Wild Imagination – A Reflection from Allan Frater

Allan Frater is one of the trainers at the Psychosynthesis Trust, with a particular interest in imagination and ecopsychology. Over the past couple of years, he has been running a series of workshops that have developed a theme he calls, ‘wild imagination’. Here he introduces the origins of his inspiration for a wilder imagination and where this has taken him.

‘...the assault by the modern world on dream and imagination…makes possible all the other devastations threatening our world today.’ (Annie Le Brun)

‘The modern vision of ourselves and the world has stultified our imaginations… What is needed is a revisioning, a fundamental shift of perspective out of the soulless predicament we call modern consciousness.’ (James Hillman)

Imagine a broad tidal stream with gently sloping gravel banks. Not as a familiar terrain, seen many times before. Imagine the stream as a child might find it. A child crouched in the gravel by a small pool, separated from the main body of water, watching a tiny fish cruise among weeds and algae bearded rocks. Imagine being drawn down into this puddle world. Imagine the catch of your breath as the fish freezes beneath the shadow of your passing hand. Imagine the joy as the lonely fish moves once again, searching for its brothers and sisters, wondering where they have all gone.

I was that child by the rock pool. I must have been four or five years old. The story ends when my grandfather, fly fishing up-stream, sent his hook into my hair. When I share this memory people often assume that I recollect it for the sudden violence of a steel barb against my scalp. Maybe. I like to think I hold on to it for other reasons, as a reminder of how alive I once felt towards my surroundings. How fascinated I was, during those drawn-out moments, by the cool breeze on my cheeks, the murky green of the weeds and the crunch of sharp gravel beneath my bright red wellington boots. How I once saw a life inside everything. How natural it felt to enter into the thinking, feeling and seeing of the fish. How there was no concern or questioning as to whether I had made-up or imagined a search for its siblings. How it was a simpler time, with a straightforward sense of belonging. A story-filled and enchanted life. A porous intimacy with the life of teddy bears, plastic dolls, puppies, trains, flags, gusts of wind and rain drops snaking down a window pane.

It is a bittersweet memory, as it reminds me also of how the adults who once indulged my cute stories about talking fish later came to tell me, ‘No, Allan, don’t be silly, fish don’t really feel lonely.’ How at school I was taught that my animal friends could not really think or talk, not like humans. I was just making that up. How my once delightful childlike behaviour become a childish naivety that needed to be put aside. I was a big boy now. I needed to grow up.

I learnt to be a rational person. I sat in a big classroom, on my small person’s plastic chair, my idle gaze out the tall windows ever more directed towards the abstractions in books and calculators, blackboards and television screens. I was just a child. I had no power. I could not resist.

Less and less did I notice rock pools and their tiny fish. On the rare occasions when I did notice, I seldom felt anything. I did not care. It was just a rock pool, just a fish. The surface images of everyday life lost their vitality. Imagination shrank back from the world, no longer a perceptual interaction but the pictures and stories in my mind, an inner place. Interesting up to a point, but not to be taken too seriously. Not to be confused with the real. The world was not a person. It did not talk or feel. It obeyed physical laws. It was a kind of machine. A dead place.

And yet, if it was always going to get educated out of me, why did I begin life with such a fulsome imaginal faculty? If it was always going to be tossed aside as an encumbrance to adult life, why did I begin life as an animist, intuiting a sacred life inside everything? Questions such as these haunted me into adulthood. Imaginative encounters, such as with the tiny fish in the rock pool, became ever rarer, but never entirely disappeared. Out in the park, or on a rare trip to the countryside or the beach, away from the stresses of work and relationships, an image would sometimes capture my attention – a clear blue sky, an autumn sunset, a plastic bag flapping in a hawthorn hedge – and I would stop and gaze, caught in a reflective moment, my chest opening, breathing, touching again upon that sensual imagination I once had. Such occasional moments acted as a thread of connection, a gentle questioning nudge. How had I come to be so oblivious to my surroundings? When had this manic alienation become the norm?

Yes, we need to mature, to grow up and enter the cultural milieu of our times, with all its science and technology. But isn’t there something being lost here about how to notice and care for what is actually there, about how to act and participate with the people, plants and places all around me? Yes, it might be less painful to numb ourselves to the homeless man on the street corner, the wasted hours in traffic jams and the news of another war, another natural disaster, but what is the cost of this shutting down? What if we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater? What if our childhood enchantment is something far more important than a naïve developmental phase? What if it is a core of the belonging we crave? What if we might need it to face the problems of our times? And if so, can we find a way back again?

The writing, videos and events I have been developing at explore how we might recover from the impoverishment of imagination that is modern life. Not as a pejoratively romantic or regressive return to childlike innocence, but as a recollection in adult life of an imaginative ability at the heart of human potential. An embodied imagination broadly conceived as a faculty woven into our perception, a way of being. A return of images to their home in the world. An ecological imagination. A wild imagining.

