The Failure of Imagination – defined

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This is the beginning of a journey of thought and writing around the concept of “imagination”.

It is my belief that the root cause of many of the world’s current problems, from poverty to H.I.V, from credit crunch to global warning, from obesity to depression, from boredom to violent crime, is down to a failure of imagination.

Imagination is an intriguing word. In fact, words themselves are not really adequate to capture (if capture were even possible) the essence of what imagination is.

To many people, the popular definition of imagination is the ability or process in which we “make things up.” When I make something up, I am imagining it. Our imagination is often blamed for more than just making stuff up (which seems to be a conscious activity); it is also blamed for a kind of day-dreaming, of hallucination and of “imagining things that are not really there.”. When we imagine something we are self-deluded.

Imagination of course is also used in the context of great visionaries and inventors. Einstein imagined himself riding on a beam of light which partly inspired some of his famous theorising! Imagination is a picturing ability. We picture “inside us”, a kind of waking dreaming. When the imagination leads to something useful or present in the world, we often say we were “inspired” by it.

Imagination can therefore also be a process of picturing something that can come into real being – it is real-ised. Here we get a double, almost paradoxical view of imagination where, on the one hand, it is responsible for self-delusion and, on the other hand, it is a faculty that helps us vision things as an aid to innovating and realising in the real world. It seems possible therefore to imagine the unreal and the real with equal measure!

Our self-delusions can harmfully play out in the field of our imagination. Yet, equally, our greatest visions and realistic plans can play ou in the self same field. They take command of the stage, they battle for attention, they mix and they distort each other, affected by our own biases and also the impressions of others’ imaginations – the world of advertising and marketing, those others who would influence the images in our minds and hearts.

Yet it is possible to also imagine “objectively”. When we develop the capacity to become aware of our own biases, to see that part of us being influenced, as if were, momentarily separate. We can watch ourselves. And now it gets really complex and hard to grasp. Because, in a way, we have to imagine ourselves watching ourselves. Initially this sense of s “higher point of view” is also imagined. It is only over time, and in different ways, that this sure sense of a self that can know itself, arises out of an initial imagination of it. First me imagine it. Then we feel its presence. Then we literally step into it and it is as sure as a limb. We don’t imagine that we have a hand or a leg. We “know” it. Soon, we experience this self that can watch in the present as sure and real too. Then it is like a firm foundation for a confident look at our self in each moment. We can then begin to discern, to tell which of our imaginations are real and which are fantasy or illusion.

That’s when we truly wake up to who we are.


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