His name was Zack. Zack was a 150-pound, 2-year-old Newfoundland dog—my buddy. Wild at heart—at best only ever semi-domesticated—he loved nothing more than to escape from our three-quarters-of-an-acre fenced yard and head toward the hundreds of acres of forest and trails that lay just up the road from our house.
I came home from work late one afternoon and discovered Zack was gone. I parked my car, got out, and then heard the screech of brakes, a loud, dull thud, and one heart-breaking yelp. I ran up the road to the crest of the hill and saw that my worst fears had come true. Lying in the road— illuminated by the car’s headlights—was Zack, tongue hanging out from the side of his open and bleeding mouth, his bear-like chest still. He was dead, killed by a car traveling over the crest of the hill, by a driver who could not see him until it was too late. I felt devastated.
For the next several weeks, as I traveled this same road, each time I came over the crest of the hill where this tragedy had occurred, the image of Zack’s lifeless body, lying in the road, involuntarily came to mind accompanied by all the associated feelings of grief. The sight of the crest of the hill had become a trigger for activating painful memories.
A couple of months later, I attended a weekend workshop focused on something called neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP for short. NLP is the study of how thought and language impact and influence personal experience.
During the NLP training, the two facilitators—Rick and Ricky—asked that we each find a partner to complete an exercise. In this exercise, one person was to act as the “client” and the other as the “therapist.” The client was directed to pick a memory that was still bothering him or her. The therapist was directed to guide the client through the steps of an NLP procedure called the “swish pattern.”
We were told that when using the swish pattern, it was not necessary for the client to reveal the contents of his or her memory to the therapist. This meant the entire process could be completed without the therapist even knowing the client’s issue.
For this exercise, I opted to play the role of client. As the “client,” here are the instructions I received and followed:
- Select a specific “unpleasant memory” you want to change.
- Close your eyes and mentally re-create that unpleasant memory to the best of your ability. Imagine it in detail as if it was happening to you now. Be in the experience and see, hear, and feel what you would if it were happening now. (Note: for this exercise I recalled coming to the crest of the hill, finding Zack dead, and feeling devastated.) This original unpleasant memory will soon become the cue for triggering a new “pleasant substitute memory.”
- Next, create an alternative mental image of what you would prefer to recall—a pleasant substitute for the original, unpleasant memory. (In my case, I wanted the crest of the hill to automatically trigger a pleasant image of a time spent with Zack instead of triggering the unpleasant memory of his lifeless body lying in the road. The pleasant memory I selected was an image of Zack standing on his hind legs, front paws hanging over the fence, black tail wagging, and happy to see me.) Imagine this new alternative “pleasant memory” as if it was happening to you now. Be in the experience and see, hear, and feel what you would if it were happening now. This is now your new substitute pleasant memory.
- Now, once again, imagine a big, bright picture of the unpleasant memory you wish to change (your original cue image). In the bottom right-hand corner of this mental picture, construct a small dark picture of your new “pleasant memory” that you would prefer to experience instead.
- Now, quickly and smoothly expand the small, dark image of the pleasant memory so that it grows to become a big, bright image right in front of you—completely replacing the unpleasant memory. This quick exchange of images (from unpleasant to pleasant) takes about a second. Swap the images in the time it takes you to say, “swish.” The key point is to make the exchange sudden and very fast.
- Repeat steps four and five 10 to 12 times.
I listened attentively and followed all of the therapist’s instructions. This was my first experience with the “swish pattern.” Was it effective? Last week, I drove to the old house. As I passed over the crest of the hill, sure enough, the first memory that came to my mind was the happy image of Zack standing on his hind legs, front paws hanging over the fence, black tail wagging and happy to see me—just like we programmed my mind to do in this exercise first completed a quarter of a century earlier.
Is the swish pattern magic? No. Does it always produce such impressive results? Probably not. But when you have a troubling memory, is it worth giving it a try? Absolutely!
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