Imagination and Illusion
I have long been fascinated by imagination. We only have to spend a little time with kids to witness the power of imagination. Even fairly young kids---toddlers---can imagine with the best of them. Imagination is the formation of ideas and images, which are not present to us. Imagination is, as the dictionary tells us, a creative ability. Imagination is able to create worlds that don’t yet exist. Imagination fosters alternative worlds. Imagination is the key to the future.
If memory is the key to the past, imagination is the key to the future. Memory often is quite a treasure. Memory is the way we capture mentally those times, which have passed. Memory preserves. I have fond memories of some of my own childhood days. I have quite fond memories of the times my two little girls were growing up, learning things and beginning to make lives of their own. I am very thankful for the gift of memory.
And I am just as thankful for the gift of imagination. By imagining we are able to create future possibilities. Imagination allows us the privilege of trying out different scenarios. We are able to discard the losers without putting much time or effort into bringing them to pass. One way to see imagination at work is to play the “what if” game. What if we did this? What if we discontinued doing that? This sounds like the old human version of game theory.
For a long time I have been intrigued by the twin possibilities of imagination and illusion. In many instances it seems difficult to distinguish the two possibilities. But there clearly are not the same. In fact one---imagination---is quite healthy and, potentially, creative. The other one---illusion---is tricky and, sometimes, unhealthy and, potentially, even dangerous. Let’s consider both of them. We will see that only imagination has spiritual ramifications.
An illusion can be tricky because illusions are deceptive. They can be portrayed as real, but illusions are not real. Some illusions are accidental. They are not intentionally deceptive, but they still are not real. We might have the illusion that we did well on an examination, but in reality we did not do very well at all. People deal with many illusions when it comes to health issues. Smokers may be under the illusion that the habit causes no real harm. Or some may feel like it won’t cause them any harm, although it is harmful to people in general!
The key thing about illusion is the fact that illusion is never real---the illusion is simply not possible. Spending time cultivating illusions or hoping that they will come true is utterly a waste of time and energy. It may fall under the “wishful thinking” category. Any illusion about God or my own spiritual life is no different. An illusion is an illusion.
Imagination, on the other hand, is a way of conceiving the inconceivable. Imagination is a way of painting a picture of something, which can be abstract or complex. Images are pictures that can be helpful in dealing with some aspects of reality. For example, I have images of God. I have no clue what God in the Divine Self or Divine Reality looks like or acts like. But I can create images that help me think about the God in whom I believe.
I do find parental images of God to be helpful. I am ok with the traditional image of God the Father. There are aspects of God dealing with me that seem quite paternal. But I also like the image of God the Mother, In fact, much of God’s action in my life seems very maternal---caring, nurturing, etc. I know these are images. But I also would claim at some level that the images “capture” the essence of the reality I experience when God is in my life. Obviously, I cannot prove it. But it is real to me; it is not an illusion.
I am confident imagination is a great way to enrich our lives. I realize much of my spiritual life deals in the currency of imagination. Quite a bit of my spiritual discipline uses images---hence, imagination. When I am praying, imagination is engaged. When I ask God the Mother to care for me and those surrounding me, I know there is imagination in play. Will that maternal God literally bend down (another image) and kiss me on the cheek? Not likely…that would be illusory. But I can imagine that divine maternal care and with that my soul is thereby soothed.
One of the delights of spiritual communities is the shared imagination. When spiritual people gather, they often share different kinds of images. Sometimes it comes through songs sung. Sometimes it is through spiritual literature. Another rich resource is the personal spiritual stories that folks can share about their own spiritual pilgrimage.
I want to become more and more aware of the spiritual treasure that imagination makes possible. I want to cultivate my own imagination and be attentive to the riches of others’ imagination. This is a wonderful avenue of spiritual growth and deepening.