Distort Your Reality

Welcome to what some are describing as the very last year ever. Not that we’re all going to die, I am told, just that according to the Mayans—or the Aztecs or the people at Burger King or wherever—time will cease to exist this year, and therefore the word “year” will become meaningless. Why the hell not? 
 
So, as long as we’ve still got time, let’s talk about how we can use it. I just finished the longish biography of the shortish life of Steve Jobs. I read it on my kindle for iPhone, which I carry everywhere in my purse, giving me access to hundreds of books anytime I find myself waiting in line or stuck in an airport. It was an odd experience of cognitive dissonance; I’d read about how Jobs refused to bathe, threw tantrums and objects, and stabbed friends in the back, and think, “What a jerk!” Then I would highlight a particularly striking passage, and think, “Oh, my gosh! When I touch the screen a little magnifying glass appears! This is the coolest thing!” And, of course, my iPhone would not exist if Steve Jobs had not done what he did. Computers would still belong mostly to hackers who would sit in their garages designing inelegant machines for other techno-geeks. 
 
One theme in Jobs’ life was what his associates called his “reality distortion field.” Jobs would demand that his engineers create impossible gadgets and designs. There were actually signs posted in the Apple offices saying, “Beware the reality distortion field.” Yet, when they were face-to-face with Jobs, even staring right at such a sign, people tended to forget their own limitations and believe that they could do what Jobs said they could. This begs the question, what was the real reality distortion at work? The fact is that most of the “impossible” things Jobs demanded were actually produced, though their creators had to work feverishly to create them. In other words, the reality all along was that they had this capability. Their conviction that they could not do extraordinary things was actually the distortion of reality. It made me feel much more forgiving of Steve Jobs eccentricities. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be to know something was possible and that your friends could do it, and to have every one of them denying the reality you knew?
 
So as the year begins, I’ve been thinking about my own reality distortion fields. Where is my mind attached to ideas of limitation that are in fact distorted version of reality? What wonderful devices or innovations could I create if I surrendered my preconceptions? I’ve found that within me, as within Steve Jobs, there is a sort of psychological pioneer. It wants to see wonderful things happen in the world and it assumes that my job is to make them happen. I don’t think I’m at Steve Jobs’ level by any means, but that lunatic fringe part of my consciousness behaves a bit like him. When I’m trying to master a new technology on my computer, or find a way to get through to a client who is truly locked in a destructive worldview, or find a way to help rehabilitate Earth’s ecosystems, I reach the emotional level of a two year old. I feel petulant, teary, and seized by a combination of intense desire and stubbornly persistent fear.
 
I suspect we all have this pioneer archetype within us, pushing us to achieve things we know for certain to be “impossible.” We tend to stay away from that portion of our awareness for the same reason many people steered clear of Steve Jobs. (What a jerk! What distortion of reality!) But as I look around me at the change that Jobs created in the world, I have come to believe that I must befriend this delusional whiny pioneer within me. My task is to access that part of myself without the loss of compassion or patience that interfered with Steve Jobs’ personal relationships. Can I go to the furthest limits of my imagination and figure out where my supposed limitations are actually distortions of reality? Can I hang on long enough to the “impossible dream” to see it become real? I’m not sure. But as my resolution of this last of all possible years, I am determined to try.
 
So what about you? Can you find the Steve Jobs aspect of yourself? Can you “distort” your reality by believing against all odds that you can do something spectacular? Try entering your reality distortion field long enough to achieve the impossible. Believe that one human being can transform everything. Work your heart out in the service of your most optimistic imagination and then go one step beyond even the genius of Steve Jobs by continuing to bathe regularly.

Video Sneak Peek of the New Book!

 

Here’s a sneak peek of the stuff I’ll be discussing in my new book:  what’s YOUR “call of the wild”?
 

Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim Your True Nature to Create the Life You Want will be released December 27, 2011. Reserve your copy on Amazon.com now. 

Turn on Your Right Brain

This morning I sat down to write about how we can all learn to better use the right hemispheres of our brains. For 30 minutes, I tapped restlessly at a laptop. Nothing much happened, idea-wise. Flat beer.

Finally I resorted to a strategy I call the Kitchen Sink. I read bits of eight books: four accounts of brain research, one novel about India, one study of bat behavior, one biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and one memoir of motherhood. Next I drove to my favorite Rollerblading location, listening en route to a stand-up comic, a mystery novel, and an Eckhart Tolle lecture. I yanked on my Rollerblades and skated around, squinting slack-jawed into the middle distance. After a while, a tiny lightbulb went on. “Well,” I thought, “I could write about this.”

Duh.

The Kitchen Sink, you see, is one way to activate your brain’s creative right hemisphere. Every writer I’ve ever met uses some version of it, as do Web designers, cartoonists, TV producers—all “content creators” who regularly face the terrifying thought, “Well, I’ve gotta come up with something.”

