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Images, imagination and imago

Our Western philosophical view often includes a hierarchal perspective. One such hierarchy includes our understanding of the different components of “mind”. Both imagination and intellect have received attention, typically with “intellect” being placed in a higher position than imagination. Imagination was fundamentally understood by the highly influential philosopher, Plato, (400ish BCE) as that part of the mind that communes with images and draws information from them in order to create a low level knowing or knowledge (we can see this in the root of the word “imagination” – it comes from “images”). Intellect came to be understood as the aspect of mind that can deal with pure ideas without any experience necessary.

The philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) gives us an example. He asks us to imagine a triangle. Close your eyes and see if you can picture, in your “mind’s eye” (your imagination) an image of a triangle. . . Done?

Good. Most likely you experienced success. Descartes suggests we can see an image of a triangle because we have seen triangles previously. Now, he asks that you close your eyes and imagine, in your mind’s eye, a 1,000 sided figure (a chiliagon). Give it a whirl. . . Done?

Well, most likely your image was funky and unclear. Again, Descartes would suggest we cannot picture, or imagine, a chiliagon since we do not see chiliagons in our everyday living. He then attempts to demonstrate, though, that we intellectually understand a chiliagon quite precisely. Without ever having experienced a 1,000 sided figure, we still know that a chiliagon is not a 999 sided figure, we know it is not a 1,001 sided figure – we understand the pure idea that it is exactly a 1,000 sided figure. We intellectually understand it in spite of our inability to picture it. Descartes uses the above example to show us that our intellect “exceeds” or is greater than our imagination.

On the other hand we have an even later philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) who suggests that imagination is our “ability to think of what is not”. With this different angle of imagination, we can see that it may be empowered to generate change in a way that intellect may not be. Intellect demands that we stay within the realm of the rationally logical. Very useful. However, at times we may wish to imagine the world or the life we want to create, rather the one that we understand to exist. Perhaps, we have been heavy-handed as of late, with the intellectual, and a little light with the imaginative. I’m here to set a balance between the two. I’d like to offer another added angle to our current communion with the word “imagination” to do so.

Imagination, as pointed out earlier, comes from the word “image”. The word “image” comes from the Latin root word “imago” which means “an imitation, a copy, an image”. Imago also gains the scientific meaning of “the final, adult, reproductive stage in the development of an insect”. Keeping our original notion of image as a copy or an imitation that gives rise to a certain knowing (such as being able to picture a triangle without an actual triangle present) and wedding it to Sartre’s “ability to think of what is not” and then adding in this notion of an imago as an adult stage, I believe we have a powerful potion to augment beauty in our experiences of being human:

Imagination may be seen as a web of super highways, an aura of your inner-world going out and greeting your external presence in the world we share and vice versa. I drink in my experiences as a body-observer-experiencer in this external world (your house, the coffee shop, work, the sidewalk, the street). My imagination helps me to turn those experiences into nutrients to enrich my being (my being a body with a sense of self, and also my being a human in the world-hive of other humans, plants, animals, insects, things).

Likewise, my inner-world is delivered into the external world via my imagination. My imagination helps me shape that world into morsels that I believe may nourish and enrich that external world (you, the social institutions, the infrastructure, the technology) which we have a vested interested in nurturing since we drink in our environment daily.

Children are potent seeds in that environment. Children soak in their environment as their little bodyminds are crazy hungry for nourishment. They are growing. And they are tomorrow’s planet. I suggest it is through our imaginations that we can become the adults that children need us to be. I appreciate the world we’ve inherited – the infrastructure, the services, the community and the technology. I also know it comes with many sharp edges and blunt objects which cause harm to little bodyminds born into it. I believe balancing our rational edges with our imagination can bring a world that is consciously designed to nurture children’s development, emotional, spiritual and rational.

Imagination must have blank canvas in order to play. When we tightly construct “the world as it is” in our minds (and bodies and lives), we give ourselves very little wiggle room for imaginative play. This art project attempts to illuminate the blank canvas that is necessarily behind all of our constructions. Thus we always-already have access to the blank canvas required for imagination to come into greater action. All that is required is a willingness to believe that behind all our constructions (language, societal institutions, facts) there is canvas, an eternal stretch of canvas that invites us to play in, around, behind, beyond those constructions. With this tool, we can invite children into the world “as it is” with much more creative ability – an ability that will enrich how they experience their lives. We can “play” with a wisdom to be mindful that above all, we are guardians of children’s experiences.

Post note: Here, I have been talking about actual children-children, though I do see all of us as children, simply in different stages of development. However, as a 45 year old child, I am asking myself to acknowledge that I have access to this imago stage where I am empowered to step up and create a bridge for other “children” to be nourished by my presence, my words, my play. I believe exercising my imagination in order to create that bridge is the greatest tool I have found since embarking on this quest. I invite you, no matter your stage in child-imago-adult becoming, to step into your “adult” shoes, and to feel the honor of being entrusted with the development and nourishment of other children.



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