One Easy Trick to Begin Seeing the World in a Different Way

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Seeing the world in a new way is no easy feat. After years of accumulating life experiences, familiar ways of thinking and solving problems become ingrained.

 . . . know that you have the power to see the world in a different way, no matter how much it seems you’re confined to a box, restricted to only one choice, or forced into only one role. -Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark 

There are a number of ways to potentially enhance your mental flexibility, which refers to the ability to switch tasks and consider multiple perspectives.

However, one of my favorite exercises comes from Dr. Carlos Castaneda’s writings about his encounters with a Yaqui Mexican spiritual guide named Don Juan Matus. Although Castaneda’s writings are still classified as non-fiction (and ultimately earned him a Ph.D. in anthropology at UCLA in 1973), today they are regarded mostly as fiction. 

READ RELATED: 5 Ways to Harness the Flexibility of Your Mind

Still, the nuggets of wisdom contained in the chronicles of his apprenticeship under Don Juan were inspiration for artists like John Lennon and Jim Morrison.

In his third book, Journey to Ixtlan, Castaneda discusses the concept of not-doing that requires one “to not do what you know how to do.” In other words, it’s about temporarily suspending our preconceived notions about reality and trying to see the world in a different, more flexible way (See the video to the left for more on Castaneda and his writings about Don Juan).

As simple as that may sound, letting go of years of programming about what’s real and not real, possible and not possible requires much time and practice. In one passage of Castaneda’s book, Don Juan describes a method for starting such a practice:

In the case of looking at a tree or bush, what you know how to do is to focus immediately on the foliage. The shadows of the leaves or the spaces in between the leaves are never your concern. Start focusing on the shadows of the leaves on one single branch and then eventually work your way to the whole tree, and don’t let your eyes go back to the leaves, because the first deliberate step to storing personal power is to allow the body to not-do.

Every once in awhile, I’ll still give this a try, noticing a tree in the distance on a clear day.

Because I’ve witnessed this scene so many times, my brain automatically cues up a picture of leaves on a tree that are clearly in front of the blue sky, which only pokes out in little glimmers between the leaves. The foliage naturally takes center stage, and these little glimmers fade into the background (See the video to the left for a full explanation of the tree exercise).

I have to stare and work at it for a while before something new appears, kind of like a 3D art poster from the 90’s. But a colleague of mine once gave me a tip. Try to imagine that the blue glimmers shining through the leaves are actually small patches of snow on top of the tree. Start with one small area and then shift your focus to the whole tree, paying particular attention to the bluish spaces in between.

MeditationI remember the first time I saw it. Suddenly, the glimmering sky was no longer sky. The spaces between the leaves protruded outward, like tiny bluish-white handkerchiefs arranged upon the foliage. And the prominence of the leaves diminished too, now just part of a larger whole.

You might rightfully ask, so what’s the point? The sky really is behind the tree. Why would I ever want to see it any other way?

In the same way an image of leaves (with the sky in the background) is automatically cued up when we look at a tree, long-standing fallacies and assumptions (e.g., I’m unlovable) can come to dominate our perceptions, almost like a computer virus that infects all incoming information.

The key to seeing beyond these rigid scripts is to pay attention to the “spaces in between”—the words and thoughts, people and places that fade into the background as some other life drama plays out in the foreground.

So, you can think of Don Juan’s tree exercise as a way of stretching your cognitive-flexibility muscles.

And once you get good at that, try to then look for the “spaces in between” that exist in other aspects of your life.

It could be words of encouragement or praise that gets brushed off as unimportant. Or it could be creative ideas that are drowned out by self-criticism and too quickly labeled as “stupid” or “impossible.”

Whatever the case, know that you have the power to see the world in a different way, no matter how much it seems you’re confined to a box, restricted to only one choice, or forced into only one role. The answers may not be as far away as you think, perhaps hiding somewhere in the spaces in between.

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