Be a better wonderer
How to use the power of wondering
Really clear goal setting is extremely important when you truly want to achieve something. Having vague goals - or even definite goals propped up with only the vaguest notion of how you're actually going to reach those goals - is a recipe for disappointment. To make real progress, we need to be precise in our thinking, using the strategic part of our brains (the prefrontal cortex) effectively, so as to determine what direction we want to take in life.
But there is another powerful way to use the mind.
Before you know it
There is a time before certainty. This is the time when the picture in your mind is not yet clear, the point at which goals are not yet formed, because you've yet to discover what you want to focus on. Now, we're all encouraged by what I call the 'positive thinking industry' to be definite. To state clearly to ourselves what we want and what we think. And there are certainly important benefits to be gained from clarity. But, if we crystallise our ideas and goals too early, we are in danger of becoming like the unfortunate tourist who went to visit an exotic country but never left his hotel room - because he thought that was all there was. (Never trust a glossy brochure, say I.)
Every great thinker has periods of uncertainty, of not knowing, of waiting for the mists to clear before they can be certain. From Einstein wondering what it might be like to travel on a beam of light before formulating his famous theory of general relativity to the ancient Greek Archimedes wondering (in his bath, according to tradition) how to tell if a golden crown really was pure gold before formulating what we now know as the Archimedes Principle, history has shown that people who can hold off from thinking they know something and who can relax in simply wondering "what if...?" become the genuine innovators.
If we try to skip or abbreviate this essential stage (which can, admittedly, sometimes be uncomfortable), we will be setting the showiness of certainty above the depth of understanding that could be ours if we embraced uncertainty more, and dared to wonder and daydream as an empowering prelude to genuine discovery and creativity.
Hypnotherapy can sometimes be very precise and strategic too, but we also like to get our clients to wonder, to go on inner searches to discover new possibilities for themselves. Once we are 'set' to be really curious, to wonder and be open to anything, it's as if the unconscious mind gets a 'green light' to create ingenious solutions and develop exciting new possibilities. When we limit ourselves, we become overly certain of what we think possible or not possible, but when we begin to wonder "what if...?" we start to cast aside limiting perceptions. Every great achievement and success started from someone, somewhere, just wondering "what if...?" without ruling anything in or anything out.
The best ideas come out of wondering
I think our western culture has conditioned us to be rather too keen to be seen to 'have answers', whereas the best ideas so often come from the curious, open and wondering mind.
We are told to state our goals boldly and always know our own mind but sometimes starting out uncertain is actually a good thing. Somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps, starting a new relationship or other venture while still being a little unsure may be a great springboard to eventual success, because this is a truer mirror of life, which is essentially an exploratory endeavour. We don't know in advance how it will turn out. Being too sure of things too early closes off possibilities. We are not always supposed to know that something will work before it does.
People often assume that if they feel uncertain it means that they are somehow not being 'positive', but I think this is a simplistic view.
I recently saw some fascinating research in the journal 'Psychological Science' which found that people solved more anagram puzzles after first being encouraged to wonder.(1)
The subjects were instructed to spend some time wondering about whether they really wanted to solve the puzzles, how they might solve them and if they would actually attempt to solve the puzzles or not even try.
Interestingly, a control group which was asked to just directly declare to themselves: "I will solve these puzzles!" were less successful than the 'wondering group'.
What could explain these results?
The wondering group was 'primed' to be 'open and reflective'. This is a far better mindset for creative problem solving than 'certainty' - even when the certainty seems like positive thinking. So, contrary to popular self help advice, constantly telling yourself "I will succeed" may not actually be the best way to put yourself into the state of mind where you do succeed!
Planning to wonder
Of course, eventually wondering must cede place to positively-intentioned action, but the more deeply we engage in the preliminary stage of 'wondering', the better able we are to reach the positive intention stage. And we can be positively-intentioned about wondering and letting the unconscious mind do its thing.
When I was a kid my favourite TV show was 'Mr Benn'. Every day Mr Benn, for unexplained reasons, would visit a certain fancy dress shop. He might try on a suit of medieval armour, or a space suit, or the multi-coloured garb of a circus clown. Leaving the changing room dressed in his latest costume, he would emerge into the world associated with his current garb and have an adventure... until such time as the shop owner mysteriously re-appeared to lead him back into the magical shop. Mr Benn was a guy who never set any limits on himself.
Rather than thinking: "I'm not the type of person who could... (whatever)", get into the habit of daydreaming "what if...?". Don't dismiss anything too soon, as that quashes creativity. Consider your options - but then create a few more, even if they seem outlandish. Remember, when you are wondering you are just doing 'thought experiments'. Questions about how 'realistic' or 'sensible' the content of your wonderings is have no place at this stage. How 'realistic' was it for a poor single mother to think she could write a book about a boy wizard called Harry Potter and hope to get anywhere with it?
So fantasise without limits, but hone your fantasizing skills by asking yourself the kinds of questions we ask our clients when we want to take them gently from 'negative certainty' to the 'glimmer of possibility' stage through wondering. Questions like:
- "How would I be living if every day if I was really burning to get on with my day?"
- "If I was someone else reading about my future adventurous and exciting life, what kinds of things would I see on the page?"
- "If a miracle happened tonight and this problem was magically solved in the morning, what would I notice that was different in the morning, I wonder?"
This last question allows us to really loosen up our thinking from its narrow focus on 'how can I possibly fix this?' to considering what will be different when it is solved. It's amazing how often, when people do this, they find an unexpected solution or coping strategy come to mind, because they've effectively cast aside thinking constraints.
And lastly, set the scene for wondering.
Luxuriate in uncertainty
Tell yourself before your bath, or in the moments before sleep, that you are just going to imaginatively explore some possibilities. That's all. You are going to luxuriate in uncertainty for a while - a true 'beginner's mind' or 'inventor's mind'. This is not the same as worrying about a situation. Worrying tends to be circular. And it's not the same as trying to solve anything. It's just wondering "what if...?", no matter how outlandish the what if may be.
At its heart, the process of wondering is hypnotic, and that is why it is so powerful. This is why it's so valuable to develop the skills of wondering alongside the more recognized skills of more obviously strategic and sequential thought. And it can make life so much more interesting!
- See 'Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk'. Psychological Science April 2010 vol. 21 no. 4 499-504
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