I feel a need or desire to elaborate on my last post and clarify some points that could be taken in a way I wasn’t intending.
When I say “it’s your movie,” I am not talking about learning to use any magic, though it sure can feel like magic once you become the master of your own mind. And I’m not talking about The Secret.
I don’t think my positive attitude changed the weather patterns the other morning. The fact of the matter is that the tip of Point Pelee often has different weather from the rest of Essex County because it is on the edge of a different micro-climactic zone that includes Toledo, Ohio. But I never would have come to know that had I not gone ahead on five consecutive field trips in spite of forecast precipitation. Ignoring those predictions paid off in the form of new knowledge about Point Pelee’s micro-climate, not to mention the fun I had on all those rain-free trips. I also had fun on the wet ones, by the way.
Neither am I, however, trying to denigrate the metaphysical. But metaphysical or other currently unprovable methods are not what I was trying to talk about. So let me attempt to elucidate.
I’m talking about some things we can measure and test today: the drastically underutilized feature of our brains called neuroplasticity; breaking free from consensus reality; and avoiding cognitive traps that can make us unhappy.
1) Change the brain
Although the field of research into this phenomenon is still quite young, the data already show that a daily meditation practice alters the structure of the brain. Here you can read a brilliant article explaining the crux of how this works. What you choose to pay attention to alters, over time, what you notice. In my case, I am so engrossed in the beauty around me that I no longer see what others see. I’m like the experiment subjects who didn’t see the guy in the gorilla suit.
Did you know that sharing good news multiplies its effect? Or that holding certain body postures for just two minutes can boost hormones needed to be perceived by others in a more positive light, thus potentially changing the path of one’s life?
2) Choose your reality
Another key to directing your own movie is remembering that what we think of in this culture as reality is just consensus reality, the illusion we construct together. Money is not reality; it’s a human construct we have all agreed to treat as real. There is another reality that Pema Chodron taught me to call Naked Reality. That’s what is happening without the layer of my judgments, likes and dislikes, interpretations and perceptions, which are malleable. Of course we can never completely escape our cultural brainwashing or how we perceive things, but we can remind ourselves that we are seeing everything through those filters and do our best to rise above them long enough to remember that the shared illusion is just that–an illusion we buy into day after day, year after year.
One way I have broken free from some layers of consensus reality is by giving away my television set. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman talks about priming effects. From pages 55-56:
Studies of priming effects have yielded discoveries that threaten our self-image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and our choices. For instance, most of us think of voting as a deliberate act that reflects our values and our assessments of politics and is not influenced by irrelevancies. Our vote should not be affected by the location of the polling station, for example, but it is. A study of voting patterns in precincts of Arizona in 2000 showed that the support for propositions to increase the funding of schools was significantly greater when the polling station was in a school than when it was in a nearby location. A separate experiment showed that exposing people to images of classrooms and school lockers also increased the tendency of participants to support a school initiative. The effect of the images was larger than the difference between parents and other voters! The study of priming has come some way from the initial demonstrations that reminding people of old age makes them walk more slowly. We now know that the effects of priming can reach into every corner of our lives.
Reminders of money produce some troubling effects. Participants in one experiment were shown a list of five words from which they were required to construct a four-word phrase that had a money theme (“high a salary desk paying” became “a high-paying salary”). Other primes were much more subtle, including the presence of an irrelevant money-related object in the background, such as a stack of Monopoly money on a table, or a computer with a screen-saver of dollar bills floating in water.
Money-primed people become more independent than they would be without the associative trigger. They persevered almost twice as long in trying to solve a very difficult problem before they asked the experimenter for help, a crisp demonstration of increased self-reliance. Money-primed people are also more selfish: they were much less willing to spend time helping another student who pretended to be confused about an experimental task. When an experimenter clumsily dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, the participants with money (unconsciously) on their mind picked up fewer pencils. In another experiment in the series, participants were told they would shortly have a get-acquainted conversation with another person and were asked to set up two chairs while the experimenter left to retrieve that person. Participants primed by money chose to stay much farther apart than their non-primed peers (118 vs. 80 centimeters). Money-primed undergraduates also showed a greater preference for being alone.
