Skip to content

The Imagination Gone Awry

December 9, 2012

Based on an incisive comment from a reader of this blog regarding the role of the imagination in anxiety, I think it could be worthwhile to turn our attention from the issue of fear to that of the imagination and its role in mental health, sin, the spiritual life, and one’s daily life.  Imagination has its bright and its dark sides in all these areas and is a topic so immense that it will no doubt require a number of blog posts in order merely to touch on these themes. Technology, inventions, works of art, works of literature, and quality research all involve a healthy use of the imagination that envisions more than what the eye can immediately see and the ear can hear. And yet, clinicians often see imagination gone awry. In anxiety disorders, the imagination is ubiquitous. In agoraphobia, people imagine they will have a panic attack in public without being able to escape; with phobias, they imagine the phobic stimulus (a barking dog or a snake) will attack them; with social phobias, they imagine being embarrassed in a social situation (like public speaking); with generalized anxiety disorder, they imagine a number of possible catastrophes that could take place daily engaging in excessive worrying. Outside of anxiety disorders, the imagination is also overactive in hypochondriasis in which one imagines that normal aches and pains represent a serious illness, in body dysmorphic disorder in which one imagines that one’s appearance is far worst than it is. Then, there are the personality disorders in which the paranoid imagine that everyone’s motives are malevolent and the narcissistic imagine that everyone should admire them. And, we’ve yet to touch schizophrenia in which the imagination takes on a life of its own in florid delusions and hallucinations. For the contemporary psychologist, the imagination is clearly a weak point in the human psyche.

St. SilouanThe ancient fathers would agree, but they would base themselves not only on what they observe in others and in themselves, but also on the truths about anthropology that they garner from revelation in general and their understanding of the Fall in particular. As is pointed out in Ancient Christian Wisdom, they understood that “although the divine image was not erased by the Fall, it was darkened, thereby permitting human reason to grow indolent and lose its ability to clearly see the things of God. Instead of being directed toward the Giver of Light, human reason turned with blind selfishness toward creation and fell under the shadowy influence of the imagination that encouraged all manner of illusion, prejudice, superstition, and idolatry to grow freely.”  This is precisely why the fathers are unanimous in rejecting imagination in the especially sublime efforts to communicate with God in prayer, although they would permit it in practical efforts to live virtuously.  Saint Silouan the Athonite gives this notion a modern expression as Archimandrite Sophrony’s commentary on the Saint’s teaching relates:  “Finally, consider the play of the imagination when the intellect attempts to penetrate the mystery of being and apprehend the Divine world.  Such endeavors inevitably involve the imagination, to which many are inclined to give the high-flown label, divine inspiration.  The ascetic, devoting himself to active inner silence and pure prayer, resolutely combats this ‘creative’ impulse within himself because he sees in it a process contrary to the true order of being, with man ‘creating’ God in his own image and likeness.” In other words, using the imagination in prayer not only prevents us from coming into contact with God, but also makes us to come in contact with an idol of our own making and that idol is a part of us, so what is ultimately being worshiped is self. The imagination was not only responsible for the fashioning of idols in ancient times, it continues to do so today.  In spite of the patristic admonition to the contrary, the so-called Western mystics after the Schism, such as Teresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola, have actively used the imagination in meditation and provided methods for developing the imagination in prayer. Unfortunately, when the imagination is dominant, the nous is weakened and dominated by the activity of the reason arranging the products of the imagination.

Even Sigmund Freud seemed to recognize the limitations of human reason and imagination when he answered a question posed to him concerning whether he cured people of their ailments.  Freud’s response was a clear no.  Rather, in Freud’s view, what he was able to accomplish is free his patients from the fake problems or fantasies so they could then confront the real problems of human existence.  The cognitive model is also not inconsistent with “what Christians see in the results of the Fall and a state of sin: namely, prideful selfishness, a swollen imagination, and a fear of death and corruption that warps human judgment.”  While cognitive therapists may not hold the same views as Christian thinkers concerning the Fall, they do generally recognize the after effects of what Christians ascribe to the Fall.

In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note the role imagination plays in ordinary instances of cognitive dysfunction.  “In an insightful paragraph akin to certain passages in Beck’s Prisoners of Hate, the Christian version of the Encheiridion reads: ‘Remember that it is not the person who insults you, speaks badly of you, or hits you, but it is your idea that he supposedly curses you. When someone makes you angry, know that your own idea made you angry. For this reason, try not to be dominated by the imagination, because if you gain a little time and delay, you will easily keep yourself in check.’ This passage contains several instructive observations about cognitive processes. First, anger is provoked by our interpretation of someone else’s behavior as unpleasant rather than by the behavior in itself. Second, the seemingly combative person and our mental image of that person are not the same. Third, when our imagination embellishes our interpretation, the offense seems far worse than it in fact is and this exaggerated interpretation incites us to react. Fourth, if we fight against the tendency to elaborate on the initial image and refrain from reacting to it, we can reacquire our self-composure.”

