For exclusive access to all our stories, including sequences, teacher tips, video classes, and more, join Outside+ today.
“Does this kind of thing really do any good?” Julie asks me. She’s looking for a new house to rent. Along with all of the usual methods, like asking friends, looking at Craigslist and the classifieds, and calling agents, she’s also visioning: imagining herself happily puttering around in a sun-filled, spacious two-bedroom house with a country view at a price she can afford.
Julie raises an important question: Is it really possible that imagination can influence outcomes in the “real” world? In other words, is what Julie is doing a genuinely effective act, or is she just indulging in plain old fantasy?
The answer? It could be either.
Despite Picasso’s famous statement that “anything you can imagine is real,” most adults recognize a fundamental distinction between “real” and “imaginary.” “Real” is the consensus reality that most people live in, where what goes up must come down and where two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time. Unlike the residents of the Hindu and Buddhist heaven worlds or the Jet Li character in the film Hero, who fights an entire battle in his imagination, few of us can manifest our intentions simply by imagining them into existence. No amount of wanting or imagining will get you a new job or cure your ulcer if you don’t take practical steps to make that happen.
See also Slow Down the Space Between Breaths
But even a skeptic knows that the reverse is also true. Imagination always precedes transformation. Every important change you’ve made in your life, inner or outer, started with an act of imagination. The journey that led my friend Greg to a radical spiritual awakening began when he read a novel about Tibetan yogis and imagined what it would be like to have extrasensory powers. We could say that he was fantasizing—but his fantasies led him to begin a meditation practice.
Even an escapist fantasy can be life transforming: In her memoir, Infidel, the Somalian-born women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes how her journey beyond Islamic fundamentalism began when, as a schoolgirl, she read Harlequin romances and for the first time began to fantasize about the possibility that a young woman could live a life not determined by her family and clan, and by the strictures of religion. Years later, escaping from an arranged marriage, she sought asylum in Holland. There, despite bad academic test scores, she fantasized about studying political science at a university—and she did.
Make the Leap
Imagination—our ability to create images not available to the sensory system—is arguably our greatest faculty for evolving human consciousness. In order to transform ourselves and our world, we need to be able to leap out of the familiar and into the unknown. The first step in doing this is to imagine a future different from the past, a self-sense different from the one we have now. Of course, we are shaped by our memories, our karma, and the patterns woven into our neurons and cells. Undeniably, we’re also influenced by culture and physical circumstances. Some of these factors are hard to change. But the imagination can help us begin to replace our internal patterns, especially the ones that keep us limited and stuck. If we can reimagine our sense of who we are, we can change our experience of life. Yoga is all about what happens when we recognize this truth. If you can imagine yourself, say, free of suffering, you’ve taken the first step toward that freedom.
In The Biology of Transcendence, Joseph Chilton Pearce writes: “Physiologically superior to ordinary ‘eye-seeing,’ imagination comes in from higher up the ‘evolutionary stream’ of vision, and even employs a higher, purer form of light…Rather than the senses impacting the mind with imagery, as in ordinary seeing, through imagination the mind impacts the senses with imagery.”
What Pearce means by “higher up the ‘evolutionary stream'” is that the subtler levels of imagination sit relatively close to the original source of creativity. That source has been described in a number of ways: as the great mind, the collective unconscious, the field of all possibility, divine intelligence, the Tao. Acts of imagination can connect us to that place where insight and inspiration arrive unbidden—as an out-of-the-box idea, the first line of a poem, or a direct recognition of who we are beyond our ordinary self-definition. Imagination links us to infinite possibility, the realm from which all genuine creative insights arise.
Imagining our World
Great poets and scientific thinkers have repeatedly described the mystery of breakthrough the way John Keats did, when he said that his greatest poems were “given to me” by a “power like magic.” Spiritual voyagers have similar experiences of the power of that inner realm. Imagination is the doorway into that realm beyond ordinary consciousness.
According to the ancient Tantric master Abhinavagupta, imagination is not just powerful; it is power itself. The human capacity to imagine, according to Tantra, is simply our individual form of the power of the infinite consciousness, the infinite mind. That great mind imagines worlds within itself and brings them into existence, say the Tantric sages. Our own imaginations do the same thing on a smaller scale.
Yoga Vasishtha, a key text of Vedanta that prefigures quantum physics and string theory, describes our so-called real world as a creation of imagination, made of solidified consciousness, or subtle energy, which each of us holds in place by believing in it. The Shiva Sutra consistently maintains that a yogi who understands this principle and cultivates it can rearrange these particles of consciousness and manifest just about anything. Most of us aren’t operating at anywhere near that level, of course. More likely, our imagination operates unconsciously, as unexamined fantasies and stray thought constructs. By practicing what I call the yoga of imagination, we can learn how to use our divine gift for fantasy as a creative tool for transformation.
