Inner World Previous - Next


Imagination: Creating a New Reality

The imagination is often dismissed as irrational and unreal. Laura Sewall speaks of the imagination as a valid force that can shape reality. A creative force that is the tool of the visionary.

By Laura Sewall  
A "HALF MOON" moon hovers in the late afternoon sky. My imagination wraps around the back of that lovely, luminous body. It is spherical and dark on the back side. I visualize the entire moon and know that only one-quarter of it is lit, my imagination revealing to me what is most real. Imagination, it follows, is not necessarily unreal, as is often assumed. It is not right or wrong, real or not real. Rather, imagination is a mode of consciousness, a unique capacity of the mind, shimmering behind everything we see and do. We imagine carrots before cooking them for dinner, a bath before we bathe. "In the beginning is the image, first imagination then perception," says James Hillman.

In somewhat scientific terms, our imaginations saturated with memory descend from the visual cortex in bundles of neural tracks, meeting incoming signals in the center of the brain. There sensations mix with imagination and are matched and filtered. Imagination thus comprises close to half of any perceptual cycle, its primary function being to act as a bridge between inner and outer landscapes.

By bridging between ourselves and things of the world, imagination as if gluing the world together for us creates meaning. We merge the sensations of an old oak with our previous images of oak, and perhaps with images of what the world must have been like at the moment of its sprouting. In our imaginations, we discover a facet of time, the way it unfolds backward across the history of a land. We begin to wonder at the plants that grew there and the animals who lived there, the fact of a wooded hillside before houses and cell phone towers. We see an image enriched by time, perhaps embellished by the stories of our families living there as they grew and shifted over generations, with aunts and uncles, and the stories of their mothers and fathers, woven into a tapestry of place and belonging.
A finely tuned imagination is informed by the physical world, drawing from the past and present, and from the edges of our awareness. If we had actually grown up in such a world, we would call these images our memories. We would see photographs of cooking with an aunt or fishing with a grandmother. But for many of us, such connectedness with family and land never happened. If such images are suggestive of the kind of world we wish for our children, we must bridge the past, present, and future with our imaginations.

A finely tuned imagination is informed by the physical world, drawing from the past and present, and from the edges of our awareness. At the edges of our visual field and at the edges of our consciousness, the world is almost but not quite known. The edge is where our known experience becomes flavored with the unknown, where imagination steps forward into the realm of possibility.

THE POWER OF THE IMAGINATION is multifaceted. While teaching vision improvement, I occasionally came to class with a kitchen drawer full of utensils and all the related trappings that accumulate in such a place. I spilled can openers and scissors, corkscrews, batteries, Scotch tape, and matches into the center of a table, then asked my students to close their eyes and visualize a pair of scissors. Once an image of scissors had clearly formed in their mind's eye, I asked them to open their eyes and find the can opener. Needless to say, it took them forever, their imaginations already busy with scissors. Next I asked them to close their eyes and visualize a roll of Scotch tape. Upon opening their eyes, I asked them to find the Scotch tape. The tape appeared in seconds demonstrating the power of imagination to influence one's vision.
In other words, imagining something makes it easier to see it, just as seeing something makes it easier to imagine it.

To gather, hold, and refine an image, and then to offer that image to the world is the essential work of the visionary.

We all recognize this phenomenon from our experience. Attention, we might say, lights up the neural networks subserving the image of Scotch tape, activating our image-making abilities. Over time the practice of attending in this way, of visualizing or repeatedly running a signal through the network subserving a particular image strengthens or "facilitates" the connections. And because visualizing a scrub jay, for example, activates the same set of neurons as when one is actually looking at a jay, the practice of visualization facilitates the sight of jays in the sensible, material world. In other words, imagining something makes it easier to see it, just as seeing something makes it easier to imagine it. The process between one's active imagination and seeing with clarity is reciprocal and co-creative. For the Dagara of West Africa, imagination and reality are minimally distinguished. "To imagine something, to closely focus one's thoughts upon it, has the potential to bring that something into being," writes Malidoma Some, a Dagara ritualist. In this sense, imagination is the power "to make happen" to create reality.

To embellish an image, to make it vivid and to be able to observe the details, to "build any thing in one's mind," takes practice. We imagine a scene. We add color and detail. With a little time, the visualized tree glistens in sunlight and branches begin to move. Feelings arise with the image and we look into it with greater depth. As we add dimensionality and detail, we strengthen the connections between neurons, the image becoming more vibrant and the sensible, worldly tree becoming more familiar. We readily recognize the shape at a glance, the pattern of Ash or Cottonwood. The perception of the tree is associated with the visualized form, with a practiced and facilitated network and thus requires oh-so-little light energy for us to see and feel. We feel a kind of affinity for it, resonating with easy recognition.