If the imagination is capable of wrecking such havoc in relations among mortals, how much more so in a mortal’s attempt to grasp the Immortal?  Archimandrite Sophrony explains the proper response of the mortal to the Immortal in these words, “hesychastic prayer is neither artistic creation nor scientific investigation; neither philosophical research and speculation nor abstract intellectual theology.  The spiritual life does not mean satisfying our emotional desires, as do the arts, for instance.  All these activities, some noble, some less so, relate to the sphere of the imagination which must be overcome if one is to attain to perfect prayer, true theology and a life verily pleasing to God.”

This is not to say the imagination and rational discursive thought have no place in human life, for they certainly do. But the use must be constructive and within certain limits. Psychologists delineate many unhealthy uses of the imagination, in which behavior is guided by the misguided imagination, rather than a realistic understanding of various situations. There are many instances in which imagination is not the best tool, and in one case, it is actually the worst, and that is the practice of genuine prayer.

  1. I have never read a more cogent diagnosis of the problem I am facing. I have a hyperactive imagination. It wreaks havoc on my daily life, my inner life and instead of animating the things I do and how I live, it seems to destroy them, rendering me useless. Sometimes I think that we live in a world that fosters daydreaming instead of active thought and problemsolving.

  2. Thank you for your comments. We do, indeed, live in a world that fosters daydreaming. To stay active in constructive ways in life in the practical application of the commandments in concrete situations is so much more fulfilling. Increased awareness to the real world around us in a spirit of love and compassion can take us out of the imaginary world to the real world where we can also meet God.

  3. Bruce permalink

    Father Bless!

    I too have a guideline of asking ‘how to respond’ not ‘why has this happened’. It’s very easy for me to get stuck in the ‘why’ question and too often I find myself attempting to elevate my judgement above His if I indulge in this line of thinking. On the other hand, His commandments are, at a very practical level, instructive in the ‘how to respond’ to the particulars of my life circumstance.

    I like to think that we are in the perfect place to learn the lessons He has for us and most of these lessons boil down to learning to love as He loves…and recognizing that we are completely incapable of doing any of this without Him…the short version of John 15:5…’without Him I am nothing’. Whatever our life circumstance, we ultimately will either grow in Oneness toward Him or take actions which separate us further from the unceasing offer of Unity to His Goodness, His Life, His Truth.

    I enjoyed this post about the imagination. Perhaps, an interesting next step you’ve discussed in some of your comments, is the reality of how our vision changes when with His Help we have ‘eyes of faith’. What many in this world would describe as our imagination may, in fact, be a reality when we ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’. So much of the life in Christ recorded in the Gospels was hidden from the many who, for whatever reason, could not accept Christ as God. Their experience is really our experience…yet, as we accept Christ and allow ourselves to participate as a member of His Body (in fact, not imagination), His Grace is sufficient to grant us a deeper understanding of His Life and our ability to participate in what is eternal in the transience of this gift of life we’ve been granted. To many this sounds like our imagination, but to be unwilling to express this reality is to deny Christ and the reality of our life in Him…and in this denial to step further away from the Great Reality of Christ….and the truth that all is new and transformed in Him.

    I have something I would love to discuss with you privately via email if you wouldn’t mind sending me an email to the address recorded with this comment

    I thank God for you and the work you are doing!!!

    In Christ…Bruce

  4. Dave permalink


    I am devout Latin Rite Catholic (Roman Catholic) and “trying” to breathe from both lungs as Pope John Paul II advised. I know there are issues between the “two sides” … and my position is to let the leadership work it out while the rest of us get on with the business of learning from each other and loving each other.

    You said this, “This is precisely why the fathers are unanimous in rejecting imagination in the especially sublime efforts to communicate with God in prayer, although they would permit it in practical efforts to live virtuously.”

    What are some examples of “practical efforts to live virtuously” in the use of imagination?


  5. Dave,

    I commend your efforts to learn and to love. I also believe that devotion and piety are crucial aspects of the Christian life. Although I do not espouse the two-lungs metaphor, I do believe that there are faithful struggling on earth and the Saints who have fought the good fight in heaven. And I believe that we can learn precious truths by taking recourse to the Saints’ writings and striving to breathe the air they breathed in the ancient liturgical tradition of the Church. The beauty of returning to the fathers of the first millennia is that we have a common unified tradition before the development of the schism. And knowledge of that tradition can provide us with a compass for making the many crucial decisions of life that are ours to make and not only for those in high positions of authority.

    I provide a number of practical examples for using the imagination properly in Ancient Christian Wisdom and may refer to some of them in a later post. For the present, here is one example from the text: “Saint John Cassian suggests that those who find themselves becoming impatient or angry should practice imagining that they are hindered, wronged or injured, but respond as the saints would—with perfect humility and gentleness of heart. Saint Nicodemos the Hagiorite likewise recommends that believers prepare themselves before going somewhere or coming into contact with irritating and exasperating people by imagining that others curse them and dishonor them, but that they weather it all with thanksgiving and peace of mind.”

    Take care and may God bless you.

    Fr. Alexis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: