My first steps towards wild imagination were literally that: a walk taken across dirt and scrub to sooth an addled mind. It was also the beginnings of a way back to my earlier life as a dog walker.
I walked in long straight lines. A favourite was between Hyde Park Corner and Kensington Gardens where a quarter mile column of trees helped shore me up. Occasional horses trotted past on a parallel course, hooves muffled in the deep sand of Rotten Row, a famous urban riding lane. On weekends young girls learnt to ride on biddable old ponies. In the week impressive cavalry stallions from the Royal Mews stables cantered by, champing at the bit. I did not mind the horses and learnt from them to blinker my gaze from the bright-shirted tourists, joggers and cyclists on the far side of the lane. Sometimes I went up and down this one stretch ten times or more. There was a comfort in not having to choose a direction or negotiate other people. My mind was able to withdraw into reverie.
With a welcome sense of fatigue, I would return across the city to my flat. Key in the lock, shirt sticky with sweat and not quite ready to go in, I knew I had felt like this before. More a body memory than conscious recollection I was returned to the sensuous time of childhood: to the woods, meadows and hawthorn hedgerows behind our house; the small stream and large reservoir; the rocky outcrop Binny Craig, formed by a volcano!; and a field called The Bombies, pock marked with deep holes that we imagined as bomb craters from the war, despite on rare occasions new holes forming, making the earth for a short while a mysterious, not to be trusted medium ( actually the result of fall-in as the hundred year old shale mines beneath collapsed). I had built tree houses and dens, shaped maze tunnels through barley fields and walked the dog every morning before breakfast.
By comparison, adult life had become a room-bound existence. I lived in a cramped flat on a busy Islington road. I had no garden. Not even a back door. Behind us for two long years was a building site, the one tree that had evaded destruction boxed in with plywood boards. I worked from home, in a small consulting room, the window constantly shut against the traffic rumble. I sometimes cycled along the Regents Canal and into Victoria Park, but these were places to get through, pretty wallpaper on the way to another room. More often, travelling was through polluted streets a buzz with pneumatic drills, idling diesel engines and screeching brakes. Or underground, through cavernous air-conditioned spaces. I tuned it all out. Like most other commuters I avoided eye contact and obviously did not talk to anyone. And for a long time this seemed part of the inevitable and unthinking contract I had signed to get through life. Until that is, I reached a crisis point of alienation. What tipped me over the edge was writing my MA dissertation.
I was writing about the uses of imagination in psychotherapy. In particular those moments of absorption in imagination, akin to a dream state, where it was possible to let the everyday world melt away and for a period of time engage in imagination as if it were real. Like when reading a good novel, or in the cinema when a film is so compelling that the plush red seats and popcorn crunching recedes into the background and I become identified with the protagonist. I feel Frodo’s fear, think Frodo’s thoughts and sense Frodo’s pain. I am engaged and affected by the movie characters and situation just as forcefully as if I were physically there in the wet, slimy cavern with Gandalf, fleeing from the Balrog. The technical term for this is a ‘suspension of disbelief’, a mode of perception that is required for imaginative reverie. I called it ‘wild imagination’, as that’s what it felt like – out of my control, untamed and sometimes dangerous. My dissertation explored how a psychotherapist’s assumptions about imagination and how they used it in clinical practice influenced the extent to which clients might experience wild imagination, which I argued had healing effects.
Much of what I called ‘writing’ involved gazing out the window. There were always beautiful people, cute dogs or refuse collectors more interesting than my studies. Across the street from my window was a bus stop. An ever-changing group of people waited there at all hours, day and night. I imagined them a congregation of worship and willing sacrifice to the bright red dragon that periodically roared by and devoured them. However, as the months passed reading and typing on an old laptop my attention became squeezed into the tight feedback loop between screen and thought. I lost interest in the street. A sudden heavy downpour or a cat arched on a high fence hiding from a dog – events that might have aroused past curiosity, became distant, nothing to do with me, alien. My senses withdrew from the world and I only went through the motions of interacting with others, my attention lost in digital symbiosis, adding words, cutting sentences and moving paragraphs around. I grew fat and pale and absent minded. Daydreaming died.
