I watched Inception late last night and woke thinking about the power of imagination. This hi-tech film plays dramatically with the idea of manipulating dreams. Dreams are one way of experiencing our image-ination at work, quite literally by experiencing images that appear, within the dream, as reality. Ordinarily on waking, we feel able to differentiate what we perceive and experience as ‘actual reality’ from what we perceive and experience within a dream state as ‘apparent reality’.
I want to propose however that our perception and experience of reality while we are awake are, similarly, mediated by imagination. I want to challenge the notion of our ability to perceive and experience ‘actual reality’, as if we are in some objective sense able to perceive and experience reality as it is, reality per se. I want to suggest that our imagination acts as the interface between our selves and reality, that is, we perceive and experience reality as filtered and projected by our imagination.
The distinction between dream state and wake state may not be as clear and definitive as we normally assume. What does it really mean to be awake? Does awake mean to be fully conscious, to be fully aware of what is happening in and around us, to be able to take deliberate decisions and actions? This begs further questions that are difficult to answer. For example, what does it really mean to be conscious? What does it really mean to be fully aware? How do we know what’s really driving our decisions?
An example. I once had a dream in which I discovered my brother was having an affair with my girlfriend. It was a powerful and painful emotional experience and, even when I woke and realised it was only a dream, it still affected how I felt about and behaved towards my brother the next day. It’s possible that what we experience in dreams, in this case emotional insecurity, could reveal something of what we are experiencing in the current awake state, yet which lies out of our consciousness.
The notion that we are not conscious of some aspects of what we are experiencing challenges the notion of awake-ness as ‘fully aware’. If we think about our ordinary day-to-day experience, we can see how we are only ever selectively aware. For example, as you read this blog entry, notice how you have tuned out of other things happening within and around you, e.g. things you were thinking about previously, how you are sitting, your breathing, sounds outside of the room.
This ability to selectively perceive, to filter out stimuli that would otherwise be distracting or in totality overwhelming, is the same ability that enables us to focus, to concentrate. What we choose to focus or concentrate on links to interesting questions of motivation. In the present moment, what is motivating me to focus on A rather than B or C, why am I more interested in X rather than Y or Z? We’re sometimes aware of what is motivating us, sometimes we simply don’t know.
According to psychodynamic theory, we can be motivated to move towards or away from experiences by unconscious or subconscious forces that lie outside of our awareness. Sometimes it may be an intuitive gut instinct, a learned response that we somehow experience physiologically yet find it difficult to understand, rationalise or explain. I believe sometimes it could be a spiritual intuition, a knowing from outside ourselves that feels mysterious yet compelling, a revelation from God.
The psychodynamic tradition proposes that our subconscious memory draws connections between what we experience in the now and what we have experienced in the past. We perceive and experience each new person, relationship, situation etc. through the filter of what we have experienced previously and what meaning we have derived from or attributed to it. We encounter objective reality subjectively, that is, we never really perceive or experience people and things fully for what they are but always, to some degree, as distorted by what we project onto them.
This is a great example of the power of imagination. Picture for a moment holding a projector on your shoulder each time you meet a new person. The encounter evokes subconscious memories and emotions within that you automatically project, like an image, onto that person. What you then experience of the person is a product of the actual person, the actual encounter, combined with metaphorical ‘images’ and feelings you project onto them, resulting from previous encounters with other people.
By way of illustration, I once met a co-leader of a study group for the first time. I found myself relating to him warmly, confidently and humorously, and, after a while, noticed that he looked a bit bemused by this. I realised on reflection that there was something about how he looked, talked and behaved that reminded me of a very close friend. It was as if I had projected an ‘image’ of my friend onto this stranger and then, subconsciously, perceived and related to him as if he was that friend.
Social constructionist theory proposes that what we notice, how we perceive the world (e.g. how we categorise things), what images we hold of it, what sense we make of ‘reality’ and the meanings we attribute to it are created through interactions with others. In other words, our perception and experience of reality are socially and culturally constructed. We use language to reveal our maps (or images) of the world within and around us and, in doing so, shape and reinforce those things with others.
In this tradition, to be aware means to be conscious, as far as it is possible, of the various influences that shape our beliefs, our assumptions, our worldview and to be open to other possibilities, other ways of perceiving and experiencing reality. According to this tradition, reality is perception; that is, our experience of reality is inescapably governed by what we imagine it to be, how we have learned to perceive and experience it, how we shape it by the way we think and talk about it.
The psychodynamic and social constructionist traditions combined lead to a conclusion that human perception and experience of ‘actual reality’ is mediated by memory, imagination and interactions with others. We never fully experience reality in an objective sense, for what it is, but as a curious mix of what’s in here, what’s out there and what value and meaning we superimpose onto it. At best we perceive reality in terms that the New Testament describes as, ‘a poor reflection’.
This is consistent, I think, with Kant’s (paraphrased) reflections on spirituality: ‘God reveals himself objectively but we experience him subjectively’. It’s as if God reaches into our human constructs, shaping, challenging and reframing them to reveal a glimpse of himself in terms we can grasp. Our images of God are nevertheless created and constrained by the limits of human language, culture, experience and imagination.
In light of this, we do well to approach God and all aspects of reality and truth with humility and an openness to fresh challenge and possibility.
It was a long journey home today. 8 hours, 6 trains, 2 taxis and two other car journeys. Incredible to think I was only travelling a distance of 100 miles. When the train came to an abrupt and unexpected stop out in the middle of nowhere, I had that half-surprised then sinking feeling. The driver’s announcement was even more bemusing. ‘We’ve come to a halt and we don’t know why’. I liked his honesty but it didn’t instil confidence in the passengers. People around me smiled ironically, exchanged sarcastic comments and reached for their phones.
It was curious timing for me. I had spent much of the journey writing a journal article on OD. Organisations are, too, places of unpredictability where unexpected things happen and, sometimes, we don’t know why. We set out on a journey, filled with confidence and anticipation, and sometimes weird stuff happens that we just can’t make sense of. Key people leave, team members fall out with each other, processes throw up problems that we hadn’t anticipated, critical systems break down when we least expected it.
It turned out the problem on the train line was faulty wiring ahead. The problem was fixed and we reached our destination, later than expected but nevertheless got there. Organisations as dynamically complex human systems are often more difficult to ‘fix’, the problems more tricky to identify, the solutions less obvious, the implications less predictable. We can feel powerless and frustrated, make premature decisions with unintended consequences, throw ourselves into at actions that aim to restore our sense of control.
We can also experience unexpected blessings, like the person who spoke to me when the train stopped, an unusual moment of connection and humanity, the friendly glances between people as the train started moving again, the fresh sense of gratitude and relief when we finally made it into the station. It reminded me to look for the good things, the signs of life and hope, the unexpected possibilities for insight and relationship that proverbial spanners in the works can create.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.