken as a result of desire leads to something else, and to something else again, and a way appears. You thought the challenge was about working ever harder, but it was about something entirely different.
When we stop bashing our heads against the glass like flies and turn around, look, there’s an open door. The sparkling sea is there behind us all the time. Why on earth didn’t we notice it before?
I know … you and me both?
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