It’s super weird how you can learn a word for the first time and then an hour later hear someone else use it. Or how you’re not conscious of it right now, but once I bring it up you’ll become aware of your left earlobe. Brains are weird like that, capable of remembering the zip code for Beverly Hills but not where you parked. I can sit here and describe a fresh lemon, the waxy, greasy surface of its peel, the bright yellow color, the juicy sharp smell as you cut into it and a decent percentage of your mouths have started watering. As powerful and mysterious as our minds are, it makes a certain kind of sense that we often confuse them with magic.
Hypnosis can’t actually force you to stand up in front of strangers and cluck like a chicken, but a trained use of focus can do incredible things, like give you an orgasm without being touched. There are countless examples of people going through surgery relying only on hypnoanesthesia. There’s even some evidence that antidepressants don’t work as well as they used to, in large part because we don’t have that ‘bring Tinkerbell back to life’ belief in them we used to. People talk about the placebo effect as a way of casting doubt on incredible data, as well they should, but I also think it’s amazing to consider that our expectations can have as much power as the medicine itself. Through the direction of our unconscious mind we chip away at our goals and steadily drive towards our intentions, whether we realize it or not. Brains are pretty remarkable.
So how do we harness that power? Certainly we set ourselves to task, we buckle down, draw up our plans and rely on the remarkable computing power of our organic problem solvers. Our conscious mind takes on the job of driving the car, figuring out the steps to get from point A to point B without endangering our lives along the way. But what about our unconscious, the vision pushing us forward, whether we chose to chanel it or not? For so much of human history we’ve blamed it’s actions on the will of god, the spirits of our ancestors, the position of mercury or the fortunes foretold by our cookies. I don’t mean here the plans we have, but the dreams, feelings and intentions that guide our life and expectations. By simply dreaming it, by believing it, are we really any closer to being it?
No matter how you answer those questions, you have every right to roll your eyes at inspirational cat posters and to spare your magazines the ignominy of being crafted into vision boards. After est folded and the self-esteem bubble of the 80s and 90s burst, researchers and therapists began to realize that telling ourselves over and over how great we are doesn’t make it so. Maybe we can’t manifest our dreams by ‘putting them out into the universe’, Becky, but what can we do to focus our unconscious intentions in a way that leads to where we want to go?
First, we’re thoughtful in setting aside the tarot wielding, anti-vaxxing, GMO fear mongering beliefs of our age. Even the supposedly tried and true tricks, like meditation, yoga and acupuncture often come coupled with pretty dubious claims of ancient wisdom and magical healing. We remain skeptical of anything too good to be true without turning into cranks, remembering that our expectations, positive or negative, are part of the engine that drives our subconscious. Then we remember that happiness, unlike t-cell counts or BMI, isn’t objective or properly measurable. Our minds tend to see what we tell them to, or what we already assume is there. Happiness seems to be equal parts something that we strive to make and something that we choose to accept.
Next, we look for an outcome, not a solution to a problem. Like the Mirror of Erised we focus on where we want to go, not how to get there. It’s a truism of therapy that talking about the problem does little to change it. One of the most basic tools in a counselor’s toolbox is pointing out the exceptions to our assumptions. By establishing in our minds that success is even possible, no matter how remote, we tend to find ourselves quietly and unconsciously navigating towards it. So often we get bogged down in the process of identifying the problem, isolating the problem, obsessing over the problem. This is never more true than it is with couples, who tend to lose focus on the journey now that they’ve ‘arrived’ at marriage, living together or some other arbitrary end game. Now that they’ve reached some imaginary finish line and taken their focus off where they want to go, there’s nothing else to see but the problems.
Finally, we need a little bit of that tinkerbell magic. No matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel, our expectations for the future serve us best when we loosen our grip on the practical and the applied, refusing to get hung up on the how or the problem of it all. By setting clear in our minds not a plan but a goal, we avoid the trap of our own logic and practical doubt. The extreme example of this is the athlete or entrepreneur who KNOWS, beyond all reason, that in the bone field of failed ambitions they alone will rise to the top. As upsetting as it is to consider, research shows over and over that a little self-delusion is vital to success. In fact, accurate self-assessment and future predictions are heavily tied to depression.
In the end then, we rely on a bit of fake it till you make it. By setting our intentions clear in our minds, like say ‘I will be more kind’, ‘I will find a new job’ or ‘I will eat better’ we orient ourselves towards the goal, and find ourselves leaning into it. We are discerning, skeptical of tips and tricks too good to be true. We maintain a light grasp, avoiding thinking and planning when it’s not the time for it. And ultimately we let ourselves lean into it, trusting that if we do the right thing and get just a little lucky, the rest will work itself out, not because the universe made it happen, but because you did.