The real world is hidden from him by the wall of imagination. He lives in sleep. He is asleep.
The starting point is to define imagination. For Spinoza, imagination consists of mental images – pictures of things with associated emotions. I can imagine that I am a spiritual savant with extraordinary powers that lend me a superiority over all other mere mortals. In fact, this is the essence of much imagination – the assumption of power that lifts me out of my reality. Ouspensky states that imagination can make a sparrow think it is an eagle soaring high in the sky. But there is a problem. We cannot mock reality – it will always bite back. So the sparrow that tries to soar like an eagle will only fall out of the sky. The spiritual savant will become more irritated by having to hold on a phone when dealing with a busy call center. After all, spiritual savants should be dispensing wisdom on blogs, videos and to their loyal followers.
There are legitimate uses for imagination, but we’ll come to those later. The illegitimate use of imagination is always the assumption of power through an act of fantasy. Sometimes this happens through a whim, and at other times it is necessary. As Ernest Becker points out in his book The Denial of Death, most children are so traumatized by life that by the age of four or five they will live primarily in an imaginary world. So when we see a small child speaking with an imaginary friend, acting out some imaginary scenario, it is not something to be amused at – something cute. In reality, it is a tragedy. This behavior continues through life, and many people will continue to imagine their life is entirely different from what it is in reality. Teenagers will believe they are set to become celebrities, movie stars, great musicians, or whatever lends them the most power. Again this is a recipe for suffering. The dissonance between imagination and reality will cause disappointment, unfulfilled ambition and anxiety. Of course, someone has to become a famous movie star, but it’s going to happen anyway – there is no need to indulge a fantasy. The stark reality is that most of us will jump into the hamster wheel and stay there for forty or more years. We will then be freed from it for a decade or so, often with declining health, and then die. This scenario is simply not acceptable to someone in their late teens or early twenties and as such the fantasy is necessary.
This behavior manifests in all walks of life. People who pursue ‘spiritual’ ambitions may imagine they converse with angels, that they are on a meaningful journey, that by imagining things they can make them happen. It all depends on the power a person wishes to assume, and what makes them feel most in control and powerful. Again if someone is living in dire circumstances, this act of imagination may be necessary for emotional survival, but it will inevitably lead to disappointment and suffering. Reality is not mocked.
The alternative to imaginative fantasy is the development of real internal power. Such power is the result of a long and challenging work, and so it is not particularly attractive. Not only this, but it will be painful; stripping away the delusions that have supported the ego in its quest for power. The main work is a vigilant observation of the desire that seeks satisfaction through imagination. These desires need to be understood and felt – not dismissed. In this way, we use the very force that would cause us to indulge fantasy for fictitious power, to build up real power within us.
The legitimate use of imagination is far less glamorous than its illegitimate use. When vision combines with active mentation, such as an architect designing a structure, then it serves a useful purpose. Albert Einstein famously said that he considered imagination to be more important than knowledge. He used imagination in his thought experiments – part of a purposeful, directed mental activity, and not the false assumption of powers he did not possess.
Gurdjieff gives a more esoteric interpretation of the role of imagination. The situation of humanity is so dire that we need imaginative fantasy to make life tolerable. The price we pay is that we continually suffer. The fantasy is always bumping up against reality. And we also lose the opportunity to experience the awful magnificence of the universe. To quote from Pink Floyd – we’ve substituted a walk on part in a war with a lead role in a cage.