William James famously suggested that the path between emotion and expression wasn’t a one-way street. In other words, it’s not just that having an emotion causes us to express it through facial expressions and body language, but also that by assuming a given expressions we create the corresponding emotional state. James might have gone a little far in proposing the emotion can’t exist devoid of its expression, but he came by the belief that you could get to emotion through expression honestly enough.
I read about how James, suffering a bad cases of the blues, asked himself what would happen if he behaved as though he was in a happier state of mind. He decided to carry out this experiment, and he soon found himself in a much better mental state. This got me thinking about what else one might pretend that would yield positive results.
It should be noted, that there’s been a lot of research on this topic, and it’s been dubbed the “as if principle,” though colloquially people talk about it as “faking it till you make it.” Some of you may be familiar with this idea from the study showing that adopting a Wonder Woman stance made subjects feel more confident. If not, Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk can be viewed here.
So, here are five ideas–true or not–that are worth believing:
[Note: You’ve got to pretend as if you were a five-year old. Don’t bring those pathetic and puny adult imaginations.]
5.) I’m happy: Starting with the self-ruse most widely known and which James brought to our attention. You may have heard the following advice: if you’re ever feeling down, stand up and pump your fists in the air at an upward angle such that one’s body forms a “Y” (or an “X if you want to keep your feet wide.) This is a hardwired victory behavior written into our evolutionary coding, and it’s hard to be depressed while doing it.
4. Oneness / Unity: Try pretending that you’re connected to everything in the universe. The experience isn’t uncommon with mystics and meditators, as well as those in the Flow. This is an attempt to work it around from the other direction.
Now, some mystic-scientist out there is going to say that this isn’t an untruth because there’s evidence that we are connected to everything, citing quantum entanglement and such like. Maybe so, but as there’s no reason to believe we have a sensitivity to happenings at that quantum state, the pretending is still necessary. (i.e. Even if such entanglement exists, we can no more sense it than we could recognize if a force of 1-trillionth of a gram touched our skin.) Evolution doesn’t grant us capabilities beyond what are needed to survive to procreate, and so I’m doubtful that we have some untapped power to sense quantum entanglement lurking within us.) The oneness we feel has to do with the part of the brain that tracks the “I v.) not-I” divide fading out of operation–rather than an awareness of some web of subatomic entanglement.
This self-subterfuge is a way to simultaneously put one’s worries in perspective while not becoming demoralized about being an insignificant speck in a vast universe. One is an infinitesimal speck in an infinite universe, but one is tied into the universe such that one is simultaneously an infinite universe.
3.) Chi / Prana: I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that the immaterial energies of Eastern traditions (Taoism and Yoga, respectively) exist. However, I wouldn’t argue that there’s no benefit from imagining them to exist. There seems to be little doubt that visualizing the flow of these energies can have benefits–regardless of whether they’re the traditionally advertised benefits or not. Even if you don’t succeed in pulling energy into one’s body directly, sans the middlemen of food and oxygen (so one can live off the dew on a single ginko leaf–ala “Kung Fu Panda”), visualization is good for the brain and the invigorated feeling one creates in pretending chi exists can’t hurt.
2.) “There is no spoon:” This, of course, comes from the movie “The Matrix” in which a young sage / savant attempts to teach the protagonist, Neo, how he can bend a spoon with his mind. The upshot is that one doesn’t try to bend the spoon, one realizes that the spoon is a figment of the imagination.
The idea that we are part of a simulation may turn out to be less far-fetched than it seems. I cite, for example, the TED Talk by physics Nobel Laureate George Smoot.
At any rate, the virtue of the thought exercise of pretending this is true is two-fold. First, one can ask whether one would lead the same life and give events the same weight if one was to discover that one was living out a simulation designed to advance the understanding of some entity (e.g. an alien race, a colossal supercomputer, etc.) Second–and more importantly–one may become more attuned to the fact that one’s own mental / emotional world is full of dream-like simulations. One’s brain is designed to anticipate worst-case scenarios, and it’s exceedingly good at fabricating scenarios that taint our perception of the world with anticipated negative possibilities–most of which will never come to fruition. There are many variants, attributed to various speakers, of the following Mark Twain quote:
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
1.) There is no I: A core tenet of Buddhism is that there is no self. Depending what a self has to be to exist as an independent entity, science may yet converge on a similar conclusion. The self seems, at best, to be an emergent property. In the Anil Ananthaswamy book I recently reviewed, it’s compared to a center of gravity. There’s no molecule that can be called the center of gravity, it’s a property that moves around as the body does. It’s definable, but not in terms of a specific location or physical existence.
Pretending there is no self may help put many worries into perspective. Like #4, it may also help one feel more connected to a larger world. But most importantly, it may help one to turn off those parts of one’s mind that are prone to self-loathing, self-denigration, or just self-consciousness.