Imagination and wonder are often used synonymously, but in my mind, they are slightly different. When I am asked to use my imagination, it feels like I am searching for a solution. Maybe it goes back to my own programming. When I was growing up, I was often told or heard said, “Use your imagination.” But there is also something inherently wrong with that admonition. It gives me ownership of imagination as if it were something that belonged to me. Perhaps it’s really the opposite. What if imagination does not belong to any of us but, instead, can be tapped into by each of us?
When I try to imagine, it feels like I am working at it. My fondest memories of imagining are as far from work as one could imagine. Ha! The two most vivid memories come to mind.
The first was when I did a twenty-four-hour vision quest in the Colorado Rockies. I was on my own, with nothing but water, a journal, and a lip balm. (Never go anywhere without lip balm in Colorado.)
I had lots of time to play. If you’ve never been on your own for twenty-four hours in the wilderness, I can tell you that it is a completely different experience of time. One minute felt like at least ten; an hour like an eternity. I was confined to the safe place I had created around me, just slightly larger than my body stretched out to its full length. Exploring the area was not an option, so I lay on my back and looked up.
Lucky for me, there were lots of clouds moving across the sky that day. As I watched the clouds, many of my loved ones who had passed on formed a parade. I saw my father, my first dog, my dear friend John, and others. In the moment, it didn’t feel, even a little bit, like I was imagining them. It felt like they were visiting. I was deeply moved by the experience. When we truly drop into the experience of imagining, it becomes hard to distinguish it from reality. That’s why visioning can be so powerful.
My other memory of imagining was at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. The caverns are famous for their stalagmites and stalactites, which are naturally occurring mineral formations. I was stunned by their beauty as I walked through the massive caves. I stopped at one spot, looked across the way, and saw the face of a beautiful gypsy-like woman in the stalactites. I studied her a while, but when I turned away to tell my friend to look at her, she disappeared. No matter how many angles I looked from, I couldn’t find her again. Was she real or imagined?
As I talk about these two powerful memories of imagining, I see that what they have in common is that I wasn’t trying to imagine anything. By allowing myself to sit in the beauty and the mystery, things started appearing in my awareness.
When we talk about imagining something, we are trying to capture a naturally occurring response to being open. Wonder can take us into that open space where imagining spontaneously starts to happen. So, now using our imagination has a whole different spin.
Research by neuroscientists into the brain’s plasticity and ability to constantly reshape itself also informs us that the brain does not distinguish between a “real” experience and a vividly “imagined” experience. In an oft-cited study done at Harvard in 1994, two groups of volunteers repetitively played a five-fingered combination of notes on a piano. They did this for two hours a day for five consecutive days, while another group just imagined playing and hearing the same sequence of notes for the same duration of time. At the end of the five days, brain scans showed that the finger maps for the volunteers who had played the notes had grown as expected, but, remarkably, the maps for the volunteers who had just imagined playing them had also grown to the same extent.
Athletes and coaches in all sports and countries are very practiced in visualizing peak performance. We can easily translate this skill into every area of our lives. We can allow ourselves to enjoy the imagining that occurs spontaneously and know that it has the potential to transform. Maybe we should take wonder breaks instead of coffee breaks.
The habits of gentleness, curiosity, persistence, expansion, compassion, detachment, wondering, and imagination are gateways to an easier, less stressful life. They are not necessarily things to do in thirty seconds or less. Rather, they are more a way of being in the world that invites joy and easy flow. That said, you could set an alarm to go off on the hour and take thirty seconds to reflect on any of these qualities. Those thirty seconds will go a long way towards turning these qualities into habits that occur without thinking, and your life may effortlessly feel easier.