14 January 2006

Imagination and Reality

image of flaming koru - creativity imagination mental illnessIn this essay I want to look at one particular aspect of imagination. For many years I have been interested in the link between so-called mental illnesses and creativity. It is now well documented that people who are very creative are much more prone to depression, mania, delusions, and madness. We might all suffer from some form of these ourselves, and most will at some time suffer from the more serious manifestations of them.

Having looked at the various explanations of this phenomena there is one that stands out in my mind. Joe Griffin's theory is that imagination is the key. Creative people have very powerful imaginations. I want to explore this idea by using an example from my own life.

Some time ago I was sitting in my quiet Cambridge room reading. It was a fine day, I was in no possible danger. But I suddenly realised that my heart was racing, my breath was short and shallow, and my muscles were tensed. It was the fight or flight response. Given the almost idyllic setting, how did I come to be experiencing the primal animal response to threat. I have observed, at first hand, this response in the poor earthworms that were the subject of a sixth-form biology class. It is something shared by all life, to some extent.

I can reconstruct the events in my mind. Some weeks early a friend and community-mate had attended a retreat where he had had a blazing row with the study leader. In fact they had a series of very unpleasant exchanges. At the time my friend did not hesitate to lay the blame with the study leader.

It so happened that I was about to attend a retreat during which I knew that I would be studying with the same man. As I sat reading my mind drifted off into a fantasy - what might have been called a fancy 200 years ago. I imagined that I too was finding fault with the study leader, that we were disagreeing, were arguing, were clashing, and even coming to blows. At the point where I stormed out, my mind rewound the fantasy and played it through again, either the same or with a minor variation.

Now I have a pretty good imagination, and it seems as though I was able to make the images so realistic that my body began to prepare for action, just as though I was in the room with my enemy and about to come to blows. How long had this been going on? I'm not sure. Perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, perhaps 30. Over and over. A real fight might be over in a few seconds as I reacted and more than likely bolted. Then it would be over in fact. But in imagination I was not able to come to a conclusion. I kept going over and over it. And my imagining of the scene was so potent as to produce a physical response, a primal response which is designed to help me deal with real threats.

All of this without having met the man that I was imagining myself in conflict with. All this secluded in a quiet room far from any real threat.

And then I shook as I realised that I had in fact been doing this all of my life. Years of emotional difficulties, of recurrent depression and persistent anxiety, started to come into a new perspective. It was a turning point for me. Around that time it was clear that no-one was considering me for ordination. A year later things had completely turned around. By using this insight I was able to begin to really practice the Dharma. To work directly with my mental states and transform them.

One of the ways the Dharma works is by getting us to look into our habits of thinking. We habitually see ourselves as this sort of person, and not that. We like these things, but not those. These kind of people, but not those. These are just mental habits acquired over the years. One of my mental habits is to imagine the worst, to imagine that I will come into conflict with people and that they will try to hurt me. Once upon a time this was in fact true, but it is not true now. By looking into these habits, and seeing the consequences of them I have begun the process of gaining a choice in how I imagine the world. It is quite clear that how I imagine the world is critical to how I experience the world.

The final irony in this story is that I attended the retreat and met the study leader. He and I got on very well indeed. Real kindred spirits. My fears had been completely unfounded.
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