In our search for happiness, imagination is one of the most powerful tools available to us. Stephen Batchelor has a wonderful chapter on imagination in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs. In it, he describes that the three most important factors in mastering mindfulness and meditation are:
- First is commitment. We make a conscious commitment to ourselves to devote time and effort to this worthwhile practice.
- Second is technique. We study and practice the techniques of mindfulness and meditation in order to master them.
- Third is imagination. It might seem surprising that he would elevate imagination to such importance. Why would we need to have imagination in order to awaken?
Why meditate in the first place? Why care about learning mindfulness? To relax? To de-stress? To find answers? There are many different reasons to begin a meditation practice, all excellent motivators in their own way. But one of the best motivators is our imagination. We imagine that life could be different. The first step in learning anything new is imagining that things could be different.
When people get depressed, one of the most debilitating aspects is that they cannot imagine living without being depressed. When we are in pain, it seems that we lose our ability to imagine life without pain. We all get caught up in the experience we’re having, clinging to it with the unconscious assumption that things will never change. And yet, it is possible. In the midst of a difficult experience, in the middle of reacting in our old unskillful ways, we can remember to imagine how things might be different, we can awaken to the incredible experience of living beyond our limited thinking and feeling.
How might we use our imagination as a powerful tool for passionately living life? Here are some ideas to consider.
First, we can recognize the ability to access imagination in each moment. Each moment is sacred—not just the ones spent meditating. Each moment. We are creating our life moment- by-moment. When we feel stuck in a certain situation or overwhelmed by the circumstances in our lives, we can remind ourselves to leverage the power of imagination to see clearly the breadth and depth of each situation, the possibilities beyond our limited way of thinking. We are deciding moment-by-moment how to live. Most of the time, we fall back on the easy answers, like what our parents did, or what our friends are doing or what we think we should do. We might think of so many moments as just getting through life, doing what we have to do…
Rodney Smith, a Vipassana teacher, encourages us in the following way: “We often feel our everyday existence is a distraction from our spiritual intention. When this happens, life is divided between the sacred and mundane, and the mind pits one concept against the other. But belief shapes reality, and if the belief is maintained that the sacred lies somewhere else other than Now, our spiritual life will be governed by that limitation.” We can choose to see the sacred in each situation, know our practice is not separate from living in each moment, visualizing the vast, limitless resource of imagination that creates our experience.
Second, we can practice using imagination. Our ability to think beyond our limitations is a learnable skill. Visualizations can be a powerful part of the practice, like the loving-kindness practice that we do, or imagining ourselves as the Buddha. These visualizations may at first seem corny or superficial, but that’s still a good place to start. Buddhist teachers encourage us that, even without thinking anything is changing, we are planting seeds. We know that a flower or plant begins to grow beneath the soil once it is planted, regardless if there is any change visibly seen. So are the seeds of love and compassion calling forth the awakening of innate Buddha nature, just by the mere practice of imagining.
Think of yourself as an artist. Each of us is creating a life. Each of us is writing the unfinished story of our life right now. Each of us is making choices about how to live our lives right now. The limitations that we think exist are in most cases, self-imposed. Take a few minutes, and imagine all the possible ways that you might live your life from this point forward. Think beyond your current circumstances, beyond any assumed limitations, beyond any self-imposed constraints, beyond, beyond. With this willingness to stretch beyond our boundaries, each of us can more wisely choose the possible ways we could live life to its fullest.
Third, we can never run out of imagination. Everyone feels down at times, we get sick, and get old, we feel scared and angry and frustrated. But, the truth of our being is that there is a never-ending source of light within us. We may feel angry, but we are not anger. We may feel afraid, but we are not fear. Thoughts and emotions are NOT who we are. We can remember that we are pure awareness, we can imagine that we are love and compassion. We can imagine being fully awake, fully present.
This innate goodness within us is like the Sun. The sun is always shining. It never stops. It doesn’t need something outside of itself to shine. It just keeps shining–no matter what. There may be clouds in the way, it might be nighttime, so we don’t see the Sun, but the Sun is still shining. The light of our being is the same way. It might be covered up or out of view, but it’s still there . This unique point of awareness is always present in each moment.
Who or What is having this experience of living anyway? Who or what is having these thoughts or feeling these feelings right now? Who or what are you? Loosen any certainty that you are a certain way, loosen the clinging to misconception that life must unfold in a certain direction, that living is limited to a few old emotions and recurring thoughts. Imagine that you are not a thing or a body, but rather pure awareness manifesting anew in each moment. Imagine the possibilities.
Know that imagination is always available, in every moment, to every person. Access it, exercise it, strengthen it, leverage the power of it, use it as the fuel for our lives unfolding, and know the power it provides for transformation.
In fact, we would not have this Buddhist path, these powerful teachings, if the Buddha had no imagination. He would have not found a new answer, because he would not have imagined one to exist, and therefore would have not gone seeking a new way of living. That’s the power of imagination.