When have you said to yourself, “It’s only my imagination?” I’ve said it at a moment of strong intuition — intuition that subsequently proved to be correct — that lacked supporting evidence in the moment. I’ve also said it when I’ve had a glimpse of a wonderful future — and then betrayed that vision by diverting my energy to listing all the reasons it cannot be.
When we dismiss imagination, we exile the part of ourselves that knows things that matter in an extraordinary way and has the power to re-vision and re-create our world. Imagination is the faculty of mind and soul that thinks and acts through images, which, as the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, are “facts of the mind.”
They borrow from our life memories and our sensory experiences, but they are more than copies; they can reshape and transform the raw materials into something new. And they can take on energy from a deeper source.
The family of a young girl, Sally, who was suffering night terrors asked for my help. I gave Sally a toy soldier from my childhood — a Roman centurion — and told her that henceforth this would be her night guardian and would keep terrible things out of her space. I ran into the girl three years later, when she was about ten. “Lex is great,” she told me. “Who is Lex?” I inquired.. Sally was scandalized that I had completely forgotten the incident. “He’s the Roman soldier you gave me!” She stamped her foot. “He’s now ten feet tall, and whenever there’s anything yucky around at night, he’s right on it. I never have nightmares now.”
This is an example of how an image borrowed from one level of reality can become a container for energy from several sources. I could simply have given Sally the idea of a night guardian, but it seemed appropriate, with a young child, to give her an object that embodied that idea. Through the power of imagination, that object took on a larger and autonomous life. A miniature figure became ten feet tall, and it appeared spontaneously, with the strength to send off psychic intruders. It became a storehouse for protective energy. This was partly the result of wishful thinking (nothing wrong with wishing), but I believe it was also the result of a transpersonal energy — and energy from a realm beyond worldly forms — coming to take up residence in the container that had been made available.
There is nothing imaginary (in the sense of unreal) about an image that comes alive in our mind. As the English philosopher H. H. Price puts it: “Paradoxical as it may sound there is nothing imaginary about a mental image. It is an actual entity, as real as anything can be.” We experience mental images, and “they are no more imaginary than sensations.” The confusion comes in because we put down the imagination, wrongly believing that to “imagine” is to entertain false ideas or wander off into empty daydreams.
Since “imaginary” is so often equated with “unreal,” we may save some time and clarity by substituting the adjective “imaginal.” This has a longish pedigree in the English language; it first appears (according to the OED) in 1647 in the context: “That inward life’s the impresse imaginall of Nature’s Art.” The term “imaginal” has begun to acquire currency in recent times among both scholars and healing practitioners due to the influence of Henry Corbin’s work on the realm of images in Sufi and medieval Persian philosophy.
The realm of images is a real world, as well as a creative state of consciousness. It is the region of mind where meaning takes on form and where objects take on meaning. True poets, in all ages, have understood that the realm of imagination is the fundamental ground of knowledge.
Honoring our imaginations is of the most urgent and practical importance, because as the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “A man’s life is dyed in the colors of his imagination.”
We live by images. They control everything we think and do, from brushing our teeth to making love to speaking or not speaking in an office meeting. Images generate and constitute our experience of reality.
We tell ourselves that reality is out there, but we do not experience that reality directly. “What we experience directly,” says physicist David Deutsch, “is a virtual-reality rendering, conveniently generated for us by our unconscious minds from sensory data plus complex inborn and acquired theories (i.e. programs) 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.”
Our lives are more or less authentic according to whether we are aware of the role of images and of our own ability to choose and discard or transform the imagery that rules our interactions with everything. Hermann Hesse put this very precisely: “There’s no reality except the one contained within us. That’s why so many people live an unreal life. They take images outside them for reality and never allow the world within them to assert itself.”
The greatest crisis in our lives is a crisis of imagination. We get stuck, and we bind ourselves to the wheel of repetition, because we refuse to reimagine our situation. We live with a set of negative or confining images and pronounce them “reality.” We do this because we let ourselves get trapped in a particular version of the past or in a consensual hallucination. We do it to cling to the familiar, not daring to give up what we are or have been for what we are meant to become.
To address our challenges, we need to draw on extraordinary sources of information and invest our energy and attention in a form of active imagination that dares to re-vision everything.
To be citizens of the world (to quote Marcus Aurelius again) we must cultivate sympathetic imagination, which is what allows us to understand the feelings and motivations of people different from us. The ability to imagine one's self in another person's place is vital to healthy social relations and understanding. A sociopath signally lacks this ability.
To bring peace and balance to our world, we require historical imagination, by which I mean both the ability to claim what is helpful from the past and the faculty for spotting alternatives to a particular event track— past, present, or future.
Whether the issues are in our world or our personal life, the practice of imagination requires claiming a creative relationship with the past. There is an image from Ghana that springs to mind. It shows a strange bird looking over its shoulder. This symbolic bird is called Sankofa, and its role is to remind us to bring from the past what can heal and empower us — and dump the rest.
One thing we want to reclaim from the past is the wisdom of the child-mind. The practice of imagination begins with making room in our lives for the child who knows it’s okay to “make things up” and knows this is fun.
When asked why he was the one to develop the theory of relativity, Einstein said: “A normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I grew up.”
Mark Twain insisted, “No child should be permitted to grow up without exercise for imagination. It enriches life for him. It makes things wonderful and beautiful.”
Whatever age we have reached, we all need a daily workout, and a place to go, in the real world of imagination. Keep working out, and you’ll remember that, as poet Kathleen Raine wrote beautifully, “Imaginative knowledge is immediate knowledge, like a tree, or a rose, or a waterfall or sun or stars.”
Build your home in the imagination strong enough, and you may find it is the place of creative birthing we all long for, the state of mind Mozart evoked when he said: “I can see the whole of it in my mind at a single glance.… All the inventing and making goes on in me as in a beautiful strong dream.”
Text adapted from The Three “Only” Things by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.
Art: Robert Moss, "Wrapped in Butterflies"