Perhaps it is only fair to warn you that if you read this article you will be forced to make a powerful choice by the end of it. The choice you make will bring you either happiness and success or joyless mediocrity.
I have experienced more than my share of both these realities – I have occupied them so intensely, become so intimate with them, that I know they are the product of my imagination. And it is this choice you will be left with: How do you want to treat your imagination, now that you know it is the source of your reality?
In my book, The Magician’s Way, I borrowed from my own life when I wrote: “The anticipation of what wonder lay in store for me that day would be too much for me to wait until it was light. I’d bound out of bed and run outside into the eerie death of night, a thrill coursing through my body as I tore about naked across the endless expanse of lawn. One by one the adolescent animals would shake themselves out of their nocturnal stupor and race over to join me in frolicking around the garden, all of us feeding from each other’s exhilaration. Unaware of our future roles as either predators or prey, we’d prance about together, innocently celebrating the wonder of the world. I’ll never forget how I always ended up at the bottom of the garden, standing there surrounded by snuffling creatures of every description, all of us staring up at the pre-dawn sky in total amazement, our mouths agape at the pail of phosphorescent milk spilled across the heavens and the stars like white hot embers glowing in a bed of black velvet. It was as if the stars were some kind of ethereal life form communicating in twinkles and glints and winks. Sometimes it felt as if they were all talking to me, and I’d get the feeling that if I didn’t close my eyes to the magic about me I’d explode.”
And then, 25 years later, I would find myself playing Neil Young’s album, Freedom, over and over again just to hear him cry in that sweetly plaintive voice: “Where did the magic go…I can’t find it no more.” The awe filled eternity of early childhood had long since vanished like a mirage, replaced by a wasteland reality of routine and drudgery. Once life had been a mystery – as I wrote in The Magician’s Way, I used to wake up wondering: “Would the 30 foot python still be lying coiled around the roots of the big fig tree down by the river, patiently digesting the bush pig he’d swallowed two months ago? Would the gardeners find canaries frozen by the cold winter’s night lying on the road, and thaw them out beside the stove for me to let fly into the first rays of sunlight? Would I lie on my back looking up at the azure sky, watching dandelion-seed parachutes drifting surrealistically off into another world?” That was then, but now in adulthood I knew everything. I didn’t need an imagination to figure out that all my life amounted to was a struggle against poor health, a failing marriage, financial catastrophe and a wolfish addiction to mood altering substances.
How far did I fall! I started out life the king of a fantastic domain, and ended up the slave of a futile existence. What happened? Is this what we all should realistically expect of life? Is childhood just a fleeting honeymoon afforded by ignorance and the absence of responsibility? I hardly think so, because most adults I know who have the luxury of never having to work or think for themselves don’t strike me as living very awe-filled, joyous lives. In fact, most of them are pretty miserable.
I don’t believe there is any essential difference between children and adults, certainly not when it comes to the capacity for joy and wonder. In the days that I had a mainstream job I remember my colleagues walking around like zombies, their eyes glazed by the weight of their survival preoccupations. And then, every once in a while, something would happen to bring them to life. The administration manager would anticipate a holiday to the Antarctic, a secretary would start planning her wedding, one of the salesmen would land a massive sale, and for a time their minds were opened to a possibility beyond the everyday struggles to which they were conditioned. That inkling of possibility worked like a match to paper. Images and ideas began to catch on until there was a blaze of excitement roaring inside them. For a time they were, as the word ecstatic describes, ‘beside’ themselves with joy. They were the kings or queens of a fantastic domain, and they treated the world generously, and somehow more good things happened to them. They went into that zone where life constantly surprises and delights you, proving that adults have the capacity for childlike innocence, but not the inclination to sustain it.
If you’re a vaguely conscious human being you have to ask yourself the question: why is this magical state an exceptional condition rather than a totally normal experience for adults? In a sense, it has been the question at the heart of every philosopher’s quest for meaning. Plato, Cornelius Agrippa, William Blake, Aldous Huxley, they all pondered these two poles of consciousness and called the child mind heaven and the adult mind hell (or gold and lead). And they all knew exactly why every man and woman must fall and end up in hell. If you could go back in time and ask any of them – Plotinus or Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Einstein – they would all tell you that you go to hell when you don’t take care of your imagination. Yes! The imagination is the philosophers’ secret fire, the philosophers’ stone (a fire that doesn’t burn and a stone that can’t be seen or touched).
Our original sin is that we abandon our imagination when we begin to concentrate on what is useful to our survival. In my own case I went to boarding school where I was entrained with ruthless efficiency in what was useful to the productive member of society: proficiency in sport, academic competence, good manners and an unquestioning obedience of authority. Letters home were censored and any missive that didn’t convey anything but sensible and practical information would get you in trouble. Pythons, frozen canaries and dandelion parachutes were out and hospital corners and pulled up socks were in. And so we have our imagination clipped, until we occupy a dry, rational framework where we don’t have any use for any awareness beyond what we assume life is about. We think we’ve got it all worked out and that there isn’t anything more we can expect from life than what we’ve reduced it to. We become the full vessels that can’t receive anything else.
Cut off from our soul, we wonder why we are so stuck, so de-energised, so empty. We believe we don’t know enough, or that we’re not motivated enough, or that we aren’t fit enough, and we work hard on overcoming these perceived deficiencies. Meanwhile the real problem goes unaddressed. The faculty that can bring us the most joy is overlooked. It is our imagination that can turn lead into gold; that transforms hell into heaven. As in the example of my former work colleagues, we know that when we look forward to something that lies outside of our everyday preoccupations good things happen for us, even beyond the specific thing we are looking forward to. Stepping outside of our rational framework connects us to our soul, and the magic of who we are begins presenting itself again.
Long-term studies at Harvard University have shown that graduates who had a plan for the future ended up far more successful than their non-visionary counterparts, even if their success didn’t relate to their original goal. In Colin Wilson’s definitive book on magic, The Occult, he refers to scientific studies which find conclusively that people with a vision have better than average luck when they gamble, are healthier and less accident-prone than average, and are more susceptible to fortuitous synchronicity. Of course, this makes total sense from a metaphysical perspective. Every magical tradition throughout history has been based on the fundamental premise that the cosmos is pervaded by an ether along which mental energy travels, broadcasting what is in our minds and attracting back to us a corresponding reality.
When we allow ourselves to narrow life down to what it is going to take to get through it, we inadvertently cut ourselves off from the richness of life, which every day shows us a bleaker and bleaker face. That is why the arts are so important. They have nothing to do with utility. As Oscar Wilde famously boasted, “All art is useless”. We need to develop an appreciation for what lies outside our routine preoccupations. We need to dream of something beyond, something wonderful that we could become or that could happen. For, when we do, we open ourselves up to the richness of life, which every day shows us a brighter and brighter face.
We all need a vision. Vision is a function of imagination, and imagination is the bridge to our soul – our intuitive, creative, magical self. So there you have it, the most important thing to find in life is something you’ve had all along. As I cautioned you at the beginning, you are now faced with an inescapable choice. Will you undertake to cultivate your imagination or not? To ignore the question is still a de facto choice to neglect your creative nature. Remember, though, the choice you make will have profound consequences. If you do want to claim the philosophers’ stone and begin living in paradise, but don’t know where to begin, my advice would be: let go of everything you believed till now, make up a fairytale about yourself and believe in that.
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