Terraforming the Mind

A tour of the inner world.

Steve Daniels
Apr 9 · 10 min read
Photo Credit: Jake Young

Imagine, for a moment, your mind as a moonlit landscape. Many branching paths stretch before you. One leads to a far-off mountain range. As you glance at its peaks, you find yourself returning to your life’s greatest achievements. To your right, geysers rise from the surface, shooting in synchrony with your most sensuous pleasures. Along the way, you must traverse an endless expanse of flat plains, the monotonous drab of the everyday. To your left, the path descends down to a deep valley, wherein stews that which disgusts you. Behind you sit a series of circular pools, their surface perfectly still. Gaze into them and return to your fondest memories — a sense of home. Upward, stars stipple the sky like portals into your dreams, some bright and focused, others receding into the night.

In the landscape of my mind, I see mountains of projects completed, though most are stubby things, slowly rising in tectonic time. Springs erupt with the creative flow of writing and music and dance, best found in nature and companionship. The shells of ten thousand tasks checked off my to-do list line my plains, slowly turning to compost for weeds. In my valley of despair, my favorite places bleed with the thorns of ecological destruction. I visit the pools to revisit places where I felt free — some in solitude and some in social frenzy. I see in my sky a vision of flourishing for all life on earth.

The greatest naturalists have long known that nature serves not only as a setting for our bodies but also as a reflection of our inner worlds. It was the natural landscape that inspired the mid-19th-century transcendentalist movement, with Emerson’s publication of “Nature.” In his essay, Emerson argued for the spiritual value of the natural world. “From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea,” he wrote. “I seem to partake its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.”

Within each of us lies an internal world, a mirror image of the one outside, reconstructed and shaped anew through the filter of the mind. As we sense objects and events out in the world, we store their imprints, coloring them with varying strength and emotion depending on how they relate to who we feel we are and who we want to be. In the words of Keith Basso, an anthropologist of place-making among consummate indigenous practitioners, “It is this interior landscape — this landscape of the moral imagination — that most deeply influences their vital sense of place, and also, I believe, their unshakable sense of self.”

To understand this realm is to know your self, and to cultivate it is to the work of actualization.

A Tour of the Inner World

Perhaps the consummate builders of worlds are the great writers of science fiction. Like Emerson, they know that the landscape tells a story. To the science fiction writer, a planet is raw material whose particular contours give rise to lovable characters and grand adventures. In the series Dune, Frank Herbert transports us to Arrakis, a sun-scorched and cotton-mouthed desolation of a planet, home to the Fremen, who wear suits that recycle their sweat and tears to preserve water. The planet, however creatively imagined, was assembled from a multitude of inspirations, including Oregon’s “moving sands,” psychedelic mushrooms, and Zen Buddhism.

Like Herbert’s Arrakis, our inner worlds are woven from a patchwork of sources. For centuries, philosophers and political theorists have debated the extent to which we are shaped by internal will or the programming of our societies. Ask Karl Marx, and he would argue that we cannot operate beyond the bounds of our social confines. To change ourselves, we must change our societies. Ask Carl Jung, and he would argue that we have the ability to “individuate” — to cultivate ourselves beyond our biological and social imprints. The reality is we are both individuals and products of our societies. As we navigate this duality, we must consider what the elements are that we can nurture within the gardens of our selves.

For one, there is that which we notice in the world versus that which we do not. The filtering of perception is known as sensory gating, the ability to select certain stimuli as worthy of our conscious attention and the ignoring of all others. Take a quick glance around your space and note which stimuli naturally arise and which ones recede. Sensory gating serves a useful function — to help us navigate the world without becoming overwhelmed in a sea of meaningless stimuli. But the information we let through gives us each a separate foundation for our internal realities.

Secondly, there is that which attracts us in the world versus that which repels us. This is known as hedonic perception, the inner emotional response to stimuli that leads to preferential treatment of certain experiences over others. These may arise from bottom-up triggers, such as an aversion to the sulfurous odor of rot, or from top-down beliefs about the way the world ought to be, as when we are inspired by social change aligning with our political values. Coloring experiences in a positive or negative light reinforces certain pathways of the mind over others.

Thirdly, there is that which energizes us in the world versus that which dulls us. This phenomenon is known as activation, the extent to which stimuli trigger an inner response — positive or negative — which ultimately leads us to take action. Compare the stimulation of a passionate affair with the droning of a boring lecture. Neither can be ignored, yet they have very different effects on your state of mind. We respond actively to certain stimuli while dulling to others.

Like all ecological processes, the entities of the mind are intrinsically interrelated, forming a complex web of associations. Trace the history of your love for chocolate, and you will discover the gratitude of a gift from a lover, warmth in a cold winter, the sweetness of sugar, the energy of caffeine. Already, with each of those associations, likely new branches of further associations are growing in your mind.

The combination of these three primary dimensions — sensory gating, hedonic perception, and activation — give rise to the unique forms of your inner landscape. Pay attention to the sound of music, take great pleasure in it, and allow it to activate you to action, and before you know it a new mountain will rise with your latest composition. Ignore your taste buds, view food with disgust, and consume it passively, and your nutrition will settle to dust along the dunes of Arrakis.

Using these three dimensions, we can begin to place landmarks within our imaginal landscape giving form to different facets of the self. To these three, I will also add a fourth dimension, time orientation, to refer to the tense of the experience itself.

As in our earlier visualization exercise, you can revisit the sites in your imaginal landscape to become better acquainted with your sense of self. You might use the sites above as starting points, but with time your inner landscape will become your own. New contours, characters, and adventures will all find home in your imaginal world.

