A fascinating discovery in child psychology is that though children know that imaginary beings are not real, they are still a powerful and meaningful presence in their lives. In other words, though a child knows that an imaginary friend is not real, they are still able to maintain a meaningful relationship with that character. Though a child may not believe literally that their teddy-bear is real, that St Nicholas lives in the North Pole, that their deceased grandmother is still with them, or that their Guardian Angel is watching over them - they still are able to believe these things in a quite remarkable and wonderful way. A child is able to have one foot in their imagined world while having another foot in reality without feeling any tension between them both.
We would be foolish parents if we admonished children for not living in reality because the child has this wonderful ability to walk an illuminated path between imagination and the real world. For example, if you were to kick your child’s teddy bear across the kitchen floor because it is just an inanimate toy your child would rightfully become distressed because his love for that toy is grounded in an intelligent imagination. If you insisted that Santa did not exist or that there was no god, a child may become upset for reasons that your literal view of the world does not comprehend. This is because children and adults are imaginative and not literal creatures. If you only took life literally you would be reduced to an animal concerned only with survival.
Unlike children, adults keep their imaginative life hidden from the world behind a paper-thin veneer of reason and logic. Scratch the surface of anyone’s adult life and you find it is built on the stones gathered in the imaginative world of childhood. Your inner self is the same as it was when you were six years old. You are still the same person seeing the world in similar ways.
Imagination is so vital to everyday life that if you lost it you would become trapped in a meaningless world of repetitive ritualistic behaviour. This is because imagination is the lubricant that allows your mental life to flow. It is necessary to conduct all sorts of everyday mental tasks such as planning your day, thinking about what you are going to do next, calculating a sum, recalling an event from yesterday, visualising a scene, or telling a story. You need to be able to imagine things from the past to problem-solve in the present. Simply put, imagination is being able to imagine things that do not exist in your present reality and to use that to problem-solve and enhance your life. You do this almost every moment of every day. You are a far more imaginative and creative person than you have ever given yourself credit for.
One interesting imaginary activity is having an inner relationship with people who are not physically present to us. You, as both a child and adult, have imaginary relationships with real but inaccessible people like a deceased parent or absent sibling. It is not at all fanciful to acknowledge that we carry the deceased within us and continue to relate to them throughout life. We talk to them, we listen to their voice, and are often consoled by their presence within us. We can also have relationships with an inner god or presence that we pray to, talk to, or listen to. We can feel comforted and supported by these inner relationships. All of this is not strange but rather a wonderful aspect of how the human imagination enriches life.
We can also have relationships with inanimate entities like nature or personal objects like wedding rings or photographs. This ability is also seen readily in children who have relationships with soft toys and pets. We hear our children talking to their ‘teddy-bears’ as if they were real - and they are real in a vital sense. As an adult you actually do the same thing - but you keep it secret. For example, as you go through your day you will often talk to yourself, your car, God, or ‘life’ as you complain, delight, or call for help. You will casually urge inanimate objects to co-operate with you when they are stuck or resisting your efforts like a car that won’t start, a lock that won’t open, or a handbag that can’t be found. “Come on, come on” you exclaim, just like a three-year old talking to her teddy bear. This is all good and normal.
Just as a child engages in pretend-play, as they imagine themselves being doctors, nurses, heroes, etc., you also engage in ‘pretend’ all the time. You mentally rehearse your way through imagined scenes in your future. You will mentally imagine what you will do when you meet someone, arrive somewhere, or attempt something new. All-day every-day you engage in foresight - that is mentally imagining what lies in the future and preparing for it. In this way your imagination is fully alive and active and not at all passive.
Our mental life is a mix of problem-solving, logical thinking, and magical day dreaming where we go on imaginative little trips through scenarios such as winning the lotto, moving home, meeting someone new, or changing job. We take hundreds of little magical excursions throughout our day that embellish and animate the dull routine of life. It is magical because it is closer to the shore of imagination than reality. In fact Seamus Heaney said his life’s work was devoted to building a bridge between both.
