I’ve recently read a Glennie Kindred book in which she talks about using the imagination to take you into the otherworlds and to have spiritual experiences. This is certainly isn’t the only instance of this kind of thinking. I assume that if you don’t use your imagination much in the normal scheme of things, then imagining talking to a spirit or travelling to the otherworlds will seem incredible, powerful, exciting. Of course it will seem like magic.
My trouble with this is that to a large extent, I live by my imagination and have done for years. I’ve been making up not just stories, but complex settings for them since childhood. Give me a bit of thinking time, and I can imagine my way into all sorts of places, consider how to empathise with whoever’s there, work out how they got there and where they might be going, and how it all works. Give me a throwaway line and I’ll wrap a story around it. I can imagine anything. I assume so could anyone else if they were using their imaginations regularly. As far as I can tell, the imagination is a bit like a muscle in that if you never use it, it gets weak and flabby.
Does my imagination take me to otherworlds that are meaningful? I can imagine my way into the faerie court, and I can go there as Tam Lin, or Thomas the Rhymer, or I can go there as a faerie, or create a person. At a pinch I could go as me, but that’s not as interesting. I can imagine a Stone Age tribe in the Severn Vale and walk between the hills and the river with them. I can see why it might be tempting to cast these imaginings as religious experiences. However, I’m also perfectly capable of imagining walking into Gotham City as Batman. Do we want to call that a religious experience, too? It might be, for the serious fanboy, but it isn’t for me.
I suppose if you’d spent all of your life sat in a chair because you had no idea it was possible to move (or it wasn’t possible for you), and then you found out about walking, and that you could do it, , those first stumbling steps would seem like (or be) a miracle. If you walk all the time, walking is something you take for granted. If you only walk between the house and the car, then a walk into the woods is a walk into an unknown, magical otherworld. If you walk over hills and through woods most weeks, you will love and value the hills and woods, but they will not seem strange in the same way. They won’t strike you as belonging to a semi-supernatural realm.
The same is true of imaginations. If you are used to meditating, visualising, daydreaming, and pathworking, then you will have some idea of what your mind is capable of. Your ability to picture walking into Mordor will not leave you feeling like you have, in some literal sense, walked into Mordor.
There are other levels. There are times, rare and precious occasions, when working deeply with the imagination does seem to open a door into something numinous. If you are used to using your imagination and aren’t being seduced by the frankly quite unhealthy idea that your thinking something makes it real, there is more room for the more wondrous. If you know what your everyday, regular imagination looks like, how glorious and wide are its wings, how truly soaring its potential, then you can appreciate that for what it is. You won’t mistake your imaginary chats with imaginary Druids for anything other than your mind talking to itself. And if for a second, you really do glimpse a white hart come out of faerie, or a tree murmurs a few words to you, then there’s a better chance you will know how to make sense of this.