Wednesday 16 September 2015

If Imagination is the next step - how can Imagination be developed?

If, as I have been arguing, Imagination is the next step for Man - the step towards a future that include the best of both the participation in life of the pre-modern past and the self-awareness and freedom of the 'modern period - the situation of living in relationship with a living, sentient, conscious world including the divine.

If so, then what could or should be done about it? How, in particular, can we set about developing our Imagination towards such a goal.

It seems obvious that the necessary Imagination needs to be active and purposive, needs to originate in us and to be direct-able by us - and therefore that developing imagination is not going to be a business of more or better passive or guided imaginative experience; not even when that experience is provided by first rate Art.

In general, and taking into account some lessons from cultures of the past, it seems that Imagination can be increased and improved, and that is by experience. In particular by that kind of experience sometimes termed 'initiation' - which might be defined (very generally) as sequential experience leading to incremental development of mental capacities.

I do not mean here a specific mode of initiation into a specific institution, since I don't think there are any suitable institutions - at least not in The West - which provide this type of initiation leading to Imagination. It is something we need to manage for ourselves, as best we may.

It is very difficult in a mass media and hyper-inputted world, but I think we need to restore (or allow ourselves again to experience) that sense of the sacredness and power of representations. It used to be thought, for instance, that a name, a written word, a picture, a small statue... any representation was also (to a greater or lesser extent) infused with life, purpose, personality and therefore powerful and effective. Speaking a name gave power, a picture was a window onto another world, to write something was somehow to will it and make it happen.

This was the ancient and spontaneous way of thinking - and it was of course set aside under modernity so that we made the world a neutral thing which we could understand, predict and manipulate without having any lived relationship to it.

But there seems to be a sense that we now need to move on from that 'objectivity' yet not simply to return to pre-modern subjectivity - indeed, I think that the need has been increasingly obvious for 200 years.

This can be seen in a partial and perverted form in the way that in the past couple of decades Political Correctness has given exaggerated significance to the utterance, writing or depiction of certain taboos, the increasing rigour of speech codes, the continual reinvention of language in line with and in pursuit of ideology. I think this is tapping into a widespread desire to re-sacralise the whole world; but twisting this desire to an anti-spiritual and destructive socio-political agenda.

So, the politically correct are right (but for wrong reasons) that words matter, depictions matter, in a sense everything matters down to the smallest level of interpretation and interaction (even including micro-aggressions!) - but the reason that these things matter is that in a world made and permeated by the divine (and only in such a world) everything does matter; everything matters because we live in a universe of purpose, meaning and universal relationships.

This implies that in order to enhance Imagination, we need to develop (or allow to re-emerge in us) a far greater sensitivity to the depictions and representations and implicit communications around us - nothing being regarded as too small or insignificant.

Yet, if we accept this, we find ourselves almost-intolerably bombarded almost-all-of-the-time by subversive, dishonest, evil-intended communications - mostly emanating from the same advocates of political correctness who have developed such hyper-sensitivity to representations which go against their own ideologies.

For example, the use of sexual images, words, personal displays has been taken to quite extraordinary levels - what would happen if we allowed ourselves to become sensitive to these? Given our innate sensitivity, the typical situation of modern life would be overwhelming from this cause alone - and then add-in the deliberate depictions of disgust and horror; the sympathy-grabbing manipulations, the hate generating manipulations; the scale and brutalism of architecture, the overpowering noise, smells, tastes, drugs... all these together in a perfectly statistically-normal life would seem likely to stimulate a sensitive soul into some kind of rapid sensory overload and functional breakdown.

The natural tendency is to allow ourselves to become blunted, unresponsive, unreactive - to crush our own imagination as an act of self-defence.

How to escape this dilemma?

Obviously we can and should do as much as possible to protect ourselves from this onslaught - to cure our addiction to stimulation, to provide safe havens from the mass media, to avoid the deadliest powers... but that which we can do may be little, may be too little - it may well be insufficient. What then?

Perhaps we can learn in this from the ancients - from their use of spiritual protections? From words, prayers, gestures, objects, rituals of warding. We would usually regard the deployment of such things as primitive superstition, as magic, perhaps (for example, to the iconoclastic or puritan mind) as anti-Christian; yet I think the consensus of devout and Holy persons of the past would here be strongly against us.

