“[P]eople spend at least half their waking hours simulating rather than paying attention to the world around them, and this pure simulation strongly drives their feelings.”
– Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, p. 71.
The fact that people are only alert to the real world half of our waking lives means that only half of how we feel has anything to do with your present moment. That’s a pretty startling and eye-opening fact, isn’t it? I don’t need to tell you that this means we certainly have a lot more control in how alive and wonderful we feel at a given moment than some people often assume. Because of humanity’s innate capacity to imagine, wonder, and daydream, a person could choose to feel totally and entirely engaged in the here and now or you can choose to feel dreamy and disconnected, simply because we have such tremendous power to create what happens in our minds for the 50% of time that we aren’t tuned into reality.
This is such good, empowering news, isn’t it? It’s so vital to know this because knowledge is power, and if we know that we are imagining, wondering, daydreaming, ruminating and forcasting 50% of the time, this means that bit by bit, we can take charge of the landscapes we choose to imagine, and it means we can choose how we populate them. We can decide to simulate (i.e. remember or imagine) things in useful ways rather than destructive ways. We can choose to populate the ground of our imagination with as much centredness, courage and creativity as we wish. Beyond that, it is within our capacity to learn how to imagine the positive effects from even the negative things in our lives. Like the precious metals removed from discarded cell phones, we can choose to salvage and make-usable as much of our past as we desire.
“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
– Abraham Lincoln
Because reality isn’t going anywhere, and because there are so many things in our environments to appreciate and to be grateful for, then obviously we can choose to have a very healthy and balanced view of the world around us, both when we are alert and present in the here-and-now and when we are remembering past times or daydreaming about the future.
One of the problems that many of us face is that we are often stuck in these very unhealthy patterns of thought, we see the dog poop on the sidewalk, for example but we completely fail to notice the clear skies overhead. I don’t need to tell you that no one wants to trip on a curb, so looking down is a very valuable thing to do, that’s obvious, but sometimes a person will go out for a walk and spend much of the time stuck in your head thinking about things or people you don’t like and, when you do tune into reality, it’s to notice that there is litter on the ground. A person could spend their entire day thinking about how inconsiderate their neighbour was for littering, because that sort of thing bothers them, and there is some sense in that, but it would be a pretty awful way to spend a day. However, choosing to shift a person’s gaze and her mindset so she looks at the ground, around her, and periodically up to the sky, wherever one wants or needs to look to appreciate the world around her while also not walking into traffic, that would be lead to a hearty experience of herself and the world around her.
When a person decides that the real world matters to them, that, like Abraham Lincoln or Lisa Feldman Barrett, being an honest appraiser of experience matters to them, then you will live a reality-based life that is also highly constructive and creative. This is fairly apparent, isn’t it? Because even if you are fairly pessimistic and worried about the state-of-affairs, if you worry about the disparity between very rich people and people with little money, there is still a great deal more to appreciate about the world than there is to dislike about it.
I for one, have never been in a room with people where there wasn’t a great capacity to learn or appreciate something, though I have, sadly, often failed to make that choice. And I know from all my studies, experience, and the wise people around me, that it really is my choice. And every time I’m angry with a person, if I stop and look at their face or, if they aren’t near, if I simply take a moment to visualize their face, then suddenly I’m so much less angry at them because I can see them as a whole and complex person.
If you choose to be an honest appraiser and to witness the world around you to the best of your capacity, you don’t have to think humanity is great in order to understand on a truly deep level that our very existence, along with the existence of so much of what is around us is a remarkable fact.
Even if you are upset with yourself or someone else, like your neighbour who littered or a person who let you down in more serious ways, right now, you can choose to cultivate all sorts of true and positive thoughts about yourself in relation to others or simply in relation to yourself.
My grandma Lorraine, a philosopher, gardener, and lover of good literature, has given me many books over the years, including a couple by Thich Nhat Hanh. Maybe you have heard his name, and possibly even read some of his poetry. If so, you’ve likely been impressed by how clearly he perceives reality and how his clarity helps so many others balance their own perspective.
In tribute to my Grandma Lorraine and all of the centred and compassionate people who help me know when my view is askew (who have the guts to tell me when it is my perspective and not the building which is slanted!), let’s sign off with the last stanza of his Mindful Moment Twenty Two:
…”To suffer is not enough.
We must also be in touch with the wonders of life.
They are within us
and all around us,
everywhere, any time.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, #Twenty Two from Moments of Mindfulness