We usually draw a line between reality and imagination, which we tend to see as a wasteful dreamlike diversion. “He just lives in his imagination” a parent will say disapprovingly of her son. “Start dealing with reality” a teacher will tell a student. Imagination gets a hard time! However, psychologists take imagination much more seriously and challenge that assumption. Surprising advances in neuroscience, particularly in the field of brain scanning, have added support to the notion that our imagination and sense of reality are actually closely intertwined.
For example, if we imagination things to real, they are real in their consequences. If we imagine that we avoid heavy traffic by taking a certain route, whether we are correct or not does not matter because what we imagined had an effect. Imagination plays a very real role in our decision making. For example, in the upcoming elections our views of candidates will be largely influenced by what we imagine they stand for and we will vote based on those imagined assumptions whether they are true or not.
Too often humanity is ruled by superstitions, stereotypes, and tribal prejudices—resulting in all-too-real suffering, violence, and war. Our mind can run away with us, leading us to act through suspicion or fear, but we can also use our imagination as a tool to change our life—a process we’re beginning to understand through advances in neuroscience.
For centuries, we have envisioned two separate areas of the brain: one that processes the evidence gathered by our senses, and one that spins off into daydreams. MRI (brain imaging) research has helped us understand that these two functions are not as distinct as they seem. Using MRI scans, researcher have found that the same cells in the brain light up whether we perform an action ourselves or when we simply imagine ourselves performing the action. MRI studies show that reading about stimulating things or physical actions activates the same brain areas that process real-life experiences.
There is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters. Studies by two Canadian psychologists that show that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective.
Imagination can provide us with rich lifelike experiences and give us a powerful opportunity to develop empathy and compassion. But it can do even more: it can literally reshape and retrain parts of our brains.
For ages, scientists have believed that our brain become rigidly set and defined in early childhood, but MRI scanning now reveals plasticity: the adult brain is surprisingly malleable. If, for example, we go blind in midlife, some of our neurons for processing vision can shift to dealing with sound.
What’s particularly exciting is the discovery that focused mental exercise can alter the brain. For example, scans of some of Tibet’s experienced monks found that through years of meditation they had strengthened the centres in the brain that deal with such vital life skills as attention, emotional balance, and compassion. A number of contemplative practices directly recruit the power of imagination to retrain the mind. For example visualization is helpful in pain management or in preparing for difficult events. Ronan O’Gara’s accuracy with kicking was enhanced by his ability to visualise what he was going to do. Mental rehearsal using imagination has been shown to improve actual performance in a host of areas.. If you use your imagination to help you perceive situations in a different light, you can turn all sorts of “problems” into constructive challenges—and radically alter your experience of life.
If you want to work on your anger a therapist might suggest to you “Let’s say you’re sitting on a park bench and someone sits down next to you and they’re doing something you find annoying, like popping their gum or singing along with the music in their headphones. Our first reaction is usually to see the person as an external problem and to blame them for making us angry. Instead, you could change your thinking: Imagine that you want to become more tolerant. Then you could say, "this is an opportunity: Here’s somebody who has come along to help me work on that!”
The transformative power of focused imagination is central to Buddhist practice. The Buddha was said to have held up a flower and asked, “How many of you think that this exists independently of your mind?” To those who said “Yes” he asked “How do you know it exists?” Student’s replied: “I can see it”; “I can feel it”; “I can taste or hear it.” He went on to show that the only way one could know the flower was there was by interpreting what came in through our senses. The Buddha pointed out that this is true of everything in our lives: objects, our friends and families, what we learned in school, everything. Ultimately, there is no such thing as objective reality out there.
The point is not a weird one, suggesting that nothing exists, but rather that nothing has a detached, fixed identity. Phenomena do not exist in their own right but have an existence dependent upon many factors, including how we imagines them. Our whole experience of life is filtered through our minds, and we continually project our own sense of meaning onto people and things. With our imagination we make the world. In short, our imagination is not an alternative to reality. Our imagination is our reality.
