The hyphen

In one of the training courses I give, before the traditional round of introductions, I ask the participants to ask each other the question: ‘what is your most cherished dream?’ This is always a special moment. First there’s the sense of ‘confusion’ as they think: ‘what is my most cherished dream (and do I actually have one)?’ But as time goes on, when more people have asked them the question and everyone has heard other people’s answers, a feeling of positive energy and mutual inspiration has been created. The room is filled with animated conversations and smiling faces. The participants make contact with what is important for them, often for the first time. And they immediately make contact with others at a deeper level. Everyone is usually grateful they did the exercise and acknowledge that the question should be asked more often. And yet, when I ask them how often they ask a colleague or a friend this question, the answer is typically ‘well, never actually’.

Why is it that we hardly ever ask this question? And where or when did we lose the art of dreaming, or even daring to dream? As children, we grew up with dreams. The whole day was filled with them, we lived in our fantasy world. Then we went to school, became more and more serious, had to obey more and more rules, and we were taught that the most important thing was to get good grades. Resulting in uniformity, competition, insensitivity. And materialism takes hold. And because this process of ‘becoming serious’ is so extreme, we finally become so obsessed with keeping up with whatever the latest trend is that we don’t have the time to just sit back and dream uninhibitedly. Or to think about whether what we are doing or what we want to do is really what we want to do, and whether it really is the best thing for us. If we’re unlucky, we notice too late that we’re standing high up on the ladder but that the ladder is up against the wrong wall.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that being serious is an unhealthy aspect of life. The important thing to remember is that we can sometimes get ‘too’ serious. I believe that we should always leave some space for the child in ourselves and that from time to time we should allow ourselves to dream without any limits. Did you know, for example, that as children we are capable of thinking up 60 different alternatives to a problem? By the time we become adults, that figure has been reduced to an average of between 3 and 6. And when we first go to school, we ask on average 60 ‘why’ questions a day. By the time we retire, this has dropped to an average of 6 a day. Or did you know that children laugh on average 300 times a day? It’s saddening to note that we adults laugh just 15 times a day. Because where a child can just laugh, we as adults first need a reason to laugh. And that’s such a shame, because laughing is so healthy! Here are some reasons why: laughing helps us to relax, it reduces the production of stress hormones, it reinforces the immune system, it helps us ‘forget’ complaints and pain, it makes pain feel less intense, AND laughing helps to reduce the blood pressure. And the great thing about it all is: there are no known negative side effects of a good laugh.

The challenge this time is to do a 20-minute exercise that will make you more aware about what really matters to you in this life. The exercise will also make clear to you why you mustn’t wait till tomorrow to display behaviour that you believe is really important. Ideally, you should choose a quiet place to do this exercise, like a wood.

  • Close your eyes and focus for a few minutes on the here and now. Become aware of your breathing, what can you hear, feel, smell? And if you notice a thought entering your mind, acknowledge the presence of that thought and then just let it go.
  • Now say to yourself out loud (or ask someone else to do this): ‘there is no guarantee that I will still be alive next week, let alone in a couple of years’ time’. Allow yourself to take in this sentence for a few minutes. If you want to, you can repeat it.
  • Then think of your partner, children or a dear friend and say to yourself: ‘there is a chance that my partner, children or dear friend will be dead next week, and the chance that he/she will be dead in a few years’ time is even bigger’. Concentrate your thoughts on this truth for the next few minutes.
  • Now imagine the same thing for a few minutes about a vague colleague, a neighbour, the girl at the supermarket cash desk or someone you are having problems with or are even in an argument with. This person could also be dead next week, or in a few years’ time.
  • Finally, I ask you to be aware for a few minutes that each moment of the day, somewhere in the world, someone dies: now, in a short while, tomorrow, next week, next year, etc. And while you are conscious of this mortality, I ask you to think about what you want to leave to this world. What are you doing it all for, what are your convictions, how do you want to be remembered?
  • Speak out loud what matters to you in your life. Discuss this with your partner, a dear friend or the person supervising you.

Finally: don’t wait till tomorrow, next week or next year to start behaving in line with what is really important for you. Life is now, so change the way you behave NOW. Or as Ghandi said: ‘be the change you want to see in the World’. And to conclude in the spirit of the exercise: on a gravestone you will usually see the date on which you were born and when you died in big letters. The dates are separated by a hyphen. That hyphen represents your whole life. What colour are you going to give that hyphen?

Sweet dreams!

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