Imagination: Browser for the Cosmic Web
Imagination is absolutely key to the deep exploration of human meaning. Imagination has, however, often been limited by conceptual framing in contemporary American culture. It is seen as the domain of fantasy, of problem-solving, as a source of artistic inspiration, and as a view into a personal psychic space. While each of these are important ways in which imagination can be used, they are not the limit of possibilities for imagination. Indeed, imagination may be one of the most versatile tools we have; it is a human gateway to experiencing many realities.
If this piques curiosity, one may ask, “How does that work? How can the thing I use to create art and fantasy help me to experience another reality?” When discussing a concept that may be unfamiliar to someone, analogies are a common tool to bridge the gap between familiar everyday experiences and a new idea. With the near ubiquity of mobile devices and internet access, it has become somewhat commonplace for an individual to use and interact with at least some of the vast amount of resources on the internet. Those who have been introduced to the internet know they have to use a kind of software and screen interface to have access to websites. The most general purpose software applications for accessing internet sites are called web browsers—things like Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. We shop online at Amazon, read news on news sites, engage in online banking, use search engines like Google, watch videos on YouTube, post pictures on Instagram and Facebook, and a thousand other uses, all through the interface of a web browser. We may also use specialized applications (apps) built on top of the same ideas as a web browser—interacting with a remote system through a graphical interface. Even if a particular person only accesses a handful of sites or services, most people have a least a general awareness that there is much, much more out there—more than any one person can comprehend.
This familiar use of web browsers I believe can be a useful metaphor for the imagination (in some ways more useful for a contemporary audience than the previous technological analogies of “tuning in” via radio or television). Imagination is often seen as the way in which we engage in fantasy or as ways we have a look into the stirrings of a personal psychological space. We know it is important for “creative” activities and problem solving, as well as a great source of entertainment. This is where the analogy comes in: It’s as if we have seen the imagination as a specialized app that can only access a handful of sites and services. We only use the imagination for fantasy or problem-solving and therefore we limit our vision to that is all it can do. It is equivalent to saying that I use my web browser only to access YouTube and Amazon so those are the only websites that exist. It also limits my perceptions of the world if I come across a website that has inspiring poetry or recipes for a fantastic meal—I might think, “Wow, that’s not a very good shopping site. This doesn’t even make sense. The words are in a strange order, there are some reviews, that's familiar...but you can't even buy anything! I’m just going to ignore this.”
In a similar way, I may have only been using imagination to access my personal psychic space where I fantasize and problem-solve; when anomalous information shows up (such as in a dream) I may preclude such information from usefulness or even possibility, and I may ignore it rather than examine the potentials it conveys. While YouTube and Amazon may have important functions for us, they certainly are not all there is on the internet—not by a long shot. But to discover this for ourselves we must be willing to click a few links, dig for website addresses, talk to others about how they use their browsers and what websites they visit, and generally take the time to explore what it is a browser can really do. We must go in and have the experience of encountering something new and different than what we are used to. What we encounter may show up on the same screen, but what it may convey can be quite different than what we have previously experienced.
To draw the analogy further, a web browser is not at all limited by the sites it accesses; in fact, it is the other way around: Websites can only display what the web browser is capable of displaying. One’s imagination is not limited to or by fantasy and problem-solving, it merely accesses those functions and can access much, much more. The imagination does have “representational” limits to a degree, though—it represents the data it receives based on its experiences. A given website may be sending a large, high-quality video with millions of colors and pixels and layers of audio, but if our browser can only display 32 colors, a few hundred pixels, and an audio range of two octaves with a couple of the notes missing, we may get the general gist of what the video is presenting, but we can only see through the capabilities that we have—that hi-definition movie may come out as a choppy, cartoon-ish version of what it could be. In a similar way, individual imagination has the potential to access more than one can comprehend, yet it will be limited to the “images” it has in its system—the sensations and stories it has experienced. With a limited set of images, a particular imagination can only display so much. While there may be shared cultural stories and images that are available to many, imagination can be very personal given that no two embodied human beings are likely to have exactly the same life experiences.
This part of the analogy also addresses the situation of two people who contact a similar stream of information and imagine it quite differently. Say one person has a mathematically-inclined imagination: a communication with another reality may appear to be a geometric polyhedral intelligence that communicates through tones of sound. For another person living amongst visual art of shining and winged divine messengers, they may encounter the same information as a singing angel. Neither is necessarily intrinsically better or more true a representation of the information—the imaginal representations are in a form that the particular person has the potential to comprehend. They each only see what their browser is set up to display. These are conditional limits, though: As one expands and refines one's sensations and stories, one is able to access more and more through the imagination. That is, the mathematically-inclined imagination, once exposed to angelic art may begin to perceive and communicate through a larger set of “images”.
One very natural way to begin the practice of opening the imagination beyond the personal realms one may be accustomed to is through dreams. By actively listening to and engaging with dreams one has an open connection to the cosmic web through the imagination. Yes, there will still be processing of personal daily and life events, fantasy excursions, and productive problem-solving. However, realizing that there may be more present, working with the images in dreams can reveal great treasures of meaning, power, and usefulness that go well beyond our individual lives.
There is a caveat, of course. Just like, “I read it on the internet so it must be true,” reflects a lack of discernment, opening up to a wider concept of imagination requires discernment. Not everything that appears to the imagination is a representation of another reality, and how it may appear is often based on stories we can understand. It may take time and loving effort in combination with reason and intuition to work with some images. It may be useful to share and gather input from others who have different sensations, stories, and symbol systems, and thus possibly expanding our browser's capabilities. Indeed, a community linked through imagination can be deeply meaningful. If you would like to explore this expanded use of the imagination with others in a safe and supportive atmosphere where you can share and receive new stories, consider attending an Active Dreaming circle or workshop.
[image credit: Ryky]