Wild Imagination is an earthy, untamed imagination. An imaginal perception easily lost, trapped behind the screens of our techno-civilisation. For those who might like to conserve the richness of imaginative life, this article sketches out the identifying markers of wild imagination and discusses assumptions that scare it away. The concept ‘wild imagination’ is my own coinage, although covering similar territory to Henry Corbin’s ‘mundus imaginalis’ and Robert Bosnak’s ‘embodied imagination’. I have chosen a ‘wild’ description of imagination to emphasise an alternative attitude to the ownership and control that limits many approaches to imagination, and also for the connotations it brings of the natural world, the widespread destruction of which I will argue is linked to the impoverishment of imagination in modern life.
I begin in wild imagination’s most enduring and pristine habitat, where it can still be seen clearly every night. In a dreamscape, where the surrounding sights and sounds convince entirely and only on waking do we look back and call it a dream. Dreaming is a nightly safari through wild imagination. A safari because, unlike the cages and enclosures in a zoo, in wild imagination there is no separation between us and the imagery. The first marker of wild imagination is that, like a dreamscape, it is in an immersion in an encompassing image environment to which we attribute a certain reality.
The characters we encounter in this imaginal landscape are the second marker of wild imagination. Acting on their own intentions, independent and autonomous these characters put the ‘wild’ into wild imagination. To the extent we do not own or control them, they are wild.
The third and final marker is that wild imagination affects not just our thoughts, but also our feelings, sensations and actions. Wild imagination is not a once-removed looking on from behind glass, it is an embodied sense experience. We feel fear, anxiety, excitement, a knot in the stomach, a tensed readiness to flee - as a dream does when it has us leap out of bed.
While seen most clearly in a dream, wild imagination sometimes happens in the cinema. When a film is compelling enough, the plush seats and crunch of popcorn recede to the edge of our awareness and we feel ourselves enter into the movie. A state of absorption in which we forget our everyday lives and journey for a while with the movie characters in their movie world. When I went to see Lord of the Rings, I remember entering into the scene where Frodo is fleeing with Gandalf through a labyrinth of underground caverns, chased by the Balrog, a kind of dragon. I came to feel Frodo’s fear as my own, my heart race with his. When the Balrog took a swipe at Frodo and he leapt away, I too jerked sideways in my seat. I become engaged and affected by Frodo’s situation as if I were encountering the Balrog myself.
My reverie in wild imagination did not last. My friend sitting beside me leant over and whispered, ‘Wow, the CGI is amazing!’ and then again later on, ‘That wasn’t in the book’. The effect of her commentary was to open up a distance between me and the imagery. The screen and movie became a manufactured product, based on a famous book, with a paint box of digital effects. I was no longer in a dank, underworld cavern, running from the Balrog. I was back in my natural environment, on my comfy chair, in the Holloway Odeon on a Saturday afternoon. I looked at my watch, thinking that Frodo must inevitably escape, otherwise the movie would end too soon. The CGI Balrog was much less frightening, even a bit comical. I was left, not with a vivid immersion in the movie, but with a bunch of ideas about it. The wildness of the images had been tamed.
A similar taming of imagination can usually be seen in any art gallery. While some art gallery goers take their time to look at the paintings, many people wander from one painting to the next, intuiting something of importance in the canvas image yet being drawn more towards the blurb than the actual paintings themselves. The blurb informs, it gives information about the painting, but does not quite satisfy. Blurb is not why people go to an art gallery. They want to feel something, to be moved by the art. They want wild imagination. And so, unsatisfied, they move on to the next painting and the next and yet keep looking for the meaning in the blurb not the painting. More time is spent reading text than looking at the paintings. Thinking eclipses imagining. The gallery becomes an unsatisfactory, dusty place. Tired and perhaps a little bored they leave with a quiet sense that an opportunity has been missed, that something is wrong. And something is indeed wrong. They have grown up in a culture that has done a very good job at getting them to think, to search for explanations and ask why, but not such a good job at giving a place for the perception, feeling and sensation of wild imagination.
Wild imagination is not about understanding. It is not about working out what images mean. However, it is not easy to resist the pleasure of an interpretation. A state of ‘not-knowing’ is hard to bear. It makes us nervous. Robert Bosnak writes of waking up from a dream in this regard:
‘We wake up and try to get a grip on our dreams. We tame them with interpretations. We try to make them into pets, to render them relatively harmless, not like the unpredictable wild creatures they really are.’ (1)
To resist turning our dreams into ideas is uncomfortable and counterintuitive. For this reason, when as a therapist I suggest to a client that we hold back from analysing images, I often get asked, ‘If we are not trying to work out what the images mean, what is the point?’ The fact that this question even gets asked shows the predominance of the rational mind in our approach to imagination. In trying to share my point of view with my client, I describe the transformative effects of a good movie. How I can leave the cinema transformed, more vital and alive than the person I was two hours earlier, without any need to know why. I might not even ask myself, ‘why do I feel so good?’ I just do. Knowing what ‘it’ means is not the same as a sense of meaning. The healing effect of wild imagination does not rely on rational understanding. I have been moved, not by the language of ideas, but by the language of images. To enter into wild imagination, we need a bit less thinking and a lot more looking and feeling.