If you’re not a content creator, wait a while. The 21st century is to content creators what the Industrial Revolution was to factory workers: In a world where information is superabundant, unique and creative ideas are hot-ticket advantages both personally and professionally. More and more people are finding more and more ways to parent, make money, find friends, and generally live well by relying on creativity.  The demand for creative thinking is both a challenge and an opportunity. It requires us to use more than the logical left-brain skills we learned in school. These days, we all need to get back into our right minds.

Historically, most brain science came from studying people whose brains had been damaged. Depending on the injury’s location, these patients had varying disabilities: If you lost one brain section, you might be unable to do long division; wipe out another patch, and your lace-tatting days were over. The famous Phineas Gage had an iron rod rammed all the way through his head, permanently losing the ability to be nice. One can hardly blame him.

People with left-hemisphere brain injuries may have trouble thinking analytically or making rational decisions. Many with damage to the right hemisphere, on the other hand, can still pass their SATs but become unable to connect parts into a meaningful whole. Oliver Sacks wrote about such a patient in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. This gentleman saw perfectly but could identify what he saw only by guessing. If you showed him a rose, he might say, “Well, it’s red on top, green and prickly below, and it smells nice…. Is it a flower?” One day, while looking for a hat to put on, he reached for his wife instead, perhaps thinking: “It’s familiar, and it goes with me everywhere…. Is it my hat?” I’m sure this was awful for his poor wife, though it could have been worse (“Well, it’s the size of a small house and it needs cleaning…Is it my garage?”). But still.

For most of Western history the right side of the brain was short-shrifted by neurologists intent on helping people think “rationally.” Only in recent years have experts begun to laud the creative, holistic right hemisphere. Interestingly, left-hemisphere strokes appear to be more common than right-hemisphere strokes. Perhaps we’re overusing our left hemispheres to the point of blowout. Or perhaps illness is trying to nudge us back to the mysteries and gifts of the right brain. Fortunately, we now know we can effect this change deliberately, without having to survive neurological disaster.

In his fascinating book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle describes how the brain reacts when a person develops a new skill. Performing an action involves firing an electrical signal through a neural pathway; each time this happens, it thickens the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve fibers like the rubber coating on electrical wires. The thicker the myelin sheath around a neural pathway, the more easily and effectively we use it. Heavily myelinated pathways equal mad skills.

Throughout your education, you myelinated the left-brain pathways for thinking logically. You were prepared for predictability and order, not today’s constant flood of innovation and change. Now you need to build up myelin sheaths around new skill circuits, located in your right hemisphere. To do this, you need something Coyle calls deep practice.

Deep practice is the same no matter what the skill. First visualize an ability you’d like to acquire—swimming like Dara Torres, painting like Grandma Moses, handling iron rods like Uncle Phineas. Then try to replicate that behavior. Initially, you’ll fail. That’s good; failure is an essential element of deep practice. Next, analyze your errors, noting exactly where your performance didn’t match your ideal. Now try again. You’ll still probably fail (remember, that’s a good thing), but in Samuel Beckett’s words, you’ll “fail better.”

Examples of people engaged in deep practice are everywhere. Think of American Idol contestants improving their singing, or Tiger Woods perfecting his golf swing. I once saw a television interviewer present Toni Morrison with the original manuscript of one of her masterpieces. Morrison became slightly distracted, running critical eyes across the page, wanting to make changes. She clearly can’t stop deep practicing. That’s why she won the Nobel Prize.

Deep practice is hard. It makes your brain feel like a piece of raw hamburger. It’s also weirdly rewarding, dropping you into rapt concentration, yielding quick improvement, and (if you’re lucky) producing good work. Here are some tricks you can deep practice to buff up your right hemisphere.

1. Sign your name every which way. My favorite teacher and artist, Will Reimann, was brilliant at getting his students to use the right side of their brains. There were many squinty eyes in Reimann’s studio, much neural myelination. Here’s one of his exercises:

Sign your name.

Done?

Okay, now things get gnarly. Sign again, but this time, do it in mirror writing—right to left, rather than left to right (just moving your hand backward fires the right brain hemisphere). Got that? Now sign upside down. Then backward and upside down. Repeat this until you can sign in all directions. Good luck.

2. Have a bilateral conversation. For this exercise, take a pencil in your right hand (even if you’re left-handed) and write the question: “How’s it going?” Then switch to your left hand, and write whatever pops up. Your nondominant hand’s writing will be shaky—that’s okay. The important thing isn’t tidiness; it’s noticing that your twin hemispheres have different personalities.

The right side of the brain, which controls the left hand, will say things you don’t know that you know. It specializes in assessing your physical and mental feelings, and it often offers solutions. “Take a nap,” your right hemisphere might say, or “Just do what feels right; we’ll be fine.” You’ll find there’s a little Zen master in that left hand of yours (not surprisingly, left-handed people are disproportionately represented in creative professions).

3. Learn new moves. You need your right hemisphere to move in an unfamiliar way, whether you’re learning a complicated dance step or holding a new yoga posture. Or cutting your own hair (actually, don’t—I speak from experience).