Sanskrit, the original language of yogic transformation, excels at finding precise words for the subtle nuances of consciousness. To understand the yogic wisdom on the imagination, it helps to look at four Sanskrit words that distinguish between types of imaginative experience. Taken together, these ancient terms can be used as a map that shows how the imaginative faculty works and how we can engage it, train it, and receive its gifts.
The four Sanskrit words for imagination are vikalpa, a random image or fantasy; kalpana, an intentional mental creation; pratibha, spontaneous visionary insight; and bhavana, yogic contemplation and visioning. Vikalpas, or basic mental fantasies, account for most of your imaginative experience. Vikalpas are the images, thoughts, and mental static that play randomly in the mind. The sexual fantasy that shows up at the wrong time. The fear of burglars in the closet. The things you imagine your friends are saying behind your back. In fact, most of the contents of your mind belong in this category. Yogic texts warn against falling for these stories, and they all have the same advice: Let the vikalpas go. Classical yoga practice aims to dissolve them. Some of the ways of doing this are through meditative focus, or through a practice like recognizing the vikalpas as essentially empty.
With kalpanas, we enter the realm of deliberate creation. A kalpana, because it’s intentional, has far more purpose and power than an idle or uncontrolled vikalpa. Kalpanas are the foundation of human art and science, mythology, religious constructs, political and military strategies, and the fictions that sometimes seem to drive our culture.
Since kalpanas can take on a life of their own (those who write fiction know that moment when the characters start speaking for themselves), we often find we have to untangle the threads of what seemed at first like an innocent mental creation. Thus the old saying “Be careful what you wish for” might be better rephrased as “Be careful what you imagine!”
The Tantric traditions are especially skilled at this type of constructed imagination. They use visualization for opening your inner centers (“Imagine a full moon in the center of your head”), for removing psychological impurities (“Visualize anger leaving your body as a stream of black smoke”), for creating intimacy with higher energies (“Find yourself on an island where the trees have jeweled leaves; you see, sitting on a throne under a tree, a wise and beautiful guide”).
Nowadays, of course, we have lots of exposure to the idea of using the imagination in this way. We take guided journeys to inner worlds, do life-visioning processes like Julie’s, and visualize light filling our bodies to strengthen our immune system. Studies increasingly confirm that these imaginative constructions are good for our health and even for developing skills: Young basketball players are instructed to practice their jump shots in their mind, and it turns out that this imaginary practice improves their performance on the court. Similarly, studies have shown that piano students who imagine themselves playing scales improve their playing as if they had been doing physical practice.
The psychologist Carl Jung taught a method of kalpana that he called “active imagination,” meant to integrate the conscious and unconscious elements in the human personality. His patients would construct mythical journeys or conversations between inner characters. Then, they would consciously take part in the fantasies and, by making them active and conscious, evolve the hidden aspects of themselves to a higher level.
At the third level, imagination frees itself from the personal mind and begins to open up to the higher realms. In Sanskrit, this level of imagination is called pratibha, which literally means “insight.” Pratibha is the inspiration that arises from beyond the conscious mind.
Pratibha is the true creative imagination. This is the imagination that Keats experienced. Einstein, the great chemist Kekulé, and the mathematician Poincaré all received major insights in this manner. Mozart would famously hear music playing within and simply take dictation. We’ve all experienced moments like these. The sentences of your term paper or grant proposal begin to flow on their own. You’re struggling to understand a difficult problem, when suddenly you simply, inexplicably, understand it. A brilliant light shows up in your meditation. Your perspective enlarges until you’re able, in the poet William Blake’s words, to “see the world in a grain of sand.”
One way you know you’re experiencing pratibha is through the quality of its content. It is different from the imaginings we make up for ourselves. An image or vision may be infused with brighter color and light. An insight may come with the force of authority. The poem or the story unfolds as if it were being dictated. Sometimes, when we have a vision in meditation, we wonder, “Was that real, or did I make it up?” When it comes from the pratibha level of imagination, the vision or insight seems to arise from a realm that you don’t ordinarily access.
Visionary imagination comes to us on its own. But yogis encourage it through visualizations—kalpana practice and, especially, bhavana, or creative contemplation. Bhavana is the most powerful tool we have for internal self-creation. It lets us reimagine the Self.
