What do you imagine is right behind you? Before having a look, spend some time noticing what you think is there. Furniture perhaps? And walls? Or people? Now turn around and see what is actually there. My guess is, there are some differences between the details you imagined and what you saw. Right? I think this simple experiment points to how we tend to live within our unexamined assumptions about our surroundings.
At times I have been quite convinced that a particular person is angry with me, or that another has a sweet spot for me–only to discover that neither of these assumptions about their feelings were true. And yet in both cases my experience of these others, and of myself in relation to them, seemed very real. I think our imagination strongly shapes our experience of ourselves in the world and to a large extent the world we inhabit is the one that we imagine.
But our imagination isn't fixed. It can shift simply by us turning around and looking, or by asking someone a simple question about their feelings. And it is vast with potential—what can we even say about the limits of what we can imagine? But how heartbreaking it can be to see some of the worlds we end up inhabiting when we are lost, lonely, isolated, anxious and worried, exhausted, depressed, with meaningless work, in suffocating relationships, stale and stuck. I wonder how we can unlock the vitality, the flow and the possibilities of the imagination? How do we tap our potential to re-create, to move out of stuckness, to re-form ourselves? Where do we go to re-imagine ourselves and sculpt a life of meaning?
When the musician Charles Thompson re-imagined himself as Black Francis, he was invoking the power of possibility that true artists know about. He knows that ultimately he is not a fixed identity. And he screamed his self re-invention into the world taking a gender ambiguous name, that simultaneously changed his colour. I think the thousands of people who listen devotedly to Black Francis with his band the Pixies, screaming, "Where is my mind?" into the microphone, sense that the artists of our world can stop us falling into a stale and suffocating slumber. I think people are drawn to artists because they also want to become unstuck, to move freely, to remake themselves in a flourishing way. Perhaps this is a reason why artists can become the focus of people's devotion in the same way that great spiritual leaders can: creativity is not just an optional, academic pastime—it is as essential to our growth and wellbeing as food and air.
We are always imagining one thing or another. We are always making one thing or another of our situation. The more aware we are of doing this, the more able we are to create a meaningful life. I am often in a silent retreat setting, which is basically just a simple place - a building with people in it. And yet I am fascinated to notice how many different places it can become for me. At times I see it as a laboratory, where like a scientist I experiment. At other times it becomes a hospital where I tend to wounds. Sometimes I make it into a prison and feel trapped. I imagine it is a garden, where I plant seeds of patience and compassion. Or a greenhouse where calm and unusual mind states grow, like exotic hothouse flowers. Or I may see it as a school for learning and study, or a hospice where old chunks of identity pass into the unknown. As I play at being a scientist, a doctor, a prisoner, a gardener, a mystic or an athlete training and exercising my mind, I have a certain freedom to move, to flow, to choose creative change and to reform. It’s a creative freedom, akin to that of an artist.
Our imagination is one of the most powerful tools we have to affect our lives, but we need to wake up and learn how to harness it. Are you ready to awaken the creative spirit in your life? Then be warned, because we don't just need to think outside the box. We need to tear the box into strips and kindle a raging fire under the parliament of our redundant ideas. Only then can our lives become our art.
Article also appears on Conscious 2