Try this: Walk a few steps, noticing how your arms swing opposite your legs. Now walk with your right arm and right foot going forward simultaneously, then the left hand and left foot. Is this difficult? No? Then do it backward, with your eyes closed—any variation that’s initially hard but ultimately learnable. You’ll master a new skill, sure; more important, you’ll build your overall right-brain facility.

4. Toss in the kitchen sink. Time to push your newly awakened right hemisphere into useful service. Think of a problem that’s had you stumped for a while: Your preschooler won’t nap, you can’t make yourself exercise, you need to cut expenses without sacrificing quality of life. With this challenge in your mind, read a few paragraphs in several totally unrelated books. Then relax. Play with your cat, wash the dishes, watch the neighbors through binoculars. Think of the problem periodically, then drop it again.

This process encourages eureka epiphanies, like those moments in TV dramas where the brilliant doctor or sleuth gets the “ping” of insight that solves the case. Your first few ideas may not be perfect—many will be awful—but there are more where they came from. Once you begin encouraging the right brain to churn out solutions, it will do so more and more abundantly.

Turning on your right brain is a skill, one that grows steadily stronger the more you work at it. Trigger the sensation of deep practice by mastering any unfamiliar task, feed challenges and stray information into your right brain’s database, and see new ideas begin to emerge. As they do, you’ll move more confidently and productively through an increasingly complex world. When I see you out Rollerblading, eyes locked in a vacant yet squinty stare, I’ll know you’re getting the hang of it.

Set it Free

birds in the shape of a heartSonya was stuck. Every time she came in for a session, she seemed more inextricably wedged into a life she hated. It wasn’t that she lacked means: Born to wealth and privilege, Sonya had beauty, education, and the talent to become what she’d longed to be—a songwriter. But she couldn’t take the steps that would make her dreams a reality.”It’s just too hard,” Sonya sighed during one session. “I’m stuck in the life my parents want for me. I’ll marry a rich man, have 1.7 kids, do what I’m told. I’m trapped. Completely trapped.”

I couldn’t help comparing Sonya’s comments with another conversation I’d had when I was in Cambodia, doing interviews for a World Bank project. A vibrant man I’ll call Khet told me about his experiences during the war-torn 1970s, when he’d been imprisoned, starved and sentenced to death.

“One night they told me I would be shot at sunrise,” Khet said. “So, you see, I was completely free.” I stopped him. How did he figure that one? Khet smiled. “Things could not be worse,” he explained, “so I was free to take any opportunity that came.”

And an opportunity did come. As he and some other prisoners were being led to the execution ground, Khet bolted, running for a weak spot in the wire fences. He fully expected to be shot, but the other prisoners distracted the guards enough to spoil their aim. Khet escaped into the jungle.

“You see? My fellow prisoners were free, too,” he said. “No matter what happens to your body, madame, if your heart is free, you are free.”

Most people think more like Sonya than like Khet. My clients routinely tell me they’re deadlocked, hemmed in, blocked, controlled by circumstance. If you feel that way, it isn’t because you don’t have the option of charting an exciting, meaningful journey through life. Trust me, the options are there. You’re at an impasse because you’ve been trained not to seize—or even recognize—the opportunities that lead to the fulfillment of your dreams. Your body is free but your heart is in prison.

Our hearts are imprisoned for just one reason: The only language they can speak is truth. Unlike the mind, which can be persuaded to accept the most bizarre ideas (“Look, it’s the Hale-Bopp comet! Time to kill yourself!), your heart tells it like it is, without bothering to be tactful or socially appropriate. Free hearts rock boats, break rules, do things that disrupt the system—whether that system is a dysfunctional family, a bloated bureaucracy, or the whole wide world.

As a result, few of us speak the truth out loud. All our lives we’ve been hearing things like: What you are thinking/feeling/saying/becoming, etc., is stupid/rude/scandalous/sinful/depressing/ridiculous/unoriginal, etc. All the infinite variations on this theme convey just one message: Silence your heart or you will be rejected. Rejection hurts our little social-mammal hearts so much that just the threat of it convinces most of us to cooperate with our enemies. This is a two-step process: First we go dumb, learning never to speak our deepest truths. Then we go deaf, refusing to hear our own souls.

Sonya was a fully heart-bound when she came to see me. For thirty-some years, her life’s journey had been steered by social expectation, slowed by fear, stymied by conflicting demands. Bad news: If you’re a normal human, you probably act like Sonya at least some of the time. Good news: As your own jailer, you—and only you—can free your heart whenever you want.

To release your heart, you simply reverse the two-step process by which you locked it up. First you begin to listen for messages from your heart—messages you may have been ignoring since childhood. Next you must take the daring, risky step of expressing your heart in the outside world. It’s lucky this process is so simple, because it’s also terrifying.

Step 1: Tune In

People with captive hearts often spend years thinking very hard about things like reawakening their passion or discovering their destiny. This never works, because such information is stored in the heart, not the brain, and is expressed by feelings, not thoughts.Sonya was so numb to her emotions that she couldn’t tell a surge of love or pathos from, say, gas. Not to worry. Paying attention to any feeling unlocks your heart, and if subtle emotional nuance eludes you, physical sensations will do nicely. Try the exercise I assigned Sonya: Write a detailed description of everything you’re feeling in your body. If you do this for more than ten minutes, you’ll find that you’ve also started describing your emotions.

