While I was training to be a coach, our training consisted of mostly experiential exercises, one of which is a visualization called “Future Self”. The idea is that you conjure an image of you 10, 15, 20 years later, and ask this older (and presumably) wiser self for insight, guidance, maybe even comfort.

It was all new to me, so my expectations for this exercise were both high and low. High in the sense that I hoped my future self was kick-ass and bold, (a Helen Mirren basking at the Oscars), as well as wise (a Judi Dench who doesn’t necessarily bother with the Oscars). Low in the sense that never having done a visualization before, my concept of what it would be like was wide open and unattached.

The visualization part of the exercise was incredibly relaxing — darkened room, post-lunch, soft background music — so much so that I nodded off for a minute or two. The woman reading the script had a lovely voice, round and warm like a cookie fresh from the oven. The part of the exercise that didn’t fly was the star of the show, my “future self”. She was a no show.

After the visualization portion of the presentation, we debriefed. Gathered into small groups, we compared future selves like we were comparing treasure chests. I listened to various small details that the others had found to be meaningful, illuminating, freeing, surprising, etc., and I coveted each and every one of them.

One woman unbuttoned the cuffs of her tailored shirt, as her future self wore one that was gauzy and flowy and bell-shaped. Another woman said that her future self was living in beautiful Mexican village, her house within a stone’s throw of the church. Everybody’s future self had something generous or blessing-like to say: from “you’re just fine as you are,” to “you are grace itself.”

It was a Charlie Brown moment. My fellow trainees had raked in the visualization candy; I got a rock. So, when it was my turn to talk, I fibbed, plundering the results of another training exercise done in a previous class: an image of a hand on the punched tin lid of a glass jar that held a moth. I have no idea what it means. All I know is that it resonated.

Most of my group had been in that previous class with me, and the fact that an image repeated itself strummed their curiosity. There were sharp inhales and oooohhh’s and ahhhh’s and murmurings, and then four sets of eyebrows shot up when they caught on that that’s all I had to say.

I shrugged and said, “The moth didn’t talk. Sorry.”

Then they peppered me with questions. What kind of moth? What kind of jar? What did the hand look like? Was it day or night? Warm weather or cold weather? Sunny day or cloudy? What season? What phase of the moon? Where? When? Did the hand unscrew the lid? Did the moth fly away? They were determined to unlock the mysteries of Melissa’s cagey, abstract future self. I realized that the more I withheld the more they would press. And these women knew how to press. So, I answered: brown speckled, frilly wings; large Mason, clear; smooth, lightly tanned; day; warm; hazy; early summer; waxing gibbous; front porch; late afternoon; no; no.

Then there was silence. My group all had “digesting the details” expressions on their faces. I have no idea what expression was on mine. There are times when I’m a master of the inscrutable poker face, and there are times when my face is completely transparent. Having had enough of the hot seat, I decided to wrap things up by suggesting I’d meditate about my future self in the following days.

Everyone nodded, satisfied. This is a group of people for whom meditation and yoga are like aspirin, a remedy for all of life’s cramps and sprains. I have nothing against yoga or meditation, but I’m not interested in them. I prefer an actual tablet of aspirin, washed down with a cup of high-test coffee and chased with an almond croissant as I sprawl on the couch.

For a long time after that class I fretted over my faceless, nameless, locationless, fashionless, MIA future self. What did that mean? What would it take to gain access to her? What did I need to do differently? Etc.

I never figured it out, and after a while I stopped fretting – for the most part. Maybe now and again I’ve chewed on her absence, but only when triggered, as with the posting challenge about what advice would our older selves give our younger selves. I asked myself that question, hoping for a candy apple of an answer, and as with that future self visualization, I got a rock.

Wanting, like those coaches in my training class, to get to the bottom of me, I decided to play devil’s advocate, to change the dynamic in hopes of changing the result. “Self,” I cooed, “pretend. Pretend that there’s a younger me/us hanging on our every word.”

And the self’s tart reply: “You wouldn’t have listened anyway…you never did. You went your own way. Did you own thing. Made a clusterfuck of mistakes, and you’re still standing. If you’re her and she’s you, don’t confuse basic math with calculus.”

As harsh (maybe even hopeless) as that might sound, that wasn’t the effect. Finally, a communique! It’s a start! It’s a glimpse of the long sought treasure chamber. No, it’s not gentle but it’s pragmatic and sincere and honest. It’s also wise, for at the heart of the heart of this game of hide and seek with my future self, is the insight of not interfering with the business of being alive, some of which includes suffering, some of which is self-made, and some of which includes suffering’s lovely opposite.

The effect of this brush with my past/present/future self isn’t that of being roughed up, or even judged. It’s more like the feeling that the moth in that jar I imagined a while ago is one twist of the lid closer to feeling air, fresh air, on its wings.

Melissa, 38, Atlanta, USA

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