So, in living through the multiple, near-continuous, sensory and psychological and spiritual assaults of everyday life - in a condition of high imaginative sensitivity to these stimuli - I think we can, and perhaps must, avail ourselves of whatever devices we find to be an effective ward and protection against their malign influence.

Then, within the bubble of such protection (whether provided by short prayers or other inner verbal formulae, or gestures, or artefacts, clothing... whatever works, within reason) - it may be possible to move through a hostile world while yet warm-hearted, open and sympathetic to what is going on around us.


Anonymous said...

This was a great read. Thank you very much on behalf of the whole internet crowd who seek spirituality so helplessly.

David said...

How to incrementally increase the mental capacity of imagination? Creative writing not just reading? Not by classes or any formal method but by setting oneself before a piece of blank paper and inviting the spirit of playful creativity to visit the mind with possibilities. After all, when you think about it, a blank piece of paper is actually the page of an unwritten book, a sketch of a place or something that has never existed before, a work of creation in microcosm, or for the unimaginative, a wall of writers block or impenetrable white - noise!

Like any skill: start small and limber up. Imagine a familiar object in as many details a possible for 5 minutes a day, try making a written description of it from memory alone and then drawing it. Once you have tried imagining a fierce dragon 500 times it will be all the more easily to summon the creation and hold it in mind sat on a horde of Dwarish Gold, depth less obsidian eyes, fetid flesh on breath. But be careful what you chose to cultivate with imagination, it is a divine gift with a cost, because it will shape the creator that has carefully removed the created object it from the chiselling block with force of will; imbued with life according to the investment of imaginative energy and application. After that the created object will take on a life of its own and then, like the best characters in books, they tell their own stories, the authors merely record their works and actions for posterity...

It strikes me that when God created us he equipped us with the gift of imagination as it is the ability to emulate our father in heaven as creative beings in microcosm. We must develop this capacity with hard - earned diligent application but with wisdom. The modern world has now marginalised most of these activities: drawing, dreaming, musing, my favourite childhood pastimes. But when or if we do, put aside computer games, films and distraction and return to cultivating imagination as a major shared and valued cultural activity we may soar like Eagles and know a special joy laid out for our discovery!

David said...

Barking up the wrong tree?

I remember this kind of approach to quantify things like creativity by the 'Torrence' test, when I was a Psychology student. It seemed bafflingly naive at the time and almost like an android - like or autistic grabbling to understand such a human trait with approaches that totally miss the point. Is it really possible to quantify imagination or is to attempt to do this kind of thing just missing the point?

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I would say it was destructive nonsense, except that the destructiveness is probably deliberate.

It is like the 'teaching' of Mindfulness in the NHS and Sate Schools, by making it a bureaucratically defined, monitored and implemented concept.

Even if the intentions are good (and is that likely, given the provenance?), the outcome is the inverse of the reality.

As if the Buddhist monks who lived in prolonged personal experiential apprenticeships to become Mindful have now been superseded by more efficient, effective and objective modern Quality Management Assurance systems...

Something analogous was seen a generation ago with the managerial entryism, takeover, subversion and inversion of the concept of Quality (standard New Left tactics):

David said...

Agreed. I thought you might say something like that. Probably just as well I never went on to do a PhD in Psychology then. My hunch at the time was that if I did it embark on one after my BSC (perhaps via yet another degree in the form of a masters degree stepping stone) it would just be hoop jumping to qualify as a potential Psychology lecturer on better pay and conditions, but I would actually end up knowing little more or of actual value about the human condition or psychology. Ironically, this was the major impetus for me when electing to study Psychology. It turns out I was largely barking up the wrong tree personally. William James seems to be where my agreement or interest in modern psychology stops. Current academic psychology and neuroscience seems to me so profoundly misguided and obviously redundant due to its foundational assumptions that it has little I can learn from it.

I have previously read the audit link you attach. I agree with it, it hits the nail on the head; but, alas, when I have tried to share it with others they don't know what I'm talking about or just shrug their shoulders and lament the inevitable fin de siecle. It's just too hard for people to think things through in that depth or they can't be bothered or both. Most of us are simply just too comfortable in the hospital ward that is growing up around us to do anything about it or even see it.

Gloomy but apparently true. Have a nice day.

The Crow said...

Imagination is a mind-product. Nothing real exists in the mind.
To discover Reality, mind, and its imaginings, must be disciplined, or all you can possibly arrive at is fantasy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - I am talking about understanding rather than existence.