As Sonya began to write about her chronic exhaustion and headaches, a torrent of truth burst from her heart into her conscious mind. “I hate the socialite scene,” she found herself writing. “I want solitude. I need music.” For years her heart had been trying to send these messages through physical symptoms. As she began to listen, those symptoms faded. Sonya’s prison walls were coming down.

Step 2: Think of This As “Shock” Therapy

Once you begin listening to your heart, I guarantee it’s going to say some things that shock you—otherwise, you wouldn’t have locked it away in the first place. You may discover that your heart wants to spend your paycheck on flowers or wear purple spandex to a board meeting. You don’t have to act on these impulses, but you must not judge or repress them.

Treat your heart like a tired, hurt child: Accept its tantrums, revenge fantasies, and pity parties, but don’t get stuck in them. Say kind things to yourself: “It’s okay that you love your goldfish more than your in-laws” or “Of course you want to stab Billy’s third-grade teacher with a meat fork—all the moms do.” When you acknowledge your forbidden feelings calmly, you’ll find that you actually have more control over your actions. It’s when feelings are repressed that they burst out in dangerous, unhealthy ways.

The more you tune in, the deeper the truths your heart will tell and the more intense your emotions will become. You may feel great pain about times others have hurt you—and, worse, times you have hurt others. But as this pain flows through you and begins to dissipate, you’ll find something beneath it, something astonishingly powerful, something one philosopher called the “all-pervading radiant beauty” of your heart of hearts.

Step 3: Defy your inner jailer

At this point you’ll begin to realize that your heart is telling you where to steer your life. You’ll know the next step because you will begin to long for anything that connects you to it.

When desire really comes from your heart, deciding to act on it will bring another strong sensation. You’ll feel an extraordinary clarity, the sense that something inside you has clicked into place. Of course, your Inner Jailer might not agree. You may be flooded with reminders that your heart’s instructions are stupid or boring or rude. Don’t listen. Run.

Step 4: Run for the jungle

I’ll never forget the moment Sonya stopped daydreaming about sending her songs to a music producer and decided to Just Do It. It doesn’t sound like much—until you try it yourself. Acting on your heart’s instructions means abandoning all those careful strategies for avoiding rejection and bolting toward the fertile, gorgeous jungle of human imagination and possibility.

I’ve watched in awe and admiration as many clients took the enormous risk of freeing and following their hearts. I’ve seen high-income executives joyfully switch to low-paying careers as artists or forest rangers, and people who grew up in poverty dare to believe they deserve decent money. I’ve seen folks adopt children with AIDS or lose 50 pounds. As a 13th-century Zen master said, “The place is here: The way leads everywhere.” Once you are present in your own heart, you’ll find your life going places your mind has never even dreamed of.

Step 5: Spread the word

Toni Morrison said that “the function of freedom is to free someone else.” This is the final step necessary for keeping your heart at liberty, and you do it in just one way: by telling your story. However you do it—a journal, an artistic creation, the pictures you hang on your walls, or the way you raise your children—telling your story demolishes the barriers between your heart and the outside world. I won’t lie: This means that your heart will be exposed and, yes, broken. But it’s important to remember that a heart is imprisoned not by being broken but by being silenced. There will be people (often the people you most want to please) who won’t like what you say. It’s going to hurt—and it’s going to heal.

When Sonya started sending out her demo tapes, she became what she called an overnight failure. For months no one so much as acknowledged her creations. Sonya’s heart broke, but she refused to send it back to prison. Instead she began to think like Khet facing execution: Since things could not be worse, she decided to drop her inhibitions. Her music became less derivative. She began writing raw, gut-deep songs that horrified her family—and impressed some producers. Sonya began to find her “tribe,” the people who understood her true self. She’s still far from famous, but her heart is free, “and that,” she told me, “is what it’s really about.”

As you learn to live by heart, every choice you make will become another way of telling your story, calling your tribe, and liberating not only your heart but the hearts of others. This is the very definition of love, the process that makes all-too-human people and societies capable of true humanity. It will chart you a life’s journey as unique and authentic as your fingerprint; send you out, full of hope and breathtaking exhilaration, onto paths you never thought you could travel. It is the way you were meant to exist. If you stop to listen, you’ll realize that your heart has been telling you so all along.

Follow the Rhythm of Your Destiny

Yes, yes, yes!  I am sill working on a book!   

Oh, I know I’ve been working on it for years, and I know I keep saying it’s almost done.  It is almost done, dammit!  But book writing is an incredibly slow process, and I can be “almost finished” for months or (please God no) even years.

The problem is that I keep slowing down the completion of this project by trying to do it faster.  Every month, when I stop to write my magazine column, I resentfully toss together a few ideas so I can get back to my book, thus ensuring that the column will need several rewrites.  Every time I need to run an errand, I become so distracted and anxious that I forget important items or information and end up taking much more time than I’d expected.

