The future enters into us in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.Rainer Maria Rilke
The mystery of language, the poetic imagination, and the mind of compassion are roughly one and the same, and through poetry perhaps they can keep guiding the world toward occasional moments of peace, gratitude, and delight. One hesitates to ask for more.Back on the Fire: Essays by Gary Snyder
As April turns into May it becomes unequivocal: things are growing again. The broad bean seedlings I tended on the windowsill are already pushing up against the bird-proof netting in their allotment bed. Our vigorous deciduous front garden hedge is ready for its first pruning. Trees are filling out rapidly and the subtle variegations of the canopy are starting to converge into the solid mid-green that will more or less persist for the length of the summer. The lushness of new growth shows up the casualties: the pale dead wood of the lilac bush that flowered so profusely last year. And I have just cleared away the brittle dry remains of the clematis from the wall of the rain shelter. At times, life and death look very different, even if we know they are part of the same process of recycling elements. My mum died three weeks ago, and a new granddaughter is about to be born. We must make the most of this short season in our lives.
Will we settle for comfort and security, even if it stunts our creative and spiritual potential? Or will we be bold and take risks in order to grow into our glorious fullness? In my mindful coaching practice, I often meet clients who are chronically dissatisfied with their lives, particularly with their work situations. The sense of being stuck has become too painful to bear any longer and outweighs the satisfaction of financial security and the ease-fulness of the familiar. Often, they don’t know what they really want, and I help them to get in touch with the deep currents of their vital energy and purpose. Activating the power of the imagination is an important part of this. It not only offers colorful glimpses of possible futures, it also shifts our experience of ourselves into the rich realm of wise awareness right in the moment. Far beyond mere “wishful thinking,” although it is that too, using the imagination gives us the confidence to devise the next step in our becoming. Used skillfully, it has the power to liberate us from self-centeredly seeking refuge in the wrong places, and instead trusting our inner wisdom and belonging in the larger family of things.
In the RAINING meditation method that I introduced inn this column last month, the second “I” stands for “Imagine.” After recognizing an impasse or a problem; allowing the feelings connected with it; inquiring into the unmet needs, and nourishing ourselves with the experience of the qualities that we were missing, we use imagination to access a symbol or metaphor for the main quality for which we are longing. In the next stage, no limits, we allow ourselves to think big, to envisage what may be possible from the perspective of that symbol. Going forth, the final step, brings it all down to earth and into action again, and we see that it has paid off suspending our urge to fix things. Noticeable shifts in mood and perspective occur when we relax into the more-than-rational parts of our being, particularly paying attention to sensations in the body, and it can feel that we are tapping into fresh insights that have the power to motivate us. Let me give you a couple of examples arising from a workshop I recently held for a group of Buddhists wanting to galvanize new directions for their social engagement. We used RAINING as the main framework of exploration.
The issue that one person in the group—we’ll call her Marian—chose to investigate was plastic pollution. She had experienced feelings of despondency and among the needs she identified was hope and beauty. The metaphor that arose in her was that of an unspoiled oasis, with a small, intact eco system. In the no limits stage, the whole world became imbued with that pristine wholeness. Marian allowed herself to revel in that vision of a healthy planet and draw sustenance from it. The final step, going forth represented just a small adjustment in her recycling practice, but because it was joined to that inspiring, wide perspective, she felt hopeful and committed. When considering the worldwide problem of plastic pollution again, she felt far less overwhelmed by it.
My own topic in that exercise was “disinformation”—being unable to trust many public sources of information. The feeling around that was wariness and the main need was truthfulness and being able to trust. When I was asking my unconscious for an image, a glass of water appeared, half-full and sparkling with bright, white light. From there, crystal-clear light spread over the whole world and it felt wonderful to imagine people trusting that everyone was speaking the truth to the best of their ability. So much seemed possible from there. On further reflection, it was also significant that the glass was both half full and half empty—the brilliance of the light somehow needed both. My going forth emerged as a renewed commitment to speaking the truth, particularly in situations where I might be tempted to stay safely quiet, trusting that people actually appreciate truthfulness. I saw that it can take the shape of celebrating positive happenings as much as naming what is uncomfortable to acknowledge.
I love the way the imagination throws up perspectives that we would not have thought about—it is so fresh and surprising in its resourcefulness. I am just at the beginning of a coaching journey with a new client, let’s call her Joanna. She is looking for a career change, since her work as an advocate doesn’t give her the fulfilment she would like. She is the main breadwinner in her small family, which has held her back from taking any risks so far. She doesn’t really know what she wants to do. I guided her through a visualization—a meditative journey which culminated in meeting her “Future Self,” the person she might be in 10 years, having made many decisions in line with her true calling. During that meeting, she had the opportunity to fully take in the qualities of her Future Self, the environment she has created for herself, and to ask her questions about decisions she had made. She also asked her for any advice, possibly in the form of a gift to take home.
Joanna emerged from the journey looking soft and thoughtful. Her Future Self lived in a cave by the sea and seemed easeful and confident, not needing much to be happy. She spent time with creatures in the sea. The gift Joanna received was “trust.” I asked her to bask in that quality right in the moment and she described a sense of relaxation in her thighs. I asked her what “trust” looked like, as a metaphor. Her whole being seemed to light up as she told me that it was a dolphin. Between this session and the next, she will explore her connection with what appeared to be something like a spirit animal, and find a sculpture of a dolphin, possibly for her garden.
I am very curious where this journey will take her. I am sure it will involve more active imagining, discovering of core values, devising of new next steps, as well as looking at the possible obstacles that will need to be befriended along the way. Just like in my allotment, growth will probably happen anyway, and in ways only partly within our control. Picturing desirable future arrangements of colors, shapes, and aromas, and remembering the outcome of past efforts—for example, don’t plant small seedlings next to perennials with spreading foliage that take all the light—are part of the skill set. As is enjoying “occasional moments of peace, gratitude, and delight” when they happen, at any stage along the way. I find it immensely beneficial to periodically return to my inner guides, my Future Self, or the Buddha within me, to check whether I am on track. It’s like a shortcut to my personal mission statement. “What would my Future Self say?” I might ask when an important decision needs to be made, or when I find myself getting wound up about something. “Relax, smile and don’t take yourself too seriously,” she often advises.
Related features from BDG
Beginner’s Mind: Growth
On Moral Growth and Mental Decay
Lotusland: Where Nature and Spiritual Growth Intersect
Buddhistdoor View: Strengthening the Tradition of Women’s Leadership in Buddhism
Fostering Compassion Through Breaking Bias: Anurag Gupta Asks Us to BE MORE