The greatest crisis of our lives is a crisis of imagination. We come to a dead stop because there is a barrier in front of us and we can't imagine a way to get around or over it. Our work space feels like it is walled with cement blocks that are closing in tighter every day, but we can't imagine where we would go if we quit. We can't breathe in an airless relationship but can't imagine how to take off. We look in the mirror, when we dare, and see the age lines, the skin blemishes, maybe the thinning hair, not the beauty that we may carry inside.
We go on repeating to ourselves the tired old stories, strapped on to us by family or past histories of defeat and disappointment. Or we cling to past memories of brighter days, or that win on the high school sports field, or that sweet summer romance, or that medal for valor or that early success that was never repeated. Either way, by nursing grief or guilt or nostalgia, we manage to go through life looking in the rear vision mirror, stuck in the past, never fully available to the present moment.
Or we miss the moment by carrying anxiety about the future, playing scenarios for what could go wrong. We give ourselves a hundred reasons not to take the risk of doing something new, something that would take us beyond the gated communities of the mind into the wilds of creative adventure.
Conscious of it or not, we go around playing our negative mantras. I'm too old. I'm not pretty enough. I don't have the money. People always let you down. People don't change. I'm so tired. You don't think you do this? Pause for a moment. Take off the headphones. Listen to what's playing on your inner soundtrack. It may be a song. Am I blue?
I confess there are days, especially between snowstorms in a Northeastern winter, when my mood can slump and go the color of the dirty grey ramparts of ice on the curb in my small gritty city. And more days like these in the shut-up times of pandemic I don't want to get out of bed even to walk the dog, who is waiting for me patiently. I may be stirred back to life by a dream or a cheering message from a loved one or a plan for an ocean beach vacation or a foreign adventure. But when I find it is still hard to rise above a low, lethargic mood and dump those negative mantras — My legs hurt, I'm played out, I can't walk on the ice — I call in one of the greatest life coaches I know.
I know him from his most famous book. Maybe you do too. His book is titled Man's Search for Meaning. His name is Viktor Frankl. He was an Existentialist — which is to say, someone who believes that we must be authors of meaning for our own lives — and a successful psychiatrist in Vienna before Nazi Germany swallowed Austria in 1938. He was a Jew and a free-thinking intellectual, two reasons for the Nazis to send him to a concentration camp. For several years he was in Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps.
In the camp, every vestige of humanity was taken from him, except what he could sustain in his mind and his heart. He was in constant pain, reduced to a near-skeleton with a tattooed number on his arm, liable to be beaten or killed at any moment on the whim of a guard. He was there to be worked to death. He watched those around him shot or beaten or carted off to the gas chambers every day.
He made an astonishing choice. He decided that, utterly deprived of freedom in the nightmare world around him, he would tend one precious candle of light within. He would exercise the freedom to choose his attitude. It sounds preposterous, if you don't know the story of what unfolded. When people tell us we have a bad attitude in ordinary circumstances, we are usually not grateful. The suggestion that we can choose our attitude when the world around us seems cold and bleak, or we have suffered a major setback, even heartbreak, sounds cruel, and maybe preposterous. But let's stay with Viktor Frankl.
When the light went out in his world, he managed to light that inner candle of vision. Despite the pain in his body and the screams and groans around him, he made an inner movie, a film of a possible life in a world where the Nazis had been defeated and Hitler was a memory. It was an impossible vision of course, an escapist fantasy. There was no way he was going to survive Auschwitz.
But he kept working on his inner movie, night after night, as director, scriptwriter, and star. He produced a scene in which he was giving a lecture in a well-filled auditorium. His body had filled out, and he was wearing a good suit. The people in the audience were intelligent and enthusiastic. The theme of his lecture was "The Psychology of the Concentration Camps." In his movie, not only were the death camps a thing of the past; he had retained the sanity and academic objectivity to speak about what went on during the Holocaust from a professional psychiatric perspective.
This exercise in inner vision, conducted under almost unimaginably difficult circumstances, got Viktor Frankl through. One year after the war, in a good suit, he gave that lecture as he had seen himself doing in his inner movies.
What do we take away from this?
First, that however tough our situation may seem to be, we always have the freedom to choose our attitude, and this can change everything. Let's allow William James to chime in: "The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another."
Second, that our problems, however bad, are unlikely to be quite as bad as the situation of someone who has been sent to a Nazi death camp. That thought may help us to gain perspective, and to stand back from a welter of grief and self-pity and rise to a place where we can start to dream up something better.