These days, with everything happening so incredibly fast, I think most of us are feeling rushed.  Every time someone asks, “Haven’t you finished that yet?” or “So how’s the [your project goes here] coming along?” our guts clench and our minds race.  In that moment, as we try to speed up, we invariably slow down. 

I have a theory that during prior periods of history, working harder and bearing down actually did increase the speed at which we could complete tasks.  But things are changing on planet Earth.  Events are much more sensitive to the energy we broadcast and the energy that makes things happen is love.  Fear – including all varieties of anxiety and rushing – causes a tension that chokes off what wants to happen.  Remaining calm, as calm at the end of an event as at the beginning, facilitates a smooth relaxed completion.  A pattern I’ve heard described by many fellow coaches is:  trying hard to finish something; getting closer to the finish; getting excited or frustrated; encountering all sorts of maddening obstacles and delays; giving up; then suddenly receiving a fire hose blast of everything we were trying to accomplish.

As I attempt to finish my own long term project, I have developed the goal of making this process less traumatic.  That means relaxing, instead of tensing, when people ask me “aren’t you finished yet?”  It means being as fascinated with the sentence I’m writing as I am with the concept of being finished.  It means letting the present moment bring whatever love it intends.    

One of my coaches recently went to work on me as I wrestled with this issue.  Instead of the statement “I have to get finished with this book,” I came out of our session with the conviction “This book has to finish me.”  As it balks and refuses to be finished, it teaches me to follow the rhythm of my destiny, rather than the rhythm of human expectation. When I do that – when we all do that – our various desires and objectives will not only finish themselves, but finish teaching us how to bring everything we have imagined into reality.

Keeping Those Creative Juices Flowing

Sleeping DogA part of me is saying that this is the most creative time in the history of earth. There are more creative people doing more creative things in more creative ways than ever before – and that’s a very good thing, because it will take all our creativity to catalyze the changes we need to make in the next few years. Those of you who are familiar with “deep practice” may recall that intensely creative periods restructure the brain, and that this restructuring necessitates a lot of sleep. If you’ve read Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, you have a first-person account from a very smart brain scientist which backs up the idea that creativity, brain changes, and sleep are inseparable companions.

So my advice to you this month is to play until you feel like sleeping, and then remember to SLEEP UNTIL YOU FEEL LIKE PLAYING. Without both sides of the equation, the profoundly innovative things that are meant to come through your creativity can’t be realized as fully or as quickly. 

Sleep has been a very hot topic among my friends and coaches lately. I feel challenged to learn a new way of sleeping — to visit the dreamtime with purpose and intention, not just as something  I need to do to keep my body functioning. Our culture is chronically sleep-deprived, but we must not be. Our goal is to heal our own lives, the lives of other beings, and suffering in general. Sleep is the great healer. Claim it, embrace it, use it!

 

Creativity Tips from Martha

One thing’s for sure… If any one of us unleashes our creativity, our world will split open. We’ll find unprecedented ways of solving problems and expressing our souls, and our lives will be forever changed. 

But perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of creative expression is that it depends on resistance to the opinions and interference of others. For the many of us worried about doing something “wrong,” in the eyes of others, Martha has two sure-fire exercises that will help us develop that resistance muscle and keep it strengthening.

Exercise 1: Get a piece of paper and write down the words “I’m so ashamed that _________________.” Finish the sentence with whatever pops into your mind. Feel the shame. Observe it. Notice that it does not motivate any positive action — only paralysis, fear, and self-hatred.

Now, stand up to your shame and the people who have shamed you. Question them (on paper, not in person). Start by writing phrases like “What makes you think you can shame me for making mistakes? What makes you think you can stop me from moving forward, learning, and growing? What makes you think I should be ashamed of the person I was created to be and the things I am meant to create?” You get the idea… and notice now how you’re moving from a place of shame to a place of empowerment.

Exercise 2: Find a private spot to sit down. Now take your notepad and write: “If I didn’t give a damn what anyone thought, I would _____________.” Finish the sentence any way you want, as long as it’s true.

If the action you’ve listed is ethical, legal, and wise, promise yourself to do it when you’re ready. If not, pat yourself on the back and promise yourself a treat (a mocha Frappuccino instead of ordinary coffee, and a half-hour alone in the park) for being honest. Keep your promises!

Turtle-Step Up! (And Up, And Up…)

bigstock_Rocketturtle_3116210

This is one of those days when I know exactly what I have to do, and I know that it will take about 179 hours, and I truly believe I have to do it all today.

I bet you have a lot of those days yourself. These days, we all do.

Tomorrow I head off once more for Africa—a continent where everywhere you look you can see a thousand things that need to be done, and you know how to do many of them, and they will take about 568,234,662 hours, and you desperately want to do them all today.

“We cannot do great things,” said Mother Teresa, “only small things with great love.”

