Checking Out of the Present Moment

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Last week’s post examined the hot spiritual fad we call “being in the present moment”, offering up some centuries-old wisdom from some Buddhists and a Jesuit. This week, we contradict ourselves (or do we?), by offering up spiritual practices in which one completely checks out of the present moment.

Like many things that have been refined, distilled, and codified into spiritual practice, imagination is a fairly irresistible human tendency. Cavedwellers and scientists alike have produced evidence of rich imaginations. 

Imagination: it’s the fertile loam where great art grows. It’s the pest that irritates stodgy bureaucrats and control-obsessed classroom tyrants (that’s always a sign that you’re onto something good). It’s a mystical portal that has the power to whoosh us to other places and dimensions, which is probably why it is so annoying to the power-hungry. No matter who or where we are, we contain the power of our inner realms, and can draw on it at will.

Imagination can also be a coping mechanism—a source of escape, for good or ill. There’s an antisocial element to imagination. It can be very difficult to live with a person who is a practiced escapist. Try collaborating on a project with a Pollyanna who refuses to acknowledge practical details, or a person who imagines great clouds of doom hovering over every possible path.

But imagination also possesses astonishing power for transformation and goodness. Time and again, I’ve seen people whose ability to retreat into a rich imaginative life was the thing that helped them survive. Some might call this escapism. I’d call it resilience.

Yet we’re often told that this incredible ability is best left in childhood. “Live in the here and now”, we’re told; “Get real”. The word “myth” has become a term of disparagement, equivalent to “lies”. What a tragedy! In our scientific age, the different forms of truth have been fragmented, divorced from one other, some sent into exile. The truth we can learn from myth, or from using our imaginations, isn’t incompatible with the world of cold hard facts. It’s complementary—myth and imagination teach us how to live well and wisely.

Science might even be starting to agree. In healthcare we’re seeing the rise of narrative medicine, honouring the power of stories in patient experience and caregiver excellence.

When the right questions get asked, we gain more insight into how imagination works, and into what purposes it serves in human life. We learn, for instance, that people who are avid readers of fiction have measurably higher levels of insight into other people’s inner lives. It’s imagination that allows us to enter into the experience of another person, see the world through their eyes.

Let’s unabashedly use our imaginations. Let’s imagine our way, wildly and proudly, into a better human life for ourselves and others.

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