Scrawled across the back of an envelope and tacked to my bulletin board, I have a quote by Mary Oliver. It says: What do you plan to do with your one willd and precious life? The envelope with this message, an extra “l” in the word “wild,” has traveled with me from place to place for almost 20 years now, because each time I read it, it bring me up short. Both the question of what I plan to do with my one life and the startling reminder that this day-to-day existence that I am living is wild and precious.
As I write this, we are four days into the New Year. A time of resolutions and introspection. Who do I want to be this time next year, in five years, in ten?
In his book 5, author Dan Zadra states that according to Dave Kohl, a professor at Virginia Tech, “people who regularly write down their goals earn nine times as much over their lifetimes as the people who don’t, and yet 80% of Americans say they don’t have goals. Sixteen percent do have goals, but they don’t write them down. Less that four percent write down their goals, and fewer than one percent actually review them on an ongoing basis. Guess which one percent?”
Can it really be as simple as that? Writing down your goals and reviewing them regularly? According to some people, yes. Wayne Dyer and Anthony Robbins have made a career out of the concept of “believe it and it will happen.” Dyer, the King of Intention, believes that intention is a field of energy that we all can access in order to create our best lives. I’ve seen a documentary where Robbins walks on coals by shifting his focus. Deepak Chopra twines the idea of quantum physics with manifestation of success and desires. Many years ago, while browsing at the local library, a book fell from the shelf and hit me on the head. Luckily it was a slim volume entitled Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain. I checked it out and read it in one sitting. Intrigued by her premise that you can mentally visualize your life to a better place, and dissatisfied with my retail job, I used one of her techniques of writing out an ideal job description and then visualizing performing that job. Less than a week later an ad appeared in the newspaper: Part time cook needed for family of five. Grocery shopping and menu planning required. Competitive wages. It was almost identical to my handwritten job description. Although I had no experience, I called and was the only applicant out of 50 granted an interview. The job was mine, and I loved it.
You would think that this experience would put me on a path of perfect manifestation of all my heart’s desires. Confirmation of the power of thought is popping up everywhere. Scientific research has proven that mental visualization can activate the same brain areas as actually carrying out those visualized actions, and it has becoming a common practice among athletes to visualize a perfect performance before an event. Remember all the shots of speed skating sensation Apolo Ohno sitting with his eyes closed, swaying back and forth pre-event? Actor Jim Carey, at the start of his career, postdated a check to himself for $10 million dollars and carried it around in his wallet for 10 years. A week before the check date Carey learned that he was to receive $10 million for his role in Dumb and Dumber.
In his book The Brain That Changes Itself, author Norman Doidge describes a research study done by neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone. Pascual-Leone taught two groups of non-piano players a simple sequence of notes. He then had one group practice two hours a day for five days. The other group sat before the piano for the same amount of time and did “mental” practice, but were not allowed to touch the piano. The participants’ brains where mapped before, during, and after the experiment and findings showed that both groups learned to play the sequence, and that “mental practice alone produced the same physical changes in the motor system as actually playing the piece.”
It is undeniable that our thoughts, especially when focused, have tremendous power, but scientific evidence aside, visualization, intention, manifestation of desires can be a tricky tool to wield. Many people have been drawn to the allure of The Secret, the bestselling book and DVD describing how to harnessing positive thoughts to attract all your heart’s desires, but many have been disappointed by their lack of results. Although my ideal job was manifested in my first attempt, there was a long, two-year period where I feverishly wrote affirmations and daily visualized myself becoming pregnant. I painted a mural on the wall of the future nursery. I made lists of potential names. I received numerous phone calls from friends who announced they were expecting, but month after month my belly remained empty. So finally, I quit. No more pages of affirmations, prayers, or visualizations. I just let it go. And then, inexplicably, on the day it couldn’t happen, I got pregnant. I’m sure there is a lesson and explanation in there somewhere, something about timing or wanting something too much, etc…but for me, I concluded that manifestation of intention is possible, but like the coyote, a bit of a trickster, illusive and hard to grasp.
During this past week leading up to the new year, I picked up a book about Buddhism, a philosophy I have been practicing off and on since my youngest child was born. While thinking about my goals and intentions for the new year, I have been reading about the Four Noble Truths as laid down by Buddha some 2500 years ago: 1. There is suffering. 2. Attachment causes suffering. 3. Suffering can end. 4. There is a path to end suffering. In a nutshell, the path to end suffering is “the middle way” or nonattachment. Meditation or mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment, no attachment to doing or being or to the future or past. To be in the present moment is the path to nonattachment and a way to end suffering.
As I read, I felt the pull of this ancient philosophy and practice, but nonattachment and living in the present moment seems to fly in the face of visualization and intention, and I struggle to reconcile the two in my mind. How can I intend without attachment? How can I visualize what I want to manifest but still stay mindful of the present moment? It is almost like a Zen koan, puzzles used to stump beginning students of Buddhism. Or perhaps my attachment to my intentions is what makes my personal manifestations unpredictable. Buddhist ideas of reincarnation even shoot down my Mary Oliver quote. I don’t have one wild and precious life, I have many.
So I go into the new year practicing the art of trying to mindfully intend my life. Since holding two opposite ideas in my mind at once is a slippery at best, I find I have to proceed more slowly and thoughtfully through my day–a departure from my usual forward ho, take charge, leap before I look, intense mode of operation. I have written down my goals for the month, the year, the future, but I am also opening myself up to what is, centering myself in the idea that this present moment is the only moment I truly have.
The best holiday card I received this year was from a sweet, retired couple I knew years and years ago. The last line read, “we hope that the new year treats us all gently as we attain our best purpose.” An image comes to mind of holding this new year in my cupped hands, like a fragile egg or a pile of feathers that I don’t want to blow away. I am holding my whole wild and precious life gentle and mindfully, because as actor and playwright Noel Coward said so wisely, as if he were a Buddhist master: “I am all that I have, to work with, to play with, to suffer and enjoy.”