It is said that these are three things that cause us all the distress we have in life. These are the anxieties about Fate, about Guilt, and about Doubt. Our anxiety about our fate is our subconscious realisation that we do not control Fate and are at its mercy. It creates this compulsion in us to want to control everything. Our anxiety about guilt is our subconscious realisation that we are totally responsible for how we live creating this compulsion to succeed. Our anxiety about doubt is our realisation that life has no meaning unless we create it and this creates our compulsion for certainty. I will talk about the last two anxieties over the next two weeks. I will write today about fate – this natural anxiety you carry around with you about your future that you do not control.
Our realisation that our fate is not entirely within our own hands creates chronic unease. Despite the popular myths that your dreams can come true if you try hard enough, we are haunted by the awareness that this is not entirely true. Everyday life, like a suspense movie, is filled with this anticipatory uncertainty about what is going to happen next.
We listen to the news everyday which tells us the same two things over and over again. The first is that “People Die”. The second is that “Bad things are happening”. In other words, “Your Fate May Not Be Good” is what Six-One News tells you every evening, day after day.
Fate is your destiny. A destiny that is not determined by you alone. Though you are giving directions you are not the one driving your own bus – fate is! Though you know where you want to go and though fate appears to listen to you some of the time, you still do not drive the bus of your own life. He/she takes you down different roads. Like taking a taxi in a foreign city, you give the directions but you have no idea where you are going, or how you are going to get there. Despite what the motivational books say about following your dreams, and realising you destiny, you are not in full control of your own Fate. You know only too well that illness, accidents, tragedies, traumas, diversions, accidents, mistakes, and so many unforeseen things can happen to you at any time.
Because of this you move through the hours and minutes of your life with this vague anxiety and unease. It comes and goes. At its best it is experienced as excitement and anticipation. The excitement that comes from realising that fate is working in your favour. It is the bliss of enjoying the moment because you know it to be the only moment. It is the pleasure of realising that the gods seem to favour you, for now. It is also the excitement in you when you feel you can trust fate. It is that feeling that whatever happens in your life will be okay. It is a kind of inner confidence that life will be good to you and if it is not, you will be able to deal with it.
This natural anxiety about fate can be soothed into calm about life. This can happen when you remember that you are blessed and when you feel grateful for life’s uncertainty. You strive to live for the ‘now’ because when you take your eyes off the present moment, the distant drumbeat of anxiety is heard in the distance.
But no matter how good we can feel about our future, the anxiety of fate never goes away. If you are a parent you know this feeling only too well. It is this ever vigilant sense of danger that lurks around the corner of your child’s innocent exploration. You know that the fate of illness, accidents, and unexpected events are never but a few steps away from your vulnerable child.
We can find some relief from our anxiety about Fate through control. We don’t just sit back and wait for fate. We try to counter fate by simply making plans and setting goals. We try to operate on the assumption that we are driving our own bus and try to live accordingly. We counter the dread of fate with our efforts to control our lives and the behaviour of those close to us. Exerting control gives us some passing sense of being in charge of our immediate life. We ease the anxiety. It is necessary and essential in order to live and make our way forward through life. Having a sense of agency and control is the fire of life. However, this temporary control is set against the background of the unknown fate that life has in store for us.
The danger of control is that we often take it too far. We can become control-freaks. We can become so controlling that we freak out when people do not conform to what we expect – be it our children or partners. When our need for control takes over we can become aggressive and demanding.
Or else we turn inward and scheme and plan how we are going to outwit the day ahead of us. We try to ensure we have some kind of controlled victory over our work, our boss, or our family.
We can find a resolution to the problem of our helplessness through acceptance. An acceptance that affirms the fact that you are not in control of life, that you do not need to be, and that the very essence of life is its unexpected nature. Your task in life is to enjoy the scenery on the daily detours away from your best made plans! Acceptance of the vulnerability of life can bring a humility and ease. It is a realization that you do not need to be in control because you never can be. Your partner and children are free entities with their own destinies separate from your plans. Acceptance helps you to access the divine freedom of life. You can find that your love of Freedom is the antidote to your fear of Fate. And the gateway to this freedom is through Hope.