I have chosen a ‘wild’ description of imagination for two reasons. Firstly, as a reminder of the earthy and feral existence of childhood. The sensual intimacy of those early years. How much closer the world felt back then. How the touch and feel of a blanket, the plastic smell of an action figure and the rush of wind through the trees were an everyday communication, a wild participation. Not that the agricultural fields on the edge of a small village in central Scotland where I grew up were a wilderness by any stretch of imagination. Nevertheless, what they gave me was a certain wildness of imagining. Not yet tamed by book learning my instinctual tales were about encounters with the friendly dog outside the newsagents, the squeaky swing in the park and the icy path beside the fast-flowing stream. It was a story filled life, which is to say one lived in the midst of images. Imagination was about place, about the land. Not in an airy-fairy fashion, but through my feelings, sensations and actions. An imaginative intermingling between self and world. An embodied sense experience of living within an encompassing image environment.

Secondly, a wild imagination in that it is not constrained by reason. Not as a stern rejection, more as a gentle reminder of the place and limitations of rationalism. Imagination can of course be analysed and interpreted. We can wake up from our dreams and try to tame them, to work out what they mean. And this has a place. It can be useful and interesting. However, wild imagination makes a distinction between thinking and imagining. It explores how our rational faculty, so lauded in our culture, so developed through our education system, can easily eclipse our imagining by turning images into ideas. In this way we step out of imagining, viewing it from the outside. Wild imagination is to step in to imagination, to walk with and among wild images, with no stepping back, no analysis, no thought as to inner or outer, real or unreal, literal or metaphorical. A state that the poet Keats called Negative Capability, an ability to be with, “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It is the spontaneous imagining of my childhood self, crouched on the gravel banks of a Highland stream, when I did not ask, what does this tiny fish mean or why do I feel so moved by it? I simply beheld the wonder of my encounter with this mysterious being. I did not explain away my interest in the fish. The fish did not represent anything other than itself. It was not a symbol. The fish was meaningful in and of itself, like any person. I inhabited a wild imagination to the extent that I had no need to understand, to know, to explain. Easy for a child, who has not yet developed their rational mind. How we learn to do so once again as adults is what I explore here.

I have endeavoured, as best I have been able, to convey a wildness of imagination. I figure that writing on wild imagination requires wild words and wild stories. The world does not need another academic thesis on imagination, nor do I want to write one. I have steered away from abstract philosophising and any kind of pseudo objectivity. The concepts and theories included here are presented not as romantic notions or abstract ideas, but for their ability to articulate and explore the loss and recovery of wild imagination. Not wanting to be platitudinous and preachy I have also eschewed where possible the collective and generalised ‘we’. What you find here is a personal account. A description of a particular imagination, place and time. How as a teenager I read novels until my eyes hurt; how in my late twenties I meditated until my knees hurt; and how it was in my forties, as a psychotherapist, that I slowly disentangled imagination firstly from the theory and language of therapy, and secondly from the deeper cultural assumptions I had been fed about it since my early schooling.

Wild imagination is in some ways, a lone voice in the wilderness. Perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps it has been necessary to chart a separate path in order to gain perspective. To step beyond the precincts of tame imagination. For while there is no shortage of texts, videos and workshops, full of ideas on how to use imagination, how to apply it to self-understanding and development, only very rarely is the question of what is imagination considered. The mainstream assumption hidden within much of this material is of an imagination as a psychologised interiority, an inner world of personal images, there to be controlled and shaped by our rational egos. Which is fine, so far as it goes. However, in assuming imagination as inner, we de-emphasise its presence in our everyday lives. We find our images inside and turn away from the activity of images in our actions, relationships and sense of belonging.

In large part the recovery of wild imagination has therefore been an unravelling of the common assumptions that trap and tame imagination. A journey to the edges of civilised imaginings and beyond, in which I have found many others out there, exploring similar terrain. I found early companionship in the respectful language towards imagination on the fringes of Jungian psychotherapy (James Hillman, Mary Watkins, Robert Bosnak, Russell Lockhart). While the Jungians gave an autonomy to imagination, they seemed to stop short at a fulsome return of imagination to the world. Ecopsychology (Theodor Roszak, Jerome Bernstein, Nick Totton) helped me articulate a re-connection to the land, and yet rarely mentioned imagination. Wild imagination is in some ways a marriage of these two influences, an image-centric ecology. And yet all these theories still seemed abstract, too general. I wanted to see them put into practice, to have them come alive. I wanted a story. The cultural ecologist David Abram and the earth poet Stephen Harrod Buhner pushed into this territory, as did the growing genre of Nature Writing (Robert Macfarlane, Annie Dillard, Helen MacDonald, Tim Dee, Rob Cowen). Anthropology, the stories of pre-modern peoples, has perhaps given me most perspective on the assumptions of my own culture towards imagination (Marshal Sahlins, David Graeber, Hugh Brody, Sean Kane, Keith Basso). Conversations with patient’s, students and colleagues have also been an invaluable working ground.

I have sought to articulate fresh language that allows a wilder imagination to be described, seen, recognised and lived. Not in an actual wilderness, were that even possible, but in the midst of city life. A life in which at every turn I am faced with the domination of wild nature by human civilisation. An ordered, controlled and predictable urban landscape entirely alien to those earlier people who once feared the wild. I chart not my fear but my longing for the wild and where this has taken me. In this, perhaps the risk is that I become too personal. However, I have sought to spark a wider resonance, framing my story within the collective story of our times – the stultification of imagination by modern consciousness and how this can be re-imagined.

To check out Allan’s forthcoming workshop watch the video here and book online here.

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