Saturday morning on Labor Day weekend a few workers were in the office while their friends and family slept in or got ready for good times. Work had piled up during the week because of staff cuts and co-worker vacations. The labor needed to be done or bad things would happen.
Norman Mensch wasn’t happy about laboring at the start of the long weekend, but he knew that gnawing on his resentment would not accomplish anything other than making him more miserable. He thought, “I can’t even remember what I did last weekend, so why should I fuss about these few hours of missed recreation? Tomorrow, this will be a fading memory, unless I keep working it over in my mind."
Then he thought, “I don’t own a boat, but where I’d really like to be now is sailing on the river.” Norman saw the river in his mind and imagined he could feel the wind blowing through his hair and across is skin. He felt the sun on his face and conjured up the feel and sounds of sailing a small wooden boat.
He liked the imagery of sailing better than the grayish droning office images that met his senses as he did his work, so he decided to replace his less favored real life experience with his imagined one. He told himself, “Since this will all soon be a fading memory anyway, why can’t I just replace the mental images my experience is creating with the mental images that I prefer?”
Norm kept working, but let part of his mind stick with the sailing imagery and let it drift to the emotional centers of his brain. He chose to feel happy sailing his desk for the next few hours and when he was done with what he needed to accomplish at work that day, he went home with pleasant memories and less emotional bilge water to bail out before he could begin to enjoy his free time.
Being mindfully in the present moment is a wonderful goal. It is one of the keys to a good life. Still, sometimes when you are in a situation that you consider aversive, it can be helpful to consciously choose your mental imagery. Sitting in a dental chair or awaiting a not much fun medical procedure, or standing in a long line with nothing to do but get irritated, you can choose to remove your focus from the conditions that may be bringing up unwanted emotions and create mental imagery that is soothing and enjoyable.
Medical research has shown that patients who practiced using mental imagery, including images of pleasant scenes from nature, had less pre-surgery anxiety, had fewer pain complaints after surgery, and they healed faster than patients left to their more or less random thoughts and emotions.1
The emotional centers of your brain respond to vivid mental imagery in the same way that they respond to images coming directly from the senses. So we can choose our emotions partly by creating imagery that affects our emotions and partly by choosing the thoughts we think.
You can think, “I hate being here. This is wrong. This is all the fault of those other guys!” You will get the emotions that fit those thoughts. Or you can chose to think, “This is not what I prefer, but I’ll be OK. The unpleasantness will pass. I’m going to make the best of this.” You will get a more pleasant collection of emotions. Imagine what might happen to you if you chose thoughts that suggested actual enthusiasm for your circumstances.
When you use your imagination to transport yourself into calming, pleasant circumstances, try to involve all of your senses. If you imagine yourself in a forest, for instance, see the plant life around you. Look all around and up and down. Imagine you can smell the scent of the forest. Smell is a powerful sense for releasing memories and emotions, so if you have a pleasant recollection, you may be able to tap into it and bring forward the pleasant emotions associated with it. Feel the quality of the air on your skin in your imagined place. Listen for the sound of the wind or of birds or other animals that might be found in your special place.
You may find it helpful to practice your active imagination as a sitting or lying down meditation. In that case, close your eyes to intensify the imagery. Remind yourself to release any tension in your muscles and tell yourself to relax. Take a few deeper breaths and continue to breathe slowly. When you are finished, take another deep breath, stretch your arms and legs and bring yourself back to the present time and place. Remind yourself that you can go back to your pleasant place any time using your imagination.
*Apologies to Ram Dass, author of the classic book Be Here Now.
to Guided Imagery from the Interlude Meditation Archive
1 Tusek, Diane L., BSN,
Cwynar, Roberta , BSN, RN,C, Cosgrove, Delos M., MD. Effect of Guided
on Length of Stay, Pain and Anxiety in Cardiac Surgery Patients, Journal of Cardiovascular Management,