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I drove through the mountains of northwestern Montana for over an hour before turning off onto a rutted road darkened by old pines. As the jeep whined and bumped its way up through the forest I began to wish I was back in New York. But Allan's words kept running in my mind: "Give it a chance. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work."
Near the top of the mountain I found a small cabin nestled in a cluster of fir trees. My stomach fluttered slilghtly as I got out of the jeep and looked around.
"Hello, anybody there?" I said. The front dooe stood half open and I peered into a large space with a fireplace at one end. A rough-hewn wooden table stood by a sink near a big window overlooking the valley. In the center of the room a wiry little man was hanging upside down with his arms crossed over his chest. His feet were locked in foot straps attached to a high bar. He said, "You must be Nicholas."
I wondered if I should try to bend over to match his position.
"Yes, we talked on the phone about stage fright."
His voice sounded like metal scraping gently on granite. "You'd like to have stage fright?"
"No, I'd like to get rid of it."
"Why get rid of something useful?"
"Stage fright's useful?"
"It brought you to me."
I couldn't think of anything to say.
"Take a room in Bear Canyon tonight. Dream about what you want for yourself and come back tomorrow."
This was too weird for me. What was I talking to, a bat? And what did he mean "dream" tonight? To think about what I want, or to somehow control my dreams? My night dreams happen by themselves, and daydreaming is pure fantasy world. What I really wanted was my job back to be paid to experiment with my computer video ideas, but that was beyond the powers of Mr. Kumi. So I'd made this whole trip for nothing. I decided to go back to New York and work it out on my own.
I wound my way down the mountain in second geat. My throat was constricted and I had to open my mouth to breathe. I stopped the jeep, got out and retched violently. The forest was still. I wiped my mouth and sat down on a bed of pine needles.
No job, no marriage and a son who still blames me for the divorce. Is that what I'm going back to? Marion is the one light on the horizon. She inderstands, and Charles likes her. She thought coming here was a good idea.
A beam of sunlight slanted through the trees and shone on a gossamer circle of silk threads. In the center sat a spider in predatory stillness. I watched for any sign of movement, but saw only the eerie undulating of the web.
"Somebody might get yu first," I whispered.
I got back in the jeep and drove very slowly down the mountain. Once on the highway I thought about New York. I was good at my job and it was wrong for them to let me go. Stillmuch as I hated to admit itmaybe it wasn't only to save money that Globalcom dropped me. I don't always relate easily to people, I guess. Sometimes I wondered why I wasn't persuasive enough to make people, I guess. Sometimes I wondered why I wasn't persuasive enough to make people listen. The truth is, in the back of my mind every day I wanted to express my ideas with confidence. In meetings, one-on-oneeven on the phoneit was hard for me to speak naturally and maintain my composure. And public speaking was worst of all. I guess I'd been no better in communicating with Andrea.
Thinking through this litany, I knew I couldn't go back to being that person. Something had to change. I pulled into a bed & breakfast and took a room for the night.
The next morning I returned to Kumi's cabin, ready for more or less anything. The sun was just beginning to streak the sky. The door to his house was still open but he wasn't there. I wondered vaguely if he was just playing with me or had lost interest.
I walked around outside the house and saw him near a large lichen-covered rock formation staring over the mountain vista to the southeast. Strips of snow laced the upper granite crevices of the near mountain and a sprinkling of pines sloped down into a valley of aspens and cottonwoods. On the horizon was a huge snow-capped mountain turning pink in the changing morning light.
I walked over and stood for a minutewatching Kumi.
Without looking at me, he said, "See that mountaintop?" I followed his eyes and looked at the snow-capped peak.
"See yourself at your best, standing over there in all your strength." I took a deep breath to cover my irritation. I'm a practical person and haven't time for touchy-feely stuff. "I don't see myself, I just see the mountain."
"Touch your nose and then see it on the peak," he said, pointing to the mountain.
Allan had warned me that some of Kumi's ideas might seem a little off the wall. I tried to follow his instructions even though I felt awkward.
"My nose on the peak?"