Psychotherapy can be a place where we are given help to look. Outside dreams and ‘the arts’, therapy is one of the few remaining cultural niches where the perception of wild images is, perhaps ironically, not taken as a sign of derangement. In consulting rooms across the land, particularly in those orientations that emphasise an imaginative approach, ‘wild imagination’ continues to find a place. A plethora of techniques are utilised to create hospitable conditions for wild images to thrive.
Perhaps in looking at a recent dream a client might be invited to dialogue with one of the dream characters. The therapist asks the client to recollect the details of the character and to imagine them not in the abstract but as occupying a space within the therapy room, sitting between client and therapist on an empty chair. The client recounts a tall woman, middle-aged, wrapped in a white fur with black spots. She has a thin face, partly concealed by long dark hair, and is sitting slouched in the corner of an underground carriage. As the train shudders around a corner the lights flicker and the woman turns to stare at the client.
As the details build and time slows an imaginative presence fills the empty chair. Even though we remain aware of being in a small room with a ticking clock, rain pattering the window and traffic passing by in the street below, the space is overlaid with the imagery of the dream. The fur coated woman is now sitting on the chair opposite and the client reports a return of the stomach churning, heart pounding response of the actual dream experience. Therapist and client have entered into wild imagination.
The dream woman’s name is Yeshe. Not that she has been asked what here name is yet. So she endures being spoken of as ‘this character’ and holds back, waiting to see if it is safe. For even in a therapy room, in what might be considered a special reserve for wild images, she exists just this side of the veil, ready to flee. Some humans are friendly. Some hunt down wild images and capture them in cages. The client seems safe enough, just confused. But therapists can be dangerous.
‘Does this character remind you of anyone familiar?’ asks the therapist of the client.
‘I don’t know. My mum, maybe. Yes, my Mum.’
Yeshe is amused. I’m not anything like her Mum. You could just ask me who I really am. It would be polite, but no. Carry on talking as if I’m not really here.
‘What is it about her that reminds you of your Mum?’
‘How scary she is. How I just want her to go away.’
‘What’s scary about her?’
‘The way she is looking at me. I can tell she’s angry’
‘What do you think this angry part of you might need?’
‘I’m not sure’, replies the client, ‘I’m losing touch with the character. I don’t see her so clearly anymore’
Yeshe is not at all angry. She is still amused by all this, just. But she’s had enough of being spoken to like this and takes her leave.
The therapy session has moved from imagining to thinking, which are two quite different modes of perception and best carried out apart, otherwise thought, being usually the more developed mode, eclipses our imagining as has happened here. The respect for Yeshe as an autonomous figure of imagination has dropped away, and like any sensible person spoken about as if they are not real, she has slipped away, not wanting to be tamed. The therapist is emphasizing the meaning, not in the image of Yeshe, but in how it corresponds to the objective world. Her image is taken as imaginary, in the pejorative sense of unreal, and so for it to have value it is related to what is real, which is the physical world. Yeshe is therefore assumed to be a projection out into the world, i.e. onto the empty chair, of a ‘part’ of the client’s personality, a psychological sub-part or limb within the client. A part of the client’s psyche put there as an internalization, an imprint or cipher of an actual person in the client’s past. Yeshe is not really Yeshe, just what the client’s psyche has made of a historical fact. The session can continue without Yeshe but it will now likely consist of a hypothetical reckoning based on the client’s assumptions of what a generic witch-like character might feel, think and say. The opportunity for contact with the non-egoic perspectives of a wild image has been lost.
If thinking scares away wild images, we need to understand the assumptions within our thinking, much of which comes from psychological theory on imagination. Whether a dream dictionary or a bird guidebook, theories are maps to guide us through strange territory, a collection of pointers to describe the weird and fantastical beasts we might find there. Whether these beasts are characters of imagination or jackdaws and herons, theories are only useful to a certain extent. A water colour illustration of a crow is a hint as to what to look for, but often not the same as the image turned to flesh, moving about at the far end of a field. Nor is information on crow mating rituals and eating habits the same as knowing a particular, individual crow in the field. The idea of a crow is not the same as an actual crow. Similarly, concepts such as the child archetype, the child subpersonality or the ubiquitous inner-child, are not the same as an actual encounter with a child in imagination, whether in a dream, memory or otherwise. Such concepts are used to describe and help understand an experience. However, there is no such thing as an archetype, a child subpersonality or an inner-child. Nor even is there ‘crow’, for the bird we call crow has had many names through history and across cultures. These terms are all abstractions based upon experience, not the thing itself.