Terraforming the Landscape

In the science fiction series The Expanse, the Earth of writer James Corey has become overpopulated, its ecology decimated, and economy ravaged. A band of “Earthers” have colonized Mars and declared independence in a multigenerational effort to “terraform” the planet. Terraforming is a theoretical process by which a planet is transformed to become habitable to life. Just as Earth became habitable through the coordinated actions of bacteria and plants to generate our atmosphere, so too might human technology generate the systems necessary to sustain life.

The same is true for our inner worlds: we can intentionally shape our landscapes to support the flourishing of life. I remember a time when I found myself going through the motions, having lost a sense of direction and meaning. I had no real awareness of my inner landscape, so when I failed to find meaning in what I was told was important by society, I drifted into a “dark night of the soul.” Thus began the work of terraforming to differentiate my inner from outer landscapes.

The essence of terraforming is to sit in close observation, opening ourselves to the world and allowing particular sensations to imprint onto us. When we attend to something, we notice it in detail, opening our sensory gating. We question why it attracts or repels us, reframing it in the context of our beliefs and experiences. We allow it to infuse us, activating us to action.

When you enter a new experience, approach it with openness and curiosity. Allow it to imprint onto your inner landscape. Does it strengthen the path to your geysers, your valleys, your stars? Where do you feel a resonance? Why? Keep a running log of these experiences, and commit to small actions to bring more resonant experiences into your life. Through trial and error, you will find that a natural improvisation arises. New hills will start to appear, valleys will shrink, flowers will grow along your plains. A flourishing ecosystem will emerge, with all the wonder of a sci-fi epic.

Every time we pay attention, we reshape a bit of ourselves. Over time, this practice naturally leads to discovering new beauty in things our societies have told us were unimportant — and disappointment in things we once held dear. This process has radically reformed my life, from following a set path established by the structures I was raised in — politically, economically, and spiritually — to living an abundant life filled with countless passions. But like so many spiritual seekers, I also grew disenchanted with those dominant cultural structures that gave rise to my original path in the first place. Individuation is not a journey for the faint of heart, but it can also help us realize a fuller sense of self and become more effective agents of change in the world.

Avoiding Imaginal Disasters

This process, for all its benefits, does not end in utopia. Like any ecosystem, it remains always in flux, hovering around particular equilibria until new shifts occur. In ecology, these changes are known as regime shifts, and they are often triggered by natural disasters.

Another great science fiction series comes to mind — The Broken Earth. Here, N. K. Jemison’s setting is The Stillness, a supercontinent on a fictionalized Earth that is anything but still. Deeply unstable, the planet produces regular natural disasters, known as “seasons,” out of which has grown a dogmatic lore of survival tactics. Certain inhabitants of The Stillness, known as “orogenes,” have the ability to sense these disturbances in advance and guide the flow of their impact.

In our inner worlds, too, there are events we might call imaginal disasters. A schism arises in the bedrock, shifting a fundamental assumption we hold about the world, ushering us into a new season. Failure, abandonment, death, illness, trauma — often these moments force themselves into our lives under deep pressure, and we meet them with equal resistance.

I remember when I first developed a chronic condition. I was well on my way into a career filled with international travel, and I was determined to make it happen, yet my symptoms and diet meant that I could no longer travel by air or live in places with unfamiliar foods. At first, I first treated it like any other illness — an invasive species that could be removed from my body with a few visits to the doctor. Through a frustrating maze of dead ends, I had to confront that chronic conditions never leave us. They become a part of us that we must learn to embrace and nurture as with all of our least favorite parts.

Strengthen any pathway of the mind too firmly and it will calcify, unable to adapt to life in an ever-changing ecosystem. Terraforming is a practice of creation, but it is also a practice of detachment. All mountains erode, all rivers dry. Holding firm, they will change one way or another. The question is how much we suffer through it.

Like the orogenes of The Stillness, we must keep a watchful eye for these shifts in our imaginal landscape if we are to move through them with grace. In these moments, the work of engaged terraforming is more important than ever. Here, the challenge remains one of opening ourselves to the experience. Imaginal disasters blast past our sensory gates so we cannot ignore them. Generally they are also highly activating and deeply painful. Our instinct may be to indulge the pain, expanding the valley of despair until it dominates the ecosystem, or to avoid the pain altogether, leaving it to build beneath the surface only to erupt later. Instead, we can fully experience the pain while guiding its flow through our imaginal landscape.

When pain arises, direct your attention to it. Do not resist it. It may present unusual and extreme body sensations. Explore them with openness and curiosity. Use your breath and move your body to calm your body’s fight-or-flight responses, which otherwise stand to reinforce and augment the pain. You may find that you can channel the sensations in a way that moves through your body rather than lodging in particular locations.

With your experience in attention and your body relaxed, you can continue the work of terraforming, integrating the experience into your internal landscape. After incorporating the imaginal disaster of my illness, I mourned the loss of my career path and my trust in the Western medical system. But in their place, I attended to, delighted in, and became activated by new things: feeling grounded in one place, forming deeper relationships, and caring for my body. These, like all terraforming projects, remain ongoing.

Charting New Territory

The sun is rising upon your moonlit landscape, heralding the dawn of a new day. You gaze around at landmarks once familiar, perhaps even mundane, and see them colored in a new golden light. This is what happens every time we open our eyes to the world and allow it to imprint itself on us anew.

If you want to take the journey into yourself, make time to visit your inner world, with all its peaks and valleys and deserts. Get to know the contours of your sensory gating, hedonic perception, and activation. Experiment with the tools of terraforming and respond to inevitable shifts before they become imaginal disasters. Holding a vision of your landscape in clear sight will help you understand yourself, cultivate a more thriving ecosystem, and radiate change back out into the world.

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