"You mean, like a dot or big, or what?"
"Any size you like."
I put my hands on my hips and looked at my shoes for a moment. "Why are we doing this?"
"You're from New York, aren't you?"
"I met a guy from Brooklyn once who said to me, 'Kumi, I figure one of two wayseither I figure what the hell, or I figure the hell with it.' So, figure either way."
I resisted a smile. His eyes twinkled. The muscles in my jaw begin to relax and I threw my wind breaker on the grass. Once again I felt my noseit was coldand tried to place it on the mountaintop. Gradually a faint outline started forming before my eyes, almost as if I were sculpting it on the sky.
"How's it going?"
"It comes and goes."
"But you're getting an image?"
"A little, yeah."
"Now do the same with your face and body."
I touched my cheeks and the bones of my face.
"I son't see anything."
"Take your time."
"Can I close my eyes?"
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, still feeling my face.
"I'm not seeing anything."
"You don't have to really see it, just imagine you're seeing it."
Suddenly I saw a transparent image of part of my face and then it went away.
"How do I hold onto it?"
Feel it being over there, watch it moving."
Oddly enough, it was easier for me to feel the image first, then see it. Bit by bit, as I touched my body, parts of my torso and limbs appeared vaguely on the horizon. The picture faded in and out but I was getting pieces of it.
"Take the part of you that's easiest to see and make it brighter."
I looked at him and back at the mountain. I closed my eyes and saw my left ear and my hairline. I imagined painting my ear a bright orange, then my face, nose and mouth. Gradually the whole face became brighter, then disappeared.
"Can we stop a minute?"
I let out a big sigh and rubbed my head.
"I think it'd be easier to climb that mountain than see myself on it."
"You'll get it. It's just new for you."
I scanned the landscape and drank in the fresh pine breeze.
"Try less hard this time. In fact, don't try at all, just feel any part of the image of yourself that comes most naturally into view."
I looked back up at the mountain peak. A thin outline of head and shoulders began to form. I don't know if they were mine, but I imagined they were. I was breathing more naturally and felt less tense.
"Now make the picture larger. See it on a big screen."
The idea of a screen helped, as if I were watching myself in a movie. Suddenly I heard my voice and saw a vague image of my mouth.
"Make the image brighter as you move the screen toward you."
I felt my image moving toward me, from the mountaintop, but I wasn't sure what I was seeing.
We continued playing in this way for some time, brightening and darkening parts of the picture, making them larger and smaller, testing to see which contrasts would make the image most vivid. For me, larger and brighter felt best and made it easier to imagine. I was getting more interested in the exercise as I began to see portions of my body in color. But part of me was still resisting the exercise, because I saw no sense in doing it.
"Are you moving in the picture, or still?"
"Still, like a photo."
"Give it motion."
"It won't move."
"Move your arms and then see them moving over there," he said nodding to the mountain.
I flexed my fingers, then my arms, and marched in position, then tilted my head back and forth. As I felt these motions I saw these parts of image move, but the picture faded in and out of focus.
"Now, recall a time when you did a fantastic job on something and remember how that felt. See yourself feeling that way."
"I can't think of anything fantastic I've ever done."
"Take your time. Aeschylus said, 'Everything divine is effortless.'"
"Well, I'm not Aeschylus, whoever that is."
Suddenly i recalled the first time I got an on-line video relay with a clear picture and no break-up in the sound. I was elated and my colleagues at Globalcom gathered around. I saw, faintly in the distance, the smile I had on my face that day. My body relaxed as I enjoyed the image.
"Now move that picture closer to you, and then closer still, and then faster and faster and rush it into your body."
"How do I do that?"
"Just do it."
I fixed on the smile, the crinkle around my eyes and the flush in the cheeks. I concentrated as hard as I could to hold the image. As I moved that picture closer to me my heart began to pound. I felt the image "enter" my body with a jolt.
"Do it again."
I got back whatever image I could and repeated the exercise, feeling a strong rush as it traversed space and slammed into my body.