What matters is the experience, the thing itself. The wild imagination I am setting out here is not a belief system or theory about images. It is based on the actual experience of what it is like to have contact with imagination. The three markers of wild imagination, as seen most clearly in a dream, describe the nature of an encounter with wild images: experienced as out-there, around us; autonomous others, with a will of their own, wild; which evoke an embodied feeling response. Theory on imagination is helpful to the extent it takes us closer to these three markers. Beyond that we can wonder about imagination, but in the end, it’s a complete and total mystery. No one really knows what it is, just as no one completely understands what dreams are.
Those psychological theories that spook wild images are those which take us away from imaginative experience. They do this by mistaking their ideas about imagination for the actual thing itself. When this happens, it is not long before we set about limiting or distorting our experience in order to force it into the shape of our theory. Unfortunately for wild images, this is arguably the case with several widely used theories about imagination. As the post-Jungian therapist Mary Watkins writes,
‘It is ironic that those psychologies which seem to give the greatest respect to the imaginal have not inquired into the subject of what they have imagined of imagining’ (2).
How I imagine imagination acts as a filter or lens. My perception of imagination is coloured by my understanding of it. In respect to our search for wild imagination, an awareness of our attitude as we approach it will influence how it responds, whether it communicates with us or even if it continues to show up in the first place.
The enchantment of an immersive imagination is nothing new. Wild imagination is a contemporary way of describing an old experience, one that we can recall from childhood, when wild images were a common occurrence, non-physical beings encountered at the bottom of the garden, behind the shed. In our tumble and play wild imagination turned a wardrobe into a secret doorway, a bed into a flying boat and granted shapeshifting powers, ‘Look, I’m a goldfish!’
In writing this article I re-read a report in the Guardian of a viral video (10). A clip of pre-school children playing in a rain storm. The children, full of giddy, joyous laughter, slip down a slide into a puddle of mud. Pelted with rain they are soaked through and caked in dirt. Some of the children plough into the puddle head first, shrieking in obvious enjoyment. The clip is only thirty-three seconds, taken in a small town in New Zealand. In the first two days after being posted on-line the clip had been viewed over twenty-four million times, from locations across the globe. Perhaps in our distracted times such YouTube videos are a kind of outsourced memory, a digital unconscious. A digital Gia that allows her to shout loud enough to give us pause, in the same way she once did through oral-stories, cave paintings and yes, rainstorms. Miffy Welsh, from the childcare centre that posted the video, made sense of the popularity as a reflection of people, ‘longing for their own lost childhoods, and the childhoods of their children, which are so dominated by screens.’ I find this double generational loss disturbing. Is the pace of cultural change so fast now that our own children no longer remind us of our lost childhood? And just what is it that we long for in our lost childhood?
The ecopsychologist Theodore Roszak writes of the enchanted perspective from childhood, not as a naïve phase of development prior to adulthood, but as a psychic inheritance from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. An ‘innate animism’ regenerated anew by each generation, ‘as if it were a gift, in the newborn’s enchanted sense of the world’(4). Wild imagination is a link back to childhood and also further back, buried in our bones as an imprint of our time in the trees, a time prior to the radical severance of humans from Nature. A time when imagination was a zone of experience in-between self and world, a way of reaching out and hearing the voices in the wind, trees and sky. A time when children were nourished to an adult maturity through building upon rather than denying their wild imagination. However, in modern times, this enchanted existence is only briefly indulged and then come a certain age banished. Education and ‘growing up’ is about doubting this enchantment and learning about the ‘real world’. Our encounters with rainstorms and imaginal friends at the bottom of the garden are frowned upon, no longer asked about. The permissible voices are restricted to humans and those in books. We become convinced that the world is essentially dead, a machine not an animal, unable to think or talk, just a bunch of stuff. Our imaginal perception atrophies and we get on with being rational adults.
