I believe that we are constantly imagining the world and that imagination has a central rather than peripheral place in our lives.
I like the ambiguity of imagination. Imagining is still a controversial issue in psychology and philosophy. I think we all know what we mean when we say the word but find it difficult to articulate a good definition. Imagination may be understood as our capacity to generate any possible reality. We are imagining when we dream or envision situations but we are also imagining when we close our eyes and place a finger to our nose or navigating in the darkness through our house late at night. But imagination is not simply representational, it is also creative of new realities.
Cultivating imagination is not emphasized in our upbringing. In fact, we occasionally hear remarks such as, “It’s just your imagination, you’re dreaming, it’s all in your head, that’s only a story,” which are used in a dismissive fashion, something which says the issue at hand is unreal or unimportant. These are negative value statements. Gore Vidal once wrote that it “is the spirit of the age to believe that any fact, no matter how suspect, is superior to any imaginative exercise, no matter how true.” Imagination does not have a valued place in our culture.
The late historian of religion, Ioan Couliano noted that whereas the Renaissance was a culture of imagination, the Reformation of the 16th century led to the total censorship of the imaginary. Religion, generally locatable within the province of imagination, witnessed immense differences arise in liturgical style between the Roman Catholic tradition and the new Protestant worship. The once sensuous liturgy was transformed into sterile formality. Gone was incense, chant, bells, intonations, Latin, candles, costume, rich tapestries, statuary, relics, and the deep mystery of the Eucharist. The Reformation brought unadorned interiors, somber hymns, plain pulpits, suited pastors, and a new focus upon the sermon in the common vernacular. An imaginative and sensuous worship was viewed as idolatrous. The worship experience shifted from sensory experience to explicated meaning. Apparently, in the beginning was the Word not the Image.
I believe it is mostly the poets, artists, occultists, and madmen who have kept imagination alive to us. William Blake at the turning of the 19th century, wrote, “Man is all Imagination. God is Man and exists in us and we in him.” “The world of Imagination is the world of Eternity.” “The Imagination is not a State, it is Human existence itself.” For Blake, imagination, experience, and existence were all of an inseparable piece. A century later, Jung was proclaiming, “What appears to us as immediate reality consists of carefully processed imagery... We live immediately only in a world of images.” “Image is psyche.” If image is psyche and psyche can be defined as soul, then when we cultivate images, we are also engaged in the task of soul-making.
Contemporary archetypal writer, James Hillman describes soul, not as a thing but as a perspective, a way of seeing that is reflective, deepening events into experiences, adding layers of depth and richness to our lives. One of the qualities of poetry is to take an ordinary event and through reflection, probing, and working it as an image describe it anew in such a way that it becomes meaningful experience, something which actually moves us. Soul-making is about differentiating this middle ground, creating imaginal space between the event and its impact upon us. Another way of grasping soul-making is the notion of attending closely to the minute and mundane details in our lives, paying attention to the sensuousness which surrounds us when we waken, when we bathe, when we prepare and enjoy food, when we meditate, when we make love. Through attending, we become alive to the world and the world in turn becomes alive to us, vital, a living being. An animated world is a world permeated by soul, anima (soul in Latin) brings us round to the notion of World Soul. Emerson has a marvelous essay on the World Soul, which he terms the Oversoul and I heartily recommend it.
In reclaiming imagination, giving it an honored place, we more easily care for soul and deepen our relationship toward life.