“If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.”
– Simone Weil
(Note: All block quotes hereafter are attributed to Weil)
I can’t find a Weil quote that says this explicitly, but I remember coming away from my reading of her contemplative writings with a clear sense that the only function of the “will” is choosing the direction of one’s attention to the Source of the good, true, and beautiful. It is, of course, also a warning: We become what we worship.
Thanks in large part to Ms. Weil, I became a lover of aphorisms and one of the first that came to me and I wrote down was, “If I can do nothing, I can do anything.” I had the intuition that if I could resist the automatic forces of enculturation and unprocessed internal contradictions, I could discover a deeper more dependable and compassionate source of motivation. This was probably inspired by Simone’s notion of Gravity and Grace: That everything is gravity, the only exception is grace, and that grace cannot be attained by force of will, it must be received as a gift. One had to wait for it, and the greater the attention the greater the capacity to wait and receive.
“No effort of attention is ever wasted.”
As I’ve attempted to cultivate the skill and virtue of attention, and discern what the function of willpower might be, I’ve tried a lot of different practices, which I’d prefer to call play. Unlike the self conscious seriousness of “exercising” the will to overcome one’s baser instincts and accomplish difficult tasks, practicing attention feels light and spacious, a no-wrong-answer kind of space.
One game I’ve returned to regularly over the years I’ve come to describe as Stop (Look/Listen/Feel) and Imagine. Whenever I feel myself unfocused, or driven rather than drawn, I try to stop and be still long enough for the drivenness to settle and allow unprocessed emotions to pass through my body. The (Look/Listen/Feel) part is a more passive openness aided by non judgmental awareness, which is the noticing that occurs before the habit of affirmation or condemnation emerges.
The next step is more active. My intention is to become willing to face, feel, or do whatever feels necessary in the clarity of stillness. And in some cases, to rehearse the activity in my imagination as a way of become more willing to act, more comfortable with the unknowns, and available to creative alternatives.
More often than not, I remember a simple task that I wanted to do, but have neglected. In those cases it’s easy and satisfying to go immediately and do the thing. Other times I recall something more difficult that I want to see accomplished, but feel confused about how it might be approached, or I’m emotionally resistant to the process or person I‘d need to engage. This is where the idea of active imagining began to connect to the skill of attention.
“We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.”
I’ve always resisted setting goals and planning, but I’ve discovered in Active Imagination a way to picture possibilities, feel my way through ways of doing which are not separate from being, not dutiful, not driven, not dependent on sheer willpower, or culturally acceptable shadow energy.
It’s not that I haven’t seen people set goals and accomplish them, and feel good about what they’ve done, it’s more that the people who suggest a goal-oriented lifestyle speak from a position of authority, sometimes given, other times assumed. And while they are skillful at winning the success game, they’re not always very good at being beautifully human and deeply present. Setting future goals can draw the imagination out of the present moment and away from people. And it can become easy to prioritize accomplishments over people.
Surrendering to the tyranny of the moment, however, is not the only other option. Another early intimation, for me, of a lifelong aspiration came in the form of the following three words, “Intense, effortless, presence.” There’s a way to cultivate ongoing discernment that is less deliberative and more a fruit of deep presence. Similar to becoming a good reader of literature—a person who can see into the depths of a plot, enjoy the tapestry of the story arc, the beauty of the language, and comprehend the author’s intentions—a person can develop the skill of reading life and particular situations in order to be drawn into the sacred space of intentional presence where our story finds deep personal meaning within existence.
Life then becomes more improvisational than preplanned. Poise, flexibility, and creativity become more highly valued than dogged persistence. Again, it’s not that planning and persistence are not valuable traits, they are, even in the alternative practice I’m recommending, Active Imagination. There’s a focus that Simone Weil referred to as “negative effort;” it’s more like resting than striving. And yet it is a state of being that allows creative alternatives to one’s habitual responses to emerge from one’s own deeper desires.
Back to my personal experience of Active Imagining, it is the surprises that emerge from this practice that most excite me. When in that state, aware of the emotional resistance, but willing to see possibilities and act on them, I often imagine potential solutions to a particular problem, or a way of being in a challenging relationship that feels more natural, more win/win. And it’s not unusual to then feel a desire to go and find out if those possibilities might work.
To move from blocked, anxious resistance to a genuine feeling of “that might work,” after a few minutes of slowing down and intentionally imagining feels pretty powerful, and a lot more appealing then applying the shame/guilt whip to my sensitive soul. I suspect that my sensitive soul knows important things, but discovering what he knows requires a different approach than the quick, efficient methodologies I learned in business school before I ran from it into the welcoming arms of a Creative Writing major.
“What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.”
I don’t think we “lose” our memory as we age, I think we slip deeply into autopilot without realizing it, so we’re not even aware that there’s no space in our overly automated imagination for remembering. But when one stops long enough, memories flood into the space made available by stopping autopilot. Sure, sometimes that flood of memories can include regrets and anxieties, but the more regularly and skillfully one faces the flood the easier it is to allow it to flow through the body.
I came to believe this to be at least largely true while playing the Stop (Look/Listen/Feel) and Imagine game. I noticed that it became increasingly easy to remember why I walked into a room, or what that thing was I wanted to remember but forgot temporarily because I kept swiping on Facebook. I think you’ll find, as I have, that as the stopping becomes more natural and less effortful, you’ll more easily slip into the calm attention of “negative effort,” where you are quietly waiting for the proverbial word on the tip of your tongue to emerge, rather than impatiently straining to recall.
It’s easy to see how impactful one’s imaginative life could be. The stories we tell ourselves, the grudges we carry, the ways we picture future possibilities, the whole spectrum of internal imaging deeply influences our world view, expectations, and emotional life. It’s well understood that it is important to pay attention to the world around us, and so we discern what or whom would be the next best thing or person to engage. Our internal imaginary life is no different, attention and discernment are crucial to a well ordered and creative imagination.
One can learn to use one’s imagination rather than be a victim of it. It can be a place where one becomes aware without prejudgment, where one can get a second opinion about one’s automatic assessments of people and circumstances. The more often I stop, listen, and actively imagine the next activity, the less time I waste sleep-walking, which not only wastes time, but inspires regret.
Examples can be as ordinary as imagining the M&Ms I’m craving, when I do so I can also see the hook in my nose that would drag me unconsciously to seek the sweet sensation that would fill the feeling of emptiness, temporarily. Once that is seen, I’m both more awake, and the story around the craving changes from MUST HAVE M&MS, or “I must use will power to resist my desire,” to a thicker story that includes my desire to be free of compulsion. One still has to choose, but the choice is clearer and a little easier.
Taking time to allow images to arise into consciousness is always instructive; I like to think that everything is revelation. The more natural nonjudgmental awareness becomes, the less edited the images. Knowing what’s in there without acting on it reduces the likelihood of leaking or projecting.
Proactively using the gift of one’s imagination is a powerful tool of creativity and self possession.
David Norling, like everyone else, “is” what he loves, as much or more than what he does. The places where his doing and loving come together are exploratory conversations, slow-walk-soaking in the natural world, camera in hand, and work/play at developing skills like writing and imagining, golf and basketball. And most of all sharing life with Mary.
Read more from David Norling in his newly published book: Didactic Shorts.