To gather, hold, and refine an image, and then to offer that image to the world is the essential work of the visionary. She sees what is possible embedded in what is real. She looks directly at what is, looking into the world and then beyond the edge of presumed reality, cultivating the power to translate between seen and unseen realms with attention and imagination. The practice of the visionary is a perceptual act.

Shape-shifting is essentially the power of intensionality brought to bear on a way of seeing.

I allow - I swallow in sadness - a synaesthetic moment in which I remember that the Others, the Deer, are what make fully human, a fully sensitive being.

THE RUBIN VASE is classically used to portray visual illusions, but it simultaneously illustrates the power of the mind to reconstruct the perceived world by shifting our focus of attention. The vase shows us a simple reversal created by the way we frame our view. What do we frame as the figure, the central white vase or the two identical profiles? How does the placement of our attention create a vision of reality?

The shadows running across the slope of a mountain range, connecting the many folds and drainages in the land, are most often seen as background. If, with the power of our attention, we pull the shadows into the foreground, a new pattern emerges. If, with the power of our imaginations, we give them shape and density, the hidden and shadowed places gain a presence of their own, and, if only for a moment, the landscape is reversed.

How does imagination influence what is cast into the foreground, and how does that entice one world into being, leaving the other out of the picture? Is the fir forest or lumber in the foreground of our awareness?

In the complex calculus of the individual psyche, in the way sensations are translated into perception, exchanging figure for ground may not be far from shape-shifting from turning the world around. Shape-shifting is essentially the power of intentionality brought to bear on a way of seeing. It is aligning one's attention with one's imagination and thus restructuring both neural networks and perceptual habits. Restructuring the patterns of connectivity begins to turn the world around, reversing the perceptual and behavioral trends. Shape-shifting, it follows, is the subtle essence of visionary practice. I see stick houses built of dead fir replaced by solid earthen houses. I see the plumes of dense diesel exhaust from lumber trucks replaced by pure air arising from fat fir forests. I see silted streams running clear.

There is an art to this. It is the ability to free one's view from the conditioned and programmed worldview unpatterning the assumed world and then to artfully stitch it back together through the power of a cultivated imagination. Cultivated, in this sense, means informed and shaped by the integrity and wholeness displayed by the visible world, our imaginations created and filled by attending to the patterns and depth of a world still intact.

With imagination we may view the many consequences of our choices.

I WATCH TV in the Hospitality Inn after driving two days in the rain, contemplating the dying pines that line the highway in Ohio and upstate New York. It is painful to see thousands and thousands of trees in a slow spasm of death. My impulse is to turn away, but I recall a Buddhist friend reminding me that the fundamental spiritual practice is to awaken, to notice what actually is.

I try to understand the dying pines, to perceive the relationships that are operative here. Are the trees dying from some disease? Is this the pine bark beetle having a heyday? Or is this death spasm a result of the toxic emissions from factories to the north? Are the pines suffering the effects of exhaust spewing from millions of cars. The TV talk shows reveal no answers.

The next day I continue my drive to the east. I see many road kills, many, many road signs, and endlessly long power lines everywhere. The rest stops are now full-service centers with faxes, many food choices, and overnight mail service all of it fast like the seventy-five miles per hour I have been driving all day. I see more land bulldozed, a wide swathe next to the road, soon to be paved for more cars and trucks. I see thirty-five freight trucks pass me in one minute, filling my mind with images of Wal-Marts, Sam's Clubs, and Costcos.

In the mid-afternoon, I see a deer dashing across four lanes of New York Turnpike like an apparition. She did not fit my expectations her appearance so unusual across the long gray highway and I nearly missed the sight of her. But there was no mistaking her terror, and my heart leapt in sympathy. A moment later, my sensitivity radically heightened, I feel the raindrops hitting my wind shield as if striking my own body. I allow I swallow in sadness a synaesthetic moment in which I remember that the Others, the Deer, are what make me fully human, a fully sensitive being.

Imagination is thought to be nonrational and therefore not to be taken seriously. A little reflection, however, makes it abundantly clear that our imagination informs our view of the world considerably, and thus our behavior toward that world. Television shows, highways, and parking lots are the visions that occupy much of the American mind. With little public notice and what seemed a thinly veiled jubilance, the largest road bill in history was passed in Congress in 1998. Did we imagine that this public expenditure meant more trucks, more truck stops, and more shipping of goods around the country? Did we imagine that it would deliver more for us to buy, that it would burn up more fossil fuel and provide more reason to maintain a horrifically high-costing military? It seems we have forgotten how to use our imaginations. With imagination we may view the many consequences of our choices.

  Laura Sewall has a doctorate in visual science and teaches ecopsychology at Prescott College in Arizona. Her essay is adapted from her new book, Sight and Sensibility: The Ecopsychology of Perception, published by Jeremy P. Tarcher, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc..

This article appeared in Orion, Autumn 1999 a quarterly published by The Orion Society and The Myrin Institute, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230. Tel: (413) 528-4422. E-mail:

Previous - Next