The term bhavana comes from bhava, a Sanskrit word meaning “feeling” or “emotional flavor.” Bhavana works with the power of your emotions to radically reorder your internal experience of yourself. In Tantra, where the power of the mind is recognized as identical with the universal creative power, bhavana is used to create a sense of identity with the Divine. A true bhavana combines idea, vision, and feeling. It’s the emotional quality that gives bhavana its power.
A famous Tantric bhavana asks you to imagine being in the presence of someone you love, then focusing on the feeling that the image brings up in you. You take that further by imagining the feeling of love filling your body, dwelling strongly in the felt sense of love. Then, you might anchor yourself in the feeling and act from it. The power of that combination of visualization and emotion will shift your inner experience, at least while you are practicing it. This is why a practice like remembering a happy moment or cultivating a sense of gratitude has such power to create well-being.
But the yogic sages take the idea of bhavana much deeper. My teacher used to say that when you hold the bhavana that you are a limited person with limited options, you will continue to experience yourself as limited by your body and personal history. When you replace your ordinary self-imagining with the highest and most sublime one you can find, you’ll begin to experience yourself as filled with divine qualities. This is why, in the Tantric tradition, you always start your practice with a radical reimagining of the Self. You imagine your body as made of light, or infused with mantra, or filled with infinite compassion, and then from that place, you begin your practice.
The ultimate Tantric bhavana is to imagine yourself as the incarnation of grandeur, the very form of God. The affirmations “I am the Absolute,” “I am That,” “I am Divine love itself” are imaginative constructions, but they work because they encourage you to identify yourself with a higher truth, and then to feel how that affects your inner experience, your body, and your sense of self.
A truly profound imaginative bhavana lets you rehearse what it would be like to live and act as the Self you know in your heart you really are—a divine Self, a Self whose power comes naturally from within, and who acts for the sake of the good. If you’re spending time during your day imagining yourself as filled with compassion, it doesn’t take you long to notice that you speak to people differently and even treat yourself with much more subtlety and kindness.
A student of mine who became overwhelmed by a heavy schedule of work and child rearing began imagining herself as Hanuman, the son of the wind, whose strength could literally move mountains. When she’s practicing that bhavana, she finds it no big deal to juggle the demands of her life. She feels that she taps into a universal source of strength, a power that goes beyond the personal. In the months since she began working with that bhavana, she’s been getting up early to practice, reconnecting with friends she hadn’t spent time with in years, and doing volunteer work with a local mentorship program. “I’m so much bigger than I thought I was,” she told me. “It’s not just that I can do more. I can hold more people in my life. My mind has expanded. There are days when my heart feels huge, big enough to hold the world.”
Yoga at its heart is a practice for evolutionary spiritual growth—growth into our own highest possibilities. Imagination lets us find our way into those possibilities. By training the imagination, harnessing its power, we can use it for creating beauty and truth in the world. Then our acts of transformative imagination become genuine acts of power. They can change our inner state, for sure. But they can also change the world.
Imagine Yourself as an Enlightened Sage
Set aside half an hour.
Begin by calling to mind a sage or saint, or another human being you deeply admire. It should be someone you have a feeling for and whose teachings you understand—Jesus, or Buddha, Gandhi, St. Teresa of Avila, the Baal Shem Tov, or your own teacher, if that teacher has been a reliable example of enlightenment.
If no one comes to mind, choose one of the qualities of enlightened consciousness—such as compassion or love.
Now, think deeply about that person or the quality you want to embody. Consider how it might be to look through that person’s eyes. If it’s a quality, ask yourself, “How would it be at this moment to look through the eyes of love?” Ask yourself, “How did this being treat others?” How might he or she behave while living your life? (Yes, what would Jesus do?) Imagine facing a challenge, a big conflict, the desertion of someone close. How would that person handle it?
Now, close your eyes and imagine that the spirit of that person (or that quality) inhabits your body. Inhale, thinking to yourself, “Christ’s love lives within me, as my love,” or “Buddha’s state of enlightenment is my enlightenment,” or “The courage of Gandhi is my courage.” Exhale, thinking, “That inner state fills my body.”
Do this for a few moments. Then ask yourself, “How would I move through the world if I truly embodied the qualities of this being? How would I treat myself? How would I be with my partner? my kids? my parents? the people on the bus? What would it be like to interact with others?”
Let your imagination completely open to this practice, imagining yourself enlightened, saturated with love. For the remainder of the half hour, act out of that experience. Be the great being you’re imagining yourself to be. Act out the quality you want to imbibe. Do this for half an hour a day for a week and see if you notice the effect.