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October 4, 2017

Half Empty or Half Full?

Dear friend,

A scientist separated his laboratory mice into two groups. The mice in the first group were placed one by one in a big tank of water made opaque with milk. They had to swim for a set amount of time. these mice were the lucky ones since their tank had a tiny island hidden under the water on which they could perch and rest without swimming. Their island was always in a fixed position so they could find it and rest.

The mice in the second group swam for the same amount of time in the milky water as the first group, but their tank had no island. No oasis amid the vast vats. After their swims, the mice in both groups were plucked from the water weary and bedraggled. Both groups then rested, ate, and recuperated before the real test.

The next test started exactly the same way. The researched made them swim one by one but this time all the mice swam in a tank without an island. As much as they swam, there was simply no oasis to be found. No rested place and the mice had to paddle like mad just to keep afloat. The researcher rescued them before their noses slipped beneath the water. Then he carefully recorded how long each mouse swam before he quit swimming.

The results were surprising. He found that those lucky mice who’s island had been there for them the first time swam twice as long looking for the island. In contrast, those who had never found a foothold in their hour of need were reduced to wandering aimlessly around the tank swimming in directionless circles in vain. The difference as to whether they sank or swam was the illusion of the island. Their ability to conjure an inner image of an island to swim for when the going got rough, even if such an island existed only in their imagination, that image was enough to give them strength to swim on.

You have a choice to be optimistic or pessimistic. I believe you can build illusions to make yourself optimistic. The illusions can be real or imaginary. They work the same. Your mind does not know the difference.

Optimism pervades and influences almost everything — our thoughts, our feelings, our perspective in life, even our ability to keep on swimming in the face of adversity. Optimism can be a stable aspect of your personality if you build it. Make it an active internal process like learning to do any task. Make it a verb, not a noun. Pessimism by contrast can also be learned. Don’t let it sneak into your thoughts. Don’t ever accept it. Never. Never. We can all become better illusion builders with practice; so if you can’t imagine the elusive island now, don’t worry. You can learn to.

Let me tell you a true story. I know you will learn from it.

Dominque Bauby writes, “I am functioning in slow motion, and in the beam of the headlights I barely recognize turns I have negotiated several thousand times. I feel sweat beading on my forehead, and when I overtake a car, I see it double. At the first intersection, I pull over. I stagger from the BMW, almost unable to stand upright, and collapse on the rear seat…and then I sink in to a coma.”

Bauby, editor in chief in his early forties and father of two young children, was behind the wheel, speeding to pick up his kids when he began to feel woozy, dizzy, not himself. The next thing he knew, twenty days later he awoke to find himself the victim of “locked-in” syndrome following a massive stroke. He was paralyzed from head to toe unable to move except for blinking his left eye. But he had normal bodily sensation and his mind was left entirely intact, able to take in the whole situation. “In one flash I saw the frightening truth. It was as blinding as an atomic explosion and keener than a guillotine blade.” He could not speak, sign, or even shake his head yes or no. Luckily, for Bauby, that blinding, sharp-edged flash of insight about his state was quickly replaced by determination to make himself heard.

He learned that when his visitors said the alphabet slowly, letter by letter, he could blink his left eye as they passed the letter the wanted and thereby painstakingly spell out words and sentences to make himself understood. Even when a catastrophic stroke shattered his illusion of being at the wheel, taking away virtually all his control of his body, he found the one life line to the world outside that still existed and took charge of using it for all it was worth. In fact, he later used the eye blinking technique to write a book, “The diving-bell and the butterfly”. Even when his whole body was weighted down, held prisoner by what he called a giant bell, Bauby could let his mind take flight like a butterfly. There was so much to do and as a butterfly, he could wander off into space and time and realize his childhood dreams and adult ambitions. If you can imagine doing the same thing in his position, congratulations.

Bauby quickly came to realize the importance of having control over the content and the climate of his inner world. It is the process of taking charge of your inner state that permits you to be the master illusionist when it comes to shaping your perception of the world around you. Fortunately, he had stored away enough pictures, smells, and sensations over the course of years to enable him to leave the hospital far behind.

Bauby also engaged in “downward comparison” focusing his attention on those who are in a similar situation to his own or even less well off. “Scores of comatose patients, patients at death’s door, plunged into endless night. They never leave their rooms at the hospital.” He is comparing his favorable situation to those less fortunate and feeling some sense of relief that he is in fact lucky by comparison. He understood that downward comparison with those less fortunate is a trick that really works to make ourselves really lucky, while upward comparison with those that have more easily stir difficult to manage feelings of anger, envy, and injustice that can make our moods black.

Another trick of thought that Bauby frequently utilized is that of rewriting scenes in his mind to give them different endings. It is a method used to repair our ego after is has encountered misfortune.

“I am the greatest director of all time,” said Bauby. You too can become the director of your inner world. It requires that you be able to recognize what you are feeling and what is making you feel that way. Then take the necessary steps to shift what you are feeling in a more comfortable direction, using all the tools at your disposal: optimistic thoughts, downward comparisons, and rewriting scenes. Make the change in your feelings; knowing it is changing your inner world when in reality, the outer world may still be the same. Your focus is on your feelings not on the reality outside and you can leave the pessimism and negative emotions outside.

Becoming more optimistic requires an active decision on your part to change how you are feeling and what is making you feel that way. It means that you will choose to change what you are thinking about when it is not having the desired effect on your mood.

If you will not take your mood as an unchangeable given, with practice, you will have the ability to remain comfortable inside, and the sense of control around you will grow.

I wish you many years of practice so that you can make your inner world what you want it to be and thereby change the world around you positively. 

Your friend,

Stu

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