One of the practices I engaged in for a long time is advocated by Julia Cameron in her book on how to get unstuck creatively called The Artist’s Way. It’s the practice of journaling three pages long-hand first thing out of bed in the morning.
There are no formal rules on what to write about, just getting the hand moving. She calls it brain drain. It’s a method of not only getting stimulated creatively, but of getting the clamor of voices that might stifle creativity out of the head and onto the page.
Since roughly the Romantic era, we tend to associate creativity and the imagination with innocence and childhood, and more logical-linear thinking with adulthood and loss. While it’s certainly true that our culture could use a corrective to data-driven, metrical and mechanical thinking, it’s also true that the imaginative faculty is not in and of itself an inherent good.
It’s not just creatives who have to use their imagination. As teacher Michael Lerner reminds us, the Nazis had a hell of an imagination. They imagined themselves taking over the world. Similarly in our time, business people have to use the imaginative faculty to dream up and improve products and services. Lawyers, teachers, policymakers, to one extent or another, have to use the imagination.
Only, oftentimes, they are operating within a narrowly defined framework, and we tend to think of imagination as that which transcends our pre-existing frameworks.
So, what does this have to do with the contemplative life?
On the individual level, we don’t tend to think of the ways in which our imaginative faculties are at work all the time in subtle ways. It’s something of a cliché to say that we construct our own reality. But let’s take a look at how, in some ways, we do just that.
Our total mental-emotional reality is a combination of what we take in through our perceptual faculties and the imaginative framework we use to interpret those perceptions. Our imagination colors our understanding of the world. It conditions how we think of our own story, how we think of the world around us. It shapes how we interpret our past, and colors how we think of our future. It orients us.
Some of us imagine we are living in the end times and interpret events in their environment in that light. Others of us imagine we are living in a time of boundless progress and opportunity. Some of us imagine people are inherently good. Others imagine people are inherently bad.
Every interpretive overlay to the immediate reality around us, every evaluation, every interpretation is filtered through our own imaginations.
Much of art and creativity comes out of a gap people perceive between how they see the world and how they imagine the world ought to be.
When I taught high school for a long time, I imagined this was one of the nobler professions and one of the few meaningful and socially significant professions I was qualified to do. Even though it was an internal struggle and not something I inherently enjoyed, I couldn’t imagine a meaningful alternative.
We do the same thing in every other area of our lives. We don’t imagine it could be different, don’t imagine we could grow. Don’t imagine the relationship can change. The imagination casts us forth into the future and comes before our goals and strategies.
One of the lessons of a daily contemplative practice is that so much of what we imagine to be the case is conditioned, so much of it is just habit. For a little bit of time each day those habitual thoughts and the framing consciousness, the calcified imagination, is set aside. We open ourselves to new possibilities, of changed thinking, of a transformed imagination.
This can come in ways large and small, some intuitive whisper of how to solve a problem we’ve been struggling with. It can come in the form of an image of reconciliation in a damaged relationship. A nudge here, an insight there. Or it can become the fertile soil for dreaming up bigger projects that expand us out of the narrow reality we’ve been living in.
The silent space of contemplative practice is itself tinged with possibility. It is the space out of which all things come to being and into which it all returns anyway. Opening ourselves to that space as we leave the ego-mind behind is one of the more profound ways that we can experience a healed imagination.