I repeated this action a number of times, getting different parts of the picture in view with each repetition. I felt like I was ready to fly off the edge of the mountain I was standing on.
"Ohh...can we stop now?"
I leaned back against a rock, closed my eyes and rubbed them. My eyelids felt heavy as I massaged my temples. When I opened my eyes the mountains were purple and half shaded by cumulus clouds. I looked at my watchten-thirty. We'd been at this for two-and-a-half hours!
I looked around for Kumi and saw him carrying logs into the cabin. I went over to help him.
"May I ask what that was all about?"
"Did you enjoy it?"
"I'm not sure."
"How do you feel when you see yourself like that?"
"I feel, uh...unusual. I've never done it."
"Does it feel comfortable or uncomfortable?"
I had to think for a minute. "The act of doing it is really strange, but the feeling that comes from it is...well, not bad, actually. I'm just not sure why we did it."
"Imagine a time when feeling confident will be useful to you. Like for an interview or exam or any test situation where you need a high level of concentration and energy."
"Well...I'm giving a talk in two weeks that I'm kind of dreading. It's at my college reunion. An old friend of mine got an award and they want me to say a few words about him. I'd like to feel good when I'm doing that – you know, confident. But no one's going to be there to get me into the right frame of mind, so what's the point?"
"Imagine that it's two weeks from now and you're at the place where you'll talk. Feel yourself being there now."
"Feel it how?"
"See the surroundings through your own eyes, hear people talking, feel the atmosphere, use your imagination."
This felt odd to me, but odd seemed to be the mane of the game here. All this imaginary stuff reminded me of being a kid, living in a fantasy world. But why not? So, I imagined a large room probably in some restaurant, with about a hundred people sitting at tables set for dinner. Maybe I'd be back at a speaker's table with a microphone, glasses and a pitcher of water. I got the old feeling of being with one or two of my college buddies and actually began to see them, mentally exchanging their shirts and jeans for suits and ties.
"Okay, I'm there. So now what?"
"Do what you can."
"So, I'm in the future, at the reunion dinner, and still remembering the mountain?"
"And I'm hearing the voice I'm going to use in my talk?"
"Yes. Also, see yourself talking."
"From the mountain?"
"From the mountain."
"This is weirdmy sermon from the mount!"
"Sure it's weird. Go ahead."
I planted myself at the event and retieved, as best I could, the picture and feeling of myself on the mountaintop. Then I heard my voice, which was easy. I suddenly realized I had done something similar to this beforeimagined myself at future eventsbut those images just came to me involuntarily and they weren't always pleasant. This was the first time I had ever consciously created the picture of a future event in my mind, especially seeing myself in it. The impression I was getting now of being at my college reunion two weeks ahead of time was so strong that I even felt my new dress shoes on my feet.
"I'm wearing a suit and tie," I said aloud.
"How do you feel?"
"Okay. I feel there the way I feel here."
"Good. We're planting that feeling in your future. Now give your talkin that future space."
"I don't know yet what I'm going to say."
"Give the gist of it."
I looked at the vague image of the crowd I imagined around me and began making up a speech. Although I heard myself speaking aloud in that room, I was silent here in front of Kumi. When I finished I looked at him.
"So, how was it?" he asked.
"This feels really strange to me."
"That's naturalyou've never done it. Just tell me how the speech went."
Thinking about my speech as if I'd already done it felt oddly pleasant. "Actually, I felt a little nervous. But it went okay. I got through it."
"Is that how you normally feel when you give a talk?"
"Oh, I don't give talks very much. But no, I choke up when I have to speak in public."
"You mean you used to choke up. Now you have a new way to feel about it, and that new feeling is planted in your future, waiting for you. It's nice to know you can walk into that room two weeks from now and feel only a little nervous, isn't it?"
"Well, yeah, but how do I know that? After imagining it for only a few minutes?"
"Imagining things is how you make them happen. That's what I'm teaching you. When you fully immerse your mind in the act of doing somethingseeing it, hearing it, feelling itthat's as good as doing it. Your brain doesn't know the difference."
"Well, I think my brain would."
