How to Embrace Shadow Futures with Mindfulness
By Mary Martin, PhD; Mindfulness Educator and Author
When I started IFTF’s Imagination Leadership Training almost two years ago on Urgent Optimists, IFTF’s online community for collective imagination, I enjoyed exploring both positive and negative scenarios with my fellow Urgent Optimists. But when it came to the longer simulations of the future, I noticed there wasn’t a consensus among the community about imagining negative futures. Some members didn’t want to participate in the more doomy ones because they didn’t want to put all that crisis and tragedy in their heads. I have a different take on those scenarios, and it has a lot to do with my mindfulness practice and teaching. I think worst-case scenarios can be inspiring and even revelatory. Follow me…
Our Relationship to Unwanted and Shadow Futures
The pushback against imagining negative futures is reminiscent of the pushback in mindfulness instruction — people don’t like being asked to investigate things that cause them discomfort. In mindfulness, we can call discomfort the unwanted, and in imagination work, we can call it shadow imagination. The essence of both is suffering, which can be defined as “wanting things to be different” (John Teasdale and Michael Chaskalson write: “we cannot let go of our desire, our need for things to be a particular way, even though that very need is what is creating our suffering” p. 96 of “How does mindfulness transform suffering? 1: The nature and origins of Dukkha.” Contemporary Buddhism, Vol. 12, №1. May 2011.).
The unwanted and the shadow imagination are real and necessary parts of our inner landscape. They’re wisdom, dipped in discomfort. When teaching mindfulness, I’ve noticed people either move away from their unwanteds or get sucked into them. Those who move away have conditioned themselves to avoid what they don’t want to hear, see, feel, or think. They’ve learned that moving toward it lands them in a dark place they don’t want to revisit. You might say their avoidance is protective.
The people who get sucked in have a tough time not engaging with what they don’t want. If it’s a thought they don’t want, they end up ruminating on it. And if it’s pain they don’t want, they focus on it until they’re convinced there’s nothing else but agony in that moment. I see the same avoid-or-indulge phenomenon in shadow imagination work.
Mindfulness offers a better way — a middle way. Mindfulness practice invites us to notice that we have a way of managing our various unwanteds. Maybe we avoid some but get sucked into others and don’t have a consistent style. Either way, what matters is we’re not meeting unwanteds with equanimity.
When we learn how to skillfully meet our discomfort, we’re decreasing our own suffering. For futurists, this means not aiming to change how we feel or what we think about a negative future, or even changing the scenario so we’re less uncomfortable. Instead, we lean in and investigate our discomfort in a curious manner.
Befriending discomfort reveals our patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior. Those patterns were formed after years of experience with similar contexts, personalities, and feelings. That’s valuable information. Also, when we live through discomfort, we discover, at the very least, that we survived. We discover our resilience. More valuable information.
And the benefit of resilience can be seen in our brains. When we set out to do things we don’t want to do, we’re changing our brains — in this case, the anterior mid-cingulate cortex (aMCC). The aMCC has been shown to be central to willpower, and according to neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, it’s “the seat of the will to live.” It grows when we do things we don’t want to do, and athletes and people who see themselves as continually overcoming challenges (i.e., they see themselves as resilient) have larger aMCCs, as do superagers. The growth isn’t permanent, though, and the aMCC will shrink when we stop doing things we don’t want to do.
Moving Toward Discomfort
Practicing mindfulness generates insights that lead to transformation. It lays the groundwork for the emergence of wisdom, with each step playing an integral part in surfacing something to be learned. I teach it as four steps.
- Experience whatever is arising (including discomfort).
- Capture your experience in a non-judgmental way. (What was it like in the mind and body? Just the facts!)
- Reflect on your experience by being curious about what it reveals (e.g., How is it familiar? What was surprising? Journal about your insights! “Oh, this is that feeling I get, and those are the thoughts that are usually attached to it, and then I do that thing that I did that never goes well.” That insight, accompanied by non-judgment and self-compassion, is when the alchemy begins.).
- Integrate your insights. (e.g., Moving forward, I should be doing more of X or less of Y. I need to set boundaries.).
