It’s a funny thing about the world these days… in our increasing technological connection, we experience increasing disconnection from ourselves and others. We are so disconnected that I often hear students say things like, ‘well, I don’t know if I’m feeling that or imagining it.’ To which I answer, what’s the difference? And when people say, ‘I can’t imagine that,’ I sometimes suggest, ‘maybe try, if you want to understand it.’
So, is there a difference? Can you gain knowledge through imagination? Is this experience of imagining somehow a lesser enterprise than a straight-up, reality-based feeling. Which is what exactly?
Scientists play this game with their subjects. See what happens with daydreams (they enhance feelings of love) and self-imagination (it enhances memory) and pretend crises (they lead to greater empathy and willingness to help).
Old yoga dudes suggested as much when they lumped imagination and sleep in with other manners of gaining knowledge like firsthand experience, being taught by a teacher and memory.
What do you think?
Let’s play a little game. Imagine yourself becoming very sad. Imagine a very sad event. Remember the sadness you’ve experienced. See loved ones crying and dogs whining and mother nature exploited of her resources. Now watch the effects in yourself. Bummer, right?
You could do this for days. You could imagine that everything and everyone is sad with you. And, most likely, they will be. You’ll notice the saddest things. And when someone suggests you cheer up, you’ll think they’re in a truly sad state for not seeing how sad things are. Pretty soon, your thoughts will be stuck on sadness. Your body will follow the message of these thoughts and become heavy with sadness. In sum, from an imagined sadness, you’ll find sadness that is indistinguishable from sadness provoked by what you perceive as another means.
Likewise, you could try this. (Though, in truth, this is harder because you haven’t practiced happiness as much as sadness.) Imagine yourself feeling happy. Think of the happiest sounds of laughter and the happiest events. Imagine them now. See green grass and sunshine, ocean’s waves and smiling friends waving. See puppy dogs and tiny kittens play with otters. Now feel the effects. Better?
It’s all for you to experience. Whether you come to an experience through engagement with a teacher, through the written word, observation, dream, daydream or imagination, your experience affects you. It makes you feel. It’s a legitimate feeling. It leaves its mark and, if you’re paying attention, you learn from it. You get a taste of the greater fabric of life than you knew before.
So free yourself up to feel in whatever way you do. Leave aside doubt and misgivings for now. Pay attention and be grateful for every experience offered to you, in whatever form it arises. Purple elephants? Pretty! Life on Mars? Okay! See how it feels to consider the possibilities offered by your imagination.
And remember! It’s a blessing we don’t have to live through every sort of pain to generate compassion for the suffering in others. It’s also a relief to accept kindness from those who offer it even if they haven’t lived our story.
In this way, we start to see that the separation we feel is nothing more than a distraction. Just behind it—see if you can imagine it—is our true and profound connection to everything.