lotus in a sea of fire

Mindfulness and Radical Imagination

lotus in a sea of fire

Digital collage by me

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about the uniquely human miracle of radical imagination. While other species can pretend, remember the past, predict the future, and dream, as far as we can tell, no other animal can mentally travel through time, space and possibility quite like we can. The human imagination can cause us all kinds of trouble – and it also just might liberate us. Those of us who practice understand that mindfulness and creativity form a kind of generative feedback loop, providing beneficent fuel for the imagination.

We need [people] who can dream of things that never were. – John F. Kennedy

It could be said that a poverty of imagination is part of what keeps us stuck in our most pressing social problems. Imagining that the world could be any other way than we’ve always known it can be incredibly difficult for some folks. Who would opt to be a politician if there wasn’t any self-dealing or corruption? How could humans change the climate of the Earth? How could nations be safe without war, powerful weapons, and prisons to subdue our enemies? How could it be possible that everyone might be loved, included and well cared for? Stagnant and rigid thinking limits our sense of possibility and keeps us reliant on outdated ideologies and strategies. Yet, a rich imagination alone is no guarantee that the greater good will be served.

Norman Fischer in his book, The World Could be Otherwise calls the beneficial qualities we cultivate in our contemplative practices a form of radical imagination because of their evocation of aspirational and idealistic states of mind and ways of being. Beneficial qualities such as compassion, generosity, ethical conduct, and wisdom help direct the energies of our imagination toward collective flourishing rather than exploiting our baser instincts. Radical imagination is one way we might inspire needed change and find currently inconceivable solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges.

You might be wondering what role mindfulness plays in the imagination. A busy or hijacked mind doesn’t have the space for pursuing creative modes of thinking. As our mindfulness and concentration stabilize, we’re able to look more deeply and develop more discernment. A heavily conditioned mind is often a inflexible mind, whereas an awakened mind is open to possibility and freer from preconceived notions and expectations. I recently wrote a post about how my mindfulness and compassion practice helped me stay present, curious and open to wonder and awe, even in very difficult circumstances.

a serene face with blue flames for hair on a background of sunrise and flock of birds

Digital collage by me

Mindfulness is not just in service to the present moment. While our formal practice largely inhabits the here and now, the attitudes and skills cultivated have an impact on our ways of perceiving and being in the world that ripples out well beyond ourselves and into the future. Musician Brian Eno talks about the importance of living “in a Big Here and a Long Now.” Our inability to rescue our minds and senses from the excitement and urgency of the attention economy keeps us in a state of short-termism that makes no room for the expansiveness of imagination. This myopic way of thinking fails to consider the longer term consequences of our choices and actions.

According to Alex Khasnabish and Max Haiven in their book about this subject, “The radical imagination is not just about dreaming of different futures. It’s about bringing those possibilities back from the future to work on the present, to inspire action and new forms of solidarity today…” They write, “Without the radical imagination, we are lost.” Movements of the imagination such as Afrofuturismspeculative designprefigurative practice, and experiential futures expand our view of what is possible. We might also consider mindfulness to be such a movement.

Annelise Jolley wrote a wonderful blog post for the John Templeton Foundation distilling some of the research exploring the difference between mind wandering, which has always had a bad rap due its connection with worry, rumination, and avoidance, versus mind wondering, which is described as “a playful and curious state in which the mind wonders about something it finds particularly interesting.” Other research has indicated that daydreamers tend to perform better on creativity problems and a capacity to disengage from the external environment is important for exploring creative lines of thinking. Mind wondering appears to be the playground of imagination and the ability to direct and allocate attention and make space for curious exploration of experience are structures enabling creative play.

a person in meditation outlined by a mountain

Digital collage by me

Given all the forces hindering our capacity to imagine, how might we reconnect with this natural inclination? One way is to seek out innovative opportunities and diverse communities that encourage a more expansive way of being. Practicing mindfulness makes space for the imagination to once again roam and creative communities can help model and support the vulnerability it takes to try something new.

At the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness, our teachers are no strangers to radical imagination. We may seem a little “pie in the sky” to some, but in the curious, flexible and visionary mind, co-creating a world in which we all can flourish is entirely possible. The deepest level of change, according to systems theory is at the level of mindset. We’re always coming up with innovative and meaningful ways to learn about and practice mindfulness toward a goal of collective liberation. To help folks explore the intersection of mindfulness and creativity, we’ve invited in artists and offered workshops on Ikebana, Kintsugi, mindful drawing, Nia, mindful rhythm making, vision board and journal making, and sound meditations with live musicians. We invite you to join us in imagining what might be.


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