The sparrow in my garden, whose nest has been accidentally destroyed by hedge clippers, is not crestfallen. He has not become distressed or hopeless. He has not been filled with despair. He just gets on with it. He starts to build another nest. There is no self-doubt, there is no guilt, and there is no fear. He is courageous in accepting fate and life and he is heroic in persisting with a physical optimism. His family home has been destroyed. Does he feel like a failure? Not at all No, he just moves to the next stage of life with courage and enthusiasm. His Fate is not denied. It is accepted. But in his acceptance there is a pulsating self-affirmation. There is no surrender to fate. There is hopeful participation. It is delightful to behold.
Everyone believes this myth: That if you know the cause of your unhappiness and what you need to do to change it you will reasonably take the steps necessary to do so.
This myth suggests to you that if you understand why you are unhappy and you know what you need to do, then that is 90% of the problem solved. It is seeing yourself as a reasonable person because, very simply, if you know what the problem is and how to solve it then you will solve it. It’s simple and makes total sense.
Unfortunately this is not true. We are unreasonable people, if the real truth be known. 70% of people who have lung cancer from smoking continue to smoke! 90% of people who suffer from obesity continue to eat too much. People who get anxious because of worrisome thinking continue to worry.
Though you begin to realise that this myth is foolish, it is so embedded in our thinking and logic and conditioning that it is impossible to erase it. Parents roar at their children for not being logical or reasonable, spouses engage in intense conflict over the other person’s so-called unreasonable behaviour.
The real problem with unhappiness and depression is that knowing what you need to do often not make a whit of a difference because the problem is not related to a lack of knowledge or information. You will surely recognise this in yourself – that the reasons you continue to act in ways that are not really in your best interest have nothing whatsoever to do with a lack of information. You and I are emotional, symbolic, fearful, and insecure people in some many harmless ways.
The reason we don’t do what we know would be good for us has to do with a number of other things other than knowledge. Our behaviour is guided by motivation, beliefs, ritual and habit, and a form of spiritual necessity. We must see the improvement of our well-being in terms of a responsibility and discipline as much as a technique.
To make significant changes in one’s life one needs a mixture of desperation and inspiration mixed together. One needs some sense of immediacy, urgency, or inspiration to move and take the kind of inner and outer action you need.
What stops people from actually doing what they know they need to do? What is it in you, and I, that can read a dozen self-help books and have them forgotten as soon as they are put aside?
I would suggest that for many of us the fantasy of change is almost sufficient. There is a form of comforting self-soothing that occurs when you read something about what you need to do and you are able to say to yourself “Yes, that’s good. I could do that if I wanted to!” or when you say “That’s very useful information that I could use at some point…I’ll get back to it!”, “Or there is nothing new in this, I know that these are the things I need to do, and I could do them, in fact I might do them..”. And you continue to sooth yourself with the fantasy of change, with the addiction to imagined possibilities. But nothing happens. In fact the problem is more to do with a certain detachment from oneself and one’s reality that is the problem.
This slight detachment allows you to then not feel any urgency, obligation, responsibility, or spiritual motivation. You detach yourself from your self and float above yourself looking down feeling sorry for yourself but void of the urgency of having to take action.
Because this kind of detachment appears so intelligent it does not appear to be the impotent day-dreaming that it really is.
Another reason you don’t take action is because you lack the three C’s – conviction, certainty, and commitment. To change your ways you need a strong enough reason to need to change. You need to have a sense of certainty that you are going to change, a conviction within yourself and a commitment to take action. Without this desire, motivation, and utter conviction that action is going to be taken then you are still left with nothing more than wishful thinking.
There is a great deal of difference between a good intention and a committed decision.
