Memory and Imagination (1)

7. A Glimpse of the Grail

I am on holiday in Northumberland with my husband, David. We are staying in a foursquare cottage, built of stone, in a tiny village overlooking the River Coquet. From time to time, a vehicle rumbles up or down the lane outside. Otherwise, there is no sound except for the wind in the trees and the bleating of sheep on the hillside. The silence steals over me, around me, into me, with the breeze through the open window: a cool, scented silence, as of grass under shade, rinsed by recent rain.

Some might find this silence intimidating, but to me it means relief and rest. There is no phone in the house, and no signal for our mobile phone for miles around. No one calls at the door. Only the owner of the cottage - and our daughters at home in Birmingham - know we are here. Removed from our normal habitat, we are removed, too, from those who expect something from us, or might ask something of us. Hidden away for two weeks, we have permission to care only for one another and ourselves.

Downstairs, David is reading. In the few days since we arrived, he has got through four thrillers. It is a way of relaxing his mind, letting his thoughts unwind from his regular responsibilities - and from the discipline of always having to be the one to take responsibility. As a break from reading, he solves Su Doku puzzles. The fiendish ones give him the most satisfaction. He tells me that numbers are beautiful.

Later this morning, we will take a picnic lunch and visit the grounds of a nearby stately home where there are walks down through the woods, along the burn, around a lake. We shall explore. Sit. Look. Appreciate. Talk. Eat. Learn. Enjoy. Be renewed.

Meanwhile, in a quiet corner of my bedroom, I am writing. This is not work, but a novel set in a landscape of the mind. Perhaps one day someone will read it, but in the meantime, I am writing it just for me.

In order to describe this moment from my holiday, I had to imagine it. I had to remember the cottage and its environment and what we did there. I had to picture these things and then describe what I saw: our environment, what we did, what I thought about and how it felt. I used my memory and my imagination to re-create the experience in my mind’s eye.

The original experience was multi-dimensional: memory and imagination are multi-dimensional too. Reliving the moment, I explore it with all my senses - sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. Each one enhances the experience. I remember the smell of the air that came through the window, the texture of the desk at which I sat to write, and the small, distinct sounds that punctured the silence.

The result is not “real-life” but it is very close. It is not “real-life” because my holiday is past, and I am living in the present moment. It is not “real-life” because I am no longer in Northumberland, but sitting at my desk here in Birmingham. It is not “real-life” because I am no longer in physical contact with that environment, but with another environment altogether, which looks, sounds, feels, smells and tastes very different. And yet I can tune out those stimuli, and take myself back to that holiday moment. In my mind. And though I know it is not “real-life” it still feels very real to me.

The experience we create, or re-create, in our minds is very close to the real thing. This is because all our experience is sorted and ordered for us by our minds. We see life through a framework that has been constructed by our previous experience and the way that we have been taught to think about it. We see what we have been taught to see. We see what we expect to see. We have learned to make sense of our world in a particular way, and our mind sifts all our experience according to these predetermined criteria and fits each new occurrence into the existing framework.

This is how we experience “reality” all the time. Our “reality” is a constructed experience.   Moment by moment, our mind is at work building and maintaining a multi-dimensional experience of the world around us, and the world within us. Most of the time, this work continues below the level of our awareness.

But there are times when we become aware that the process is going on. This is usually when something happens that does not fit within our existing framework, so that we have to re-arrange our habitual ways of thinking in order to accommodate the new data we have collected, together with what we think about it, and how we feel about it. We undergo some training, perhaps, or we encounter a different culture, or we form a new relationship. The experience may be pleasurable, but we are aware that there is a great deal to take in. We feel that we are working hard to assimilate the experience. We may undergo a “culture-shock” until that process is complete.