We can use this same practice to mine our shadow imagination for our future power (Imagination Leadership Training, Jane McGonigal, Module 1), which, along with mental flexibility and realistic hope, are the three pillars of a highly motivating and resilient mindset that IFTF Director of Game Research & Development Dr. Jane McGonigal calls urgent optimism. We can use the backdrop of crisis or doomsday scenarios to fuel our hope. I know this because it’s what I do. The practice cultivates what McGonigal refers to as the “balanced feeling … recognizing that, yes, there are great challenges and risks ahead, while also staying realistically hopeful that you have something to contribute.”
Both avoiding our shadow imagination and getting sucked into it can prevent us from discovering our future power. So we must befriend it as we do any other unwanted, with keen attention and without judgment. That’s how we access its wisdom. But accessing wisdom isn’t as easy as it sounds.
For both mindfulness and imagination practice, insights will be out of reach if you’re actively upset because the foundation of successful awareness practices is a regulated nervous system. When our minds and bodies are attending to a threat, our ability to imagine positive alternative futures is hampered. Moreover, the idea of shadow futures is terrifying. Your current actual upset gets exacerbated by the future theoretical upset (which the brain experiences in a similar way), and the result is a state of overwhelm and an inability to play with the scenario.
The Window of Tolerance
What we need is a tool for discernment — a tool that lets us know if working with our shadow imagination is a good idea at the moment. The tool I use is Dan Siegel’s window of tolerance which is the space in which we can put up with intensity and arousal without becoming dysregulated. In our windows, we can meet unwanteds head-on without getting distressed. It takes practice, but you can increase your ability to be grounded and calm even when your trauma is being triggered. This means you can increase your capacity for working with worst-case scenarios.
When we’re bumped outside our window, we’re in a state of either hyper or hypo arousal (and some say the freeze state is both). As a result, we see mistakes as threats, we’re less capable of long-term thinking, less creative, less playful, and we aren’t able to imagine positive futures. Our windows of tolerance for people, circumstances, and states of being can fluctuate throughout our lives and even within a day.
Leveraging the Shadow Imagination
Windows of tolerance are helpful only if we know what it feels like to be in them and outside of them. If you don’t notice you’re out of our window, your shadow work could make you doomy, disturbed, and hopeless. But what we learn through practice is that we have agency; we have choices. And among those choices is: Do I want to use this discomfort as evidence of how horrible and unjust the world is, or do I want to use it as fuel for hope?
We can use the shadow imagination as a mechanism for uncovering our future power. When we’re introduced to how bad things could get, we’re at a choice point. We can turn away, we can dive into the waters of the worst-case scenario and allow them to drown us, or we can touch the suffering that’s possible and remind ourselves of our own abilities. We can figure out how our unique set of experiences, skills, and knowledge can be helpful, and we can imagine springing into action. We can rescue ourselves and others with a mindset informed by the reality of who we are and what we have to offer. But only if we are regulated.
So the next time you’re pondering a scenario with your shadow imagination:
- Make certain you’re in your window of tolerance — that you’re feeling grounded, safe, and brave. Make sure your breathing is deep and from your belly.
- Conjure up the worst-case scenario. Imagine it vividly.
- Experience in your body what it’s like to be in that unwanted future. Allow yourself to touch the terror or the suffering inevitable in this future. Envision the thoughts and sensations of those affected by this shadow scenario.
- Capture those thoughts and feelings, in writing or not. The idea is to articulate them. In that future, I felt . . . In that future, I was thinking . . . In that future, I saw people who were . . .
- Reflect on your experience. What could you do to alleviate some of the suffering you experienced and saw? What do you know that might be helpful? Who is the most vulnerable and what could be done for them? What do people need most and where do I fit in that equation? Your insights here are your future power.
- Integrate your future power into the scenario. What business could you start? How could you mobilize people and to do what? How would you get the most important thing to the people who need it? What could you do today to lessen the risks and harms of this unwanted future?
Working with your shadow imagination can be invigorating because you can come away with a renewed sense of self-efficacy as well as a sense of how you can be of service in creating better futures. I know what it’s like to not want to invite negative thoughts and images into my mind. But I also know what it’s like to make them work for me, generate hope, and increase my optimism about the future.
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