Third, we can make inner movies, and if they are good enough it is possible that they will play in the theater of the world.
Would you like to make your own life movies, in which you enjoy the satisfaction of your deepest desires? Are you willing to grow a vision of bright possibility so rich and alive that it wants to take root in the world?
Here are some secrets of the imagination that will get you on your way.
Every night, if you make the effort to catch some of what is going on, you will find that your dreams take you beyond what you already know. You already have a personal film production company, behind the curtain of the world, that is making dreams exclusively for you. That comedy or horror flick, that romance or action adventure, may be screened in the night to help you see where you are and how you are, or to give you a glimpse of other life possibilities. In other dreams, you get out and about, you socialize, you make visits and receive visitations.
Dreaming, you travel without leaving home and can be as social as you like. You are also a time traveler. You travel to past times, parallel times and into the possible future. You scout out challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Beyond seeing the future, it is possible that, dreaming, the observer effect noted in physics comes into play and you take part in the selection of events that will manifest from a quantum soup of possibilities.
There is even more going on in your nights. Indigenous wisdom teaches that through dreams we learn the secret wishes of the soul. We are called to follow our heart's desires, as opposed to the calculations of the ego and other people's agendas and expectations. We are recalled to our deeper life purpose, and given sources and resources in a deeper reality that will help us to follow our path with heart.
Don't doubt for a moment that you have the imagination required to grow a vision of manifesting your heart's desires that can carry you beyond the stuck places and the dark dreary times. Your inner child is a master of dreams and imagination. She knows the magic of making things up. She engages effortlessly in the deep play that generates creative ideas without regard for consequences. Maybe you lost contact with her as you started to grow up and the adult world trod on her dreams. Maybe there was a time when her world seemed so cold and cruel that she wanted to run away, and may actually have succeeded in running away, so a safe space in Granma's house or a garden behind the Moon. Maybe this is why you have been in a dream drought for so long; when she went away, you lost the beautiful bright dreamer in you. You are going to learn how to reclaim that Magical Child, how to convince her that you are safe and you are fun so that you can bring her energy and joy and imagination into your current life.
The philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius came to accept, as a rule for his own life, that the obstacle may be the way. When you find yourself blocked or challenged on your life road, that may be a prompt for you to look for a better way, or develop needed skill or the pluck and perseverance to see something through. You'll want to look again at what you feel is blocking or opposing you on your life road. Sometimes a block is a pause button, indicating, Not right now. Try later. You may discover that a block has been placed in your way to induce you to find a better way. For every door that won't open or slams shut in your face, look for one that maybe opening. For every setback, search for opportunity. Look for a gift in every wound or challenge though this can be hard and may require hindsight from some distance away.
Australian Aborigines say that the Big stories are hunting the right people to tell them, like predators stalking in the bush. The trick is to put ourselves in a place where the Big stories can find us. We do that when we attend to our dreams and the dreamlike play of symbols and synchronicity in the world around us. We want to learn to step out of the tired old stories we have inherited from family, from other people telling us who we are, from personal histories of failure and defeat. When we are seized by the Big story, we step beyond limiting definitions and beliefs. Great healing becomes available because we can now draw on the immense energy that is generated by the sense of serving a larger purpose and living a mythic life. The muse, or creative genius, and the intelligences of the world-behind-the-world come to support our life projects, because we are following a deeper call.
Your world is as rich or poor, as alluring or dull, as you can imagine. Listen to your dreams, let your inner child out to play, put yourself in a place where you bigger story can grab you. When you move in the energy field of a big dream of life, the world responds to you, because you are magnetic. You generate events and encounters that open new doors, and your days sparkle with a champagne fizz of magic. Your dreams speak louder and brighter and the extraordinary comes to meet you on any street corner.
On days when you feel down and defeated, remember Viktor Frankl, dreaming his way out of the nightmare of the death camps. On any day, you have the freedom to choose your attitude, and this is an exercise in creative imagination that can change everything.
©2020 Robert Moss. All rights reserved.
Robert Moss is the creator of Active Dreaming, an original synthesis of modern psychology and shamanism, and offers workshops on dreaming, creativity, and shamanism throughout the world. more
Adapted from the book Growing Big Dreams: Manifesting Your Heart's Desires through Twelve Secrets of the Imagination. Copyright ©2020 Robert Moss. Printed with permission from NewWorldLibrary.com