And the shock is even greater - and more difficult to deal with - if the change is triggered by trauma. Accident. Crisis. Loss. Bereavement. Tragedy. Injustice. Betrayal. Assault. Any form of bad news, any unexpected or unpleasant or sorrowful experience, can demolish part of the way we have come to view the world so that we feel as though the earth is moving under our feet. It is as though we have come adrift from reality. “I can’t take it in,” we might say, “It doesn’t seem real. I can’t believe this has happened. I didn’t think this could happen to me.” All these phrases describe the feeling we get when our “framework of reality” has been challenged by a significant new experience - an experience that we have not yet had time to absorb - that we have not yet integrated into our way of thinking.

When our “framework of reality” is altered or damaged, our sense of identity is also affected. Because the framework that the mind has constructed from sifting and sorting our experience does not only encompass the way we look at the world around us and the way we experience that world. It encompasses and determines the way we view, and experience, the world within us, too. A change that amends our view of the world also amends our view of ourselves. And, consequently, the way we feel about ourselves. I have learned something. I have changed. This Self, the Me that lives inside this body, thinking and feeling and acting, is not the same.

So a major life-experience can trigger an “identity crisis.”   A change in work or location, or the beginning or ending of a relationship, can set in train a process of self-examination. Soul-searching, we might call it. And we are right. Our “soul” - our sense of Self, our understanding of who we are - has been thrown into disarray. We need time and space to “find ourselves” again. What we are describing is that we need to devote some of our personal resources - our energy - to the process of reconstructing our framework of reality. Or perhaps constructing a completely new framework of reality. One that can incorporate, and make sense of, all that has gone before and all that is new.

There is a process by which we adjust to the new. Whatever the change - whether it is sudden or gradual, happy or sad, mild or severe - we travel the same road. Just as there is a common process of physical healing - whether we have broken a nail or broken our leg - so there is a standard way in which our mind repairs and renews itself. This process takes time, which is why we tell one another that “time heals.” But what we also recognise is that our ability to repair and renew ourselves is affected by the severity of our injuries. There are some wounds that time cannot heal, even when doctors or therapists are on hand to assist the process. This is true of physical wounds, and psychological wounds, too.

First there is shock, during which we may be dazed, confused or even euphoric. If we are working in a professional capacity, our training will kick in, and we get on with things. Otherwise, we may wander around aimlessly, moving in order to cope with our inner confusion. We may throw ourselves into work, in order to deal with the crisis. Or we may keep ourselves busy, because that is the only way we can cope. We may sit vacantly, or talk endlessly about anything and everything. Or we may wander from one thing to another, unable to settle to anything at all.

Then there is denial. The world has changed, but we cannot see it. Something has happened that alters everything, but we act as if nothing has happened at all. Life has changed, but we do not acknowledge the change. Or we are hurt, but we do not know we are injured. Like shock, denial is a form of self-protection. It is a way in which we stay functioning while the new experience enters into the depths of our being.

Self-doubt

Acceptance

Testing

Internalising

Integration

  

the ability to intervene in the process, to amend and direct what we are experiencing. And we can choose our focus. Instead of focusing on what is happening around us or within us right now, we can focus on the experiences we have stored from the past.

Real-life and all in the mind.  

In creating this environment, using memory and imagination, I was able to re-enter it. Sitting at my desk in Birmingham, I was able to “take myself back” to an upstairs room in a cottage in Northumberland. Physically, I stayed put, but even so, the imagined experience was real enough to generate a response in me. Because I had enjoyed staying there, and had felt renewed by the peace I experienced there, re-entering the remembered environment allowed me to re-enter the experience of that peace. In doing so, it altered my mood, even as I was writing about it. And then again as I re-read the description.

By imagining my holiday, and the particular aspects of it that gave me a sense of abundance at the time, I was not only able to relive the experience, but receive another “dose” of the benefit it brought to me at the time. This is because our thoughts control our feelings. So if we steer our thoughts in a particular direction, we can enhance, adjust or even change our mood. If we persist in doing this, the choices we make will have a profound effect on our prevailing outlook, our level of confidence and our general emotional health. Choices will change. Different decisions. Behave differently. Life will be different. Relationships will be different.

This is how Imagining abundance becomes a tool for transformation.

