Credit: Flickr/Ryan Hickox. Some rights reserved.
Imagination is often misunderstood, defined as a fanciful flight away from reality—and sometimes it is. But there is another kind of imagination, one that is based on deep inner listening, with a quality of calm presence and a curious, open-minded focus. When ideas, images or symbols arise into that kind of spacious awareness, imagination is tapping into a source of wisdom, a type of intuition that puts us in touch with more of reality, not less.
When we temporarily quiet the cognitive activity of the mind to allow these imaginative functions to be activated, it’s easier to recognize the living connections that exist between ourselves and all other forms of life. I call this felt-sense of connection our ‘ecological imagination,’ because it has the capacity to liberate distorted beliefs about our control over nature and our separation from the natural world. It’s these beliefs that unconsciously guide our lives, directly contributing to our current environmental crisis.
Cultivating ecological imagination has a powerful role to play at this pivotal time in human history, as scientists around the world continue to report the accelerating impacts of climate change. Imagination is a gateway to wisdom, and wisdom is an essential foundation for right action, an internal shift that can steer us towards eco-harmonious living. The stakes have never been higher. Cosmologist Brian Swimme summarizes the challenge we face like this:
“We are living on the planet at the time when the evolutionary dynamics are changing. And the simple way of saying it is that they’re changing from genetic determination to cultural determination…That is an amazing new power that’s taking place on the planet. We, then, have to confront the fact that this planet is evolving according to our decisions…Our responsibility is to structure the human presence on the planet so the fundamental conditions of life are strong and vibrant, and carry into the future.”
As Swimme suggests, every discipline must undergo its own transformation in order to align with this new reality—engineering, parenting, education, healthcare, psychology and farming. This requires a reshaping of our ethics towards an interspecies awareness, and a global perspective on problems and solutions. Our enjoyment of our individual freedoms can no longer be severed from their impact on the whole web of life.
One core aspect of this challenge is that we cannot use our most familiar tools and approaches to accomplish the transformations that are necessary. The insight once attributed to Albert Einstein—that “problems cannot be solved by the same consciousness that created them”—is particularly relevant in a crisis of this magnitude. That’s why strengthening our ecological imagination is essential—a vital ingredient in developing new and innovative solutions to global warming.
The imaginative process brings us into a closer relationship with the unknown. This is similar to any creative process, whether we are facing a blank canvas with a handful of paints, or jotting down notes for a speech on a napkin at a café, or part of a scientific gathering, pondering how quantum gravity helps to explain the origins of the universe. We can step outside what we already know, send our inner critic on vacation, and make room for messy, surprising, and confusing bits and pieces of insight to swirl and shift before connecting together in new and meaningful ways.
This kind of imagination also cultivates intuition. Everyone has this capacity, although many of us are out of practice because our contemporary Western cultures prize logical analysis so highly. While we certainly wouldn’t want to be without our rationality, adding intuitive ways of knowing sheds light on aspects of life that are inaccessible to the logical mind: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift,” as Einstein is also said to have remarked.
The rational and intuitive parts of the mind are like two legs that keep us moving forward. Why would we set out on a lifelong journey with one leg becoming excessively muscle-bound and the other atrophying? We need to strengthen and utilize everything we’re made of. If we want transformation—if we want to come back into balance with the natural world—then we must understand how we got out of balance in the first place, and develop those aspects of ourselves that have been neglected.
In my psychotherapy practice I guide clients into their imagination to address any number of concerns. Imagination brings fresh insights and healing to many issues, and can lead to a deeper transformation. This story, from a client I’ll call Simon to disguise his real name, is an example of how exploring the common struggle of social anxiety can pave the way to a surprising and eco-harmonious outcome.
Simon’s anxiety in social situations had an internal narrative that’s familiar to most of us to varying degrees: “What do I say? What will they think? What if I don’t fit in?”
To begin the session I asked Simon to close his eyes while I guided him through breath-work practices and progressive relaxation. He gradually disengaged his attention from the flow of his thoughts and dropped into a deep, internal focus. I invited him to allow an image to arise of a social situation that had triggered his discomfort. With his eyes closed, he envisioned the details of a happy hour gathering to which a colleague had invited him, describing a constriction in his throat and an adrenalin rush that accompanied this habitual mental narrative. When we explored these images, his experience began to shift:
“It’s like there is a mirror in front of my face—all I’m seeing are my own fears. I’m not actually relating to anyone who is with me in the restaurant. It’s hard to describe, but when I stop being absorbed in my worries, the world suddenly becomes clear. When the mirror dissolves, I recognize that there is a young man across the table from me that looks upset. A woman is standing nearby, chewing on her lower lip, distracted. The guy to my right seems happy.”
Simon became a little teary but continued, “I know these people from work, but it’s like I’m seeing them for the first time.” As we talked more about his experience, he was astounded by how profoundly his internal patterns had affected his outward relationships. We continued with these explorations over several months, and Simon proceeded to peel away even more layers of his early conditioning. He became aware that he had been viewing others as an ‘it,’ a separate and threatening ‘object,’ rather than what he called a dynamic, living “field of large scale intimacy” that opened up to him.
As Simon evolved into a new way of relating to himself and others, his descriptions sounded very similar to the I-Thou relationships that philosopher Marin Buber wrote about, or Vedantic nondualism, or the many Indigenous ways that exist of being one with nature. His transformation reached such depths that it eventually prompted a career shift in which he sought out a new company that produced renewable energy solutions, applying his skills as an engineer in a direction that fosters connection and honors life.
To see differently is to live differently. So when we truly see our interconnectedness, what does that mean for our political structures? What does it mean for education to teach with an understanding of ecological imagination? When we know that we must execute comprehensive, visionary change and quickly, how should we handle challenging conversations and decisions over climate change and other hot-button issues?
Engaging our imagination is far from fanciful: it’s a critical part of finding the answers to these questions; an essential, practical act that allows us to continue discovering and embodying the full spectrum of our humanity and our place in the family of all things. Can we imagine a world in which all beings can thrive? If not, no amount of policy discussions will get us where we want to go.