….The psychologist who has done this remarkable research, Kathleen Vohs, has been laudably restrained in discussing the implications of her findings, leaving the task to her readers. Her experiments are profound–her findings suggest that living in a culture that surrounds us with reminders of money may shape our behavior and our attitudes in ways that we do not know about and of which we may not be proud. Some cultures provide frequent reminders of respect, others constantly remind their members of God, and some societies prime obedience by large images of Dear Leader. Can there be any doubt that the ubiquitous portraits of the national leader in dictatorial societies not only convey the feeling that “Big Brother is Watching” but also lead to an actual reduction in spontaneous thought and independent action?
Thank you, Dr. Kahneman. Now I know why I’m happier and my mind freer since I tossed out the telly.
3) Don’t let others write your script
This idea of priming is profound. It’s all around us all the time; I would venture to say that money-related priming isn’t the biggest thought-hijack to overcome. The mass media is feeding all of us a steady diet of fear and negativity like pablum to a bunch of hungry babies. Have we no minds of our own? That, by the way, is another cognitive trap Kahneman tackles in his book. The human mind really sucks at statistics. We may know intellectually that the chances that someone will burst into the theatre and shoot us the next time we go to a movie premier is smaller than the chance that I–not a lotto player–will win five million dollars by finding the winning ticket on the sidewalk. Nevertheless, the graphic images of a recent news story will weigh far more heavily in our minds than statistical facts and some of us will feel fearful of attending movie premiers for the next six months.
We are constantly bombarded by images and stories from a fear-mongering mass media about greed, theft, violence and corruption. Is that a true picture of the world? I assure you, as someone who has to a great extent broken free from that demented and very skewed version of the world, that it is not. It is not even close.
It’s not just the media you have to escape if you want to become the director of your own movie. It’s the dominant mindset shared by most of your friends, well-meaning family, coworkers and every person who still has not taken control of his/her mind and relationship with consensus reality. It’s people who come to work groaning about Monday or groaning, for that matter, about anything. It’s people who (poor buggers are just trying to make friendly conversation) whine about the weather.
I have a colleague who said to me the other day, “I hate November.” She expanded on that a bit: in Canada we have Thanksgiving in October and Christmas in December, but no celebration to lighten the grey, overcast days of November. Winter, which many folks in the sunlight deprived north naturally dread, is mostly ahead of us. But how different could her experience be if she would allow each day (each moment) to stand on its own and come to her as a mystery and surprise? Each moment brings something of beauty if you’re turning YOUR ATTENTION to it, if you’re looking for it. I assure you it is so. If she wanted to, she could decide that November is hot chocolate month or a time to start a photo journal on how many shades of yellow can be found in a fallow farm field. Her limitless mind could come up with an endless number of ways to turn this around…if she CHOSE to.
“It’s YOUR movie” means:
- You don’t have to buy into consensus reality. You are free to interpret each event as you see fit.
- You can change how you experience each moment by choosing where to place your attention.
- You can develop this as an effortless skill through practice over time.
- Through daily meditation and mindfulness practice, you can train your brain to have a stronger and more constant connection to the present moment, to Naked Reality, thereby free yourself from the illusions of past and future and the false stories with which ego loads them.
You have the freedom and power to choose which parts of the collective construct you wish to conform to and which you don’t. For every rule, urban legend, myth (including each religious myth), scientific theory, social norm and bit of common so-called knowledge you can think of, you have the option of rejecting it. You can start from scratch. You can make your own road map. Most of all, you can tune into the present moment as the most direct portal to Naked Reality there is.
I have to warn you, though, that if you choose this very liberating path, you can’t be bothered to care what others think. You probably will be seen as eccentric at the very least and perhaps even mad. Small price to pay for joy, I’d say.