In an ironic twist I had become a test case for my own ideas about what kills wild imagination. I called this tamed experience a jam-jar imagination and argued that it was the prevailing approach to imagination in psychosynthesis theory, if not also in practice. It goes something like this: I am invited by my psychotherapist to, ‘close my eyes and go inside’. She gives me some time to relax and invites an image to appear. I find myself, for example, in a dense forest, standing before the dark mouth of a cave, all is still, the only sound are leaves rustling high up in the canopy. I describe all this to my therapist. The story unfolds. A snap and rustle from deep inside the cave. A long snout, then twinned yellow eyes. A dragon sniffs the air, scenting human. I am now hiding behind a wide tree trunk. I am fearful and marvelling in equal measure. So far, so good. I have become absorbed in imagination, as if I am there with the dragon. And then I am asked, ‘What does this angry part of you want?’ It takes me a moment to understand the question. She is referring to the dragon. What comes to mind is, it wants to eat me? But I’m guessing that is not the right answer. I think about this a bit more. I’ve no idea what this angry part wants. Am I angry? That’s not good. Also, the dragon is now a ‘part’ of me, somehow within me, and so perhaps I have some control over it. Maybe it’s not so scary after all. The dragon has become an abstraction, a representation of my anger. And then she asks, ‘who might the dragon remind you of?’ We reflect together on how angry my father could get at times when I was growing up. The dragon becomes a proxy symbol for an internalised parent. By now I am self-consciously sitting in a consulting room, listening to the clock tick and wondering if really I am just making all this dragon stuff up, that really there is no dragon, that imagination is merely imaginary. The basic requirement for imaginative work, my suspension of disbelief, has been lost. Like a child peering into a jam-jar at their goldfish, I have placed the dragon in a micro-world of captured imagination. Such a specimen is much easier to study than a boisterous, earthy, wild one. And yet glass walls distort and the images now fail to touch me. I remain aloof from the dragon, safe again within my ego-identity, oblivious now to its transformative, healing presence.
I had fallen into an objectifying and distancing mode of study that was creating flat, dull sentences and a flat, dull writer. Nothing flowed. I kept hitting dead ends and getting stuck. Often I just stared at the blinking cursor, letting it mock me. I was learning, after a fashion, but the experience was brutalising and as it deepened I grew more anxious, too anxious to be receptive, to let nature take its course in reverie. I grabbed after results, fixing and skewering down half-baked ideas before they fluttered away, beating them to death with my laptop keys. Like a Victorian naturalist I captured something of imagination, an interesting specimen or two perhaps, but they were just ideas, stuffed and displayed in glass presentation cabinets: here lies a once wild dragon, now presumed extinct.
And yet I had not entirely lost touch with my deeper sources.
A small voice kept telling me, ‘just stop’, ‘this is not natural’, ‘go for a walk’. In the daytime, occupied with seeing clients and trying to keep the flat tidy for when Beth came home, it was easy to shut out these calls to conscience. At night, lying awake, not so easy. It fluttered around inside my chest, like a Walt Disney sparrow. It chirped away at the edge of my awareness, stirring supressed longings that I had no time for. A longing for wind and rain, for care free afternoons stretched out on my back, cloud gazing away idle hours.
One Sunday afternoon the little bird found an ally. Beth told me we were going for a walk. It would do me good. We were going to the park to eat ice-cream and catch some sun, ‘like normal couples’, she said, with a hint of sarcasm. ‘You’ll love it,’ whistled the little bird as it hopped back and forth between curtain rail and lamp stand. I was not so sure.
I calmed myself on the tube journey with biro marks in my notebook. At our stop a bright yellow party balloon drifted along the platform, floated over the tracks and slid up against the white tiles of the concave tunnel wall. The iconic sign, blue strip through red circle, came slowly into view at the top of the escalators, Hyde Park Corner. Air rushed past us as another train writhed into the platform below with electric snap and pneumatic hiss.
Crowds bunched through the stone pillared entrance gates. Roller bladders in lycra weaved through lines of traffic cones, glide dancing to headphone music. Peddle boats idled across Serpentine lake and brave swimmers in plastic caps splashed about on the far shore. A noticeboard read, ‘Summer Hyde Park Events’. It looked right but felt wrong. I had an intense sensation of knowing where I was, but feeling as if I could have been anywhere. It could have been Regent’s Park or Finsbury Park, or not even a park at all. I saw the grass, trees, lake and none of it mattered. It was just a movie filling up my time. Beth spoke but it was difficult to make her out. I forced my face into a listening expression. I told myself, this will pass, not believing it.
We wandered around to the far side of the lake and crossed Rotten Row, kicking up dust from the raked lines of orange sand. Beth went to find some ice-cream, leaving me on a wooden bench shaded beneath massive horse chestnut trees, their spiked fruit like tiny maces.
I closed my eyes. Birdsong surprised me. A startling shrill note, really loud, as if in my ear. A quick overlapping response, from the next tree over or perhaps further along. An exultant chirp from a branch close above. Foreground and far came singular calls amid tuneful layers of welcoming song. Do birds express happiness? Exuberance and glee filled the space around me, a sound map that drew me up and out of myself.
I blinked my eyes open. The birds were hidden in the whispering leaves. Rotten Row was half covered by a shadow with tattered edges. On the far side, behind the iron rail, heat waves rippled over the pavement. A tumult of insect life darted and hovered through the syrup light of early evening. Garlands of contrail dust hung in a pale sky.
Everything was the same and different. I felt intensely there.
I caught a scent of recently mown grass, like fresh laundry. The blue sky against green leaves reminded me of something, as did the dry heat in the air. I rode ripples of dejavu. The atmosphere of the park was overlaid with that from a parallel past. A sudden grief came and I felt my small boy fingers clasped around a rake. Scents of wood shaving, engine oil and wafts of tobacco smoke. My grandfather sat on the shed step, watching me scrape up the grass cuttings.
