By a hotel pool on the East side of Seattle, I am in an embodied dream. On the last day of April, the sun is shining - in Seattle! - and I have had the pool to myself for the past two hours, swimming laps, for which my body is always grateful. As I dry off in the sun, I am talking on the phone to a feature writer who is researching a magazine article on "escape fantasies" in times of stress.
"I'm in favor of them," I get right to the point. "The latest findings in psychoneuroimmunology are confirming that our body believes our thoughts and feelings. It seems the body can't actually tell the difference between a physical event and an event that is strongly imagined. If we can slip into the right kind of fantasy, we not only take a break from current worries, but can send messages to the pharmaceuticals factory inside each one of us that will produce feel-good chemicals and natural uppers instead of the stressor cytokines that wreck our immune systems and bring us down."
As we talk, I reflect on how the word "fantasy" has been twisted and diminished over the centuries. In the original Greek phantasia means a vision, or a "making visible". For the medieval scholastics, fantasy meant "the mental apprehension of an object of perception" - in other words, the way the mind grasps and comes into connection with the external universe. This is quite the opposite of the modern use of the term to mean idle fancy, hallucination, or caprice.
We think of fantasy as carrying us off into other worlds (as great fantasy novels and fantasy epics, or a really good juicy daydream can do). Yet ironically, without fantasy (in its original and medieval senses) we can't encounter the everyday world. I'll let quantum scientist David Deutsch, the author of The Fabric of Reality, explain why. Notice that what the Schoolmen called fantasy he calls virtual-reality rendering: "What we experience directly is a virtual-reality rendering, conveniently generated for us by our unconscious minds from sensory data plus complex inborn and acquired theories about how to interpret them...Every last scrap of our external experience is of virtual reality...Biologically speaking, the virtual-reality rendering of their environment is the characteristic means by which human beings survive."
As I tried to explain to the writer on the phone, there is more. What takes place in the imagination has a way of taking root in our lives and our worlds. This is at the heart of the ancient Polynesian art of navigation, the kind of navigation that gets you across two thousand miles of uncharted waters. It's called Waymaking. You learn the patterns of wind and water, but you learn - above all - to transport yourself to your destination and be there with all of your senses, so you can taste it and touch and smell it. When you can do that, they say, you are better than halfway there. Your act of imagination - of directed fantasy - draws your destination towards you.
I am thinking now of a woman I met on a plane, who was returning to Winnipeg after spending two weeks with a friend in upstate New York. Prior to her vacation, she had reduced her life to ground zero. She had quit her job, divorced her husband, sold her house, put her things in storage - and was now feeling queasy, facing the need to start making a wholly new life. I gently asked her to try to imagine where she wanted to be five years out. She talked of wanting to found a kind of half-way house for women who were trying to start over. I encouraged her to see the building, and inhabit it with all of her senses. The image came right away; she started describing it down to the alley with the trash bins. Soon she was picturing the volunteers and part-time workers who would be helping her, and making a mental list of who to call when she got back to Winnipeg. One of those people was a good cook and her nostrils quivered as she smelled fresh baking. By the time our plane landed, we both could see and feel her success in fulfilling a "fantasy" she had grown rich and deep and strong, strapped into a seat beside the wing.
When I finished my "fantasy" interview, I considered jumping back in the pool rather than washing my hair before I kept a lunch date. I noticed at that moment that a couple of green-headed ducks had taken my place in the pool while I was on the phone. I took that as a humorous message from the universe to get under the shower and wash my hair unless I wanted to be a green-headed duck (since white hair like mine can be dyed by chlorine rather fast). In a Thai restaurant that evening, after I gave a talk at East-West in Seattle, a cute server noted that my embodied fantasy at the pool had come at a price. "People don't usually tan in Seattle," she said. She then held her vermilion nails against my cheek and said, "But you are the color of my nail polish."