Nothing we can do. A great deal we can do. Do not realise how much of our Life lived at Subtle and subliminal level. Inner monologue - controlling our feelings - choices - decisions - behaviour - impact on others - impact within situations - ability to influence the world around us.

Put simply, if we think like powerless people, we will be powerless. If we think like powerful people, we will become powerful. Not all at once, and not all to the same extent. But little by little, we will become able to live an abundant life. And help others do the same. Whatever our circumstances. And whatever the future holds.

It all begins with the way we think and the things we choose to think about.

We can test this assertion by considering the books we enjoy reading, or the films or TV programmes we enjoy watching. Some books and films are marketed as “feel-good” experiences: they are designed and constructed to help us feel good about ourselves, other people, and life itself. Other books and films are deliberately created to thrill us or frighten us. In each case, the process is the same: we are fed sights and sounds which stimulate certain thoughts which in turn generate the specific feelings that are, for us, associated with those sights and sounds.

As we get older, we learn that some TV programmes will cheer us up, while others will only depress us and make us morbid. We might avoid watching certain types of programmes late at night because they “give us nightmares.” On the other hand, we might look forward to a comedy special because the characters make us laugh. We not only enjoy the programme - we enjoy how the programme makes us feel.

Our thoughts control our feelings. Change the way we think, and we can change the way we feel - about ourselves, about others, about life itself.

A huge amount of our thinking is done using our memory and our imagination. Much of the time, we make no effort to guide this stream of consciousness, but let our internal movie run itself, scarcely aware of its leaps and loops until we find ourselves daydreaming when we should be paying attention to something else. “Sorry, I was miles away,” we might say.

In such a state, we are not aware of the way in which this movie is governed by stimuli we are receiving from the world around us, mixed in with reactions conditioned by our past experience. We seldom notice, let alone question, the way our inner world absorbs, reacts to and recycles images and sounds from our memory and our imagination. And yet these thoughts stimulate an emotional response within us. The general tone of this movie, together with its accompanying soundtrack, determines the general tone of our prevailing mood. And that in turn affects our ability to act. It will raise or lower the level of energy and enthusiasm that we have available to us.

The good news is that the more we become aware of this movie and its soundtrack, the more we can pay attention to what we are seeing and hearing. In doing this, we notice the particular stories we tell ourselves, and we begin to recognise how they reinforce our perceptions, influence our moods and expand, or constrict, our freedom to think, choose, create and act. Even better, we learn how to take more control over the movie altogether, writing a new script, recasting some of the characters and reworking some of the scenes to tell a new story, with a wholly different outcome. And if we doubt the value of all this introspection, we cannot ignore the effect it has on us and our performance. All of a sudden, we are responding very differently to the world, and the world is responding very differently to us.

By steering our thoughts, identifying and selecting the memories that can serve us, and using our imaginations to create or recreate scenarios that will help us rather than hinder us, we will generate feelings that resource us, rather than deplete us, and change for the better the way we respond to the relationships and situations in which we are involved. Indeed, without taking on any more jobs or becoming loaded with further responsibilities, we are both more engaged and more creative than we have ever been before. We begin to have more time in the day and more energy to put that time to good use.

A tool that we already use in a sporadic, haphazard manner, can be used with deliberation to maximise the benefit of any moment and any situation, not only for our own sake, for the common good as well.  

If we steer our thoughts to imagine abundance, we generate a sensation of abundance. Though the source is “imaginary,” the sensation is real and its benefits practical. When we feel that life is full, rich, positive, purposeful and free, we feel resourced and empowered. We feel that we have the enthusiasm, ideas, energy, and resilience to do whatever we need to do. We feel able to do what we want to do. We feel confident that we can make good choices, achieve something worthwhile, see our plans through to completion, deliver on our promises.

And if doing this turns out to be more difficult or complex than we expected, we have a reserve on which we can draw. We know how to turn a bad situation towards the good; we know how to bounce back from adversity; we know how to find the additional energy that will enable us to persevere in the face of failure. In short, we know how we are sustained in faith, hope and love.