In our culture generally, as reflected in our psychological theory, imagination has been taken out of the world and stuffed inside us, within our subjectivity. The pantheon of non-physical beings, the fairies, trolls, tree-spirits, gods, devas and nagas which were once encountered out-there, in a physical place, have now been placed in-here, in our chests, in our heads. Monsters no longer lurk in the wardrobe, they live inside our minds. The one time fear of monsters is displaced into a fear of our own thoughts, our own fantasies. As Carl Jung puts it, the gods have now become diseases of the solar plexus:
‘We are still as much possessed today by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth; in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.’ (5)
Imagination as an ‘inner world’ is best taken as a metaphor, a way to carry meaning from the known (this physical world) into the unknown (imagination). However, mistaken for the truth, taken literally as an actual ‘inner imagination’, it is a short step towards approaching images as if we own them, that they are somehow our personal possessions. A dream is ‘my dream’ and it is about me. Again I hear my clients protest, ‘but of course my dream is about me’. I sympathise with such a response. It is an odd notion to let-go of our ownership of imagination. Perhaps my client is right, it is about them. However, deciding on this for sure limits the dream, forcing it into a theory of imagination. The dream might equally be thought of as relating to a place, a community or a situation quite other from the dreamer, perspectives lost when we see ourselves as-the-person-doing-the-imagining. Ownership of imagination makes us little gods, a position of superiority over the little characters inside us. An attitude that will tend to scare away wild images.
Robert Bosnak writes of this possessive approach to imagination as a hangover from the early days of modern psychology which developed during the colonial era (6). As Freud put it, ‘where id was shall ego be’. In the same way that the western powers, viewing themselves as a superior race, set out to conquer and subdue the ‘savages’ of Africa, so too the rational ego was sent out to tame the irrational forces of the unconscious, the id. To think of a character of imagination as an ‘inner figure’ or ‘subpersonality’ can carry with it a tinge of this colonialist thinking. Images are claimed as somehow ours, part of our unconscious, our dream, our domain and our work to ‘integrate’ and ‘harmonise’ these images can become, if we are not careful, a project acted in the image of the centralised ego, in the best colonising traditions of the western powers. We travel far but always remain at home, our egoic identifications twisting imagination to collude with its habitual perspective.
Wild imagination is to travel near and far, without turning our world into a MacDonald’s. In renouncing ownership of images we learn to live with and among their substantive, vital and alive presences. We journey with wild images, ride on their camels, sleep in their tents, sit at their tables and share their food. Our relationship with imagination moves towards communication rather than control, to respect rather than exploitation. We participate in the mystery rather than trying to work it all out. Wild images, now relaxed around us, share themselves and their possibilities with us. We allow our experience of difference to enrich rather than threaten us.
To attribute a reality to images, to give them a value in and of themselves, is to set them free. However, wild imagination goes much further than a respectful approach to dreams. The release of images into the wild is ultimately their return to the world, to life outside the fragile walls of our inner imagination. A world enriched when seen not just with the physical eye but also through it, with the eye of imagination. When we come to see the activity of images in the midst of our lives. When our sense of self and our relationships become more malleable and fluid, like in dreams. When what was once dull and drab takes on new colour and meaning. When we notice again the birds and birdsong. And weather speaks to us in gusts of wind, bursts of sunshine and sudden downpours. We become less neurotic, less alienated and constrained by fear. We become wild.
The return of imagination to the world heals us. It strikes at the root of our suffering. As Roszak has it, to keep imagination out of the world requires, ‘a wrenching effort, and a painful one to maintain…we call that pain, neurosis’ (7). The severance of imagination from the world is a wound, perhaps as painful as the loss of any human relationship. And the repair of this wound heals the world too. As Annie Le Brun, the French surrealist writes:
‘the assault by the modern world on dream and imagination is a calamity that – while seemingly minor in appearance – is, in fact, the greatest problem of all because it makes possible all the other devastations threatening our world today.’ (8).
When we fail to imagine our home, our Earth, we fail to attend to it. What we do not imagine or feel for, we do not care for. The impoverishment of imagination in modern life spills over into the degradation of our world. Our controlling stance to inner images carries over into a controlling stance towards the planet and other people. To the extent we are isolated within our inner-fantasies, we perpetuate the self-obsession, social degradation and eco-crises of our times.
Wild imagination is a radical step. It is a stand against the bulldozers, inner and outer. A healing of the severance of human from Nature. A recollection of an imaginal perception we once had and need again, now more than ever.
1) Bosnak, Robert (1996) ‘Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming: Exploring interior landscape through practical
2) Watkins, Mary (1984) ‘Waking Dreams’, p143
4) Roszak, Theodore (1992) ‘The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology’, p320
5) Carl Jung, Collected Works, Vol 13, par. 54
6) Bosnak, Robert (2007) ‘Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel’,
7) Roszak, Theodore (1992) ‘The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology’, p320
8) Annie Le Brun (2006) ‘The Reality Overload: The Modern World’s Assault on the Imaginal Realm’, pix
Cheetham, Tom (2015) ‘Imaginal Love: The Meanings of Imagination in Henry Corbin and James Hillman’
Abram, David (1997) ‘The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More then Human World’