Imagination and Illusion

Blog: Imagination and Illusion

By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

One of the most common questions I get when teaching The Shamanic Journey workshop at the Foundation of the Sacred Stream is, “But is all this just my imagination?”

It’s understandable that people have confusion between illusion and imagination, because many people use their imagination to enter into the world of illusion. Imagination and illusion have become synonymous, but the truth is your imagination is simply what you can conceive of happening. Essentially, imagination is a pathway to all of the possible experiences your consciousness can have. Imagination provides structures that let us participate in different realities. It’s like a rope bridge across a ravine— it allows you to go to places you would not be able to go with your conscious mind.

Carl Jung, one of the godfathers of Transpersonal Psychology, studied the processes of the imagination extensively. His book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, is a good introduction to his understanding of the imagination. In it, he makes a clear argument about the role of imagination in the process of deeper forms of personal inquiry. He understood that without discovering the meaning of their experiences, people flounder in the process of living their lives. He indicates that we have to imagine there might be some meaning in the events of our lives before we can set out on a path to discover it.

Unfortunately, quite a few people try to use the imagination for other reasons. They will often engage it to escape from themselves or their responsibilities. Some people do this by dissociating. Others use their imagination to build firm defensive boundaries, avoiding responsibility by hiding behind the walls they construct in their daily lives.

People who are not concerned with offering their best to the world can use their imagination to get themselves into a reality where they don’t have to take any responsibility. Whenever we are trying to escape responsibility, we run the risk of using the imagination to drive us into delusion. People get deluded through the use of imagination because they use it in an undisciplined way.

Jung coined the term “active imagination,” which one of his preeminent students Marie-Louise von Franz (with whom I had the good fortune to study) explores extensively in her book, Alchemical Active Imagination. Here, she outlines the importance of the role of directed, organized imaginal process in the alchemy of personal transformation.

The confusion between imagination and delusion lies in the confusion about intention. If you’re using your imagination to bring yourself closer to understanding what your responsibilities are to yourself and others, that is one type of intention. If you’re using your imagination to escape responsibility, that is another intention. People often confuse intention with outcome. If you use the imagination as a pathway into delusion, it looks like imagination is the problem. Imagination is not the problem. The problem is having the intention of wanting to avoid accountability.

We can and do use our imagination to positively enhance our lives. When we use it with the intention of discovering the deeper meaning of our experience, new worlds open to us. Jung’s belief that a path of self-discovery can emerge from imagining our lives have meaning is a wonderful use of the imagination — one we definitely engage with as we enter the world of the shamanic journey and all the places within the self the imagination and journey can bring us into.

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