On days like these, I take heart from the little video below. It was filmed at the ranch where my friend Koelle and I sometimes run horse-whispering/coaching workshops. The family of angelic people who run the ranch set up a little obstacle course, including a climbing rope. Walter, the patriarch of the clan, told me no woman had ever climbed it. Koelle promptly zipped up it like a monkey on espresso, but when I tried, I got nowhere. I mean No. Where. I just dangled from the end of the rope like a big lumpy meat-tassel.

Walter’s wife Karen, a gifted massage therapist, she told me my upper back muscles were weak. Well, that explained my utter lack of rope-climbing ability and the fibromyalgia pain I still felt in my neck and shoulders. I came back to near-normlcy after 12 years as a veritable invalid, so I set out to climb that rope, turtle step by turtle step. Some days I’d work out to strengthen my back, and many other days I had to let the muscles rest and recover. After six months, when I went back to the ranch…well, see below.

We can all break up any goal into many teensy-weensy turtle steps. No matter what you’re facing today, whether it’s churning through a ridiculous “to-do” list or trying to fix Africa, take one little step up. Tomorrow, take another one. Inch by inch, you’ll lift yourself all the way up.

How to Make a Vision Board: Find Your Life Ambition

"Vision Board" by Amy Palko

“Vision Board” by Amy Palko

Since childhood, I’ve had a vivid recurring dream in which I can move objects without touching them. When I awaken from the dream, I can’t believe it isn’t true. For hours I’ll glare at objects—starting with cars or furniture, gradually lowering my sights to scraps of Kleenex—incredulous that I can’t move stuff with my mind.

Except that now I can.

A friend just gave me a gizmo called Mindflex, a game that includes a magnificently dorky-looking headset, a console, and a little foam ball. The headset transmits your brain’s electrical activity to a fan in the console that blows the ball into the air. By thinking different thoughts, you control the fan, and thus the altitude of the ball.

The fact that this works delights but doesn’t surprise me. The discoveries of physicist Werner Heisenberg, not to mention my recurring dream, long ago convinced me that the mind influences physical matter. If Heisenberg’s work is unfamiliar, let me translate the theory into Californian: “Consciousness can shape reality.”

This oversimplification makes my brain wince…which moves the Mindflex ball, confirming for me that the New Age ideal of mental magic—the notion that thoughts can create reality—is kinda, sorta supported by evidence. My goal is to teach you how to use one aspect of that magic, something indubitably cheesy but surprisingly effective. I’m talking about a vision board.

All the Pretty Pictures

Next to the Mindflex on my desk is a photo box containing many images I’ve torn from magazines. I plan to glue them all to one large piece of butcher paper. The resulting collage will be a vision board; its purpose, to depict (and lead me to) my desired future. This whole process makes me roll my eyes—as I was trained to do over the course of my very rationalist education—but damn if it doesn’t work.

Sometimes.

I’ve made several vision boards that bombed out, and some that were so successful that the hairs on the nape of my neck prickled for months. Years ago I glued up a headline that said MAKING AFRICA WELL. I thought it was a joke—oh, sure, like I could do that—never expecting that a few years later I’d be invited to speak in Africa and while there meet folks who are healing African ecosystems. Suddenly, I found myself volunteering to work with them.

I’ve discovered there’s a trick to making a vision board that brings forth such improbable coincidences. It starts with avoiding common pitfalls that result in faulty, inoperative models. Many people hear the basic instructions—”Find pictures of things you want in your life and stick ’em where you can see ’em”—and create virtually identical collages: a wad of cash, a handsome husband, a gorgeous body, a luxury car, a tropical beach.

Snore. These images constitute our culture’s idea of the good life. Even a rich, happily married beauty queen with a Porsche in the driveway and a house on the ocean will crank out this same damn vision board. This has no juice at all. To really work, a vision board has to come not from your culture but from your primordial, nonsocial self—the genetically unique animal/angel that contains your innate preferences.

When you start assembling pictures that appeal to this deep self, you unleash one of the most powerful forces on our planet: human imagination. Virtually everything humans use, do, or make exists because someone thought it up. Sparking your incredibly powerful creative faculty is the reason you make a vision board. The board itself doesn’t impact reality; what changes your life is the process of creating the images—combinations of objects and events that will stick in your subconscious mind and steer your choices toward making the vision real.

Vision Board 101

I’ve known for some time that staring at objects while holding pictures in my head makes reality oddly responsive. I was persuaded of this by two events so striking and improbable that I’ll describe them to you in some detail. Both occurred while I was illustrating a children’s book, which was never published because: (1) My animal/angel didn’t really want to create it; (2) I got tired after doing about 25 percent of the illustrations; and (3) the book basically sucked.

Anyway, one illustration I did finish depicted a startled elephant. I wanted to paint it from a child’s perspective, with the pachyderm rearing back, lifting one front leg, raising its trunk, and opening its eyes and mouth in surprise. I had no photographs that showed this scenario, and it wasn’t the easiest thing to imagine. So I went to a circus, found an elephant who seemed to be parked in neutral, crouched down in front of him, and squinted, imagining what he’d look like with his leg lifted and his trunk raised. The elephant looked back at me…and adopted precisely the pose I was picturing. He remained in this awkward position for several minutes as I scribbled a sketch.

