Imagination is indirect, nonlinear, and fuzzy. It’s more about taking you to a “new place” and providing a fresh perspective than providing a numerically clear solution or quick fix. Further, when we open up our imaginations, we challenge traditional norms. Our creative process comes up with ideas that are often at odds with standard procedures. It’s scary to open up to these foreign, quirky voices; it’s much easier to cover up and ignore them. Creativity is definitely messy.
But how many of us spend our days trying to find solutions to complex problems? Try as we may, new insights and fresh ideas are not going to come with reason or mental will power. Whether it be finding economical ways to market a workshop or developing a sustainable school system or managing our personal relationships in a way that brings satisfaction and happiness, we need to become friendly with our imaginations. Both Albert Einstein and Carl Jung said in different ways that no fundamental problem can ever be solved at the level at which it was created. To come up with enlightened solutions, we need a larger context, a larger set of possibilities, and expanded ways of thinking. We need access to something that’s bigger than us and bigger than our current state of knowledge. We need the imagination.
Don’t you find that to be true? When you find yourself stuck on some problem or issue, taking a trip or simply immersing in a new environment often brings up synchronistic solutions. The trouble is, we can’t mentally “will” ourselves to go to this new place. Our minds know how to analyze, compartmentalize and dissect; they know how to churn things around in circles. They do not know how to enter the imaginal.
That said, here are some ideas to help you become more friendly with the imaginal realm:
1) Remember your dreams, but don’t analyze them. Turning the images in your dreams into an “interpretation” takes the life out of the them, or as the psychologist James Hillman would say, “it leaves the soul unanimated.” When you analyze your dreams, you put them into a box where they can’t breathe. Instead, think of your dream images as “friends” that have shown up to keep you company. Let your dreams images accompany you during the day, working their magic on you.
2) Write a fairy tale. Allow yourself to be five years old and bring in dragons, castles, kings, princesses, or any other fairy tale character that seems appropriate. Start by writing the sentence, “Once upon a time, long, long ago in a land far away….” When you allow yourself to move beyond the “adult behavior” box, surprising insights arise. There’s a wisdom that lies beyond your trained mind. Give yourself the space to discover it.
3) Find your key image. The late poet Stanley Kunitz said that poets have one or two favorite images that captivated them as children that they keep working over and over again in their writing. For example, as a child E.B. White was fascinated by spider webs. He later went on to author the bestselling children’s book, Charlotte’s Web. I believe we all have such key images, and even if we’re not poets, our images keep “working us” over the course of our life. Some of my students’ key images have been fertile soil, ocean waves, and street festivals. Just muse for a moment—is there an image, or cluster of images, from childhood that is always close to your heart? We ultimately become the images we hold—-the images that have chosen us.
4) Play with visual imagery. Find a funky magazine (or other printed material like catalogues or old picture books) and scan through for whatever images appeal, provoke, or disturb you. Cut them out. Don’t try to make sense of what you’re doing, just continue ripping until you feel finished. One important route to the imaginal is through play and ripping pictures from magazines is “grown up” enough to give us room to do that. After you’re done, randomly pick up a couple of your images and see what connections can be made between them. See if you can combine the disparate elements into a new pattern or come up with a wild hypothesis (the wilder the better).
5) Notice the presence of metaphor. We normally think of metaphor as purely a linguistic device, but in truth, metaphor is the lens through which we see the world around us. A range of scholars, from Marshall McLuhan to the linguist George Lakoff to the German philosopher Martin Foss, have all argued that we live within an unconscious metaphoric process. Notice the metaphors that you use to describe the situations and people in your life, and notice when new metaphors show up. New metaphors provide fresh ways of looking.
Every perception that we have of the world around us is colored by the images through which we perceive. In daily life we are all poets and artists, and consciously or unconsciously, we are all working with the images we hold. As Rollo May once said, “…imagination and art are not frosting at all, but the foundation of human experience.” It’s time to make friends with the imaginal.