My friend, Fletcher Millmore, is a British car mechanic and a philosopher. He was explaining an observation of his to me the other day. Fletcher does a lot of driving and one day while traveling down an empty highway, he started looking at skid marks on long stretches of road. Nothing for miles except telephone poles hundreds of yards apart and all the skid marks pointed to the telephone poles. "Odd", he thought. What is this about? Then Fletcher told me that he remembered the lesson he once learned from a racecar driving coach.
The coach said: "Look where you want to go. Don't focus on what you want to avoid." If you look at the telephone pole, you will steer towards it, Fletcher realized. If you look at the space between the poles, you have a much better chance of avoiding hitting a pole.
Something goes wrong and instead of focusing on what we want, we focus on what we don't want or fear. "It's a disaster!" we think. "Look how awful it will all turn out."
Turning the focus away from what we fear and towards where we want to go takes practice. Many of us, me included, have been steering towards telephone poles for a lot of years. But here's the key to the practice. This is not about the distant future. This about focusing on where we want to go right now.
If the car starts to go out of control, focusing on the trip to the beach we plan for this summer won't help us avoid the telephone pole. When we are driving through a skid on that lonely patch of road, what helps us is looking at the empty place between the telephone poles this minute. Dreaming of the future, while very enjoyable, is not steering our course in the present.
By paying attention to where we want to go now, we are able to heighten our awareness of what is happening to us while we steer. This gives us critical information. If the car is skidding off the road, wishing that we were on the beach watching the waves won't help us. Our ability to steer between the poles is increased by our willingness to be aware of right where we are. What is the feeling of our hands on the steering wheel? What is that vibration of the brake pedal under our feet? Are the brakes locking up?
The same lesson applies to healing from an injury. When we are injured what helps us is to focus on what action we can take now. Because my brain was injured, at first I could not swallow correctly. My swallowing reflex no longer worked the way it used to. I might inhale the water that I wanted to drink and choke. Since my body had changed, to figure out how to aim the water I was trying to drink, I had to become aware of what actually happened when I attempted to swallow and how that felt.
Dreaming of future glasses of ice water didn't help me. I needed to aim the water down my throat when it was in my mouth. To do this I was taught to tuck my chin down to one side to slow the reflex. This allowed me to choose where I wanted the water to go. Tucking my chin, I could feel my throat and mouth as I tried to swallow. I could stop and start again. I could take small sips and work with little amounts.
If I only paid attention to the fact that I could not swallow, if I only thought about what it would be like if I could not drink liquids, if I only aimed at what I was afraid of, I would never have learned to swallow again. I would still have a feeding tube. Each swallow I practiced I was aiming at getting the water where I wanted it to go, not focusing on what I could not do. Each effort to aim was what re-taught my body to swallow.
This takes courage, this willingness to know and be with the fear and the difficulty of our injuries at the same time we are aiming between the telephone poles of our lives. But Fletcher is right, as difficult as it feels, if we don't aim where we want to go, we make it unlikely we will ever get there.