Why Do We Imagine?

 

The Birth of Imagination

Why do we have an imagination? Allow me to hazard a theory.

We have imagination to help us determine and conceptualise what our primal needs are at any given moment and strategise the best possible ways to meet those needs.

A lot of our imagining happens in our unconscious, under the radar of our awareness. So we are rarely privy to what those specific needs actually are. This is a problem. For one thing the imagination is conditioned and based on memory and past experience. Which means although it can be creative and form interesting new approaches and strategies to meet certain needs, it can only really work with the ingredients it has been introduced to. Of course it can and does create new ingredients based off combining the ones it already has, but that process can be slow going.


The Acquisition of Knowledge

This is one of the reasons why cultural and technological progress is growing so rapidly nowadays in comparison to the rest of history, or even a hundred years ago. The ideas, ingredients and knowledge, we have to play with to imagine new strategies, are so plentiful that these areas have begun to grow exponentially. Yet this introduction of vast stores of information, through writing, education and the internet also makes this imagination process staggeringly complex.

This is why the spread of ideas can be so important. It's not really this idea of 'free will' that we hold on to so dearly that determines our destiny and creativity. It's the introduction of new ideas into our imagination from other sources that triggers the process of even more creative thinking. Like evolution, its not some intentional process, but a complex system with incredibly vast parameters that gives the illusion of 'free will'. The introduction of new knowledge and ideas is like the introduction of microorganisms and bacteria, you don't get to choose which ones you get. We are exposed to them. Some ideas may continue on to future generations and some ideas might die out completely. Or some ideas might seem to die out, only to be rediscovered in a different manifestation in the future.

Self-Awareness and Imagination

As I said before, the imaginational faculty is often largely unconscious. But another faculty we have as humans is the capacity for self-awareness also known as meta-awareness. This self-awareness includes the awareness that we are aware. This means that we can do the same activities in life either 'mindfully' (with awareness) or mindlessly (without awareness). This applies to imagining as well. On one hand, we can allow our imagination to proceed uninterrupted, unobserved and unguided as we continue throughout our day, chasing one Faustian bargain after another. Or we can become aware of what's going on in our mind seeing where the gaps in our knowledge and strategies might be. By doing the latter we can then introduce other ideas that might help to jump start more creative choices in our lives. Ideas that we wouldn't have considered otherwise, or would have taken us much longer to get to 'naturally'. This is why the 'mindful' acquisition of knowledge can be so helpful and the mindless acquisition, such a minefield. For not all knowledge is helpful, or will lead to a more creative solution.

Not All Ideas Are Created Equal

Many ideas really should die out on their own, yet are perpetuated beyond their natural lifespan (particularly by becoming artificially preserved in the cryogenic freezer that is the internet). Not every article that pops up on your facebook, twitter or media website feed needs to be clicked. Many times the information there is simply a repackaging of past bad ideas in a new way, keeping its mummified remains pushing on but with little substance. This is why the indiscriminate acquisition of knowledge for its end is not always the wisest option. By learning to filter the input we receive or 'choose' to pursue mindfully, we are placed in a much more beneficial position wherein our imaginative faculty can work at optimal efficiency.

Getting Creative With Your Needs

In other words, imagination is there to counteract what buddhists call dukkha; the perpetual and existential feelings of unsatisfactoriness all the way up to deep suffering that colours our experience and follows us wherever we go. Imagination is trying to come up with the best solutions to our problems but it doesn't always have the best tools at its disposal. So when we are standing in the shower, or lying in bed, or making breakfast, we both can and should become aware of our own mind and imagination and what's going on in there. By doing this, we can start to see first hand what needs might be driving our behaviour at this moment.