"See this lemon," he said; holding out his empty hand. "I'm going to cut it with this knife." He pretended he was cutting a lemon with a real knife. A good acting job. Then he took of the lemon and held it to his mouth, making a loud sucking sound. My mouth felt the fresh tang of lemon and I salivated.
"Yeah, but you tricked my brain."
"I tricked your brain or your tricked your brain?"
"Well, I'm not sure who did it, but..."
"Imaginative people trick their brains all the time. That's how they accomplish their dreams. And brains love it. They're in the game-playing business. They'll play games with you if you don't give them something to do."
I nodded. "That's true."
"Brains need to be directed, because they can go wayward or get lazy. So we're going to make sure your brain remembers this good feeling of giving the speech in two weeks. You're going to reinforce its memory by practicing this exercise every day between now and speech-time. And just to make sure you practice it, you're going to remind yourself now to practice it tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and so on. So, right now I want you to see yourself practicing this exercise at home every day, and again just before giving your speech."
I sighed. "This is work."
"Yes, it's work."
"Okay. So, nowyou're asking that I be here with you and see myself at home practicing."
"Yeah, I do have to get this straight, you know. You've had me flying around everywhere so much I'm not sure where I am anymore."
Kumi laughed in a funny high-pitched "hee-hee" voice, like a child, and patted me affectionately on the back. "Don't worry, you're doing fine. Go ahead."
I got the feeling of being in my Riverside Drive apartment. Then I half saw, half felt myself there and heard my voice practicing my speech. I noticed that practicing the speech in this way I felt hardly any of the old anxiety. I got the impression that my face looked more confident so I must have been seeing myself, and as I watched it I felt calm. Kumi looked at me, nodding his head as if he could see the results just by watching me.
"I hope it's still there two weeks from now," I said.
"If you practice it will be, and it'll get better. Ultimately, you want to see more than just yourself giving a speechyou want to see the rest of your life."
"I'm doing well if I can see the rest of the week."
"Practicing making images in your mind every day and you will see farther and farther into the future. You said you recently lost your job."
"What did you do?"
"I developed video-conferencing software for a large computer firm."
"So who're you working for now?"
"Do you see where that's going?"
"Well, now's the time to start. You're part of a large army of displaced workers who have to figure out how to make it on their own. I want you to visualize every day: long-term for your goal, making images of what you want in your future, and short-term for creating alternatives in your daily life. And feel these images fully in your body, as if they are already occurring experiences. Are you willing to do that?"
I felt a flicker of irritation and looked away. A bird circled and called out sharply, "We-chewkek, kek, kek, kek, kek." Suddenly it dived, turned a series of somersaults, tumbling over and over in a flurry of feathers, then swooped up and disappeared over the trees.
I looked at Kumi. He was starting at me with his eyebrows raised in a questioning position.
"I'll try," I said.
"Alright, I'll do it."
"Ahhh. Now take a moment and imagine other situations where visualizing like this might be helpful to you."
I remembered when I got fired in March and how upset I felt. Not only at being betrayed by my boss but because I'd failed to express myself as I should have. I keep hearing Streicher saying, "I think we've gone far enough with on-line conferencing." At the time I was working on creating large, high quality computer video images for businesses wanting to hold live meetings on the Internet. "After all," Streicher said, "we don't really need pictures to communicate." Yet he was the one who always said, "There's nothing like seeing the person you're negotiating with."
Replaying the event in my mind, I wondered why I hdn't pointed out that contradiction. The reason is I didn't see it at the time because I was so hurt. Is it possible I might have come out of that encounter feeling different than I didbetter, more resourcefuland that playing it over in my mind these past months could have been less painful? Maybe this exercise could be applied to my relationship with my son, Charles, who had just started university. Perhaps I could help him wit his physics without getting into an argument.
"Successful people see themselves five, ten times their normal size in bright colors, performing wonderslike they're watching themselves in a movie,"Kumi said.
"How do you know?"
"Because they tell me. I asked a professional basketball player onve how he got so good at his free throws. He said he practiced with an imaginary ball. I asked him why and he said, 'Because it always goes in.'"