He took his pipe out of his mouth, ‘It’s tiring watching you work. What’s the rush?’
I could not answer.
‘No need to rush, Allan’ and he gestured for me to sit on the step.
We sat in the shade together like that for some time. The small back garden neat and tidy, a source of pride. A square of lawn with narrow borders of pansies and in the vegetable plot sweet smelling onions, and lines of raspberries and peas tied up to canes. A rattle of dishwashing came through an open kitchen window. His rough fingers crinkled through the silver wrapper of a chocolate bar. Bournville Dark. Not my favourite, but I took a piece when he offered.
And then he was gone, like a slow fade that you only notice later. A tiny spider crawled between my thumb and forefinger. The shadow across Rotten Row had reached the gas-style street lamp on the far side.
I remembered how it had been during the school holidays. I had raced through helping him cut the grass, wanting to get home to watch a television programme. I could not recall the tv show, there had been so many – Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin, The Monkies, Why Don’t You. Back then television ruled my life. I knew that because my Dad had frequently reminded me. Now the internet ruled, but the message from my grandfather remained as relevant as ever, I needed to slow down.
I had never had such a wild encounter before. Yes, in therapy, in a consulting room, many times I had taken journeys into imagination, some more wild than others. But these had been invited encounters, not at all spontaneous. I recalled one similar experience, in both spontaneity and being outdoors, if not quite so wild, when after a quiet morning spent reading Middlemarch, I had taken a walk in the countryside and it had felt as if Dorothea and Casaubon had accompanied me through the sunken lanes and around ploughed fields, attentive to my thought and mood yet independent from me and even it seemed from the pages of the book. I had read that many authors gave their characters such autonomy, not inventing or controlling their actions but rather tuning in to their story so as to then write it down. And I was aware of Jung’s account of encounters with a figure of imagination called Philemon, a pagan with a lame foot, with whom Jung would walk up and down the garden holding conversations, as if he were quite as real as a living personality. I was rediscovering, first hand, what others before me had found to be true.
Beth returned with two ice-creams in chocolate covered waffle cones. She had given up on a long queue at the nearby kiosk and ventured out of the park, finding an ice-cream van outside the Science Museum.
‘You look well’, she said, giving me a big smile, ‘I knew this would do you good.’
I rolled my eyes and shrugged, not wanting to talk yet about what had happened.
We strolled back towards the tube station, following a love path, trodden into the earth by countless others drawn to this same strip of meadow, the grasses left to grow high between the trees. A corridor of wild surrounded by manicured Royal Parks lawns and densely planted flower beds. I recognised dock, clover, dandelions, thistles and a white flowered plant I could not name. Again, I felt a memory sidle up to me. The dirt path and grass stems tickling my legs were a confluence of sensations opening up another portal to the past. I was in Hyde Park with Beth and also I was walking through The Bombies, my Labrador dog Jet gambolling along at my side.
Near Hyde Park Corner a passenger jet came over low, on approach to Heathrow. A young man and an elderly woman stood hunched over a smartphone, arguing. Banners hung from the railings. Across the street, outside the Kuwait embassy, a crowd chanted slogans in a language I could not understand. To stop and sit on a bench seemed protest enough to me. After just three or four generations of air travel, perhaps just half a generation of smartphones, how easy it seemed to have forgotten that for millennia humans had sheltered beneath trees, walked over scrub grass and sat with dogs around campfires. On this very same earth that I walked upon now, sheltered beneath the ancestors of the very trees around me now.
Some of the benches we passed were filled with family groups and couples, but others were occupied with people sitting quietly, looking about them or seeming to stare of into space. I imagined them restoring their beleaguered modern selves, drawn here by age old instincts. I wondered what images they were looking at, what memories were returning to them, that perhaps they too had discovered what I was reaching towards understanding: that outside, in nature, reverie was all the more possible; that reconnecting with my senses could parallel a reconnection to a wilder imagination; and that walking through a physical landscape could lead to walking through a landscape of imagination.
I returned to Hyde Park many times during the writing of my dissertation. When I got stuck I went and walked up and down Rotten Row. Beneath shifting skies the hard edges of academia softened. Solutions to problems, sometimes even ready formed phrases, came much more readily in the park. Just as I had found with imagination, so too thoughts, it seemed, were not just inside my skull. Thoughts also lived outside, like the birds in the air and the squirrels in the trees. And rather than trying to capture and pin these thoughts down, I learnt how to slip into a receptive, hospitable state of mind that made it more likely they would turn up. Thoughts and images, just like people and birds, appreciated a warm welcome. I imagined my mind as porous, connected to a wider field of intelligence. My writing style freed up, became less desiccated and dry. I took an interest again in events outside my window. Beth told me I was easier to live with.
In a printer’s shop off the Holloway Road I had three copies of my completed dissertation bound and wrapped in green covers. That was a good day. In the end, my dissertation had not followed up on my intuition of a connection between place and imagination. Other avenues had taken my attention, perhaps out of being easier or safer to write about. The time was not yet ripe. There was a lot more I had to learn.