Imaginary Dragons and the Pointlessness of Fighting Them
Now You See It, Now You Don't…
I was talking to Ellen earlier in the week. Ellen is a passionate social entrepreneur trying to figure out her next step. As we talked she remarked,
London is too noisy. It dampens my creativity and I find it hard to stay fit and healthy.
Wow, that's an interesting perspective.
I see how it might look true to Ellen, that where she lives, or where she works, affects her productivity and well-being but there's a lot less truth in it than she realises. At the heart of what she's saying is a misunderstanding.
Ellen isn't alone.
We often think our environment or the people around us affect our personal well-being. Why does that look to be the case? And is there any foundation or truth in that belief?
Clouds in the Awareness
As the conversation with Ellen continued, she told me about her meditation practice and we drifted into a metaphor that I often hear from meditation teachers, that our thoughts are like clouds in the sky and, as we enter a state of meditation, we can see them drifting by but we are not attached to them, nor do we desire to change them.
We become an observer rather than a protagonist, or at least, that is the state that is available to us. (And, by the way, it's available to us whether we have a meditation practice or we don't!)
If one of those passing thoughts took the form of a dragon, when I'm in the observer frame of mind, I might say,
Oh, that's interesting!
I might be curious about the shape, which part of the cloud was the tail, and whether there was any fire, but as soon as my attention drifted elsewhere the dragon would be forgotten.
It wouldn't occur to me to do anything about the dragon; I wouldn't be racing off for my dragon-fighting weapons. I'd simply move on to whatever was next on my agenda, or whatever 'cloud' drifted into my awareness next.
Sometimes There IS a Dragon!
If, however, I forgot that the dragon was a cloud and I really believed he was real, breathing fire at me from the sky, then my reaction would be very different.
I might try to avoid him, cower away and make myself small ----
If I don't look at him, he won't see me and I'll be OK!
Or, I'll rush to fight him—I'd whip out my metaphorical sword, mount my trusty steed and gird my loins for battle; a battle to the death if that's what it takes.
Because he really is out to get me.
And, those of you versed in personal development might even have come across a third option. Something that made Ellen laugh because, I suspect, she's heard it before, only given as advice rather than a suggestion of what-not-to-do.
Perhaps, rather than seeing a dragon, you have some notion that dragons don't exist, that it's somehow illusory (even though it looks and feels real), so you would try to change your thoughts to change the monster from a dragon to a puppy.
Oh how cute, now I no longer have anything to fear!
At least, that's the promise.
If you're in that camp, then how's it working out for you? Always have a clear head?
Yeah, sometimes maybe, but it can be hard work and doesn’t always work.
Our reaction to the dragon might vary across time and circumstances—we might run and hide, we might fight, we might bring other people along to do the fighting for us, we might retreat into our cave, but we would do something. Because, after all, we've got a fire-breathing, mean-spirited dragon on our tail!
When the Dragon is Real
The point is, that for as long as I believe the dragon to be real, it makes sense for me to act. I would be stupid to ignore him, and I couldn't even if I wanted to.
We all experience times when we see things that look real to us. Things that appear to be problematic, a naughty child, a business that isn't going the way we want, a boss who seems to always be asking the impossible, a political scenario or individual we didn't vote for.
And so we fight. We fight battles in 'real life'; battles that take a lot of time and energy and are—ultimately—unwinnable.
Until it Isn't...
The point that's being missed, though is that what we perceive is never real.
The dragon is always a cloud, as is the puppy if that's the strategy you adopt.
As is Ellen's version of London.
Now, I'm not saying there isn't any 'real life'. If you live in London then you'll experience more grey and rather less sunshine than if you lived in LA for example; that part is real.
However, the idea that London can affect Ellen's productivity, her creativity, her quality of life, is a fictional dragon.
No matter how real it looks to Ellen, it's a cloud of thought, passing by.
Ellen may prefer to live somewhere else, in the mountains, or by the beach, and that's fine. Me too! But to think that where I live can make me unhappy is the same as thinking the imaginary dragon is going to burn or eat me. How can it, it's a fiction?
I might feel the fear, just as Ellen feels trapped by her geography. That doesn't make it real.
Do I Stay or Do I Go?
As we talked, Ellen laughed.
She'd started to see that maybe some of what she'd seen as true wasn't as solid as she thought. She didn't quite see how it was all an illusion, but she had a chink of doubt that was enough to start with.
And then she asked,
OK, so what do I do?
Such a common question from clients. ,
I get that it isn't real but what can I do about it?
There's actually nothing to do.
If you laughed at the idea of me fighting imaginary dragons (or could see that the only time we need fight them is in a game, or a film, or a book) then you already have everything you need.
You see, when we see that what we're looking at isn't real, there is no need to do anything.
Ellen could choose to live in London, or not. But I didn’t want her to limit her choice because of something that didn’t exist.
The leverage for me in all of these scenarios isn't engaging with the imaginary dragon, it isn't in trying to make it go away, or turning it into a puppy.
No, it's in seeing that the very nature of what I am looking at isn't real. That another angle, a puff of wind, a rain storm, will eliminate any and all 'dragons'.
Because it exists nowhere other than my imagination.
And your imagination too.