Again, there is a huge difference between someone who states that they must lose weight or get fit from someone who says that would like to lose weight or will hopefully get fit.
The other reason you don’t move is that you have not really developed a clarity as to why you must change – that is your deep seated motivation for change. For this to be effective you do very often have to dig deep into your sense of responsibility and obligation to yourself or others to make changes. Alcoholics have to do this to stop drinking. The same kind of thinking has to apply to changing any bad habits or negative patterns such as anxiety or depression.
All of these elements, becoming les detached from yourself, developing conviction, and being clear about why you need to change all come together into what must be a kind of spiritual discipline for yourself that is converted into ritualised action.
My late father was a beautiful man. He had a gentle heart and a great intellect. He was a lover of art, literature, and science. He could quote all the great poets at will and could engage in heady discussions on advanced mathematics. He was also an artist and I witnessed him painting hundreds of water-colour paintings of the Irish landscape. A landscape with which he had a passionate relationship. He would often stop the car when driving to urge us as children to appreciate some unexpected glory in the sky or across the valleys and mountains. He loved light, and on summer evenings would head off with his brushes and stretched water colour paper under his arm to find some shaft of evening light that would delight his eye. He was a scientist and worked his life as a meteorologist yet he wrote a lot about the interface between science and art.
He was also a man of great faith and, above all else, he would genuflect before his God. He would urge me as a young man “not to lose the Faith”. The faith was an old Irish reference to religion and that God, and was the one constant for so any Irish people through war and famine. It became for many families the standing stone that remained through great suffering. It became a common saying in Irish life to say, at parting from another, “Don’t lose the faith”. In truth, it was an encouragement to persist and not allow life’s adversities defeat you. In fact it was an urge toward the heroic.
I understand Faith as a having a reference point for how to live that lies outside and beyond us. This Faith is a faculty of human imagination and human heroism that allows us to imagine a source of life that calls us forward toward a better future. It is an intuition that is grounded in imagination, sensation, and intuitive connection to Life. It might even be considered our source of Hope – that intuitive conviction that things can and will get better; it is that belief in possibility and resolution.
The rationalist would argue that this ‘faith’ is all imagined and that it is therefore irrational and deluded. However, our imagination is in fact our greatest human faculty and, more than reason, has inspired humanity down the ages. It is our redeeming quality. It is what has enabled us to evolve. Imagination comes before action.
Faith fosters humility. When you can acknowledge your own limitedness and can defer to an imagined source outside yourself, you are less likely to be self-justifying and righteous. The preponderance of people who have this kind of faith strive toward a life of virtue and loving-kindness. Faith can sustain the magical in life, can foster gratitude, and can encourage someone in a relationship to see beyond their partner’s weaknesses and inadequacies to the greater narrative within which they are both set.
When it comes to marriage or relationships having faith means that people realise that life is about more than meeting their own needs. They defer, in a real way, to a bigger truth that can help them understand the source of their needs. It is an awareness and appreciation of how they are also participating in a much larger narrative that includes them, their children, their parents, their siblings, and grandchildren. They can put their problems in a larger context and find creative ways of dealing with them. Faith can foster a lightness of heart. It can help people carry their burdens lightly and develop a sense of humour about their existential predicament.
It is often endearing to witness older couples tease their spouses about their annoying traits with a sense of humour and acceptance that is so contrary to the grave and serious complaining and whinging of their younger counterparts.
Faith can also be the reference point, a source of courage, for people seeking to escape an abusive or toxic relationship. To get free of an abusive relationship takes courage and persistence and people need to draw on a source of inspiration that lies outside of them. This source is not literal. It is as I said, imagined - but to the degree that it is imagined it is psychologically real – so real as to enable a victim of abuse to survive it, a victim of war to stay alive, a victim of tragedy to cling to the very source of life.