I grinned and nodded. "And seeing yourself succeeding always works?"
"If you believe in it and do it repeatedly. You recall your successes to get back that good feeling. Many people sabotage themselves by remembering their failures and worrying about repeating them. They bring back all the bad feelings tha come with those memories. To make it even worse, they say to themselves, 'It' not going to go well,' which guarantees that it won't. You get what you predict."
"But how do I know I can do it when I really need it?"
"Creating pictures in your mind is a skill like any other. The more you practice it the better you become. You visualize numbers and equations, don't you? That's part of your work."
"Yeah, but that's different."
"You're asking me to visualize myself, and to see situations in my life I've never seen before. That's hard for me."
"Practice by recalling pleasant images. Like a favorite game you had as a child, a teacher you liked, a graduation day."
Suddenly I saw in my mind a big pail of water full of green apples that we were dunking for at a birthday party in my basement. I must have been nine years old. I also remembered getting a stomachache eating too many of those green apples.
"Or a favorite movie or television program."
Now a whole slew of images came flooding in.
"I knew a guy who said he could never get an image in his mind," Kumi said. "I asked him what he enjoyed most as a kid and he said his fire truckand bang, the picture of this red foot-long six-wheeler flashed in full color right in front of him. Now he says he can make an image of anyhting he wants and then step into the image and feel himself doing it."
"That doesn't mean he'll get it."
"But he knows how it feels to have itit's within reach. Then he's inspired to go for it."
"What if he makes an image of something and steps into it and finds it's wrong for him?"
"He makes a new image."
"Like an actor working on a scenestep in and out of it until you get it right."
"But it takes a long time to learn that."
"Not when you make it a daily ritual. Do a little bit at a time. Going too fast for a full bright picture is as frustrating as trying to lift a heavy weight for the first time. The happiest memories will be the easiest to recall."
One of the happiest days for me was the day Charles was born. And Andrea looked so beautiful. Recalling those early happy days of our marriage is almost unbearable. Maybe that's why I don't want to visualize past success or happiness, because when you don't have it anymore it's too painful to think about.
"Kumi, has it ever occurred to you that maybe some people just don't visualize?"
"All people visualize, because visualizing is part of the brain's daily business. But many people are simply not in the habit of paying attention to these images. They don't know they're being influenced by them. They think their behavior is being directed by forces outside themselves. Such people need to learn how to see the pictures that are flashing in their minds in order to understand the effect those images are having on them. Your behavior is directly influenced by your internal imagery, Nick, but you may not always be aware of the images your brain is following. Are you seeing pictures that inspire and help you, or are you watching doomsday films? If you don't make yor own images, you'll let others make them for you. Outstanding people don't leave their internal imagery to chancethey choosewhat they want to see, creating pictures that make them feel strong and resourceful. In effect their life is a work created by them."
I had mixed feelings about this idea. I'm not exactly a fatalist, but I have always felt tht things "happen to you." Is it possible that I could actually make things happen in my life instead of just waiting for them to happen, come what may? If I accepted the idea that I make my own life then I'd be admitting I created the condition I'm in, and I didn't want to admit that. On the other hand, if I created my present situation maybe I could also create a new one that was better.
"Why do some people seem to visualize themselves and their lives automatically while I have to work so hard at it?"
"Maybe their parents were very visual and they picked it up from them. Or maybe it just came to them naturally. Our senses are like our limbssome people have strong arms, others strong legs, depending how much they use them. You're used to recalling emotions about them. Emotions tend to cloud the imagery in our minds. And human situations are full of emotion."
"ARe you saying I shouldn't feel?"
"Of course you should feel, but you also need to learn how to detach from your feelings when appropriate. That's one of the advantages of visualizing, it helps you gain objectivity in your life. You're in the habit of letting your emotions overwhelm you, and then imagery is very difficult, if not impossible."
Again, I felt the swell of emotions from my last meeting with Streicher.
"So what do I do?"
I looked at the mountain peak, which was now a brownish gold.