The hillside is thinly wooded with broad-leaved trees - oak, beech, horse chestnut, elm, lime and ash - mingled with larch, spruce, fir, pine and redwood. Behind us, the trees are backed up to the bluff; below us, a track, just wide enough for a wheeled vehicle, follows the contour between banks of rhododendron. Their brilliant blooms - orange, yellow, white, purple, red and pink - burst like fireworks against a backcloth of dark, fleshy leaves. But it is the view between and beyond the trees that holds our eyes.

It is a landscape laid down in layers of blue and green. An azure sky and a bright horizon of snow-capped mountains, as hard and sharp as serrated knives, as delicate as a confection of ice and light. Wooded hills that become a ridge of cliffs and a commanding headland, punctured by caves and coves, tipped with islets and stacks. A green dale, dissected by a river that flows into a broad blue bay. Long curves of golden sand and creamy surf. A shimmering turquoise-cobalt-purple sea.

I am dazzled by colour, texture and sound. I want to take it all in: the cool blue-white of the distant peaks, the shaggy cloak of forest caught about each hillside, the rustle of the breeze drifting through leaves and grasses, the freshness of the air on my cheek, the fragrance of flowers and foliage, the calls of birds and running water. I gaze. From the shining horizon, my attention descends to the intense green of the vale and the vivid blue of the bay. Sunlight glints off dark, crystalline rocks. I am struck by a strange pang - part adventure, part familiarity. A sense of being liberated in a place where I also feel at home. It is the landscape of my childhood holidays. Smuggler country.

“Do you know where we are?” asks Clementine.

“Paradise,” I tell her.  

The description of my holiday and the excerpt from the novel are two short demonstrations of the way in which we can use our imaginations to discover, or recover, those experiences and emotions that give us a sense of the fullness of life.   They both “work” for me, even though the first is a faithful recreation of a recent memory, while the other mixes distant memory and many imaginary elements into a fictional landscape. Both reflect on the nature of abundance, but in different ways. In the novel, abundance is in the foreground, in the details of a lush environment and the hint of exotic adventure. In the memory, abundance is couched in negative terms. It is the absence of noise, demands, people and pressure that allows a hidden wealth to rise to the surface: the wealth of who I am, who David is and the depth of the relationship between us; our shared enjoyment of specific pleasurable activities and certain beautiful things. This is a richness that is more implied than stated, but which is present nonetheless.

But these images are personal. You might find them evocative - or not. You might find them attractive or not. Landscape is only one of many stimulants that assist human beings to imagine abundance and then pursue it, and all such stimulants are personal, conditioned by our individual experience or the cultural references of our time. If you live alone, or if you are an extrovert in temperament, a holiday that pitches you into silence and solitude might feel more of a threat than a promise. Similarly, the smugglers of legend may not impress anyone who has come across the trafficking of drugs, or of women and children for sexual services.

The point is not whether these particular descriptions of abundance work for you or not, but that something will. All of us have objects, people, mental pictures, relationships, experiences, environments or situations that stimulate in us a sense of the abundant. Whatever it is that does it for you, it is out there somewhere. Some of us find it in what we see, others prefer the beauty that we can hear, touch, taste or smell. Some of us are drawn to situations where plenty, power and potential are displayed; others to stark, minimalist environments where abundance is understated or concealed. Some of us find richness in our own culture; others find it more easily in a culture that is very different to our own.

Identifying those elements that feed you, that give you a sense of abundance, that nurture your feeling that life is full and rich and purposeful and liberating, is vital - literally, life-giving. It will fill you with life. It will renew and refocus your inner world. It will revive and re-frame your creativity as a human being.

At the same time, it will address your hurts and help you to move on, so that you are no longer trapped in your wounds. A sense of abundance is the foundation of an healthy self-esteem, and an appropriate self-confidence.

Imagining abundance opens the door to abundant life. It is the source of faith, hope and love: of a life that is built on these values and energised by these qualities. Imagining abundance gives us a glimpse of the grail.

The process begins in our imagination, but its effects are felt in other parts of the mind, in the emotions and hence our physical energy also.

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