Updated: Oct 26
"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." ~ Michelangelo
It's the first day of January, 2021. A day for imagining.
I'm thinking about the vague, hazy place where something can be picked up, turned over in the mind, where the unformed takes form, believing and discovery breathe life into ideas, where a relationship, a poem, a dollhouse, a dormant dream can be revisited with fresh perspective, where mismatched visions find harmony - a place to go to that's yours, inhabited only by you - imagination.
Saying the word gives me a thrill. Imagination. Filled with promise and uncovering - a mental playground where permission to enter is never limited by age, beauty or standing. Look around you - the computer on your desk, the phone in your hand, the window that lets in light, the work you do, the way you spend your days, the meal you prepare - all begun in imaginings.
Then there is the unimaginable - witnessed and lived in this past year - an invisible invader ravaging the world, those hungry for power destroying laws and lives and hearts, cowardly acts of cruelty impossible to absorb, starving children too weak to cry and the elderly leaving without goodbyes. And, as I continue to write, as the first week of this new year comes to a close, we say the word "unimaginable" again as we watch the violence of destruction and irreverence in the halls of our capital.
But, then, there were and are those who notice and imagine into reality goodness and generosity, allowing us to not only survive, but find the way to hope, then flourish once again. Horror, the catalyst for compassion, moves us to question, moves individuals and whole nations, black, brown and white to respond to those in need, to walk and sing in heat and rain and darkness, announcing what they stand for, imagining something better. They do it. Then, do it again, and again. They imagine what can be - then the doing making it real.
Imagination has its own requirements - few, but essential - time and space and attention. Will you agree to not allow another year of wasteful distraction, your precious time stolen by those whose only wish is to be noticed, giving nothing in return, separating you from your life, your promise? Will you make space because imagination is hindered by the clutter of the unnecessary and useless. Will you pay attention because without it, you may fail to discover how talented you are, what's under the relationship that's grown stale, the project you've always wanted to make real, the dream you let fade...?
One of the most exciting ideas in neuroscience (or psychobiology), "Hebb's Law", was defined in the late 1940's by psychologist, Donald Hebb, when he wrote about the way brain cells, repeatedly and simultaneously activated, become associated. Activity in one cell (or group of cells), supports activity in another. When you engage in a behaviour or pattern of thought persistently over time, neurons are reorganized and connections formed (the amazing potential of lifelong neuroplasticity). This becomes 'you': a sport you master, a course you study, your way of being and thinking. In layman's terms, "what you pay attention to grows" - in the world of neuroscience the same idea is captured in the phrase, "what fires together, wires together."
Never underestimate the power of imagination. The more you imagine, the more the brain responds, forming, shaping, making possible the transformation of idea into reality. Do you know that people asked to imagine playing a particular piece on a piano matched closely the brain activity and structural changes of those who actually played the same piece? In a separate study, subjects asked to imagine exercising one finger showed significant improvement in muscular strength, without moving the finger at all? In other words, as you contemplate and take in new material, with time and attention - repetition in the imagination - previously developed pathways weaken, while newer, still fragile pathways gain structure and strength and vitality, supporting change and growth.
I'm not suggesting you can magically make things appear by thinking them into existence. But close. Ideas formed in the 'mind's eye', fertile ground for the incubating brain, lay the foundation for action needed to turn the imagined into the real.
Imagining what could be on the other side of a mountain, through a forest or over a body of water, moved us across continents over thousands of years. We chipped away at the yet to be found - seeking comfort for the body, reward for the eye, reassurance and hope for the soul. We imagined then stepped forward. We know how to do it. We're good at this.
The challenge. With months to go before we move about as we did before the unimaginable, what is your intention? Will you brood about what is not, or what is wrong or disappointing or unsatisfying, or will you create the worthwhile you long to live? Will you build an idea, learn what you've always wanted to learn, listen to new ideas and honor the power of your most remarkable mind?
Poet, Mary Oliver, saved in childhood by her own wildly energetic and glorious imagination, provokes us to use ours with the question...
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do.
With your one wild and precious life?"
A Place to Imagine - by Austen Hayes
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