"But when you imagine a better life or a perfect performance aren't you really kidding yourself? My presentation or a life situation will just go the way it'll go."
"No. It will go the way you make it go. Ask yourself, How do I want it to go? Then see and feel it going that way and memorize that feeling by playing back that picture over and over. Your brain gets the message and plays it back to you when you need it. I assure you, that's how people succeed. It's not enough to know the theory about how visualizing worksyou must practice and develop it as a skill so you have it when you need it. Replay in your mind your successful events and erase your failures. Actually, it's better to say keep the memory of the failures because you can learn from them but, for the moment, reduce them to tiny black and white snapshots and file them away, for reference when useful."
Kumi and I worked for another day on variations of the visualization exercise. When I left I felt more at ease. Except perhaps for a slight uneasiness at having nothing major to argue about. I still didn't understand how yo could make something happen by just imagining it. Especially if that meant seeing it in your mind.
Bumping my way down the treacherous road to the highway, I wondered what confidence was anyway. Why do we need it? I'm always amazed when a sports announcer says that a top athlete "lost his confidence." Michael Jordan? Martina Hingis? How can a champion lose confidence? Kumi says it doesn't make any difference who you are. Confidence is the condition of your sensespictures that are bright, sounds, that are rich, feelings that give you energy. Your senses reflect your beliefs are influenced by your senses. If you win the lottery the world looks bright, if a fried dies the sky goes black. He's implying I can change my behavior by training my senses to respond in new ways. Is it really possible to change just by doing a few exercises, especially at the age of forty-five? But he didn't say it was easy, in fact he said I had to work at it every day until I got the hang of it, and then remember to use it. It'd be a lot easier to just stock up on valium, but I've learned that doesn't work for long. So, for the moment, here I was, working at seein myself on mountaintops.
When I got back to New York I followed Kumi's instructions and practiced visualizing in my apartment. But New York was noisy. So I had to work to make my images even bigger and brighter to focus on them. I did them first thing in the morning when I was fresh. Kumi said it was a good way to kickstart the day. And also a good thing to do at night to program my unconscious just before going to sleep.
I always tried to see myself at my best. (There's that word "try" again that Kumi doesn't like. But, dammit, this is an effort for me, and I amtrying.) I recalled what past successes I could, going all the way back to my childhood. I found that if I started with the feeling of a memory (but not so much that it blocked out the image) it was easier to get a picture or partial picture of it. Kumi says that's because feeling is one of my strong senses. Sometimes I'd recall the words someone spoke because recalling dialogue is easy for me. When I play back Marion's voice in my mind it's much easier for me to get an image, or a partial image, of her.
I asked Kumi why he kept insisting tht I look at the mountaintop to visualize. He said the eyes are "wired" to the senses. When I look up, I activate the visual part of my brain. I asked what scientific proof he had of tht and he said, "None." He encouraged me to question it and prove it to myself. So I experimented looking up, down and sideways when visualizing and I discovered something curious. If I look up to my left I tend to recall images, and when I look up to my right I seem to more easily construct new ones.
I may be on to something here, but I need more time to try it out. And I want to see how it works for other people.
I also notice that pictures come into my mind more naturally when I connect them to things I really enjoy hearing or touching or smelling or tasting. Just hearing the words "Peking duck" puts that taste in my mouth and I see Sai Woo's on Mott Street. I guess I've had these images in my mind all those years and just never noticed them. But negative thoughts also bring back images. Now that I think of it, that's probably what my father did because he always seemed to be looking at the darker side of life. Some people think he gave himself the cancer that killed him. And he was the person I grew up imitating!
After a few days of practice, I didn't know if I was actually visualizing myself better or if I just thought I was, but the exercises were feeling more natural. I wavered between thinking I was making some progress and wondering if I wasn't just wasting my timeand money. I had to admit I was feeling a new energy. But then a lot of it seemed too simpleeven simple-minded. Make an image and change my life? How about the situation I'm born into? How about the natural limitations of the human mind? To me, the idea of imagining a better life was always a kind of "pie in the sky" attitude, not accepting things the way they really were