I am hoping that you can somehow identify the times in your life when you have drawn the water of courage from a spring within yourself that is connected to a source outside yourself. You will surely realise that, even as an adult, your inner life follows the paths and guideposts you followed as a child. Your inner imagination about who you are and what your purpose may be is a world of imagination and feelings. As you lie in bed as an adult you think and dream in the same way you did as a little boy or girl as your adult thoughts and worries tumble into the unchanged rich inner imagination and landscape you knew as a child. You draw on this feeling. You go to this well and draw from a source that is not of your literal world. You draw from something so much bigger. You go to the well that is filled from the spring that is connected to a great underground river that ultimately falls from the sky that arcs above all of life.
Few of us give much though to how our early family experiences can influence our physical posture and body. If you grow up in a family that does not expect you to be strong, assertive, or powerful and are encouraged to be quiet and withdrawn, your body will show it. A child growing up in that environment is likely to have a body that appears pulled in some way. In contrast if you grew up in a family that expected you to be assertive and independent your body will also tend to be more upright and even blown up a bit. Our bodies are shaped by our family of origin just as our minds are.
That impact is even more pronounced when children have been emotionally abused. Their postures and gestures often have a frozen quality as if they cannot run away or fight back.
If you are someone who has a habit of freezing in a physical way in the face of conflict because of past history you still have the natural instinct to fight or to defend yourself. What is helpful can be to try and feel that dormant pushing response in your own body. For example, if you think of a situation in your childhood when you wanted to push back but could not, you might pay close attention to preparatory movements. Your fingers might lift up a little or your shoulders might tense up. If you notice this you can notice how your body is preparing to fight back in some way, however subtle it is. What you might do then is to feel your body’s natural wisdom and feel how it would be to execute that action.
Just as your body may freeze so too will your mind. So you will have belief systems that go along with what is happening in your body. You might have grown up thinking that “I do not have the right to be in charge of my own boundaries” or “I have to do what other people want me to do” or “It is not OK to say ‘no’ to my husband”. These are the kinds of beliefs that need to be challenged by learning a physical movement that is unfamiliar, based on those old beliefs. Connecting your mind and body is crucial.
If children grow up in families that are encouraged to set boundaries, to say no, and not do anything they do not like they are more likely to use those coping skills if someone threatens them. But if you grow up in a family where it is not okay to protect or defend yourself or to say no, your body has already started to develop movements that take you into a compliant stance.
It is important that we expand our physical movements, responses, and thoughts so that when a certain action is needed, it is there.
For example, if you have been constricted in your responses – for example if you find that you collapse very easily in response to your husbands demands, it may be important that you learn to reach out for connection and support. This of course can bring up a lot of pain and distress. Sometimes when you have to stand up for yourself you feel desperately vulnerable and needy. So you get stuck.
There is a lot to be gained from learning how your body responds to situations rather than just your feelings. You do not need to know why you act in certain ways or what exactly affects you from your past. Your body shapes itself around past experiences that are often beyond recall and are preverbal. We don’t have concrete memories that shape our everyday movements and postures. But our past continues to live in our bodies in lots of unseen ways. “The fish will be the last to discover water” Einstein said as if letting us know that the things that affect us the most are often the leats visible to us.
Become curious about how your movement, shape, gestures, and posture reflect and sustain some ongoing problem in your life. Notice that if you say that “I do not feel heard and I feel that anything I say will be demolished”. Notice how your body in some very real ways reflect that. Does your body turn away easily, do you carry yourself weakly, and limply, is your head down? Do you walk about your house as if defeated already? Your body not only reflects the issue you struggle with but it also keeps you a bit stuck.
Our thinking and emotions and body all work together. Whether you feel sad or think that things won’t improve, your body will reflect that in some way – in how you hold yourself. A creative way to look at your problems is to think of them as being physical. To imagine them as being held in your body rather than your head and instead of trying to understand the problem mentally try to be aware of how your body carries it. Try different movements to loosen up to what remains at the level of just a twitch. Before you stand up for yourself verbally, stand up for yourself physically. Walk before you talk.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. He has written hundreds of articles on family psychology - some posted here.