Just days later, I was working on another illustration involving parrots (this children’s book was set in post-genocide Cambodia—what fun for kids!). In the midst of my research, I learned to my surprise that there was a species of parrot indigenous to my own turf in Arizona. I stared at these parrots in my bird book, wishing that one day I could see a living specimen. At that moment, I swear to God, I heard a scratchy thump, and three rare parrots landed on the window screen less than a yard from my face.

That’s when I began believing that animals respond to intense visual images held in the human imagination. So does my Mindflex, and perhaps even complex phenomena like one’s love life or career. I also noticed that the mental state that produced the elephant and parrot miracles was very different from the hankering I directed at my usual goals. And I’ve come to realize that you need to get into that mind-space if you want your vision board to work for you like a short-order cook hopped up on Red Bull. Here’s how to do it….

Step 1: Please Your Animal.

There are two basic procedures involved in creating an effective vision board. First, instead of cogitating about familiar images, scout for the unfamiliar. Your mind can’t do this. Your animal/angel self can. Just page through a magazine (and walk through the world) noticing things that trigger physical reactions: a heart thump, a double take, a gasp.

The only responses involved should resemble these:
“Ooooh!”
“Aaaahhhhh.”
“Whoa!”
“!!!!”
“????”

These “thoughts” register in your stomach, your heart, your lungs—anywhere but your head. You can’t produce them in response to cultural clichés or abstract ideas. Nor can you always know why your body reacts to an image. Wondering, then finding out, is one of the most delicious things about assembling a vision board.

For example, as I rummage through my current collection of images, my body is utterly unmoved by photos of mansions or designer clothing. What interests it are pictures of an abstract sculpture, a dried leaf, and (overwhelmingly) a map on which the migratory route of the springbok antelope is shown in red. !!!! Go figure.

Though it makes no logical sense, I know from experience that gluing these pictures on one big page will begin catalyzing something beyond my mind’s capacity to calculate or conceptualize. If you’re not already accumulating images that rock your socks, stay alert. Whenever you find them, filch them.

Step 2: Let Go Mentally and Emotionally.

Most folks master Step 1 easily, gathering new and interesting images by the bushel. It’s like making the Mindflex ball go up: You stare at the ball and picture it rising. Powered by the output of electricity from your brain, the fan starts to blow, et voilà! Up goes the ball. You do this with focused, intense thinking—something you’re almost always engaged in.

Step 2 of making a vision board requires something trickier: not thinking. This is the counterintuitive process that makes the Mindflex ball descend. To do it you must relax completely and let your mind go blank. You don’t concentrate on the result you want—i.e., the ball going down. In fact, you concentrate on not concentrating. Slowly the fan decreases speed and the ball begins to drop.

This is exactly what you should do once you’ve created a vision board. Stop thinking about it. Lose it. Recycle it. The biggest mistake aspiring reality creators make (aside from that predictable cash/tropical island collage) is continuing to push something they’ve already set in motion. You’ve felt the repellent energy of salespeople desperate to hook you—it makes you sprint away so fast, you cause sonic booms. Don’t use that results-oriented energy.

Anecdotes about vision board success always include statements like “Then I forgot all about it until the very moment, years later, when I found myself standing on the Champs-Elysées, holding that exact plaid umbrella!” The key phrase is “forgot all about it.” The purpose of the vision board is to focus your attention—briefly. After that, the less mental strain you feel, the sooner good things will happen. That initial intense focus helps us create “search images,” and by relaxing, we increase our chances of noticing the things we seek. Then it’s time for the trickiest step of all….

Step 3: Be Still and Still Moving.

Making a vision board is not a substitute for elbow grease. Magical co-creator or not, you still have to do stuff. For example, I want to be better at social media—you know, all that Faceplace Twootle Googler stuff. So I put a headline on my vision board: SOCIAL MEDIA GENIUS. I tried reading blog posts and signing up for all sorts of new online accounts, but I was making zero progress. Two weeks later, I was working on my laptop in a bookstore when a man with a kind face asked me if I liked my computer. He turned out to be a social media specialist and an extremely nice guy, and I hired him to be my social media genius. He’s brilliant, he’s motivating, and he’s kicking my ass, teaching me how to accomplish my goals. I wanted the Force to give me fish; instead, it sent an expert fisherman to teach me.

This is the zone of reality creation: regularly picturing delights that don’t yet exist, emotionally detaching from them, and jumping into action when it’s time to help the miracles occur. I’m barely learning this, to be (in T.S. Eliot’s words) “still and still moving.” But in the moments I get it right, every step I take seems to be matched by a universal mystery, which obligingly, incredibly, creates what I can’t.

