Imagination as Birthright

Close your eyes and turn your gaze inward. At first the image is dark, a soft warm glow behind the eyelids. But before long, a vision begins to take form.

The light increases and colors begin to differentiate: greens and yellows, deep browns and a hint of pale blue. The interplay of dappled light and shadow dances before your gaze. The edges clarify, crisp lines and measured dimensions extending in all directions around you. You look down and notice your feet nestled in cool grass. A meandering pathway stretches before you, winding around the roots of majestic trees, towering above you and filling the sky with their leafy branches. You take a step forward and hear water falling to your right. A short distance into these woods, a small stream begins to flow parallel to the grassy path you tread. It gathers in lilting pools, and the slim beams of sunlight that escape between the tree branches send dazzling sparkles across the surface of the swirling waters. As your focus on these glimmers of sun softens and blurs, the vision fades, and before you could mark the transition you find yourself seated back at your desk, physical eyes open, wondering where you just went.

This is the power of the imagination. The faculty of imagination has the ability to take our consciousness anywhere: to any time or place, from every region of the Earth to the farthest reaches of the evolving cosmos. We can visit the birth of time when the universe flared forth into being. We can enter into a yet unlived future, imagining a dystopian urban wasteland or an ecologically balanced utopia. We can cross the threshold into other worlds, whether Middle-earth, Narnia, Earthsea, or Wakanda.

In the modern era, the philosophical and scientific perspectives on imagination defined the products of this faculty as something unreal—simply made up, a mere fantasy. When speaking about imagination, the modern mind needs to use disparaging words to make clear that such expressions have no validity: it was “just your imagination,” “merely a fantasy,” “only a dream.” Such words rob the imagination of its power, or at least attempt to do so.

For without the imagination there would be no innovation, no scientific or technological breakthroughs, no great works of art, literature, and architecture. Civilization itself is built upon foundations of imagination, dreamed into being and imagined into reality.

The time has come to reclaim the imagination, to nurture its innate abilities in children and teach once again the techniques of its cultivation to adults. Imagination is inherent to humanity, and perhaps even to every species of the Earth community, a hidden property of the cosmos itself. Just as we need disciplines to hone our crafts and spiritual practices—from writing and painting, dance and carpentry, to meditation and prayer, yoga asanas and qi gong—so too we need disciplines to hone our ability to imagine: active imagination, lucid dreaming, visualization, intuitive art-making, and automatic writing.

So close your eyes and see where your inner vision and senses take you. The journey into the imaginal realm is your cosmic birthright.

Becca Tarnas, PhD is a scholar of archetypal studies, depth psychology, and philosophy, editor of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology, teacher at Pacifica Graduate and the California Institute of Integral Studies, and author of the book, Journey to the Imaginal Realm: A Reader’s Guide to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.