Sometimes when we are faced with a difficult task (or person), even one that seems impossible, it helps to change what we call it, or how we think about it.
I was listening to Ellen Langer, a psychologist and writer from Harvard, who has done many studies on the power of how we name, or think about something. For example, she did a famous study on people in their mid to late 80’s (back when 80 was 80, not the new 60). In this experiment all the people involved went on a retreat together where the entire atmosphere was created as if it were 20 years earlier. The participants were asked to fully enter into this world in the “present”, as if they too, were 20 years younger. At the end of the study, their hearing and eyesight had improved, they had renewed energy, they had essentially become younger! Another study was with chamber maids who spent the whole day on their feet, but worried about having time to exercise, and could not lose weight. In this study they were told to change their thinking about their work and name it exercise, and lo and behold, they lost weight! (This also relates to the difference between doing something mindlessly, and doing it mindfully– just noticing what is happening).
Thinking creatively, noticing how we name something, can make profound changes. I am wanting to remember this this morning, as I set about making a large painting for my father and his wife, Shirley, who have commissioned this work for their newly remodeled home. Shirley has sent me color samples and an image of a contemporary painting she likes. I have done many commissions for design work, but when I paint, the images come from my inner life. I am not sure I know how to make a painting for someone else– it puts me in my "design mind". But my father is 90, and this is something I want to do. I ask myself, can I do this? And catch myself– the language I need is not can I do this, but how will I do this?
I plunged in with an array of color and texture, not at all pleased with the mess I have made. My father tells me that Shirley had a dream that I came to visit with my paints, my painting for them, and several other paintings. She chose one of the other paintings!
I thought, brilliant! Now I am back in the dream world, where I know how to paint. I have had several dreams lately where everything is in two’s and problems are solved in rectangles. I will work on two paintings, one for them and one for me, and let them choose. This will give me more freedom of movement, going between the two. And I will begin with rectangles…
“There’s no use trying,” said Alice, “One can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age I always did it for half an hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– Lewis Carroll