So that’s my 411 on vision boards, but please, don’t believe me. Try it yourself. Do it as a lark, a hobby, a physics experiment (though calling it that may cause Werner Heisenberg to spin in his grave like an Olympic ice dancer). While you’re oohing and aahing, cutting and gluing, I’ll be wearing my fabulous headset, making the Mindflex ball follow my mental orders like my tiny foam bitch. If you happen to know I’m dreaming, please don’t wake me.

Dig These Odds!

HUMAN-SPECIES/SAFRICA
So this morning I got a personal tour through the most incredible find in paleoanthropological discovery of my lifetime, quite possibly ever. Dr. Lee Berger himself walked me and two friends through the museum display of a hominid skeleton that might belong to one of my own direct relatives. The visit left my mind reeling, as it often does, between the logical smoothness of hard science, which I find very soothing, and the insane improbability of Berger’s find, which once again makes me suspect there are forces at work to which most of science, so far, remains blind.

Let me explain.

One day, a family group of human-like creatures with heads a lot like ours, legs a lot like ours, social behaviors a lot like ours, and arms a lot like an orangutan’s, were hanging out together in southern Africa when something went dramatically wrong. It looks as though they fell into a “death trap,” perhaps when an underground cave collapsed under their feet. They all died within hours of each other, along with a saber-toothed cat, a horse, wild dog, hyena and other animals. It is believed they were playing dodge ball at the time.

I made that last sentence up. So far, scientists have not been able to determine whether they were playing dodge ball or doing the Macarena. But this next part is true:

Right after the group died, an upwelling of unusual water—water so ancient it contained no oxygen and therefore no bacteria or insect life—swept all the bodies into a pocket of the cave. Within hours, a blend of this sterile water and limestone filled the cave and set like cement. This created near-perfect natural preservation, which has only recently been simulated by modern-day plastic surgeons working in Beverly Hills.

During the next 1.9 million years, the Skeleton Family was pushed surface-ward as the earth above them slowly eroded. A few decades ago, a tiny bit of one skeleton finally broke the surface. In another few years, it would have been destroyed by natural forces as it lay exposed to weather, animals, and so on. But, in the incredibly tiny window when the bone was lying on the surface, but still undisturbed, a 9-year-old boy named Matt Berger noticed it while walking with his father.

“From 5 meters away,” Lee Berger told me, about 18 months after that fateful walk, “I knew it was a clavicle.”

Well, of course he did.

You see, Dr. Berger had written a Ph.D. dissertation on hominid clavicles. He has possibly thought more about clavicles than anyone else on earth who was not eating seriously party-oriented mushrooms.

The clavicle turned out to belong to a Skeleton Family boy who was about Matt’s age when he died. His bones, and the bones of his relatives, are still being unearthed. To give you some perspective: The skeleton fragments that make up our biological record of hominid evolution comprise a bit of skull here, a tooth there, a knuckle somewhere else. No skeletons this complete have been found before. No two individual ancient hominids have ever been found together. No examples of both sexes of the same hominid have been found together. No directly related individuals have ever been found…I could go on and on, but suffice it to say this find is mind-bogglingly rich. Organic things just don’t last 2 million years, except in the bizarre circumstances that preserved the Skeleton Family.

In this case, scientists are examining the tartar on the Skeleton Family’s teeth to see what they ate for their last meal. Seriously. I saw the teeth this morning with my own beady eyes, and they look just like mine feel after eating a lollipop. When they finish digging up the kid’s mother, who died next to him, they’ll probably figure out that she was just about to make him go brush properly when the cave-in occurred.

Skeleton Family Possibly Goes Here

There’s a famous example of probability you’ll hear in basic statistics classes: If you let a chimpanzee bang on a keyboard at random forever, he’ll eventually—by pure chance—type up the complete works of Shakespeare. Obviously, this will take a long time, longer even than your average cocktail party, which, from my perspective, is virtually infinite. But the chimp’s odds of duplicating Shakespeare don’t seem all that different from the odds of a clavicle specialist’s young son happening upon another young boy’s clavicle during the brief period when the bone went visible after being fossilized in a freak, high-preservation accident almost 2 million years ago.

“Can I ask you a goony-fan question?” I asked Dr. Berger as we stood ogling the skeleton, complete with its tooth-tartar. “When you realized what you’d found, how did it feel?”

“I haven’t slept for eighteen months,” he said.

I may not sleep that well myself tonight. I’m shocked awake all over again every time some incredible reality nudges me toward dropping my Newtonian model of the world, where things happen randomly, and the emerging post-Newtonian worldview in which time is not linear, matter is only a form of energy, and things are connected in ways we’ve only begun to fathom.

I mean really—five years of studying clavicles? Who does that?

So if you’re reading this at a time when the odds against you feel large and your chance of success tiny, pay attention. Go for a lot of walks. Notice what you feel compelled to learn. Follow your hunches. Hold in your mind’s hands, see with your mind’s eyes, hear with your mind’s ears, the unbelievable good fortune you hope will happen to you.

Then work your hind end off, travel to wherever the odds are good, and never stop searching. Oh, and always travel with a child, or at least a child’s-eye view. You never know where a 9-year-old is going to find a friend.