We can also become aware of the gaps in our understanding that, were they filled, might lead to a more sustainable meeting of those needs. These strategies and processes are what’s at the heart of the tradition of Buddhism. I once had someone explain to me it like this. 'Being human, the Buddha, had all the same human needs that you or I have. He just managed to find a way to meet them all from within himself.' This is to say, that he managed to find the most creative solutions to his needs possible, by recontextualising his experience in a way that utilised the same faculties you or I have. He took universal faculties such as imagination and awareness, and repurposed them to serve him and ultimately others in the pursuit of true happiness and freedom from suffering.

Maybe it's love your craving, connection to a deeper sense of interconnectedness, worth and acceptance. Can this be found within yourself?

Healthy Desires vs Neurotic Desires

As the late prolific teacher Urgyen Sangharakshita pointed out, there is a difference between healthy desires and neurotic desires. The need for energetic sustenance can be a perfectly healthy desire that needn't be laced with inherent dukkha (unsatisfactoriness). This can be differentiated by reflecting on the moment of attaining the object of our desire. For example if I am truly feeling hungry, for the purpose of energy and sustenance, then when I eat, I will eat till I am not longer in need of further food, and no more. For having met this need, I have no reason to continue pursuing this activity. If however, I continue the activity beyond this point, it is likely it has become a neurotic desire, as I am trying to satisfy needs that go beyond energy and sustenance. Perhaps I am lonely, or am looking for that elusive hit of dopamine or emotional contentment that I am lacking. But food is not a particularly good strategy for meeting these needs.

It's not that we should judge the needs themselves either. These have simply arisen in experience and were not 'chosen' in the first place. Thus judgement or self-shaming makes no sense. But if we become aware of the specificity of the need itself, we are suddenly in a position wherein we can be more creative with our solutions. Even if that merely means seeking out knowledge that we don't currently have in order to trigger new creative solutions in the future.


Actor, Know Thyself

More specifically, for us as actors, we begin to understand what makes us tick. For the purposes of connecting to stories, this is gold. What are the images and thoughts running through my head? How do those images and thoughts relate to and affect my emotions moment to moment? Am I preoccupied with imaginary arguments with people about being 'taken advantage of'? Am I fantasing about how my life would be if that person I'm secretly in love with turned out to feel the same? Am I mentally working through what my reaction might be to finding out one of my loved ones was killed in a car crash? The creative advantage gained by becoming aware of this unconscious day dreaming cannot be overstated.

As actors this can be especially important when it comes to relating to your identity as an artist. Why are you doing what you do? Do you think acting is going win you the love and respect of your parents if you finally get that oscar? If your mind keeps wandering to image of your mother or father crying and apologising for all the years of non-support, as you clutch your golden statue…? Enough said.

As well as this, when we come from a position of objectivity and awareness we can also begin to reverse engineer the logic. That means, we can start to see why characters might be behaving certain ways and what their desires are. Whether they are healthy or neurotic (hint: they are usually neurotic).

Without judging as right or wrong, we can see the desires that propel many people's lives. And for better or worse, this is often what makes great drama; seeing people battle and try to overcome their inner demons in the pursuit of whatever they think will make them happy. Hopefully the characters learn to transform for the better along the way. But our job is to show that journey clearly and authentically, regardless of the outcome.

Imagine the Possibilities

As actors, we intimately rely on our imagination for almost everything we do. If we are not well acquainted with its idiosyncrasies and mechanics, how can we ever expect to reach our highest potentials?

Get to know your own mind. Along with being conduits for our imagination as artists, we are also storytellers. If we do not have 'awareness' of our imaginations, how can we ever expect to lead others through the intricacies and metaphors of the stories we're telling? I believe that it’s essential to have your artistic life serve the happiness of your personal life. However, for those of you who are only concerned with artistic ambitions, let me say this; without serious investment in imagination and awareness, it is unlikely you will ever reach the potential you feel deep down inside. As always, let your art serve your life, your life serve your art.

P.S. - For those of you struggling to find or establish an enjoyable and reliable meditation routine, I have included a link to a new app, by a teacher and thinker of great influence to me. The app is called Waking Up by Sam Harris and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Click here to download it!