Imagine a broad Highland-river with grey gravel banks, a summer evening stillness of trees. Imagine humid air, a steady murmur of wild water running out to sea. Imagine as if you are a child – a child crouched beside a tidal pool at the river’s edge. Imagine your hand as it reaches out over the cool surface, a moving dark line. Imagine a tiny fish darting out from cover and cruising about in search of its brothers and sisters, wondering where they have all gone.

I was that child by the rock pool. The story ends when my grandfather, fly fishing up stream, sent his hook into my hair. I will never forget the sudden violence of that steel barb against my scalp; yet, I like to think the memory has remained with me for other reasons – as a reminder of how absorbed I was during those drawn-out damp moments; how the glide of a fish once captured my whole attention; and how I spontaneously imagined myself into the thinking and feeling of that tiny fish. Crouched by the stream, my childhood-self did not ask what the tiny fish meant. It was not a symbol; it did not represent anything other than itself. I simply beheld the mysterious wonder of a little fish person, with hopes and fears, just like my own.

Unfortunately, acculturation into modernity begins early. Cute stories about lonely fish become frowned upon, then ignored, and finally dismissed outright. The result is a withdrawal of imagination from the world. No longer a perceptual interaction with animals, plants and places, imagining becomes stuffed inside, an entirely inner experience not to be confused with the real-world.

I call this inner-imagination understanding a ‘tame imagination’. While this taming of imagination is the conventional therapeutic view, a taken for granted developmental step into mature adulthood, it is at best a partial understanding that impoverishes imaginal experience – like an animal trapped in a cage.

To grow up in a culture that fails to take dreaming seriously, and dismisses imaginal encounters as silly childhood make-believe, inevitably results in an adulthood loss of imaginative ability. While seemingly minor in appearance, the effect of this tamed imagination is arguably what makes possible all the other devastations threatening our world today, not least the chronic levels of alienation needed for industrial civilisation to destroy the natural world.

When I began training to be a psychotherapist in 2003 it was in the expectation that it would help recover my imaginative life – that sense of story and play and creative possibility which seemed to be fading with every passing year. While I learnt much of value, it turned out that being a therapist was not a direct route to the enhancement of imagining. Long story short, this led me into researching how the way therapists think and talk about imagination affects the quality of imaginative experience.

The name I came up with for an understanding that enhances imaginative life is a ‘wild imagination’. If tame imagination is a visit to the zoo, wild imagination is a safari that meets imagining on its own terrain. Instead of stepping back behind bars, thinking-about or interpreting what images mean or represent, a wild imagination emphasises the healing and transformative effects of up-close, immersive participation with images.

To imagine wildly is a sensual sensitivity to the activity of images not just as ‘pictures inside the mind’ but also as present all around us in everyday life. It is a broadly conceived understanding of images being woven into all perceptions, activities and relationships. A wild imagining that is not a regressive return to childlike naivety but a renewal in mature adult life of an imaginative ability at the very heart of all human potential.

This post was first published in the Portuguese magazine ‘Vento e Agua’ numero 31, 1st Nov 2021

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