As soon as you start to mention the whole mind over matter thing, scepticism immediately cuts in like an automatic safety mechanism to keep you on the right side of reality and sanity. Vague visions of objects floating across a room by the use of telekinetic powers are accompanied by the eerie strains of 70s sci-fi TV and straight away, you are unconsciously looking for the wires.
As an idea, it isn’t quite so far-fetched though. There are good reasons to believe that the mind can influence matter and that the body can influence the mind.
Smiling is a good example. We smile when we feel happy, yet it is equally true that we feel happy when we smile. Even if it is a forced smile, by activating the muscles around the mouth and eyes in imitation of a smile, the brain is fooled into thinking we must have something to smile about. Our internal chemistry adjusts accordingly, stress levels drop and we actually feel happier. Research done over the years suggests that the smile, even forced or faked, can affect how we interpret and feel about the world around us too. The facial feedback hypothesis suggests that we create a feedback loop with our facial expressions that are not just an effect of emotions, but which, in their turn, affect emotions.
It is well-known that depression alters our appearance. So does happiness. Even simple things, like the way we dress, can influence our mood and self-confidence dramatically and, in turn, that influences the way we see ourselves in face of the world and crucially, how the world then sees us.
In this day and age where so many of have access to the latest scientific theories, we can hardly avoid the debates that rage around certain areas of science. Most of us, for example, will have at least a passing acquaintance with the idea of the observer effect in quantum mechanics where it is postulated that the act of observation alone may alter the movement of particles. The scientists get very excited about the whole idea and the philosophers pile in with their speculations on the nature of reality. The trouble is that for the vast majority of us, such high-flown stuff is of little practical use and, regardless of how fascinated we might be by the theories, they are unlikely to change our day-to-day lives any time soon.
There are areas of science, though, that do profess to be able to do just that. One of the most popular TED talks is a presentation given by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, where she discusses her findings about the effects of non-verbal communication, or body language to the majority of us. Although her scientific findings have been questioned by other scientists seeking to replicate the results, the talk is interesting in itself. It highlights the use of posture and how, even by faking it, we can make ourselves feel more confident and, as she puts it, more powerful. She looks at the way the animal kingdom uses posture to express personal power and relates it to human body language. It isn’t at all far-fetched… we too are animals and there is no reason to suppose that Nature has given us a special dispensation to break away from the basics of animal behaviour.
One of the phrases that Ms Cuddy uses takes the idea of faking it one step further than the usual ‘until you make it’. “Fake it until you become it”, she suggests. It is an excellent phrase with which to end the presentation, but as an idea, it is far from new. Íñigo López, better known as Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who was instrumental in the founding of the Society of Jesus in the mid 16th century, suggested that we should put ourselves in the position of prayer and we would soon pray, which is simply another way of saying the same thing. The Jesuits, following the principles outlined in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, engage the imagination in order to enter into creative visualisation and experience, rather than simply read about, the life and mission of Jesus. The psychological principles are sound as the brain and emotions react to what is seen and experienced by the mind’s eye in a very similar way to how it reacts to a more concrete reality. This is why guided journeys such as we use in The Silent Eye, meditation and creative visualisation are such powerful exercises… and why the pictures of the feelgood ‘cute kitten’ is always a winner on the internet; both allow us to experience emotion in the safety of our own imagination.
In the Mysteries we learn the techniques for the creation of the ‘magical personality’. It is through this that we learn how to function effectively in our role. On one level, this persona is a no more than a construct built in the imagination, but imagination alone is not enough to make it real, for it to be effective in the ‘real’ world, we must believe in it and the strongest belief in ourselves comes from seeing that belief mirrored back at us through the eyes of others. Just like the smile, a feedback loop is created that, once set in motion, picks up momentum and continues to reinforce itself.
Just as an actor dons a mask of wears the make-up and costume of his character in order the ‘feel the part, we too can assume a mask. Not to hide behind or pretend that we are something we are not, but to show to the world and ourselves what truly lies within, buried beneath the fears and insecurities that have held us back and stifled our possibilities. We can change our own perception of ourselves and how we face the world.
Does it matter if scientists and philosophers spend their time arguing and seeking the validity of reproducible evidence or demonstrable theories? All most of us want is to feel better about ourselves, more confident, happier. We want to feel we can face the world with our head held high and a smile on our face that comes from the heart. Maybe all it takes to begin that process it to wear the smile we want the world to see and, looking into the mirror of each other’s eyes, we too can see that smile and begin to believe it.