On Learning How to Imagine

Like the last post, here’s another great question that came in over email:

Here’s a question about something that hindered me in my Hermetic training: what is visualization? Is it imagining an image in your mind? How do you do it? And how do you know you’re doing it correctly? When ever I try to visualize, I try to picture the thing or event in my head, but I have never been able to consistently keep a mental image for more than five to ten seconds.  Am I doing it correctly?  Do you have any tips or guide on how to visualize?

My reply:

So, “visualization” is a more specific method of the more general term “imagination”.  When you use your imagination, you come up with images—and despite how we often use the term, “images” aren’t necessarily sight-oriented things.  An image is, more generally, a representation of simulation of something within the mind without any direct or immediate input from your physical senses.

Thus, if you were to imagine, say, an apple, there’s lots to simulate within your mind: the color of an apple (a hue ranging from pale green to a deep red), yes, and its shape (round), but also the texture of it (waxy and cool on the outside, slick and sandpaper-like on the inside), the scent of it (fresh, acidic, tart), the weight of it, and so forth and so on.  Note how little of this is “visual”: there is a visual component to it to be sure, but there are a whole bunch of other components to it as well that combine to come up with a complete image that goes far beyond merely what an apple looks like.  When a lot of modern books talk about “visualization”, they’re fundamentally just talking about “imagination”, but because most people (about 65%) are visually-oriented people (i.e. they rely primarily on sight to build and approach the world as opposed to hearing or smell as primary senses), “visualization” works as a term for most people, but you have other senses, too, so you should use them all, even if one or more are stronger than the others.

How do you imagine something correctly?  If the image is something you’ve experienced before (like an apple), consider how well the imagination matches up with your memory of the same thing.  If the image isn’t something you’ve experienced before, you can’t rely on memory, but you can mentally extrapolate from other things and make a good guess.  It’s like dreaming in a way: not everything we dream is merely a remix of things we’ve experienced.  So long as you’re imagining something to an appropriate or desired level of detail, you’re imagining it “correctly”.

As far as making an image in your imagination last more than a few seconds: it just takes practice.  Keep working at it, practicing on small things for a short time, then small things for a longer time, working your way up to big things for a short time to big things for a longer time.  Over time, you’ll find that not only will you be able to hold an image in your mind indefinitely (so long as you don’t break concentration!), but you’ll also be able to imagine things in far more elaborate and complex detail.  Start with simple pencils and apples (small everyday objects), then move to larger everyday objects that have more parts involved (computer desks or cars), then to even larger objects (a room of a house, a whole house, a whole parcel of property with a house on it), and so on.  If it’s hard at first, you’re in good company; this is a skill that requires practice and training, and despite the overwhelming prevalence of “visualization” in a lot of modern occult texts and guides, in many traditional cultures and practices, something of this kind was often considered an *advanced* practice rather than a beginner’s one.

Likewise, doing things that build up your skill of concentration is something that goes hand-in-hand with this.  In our modern world filled with endless stimuli to keep us busy or distracted, between 280-character tweets or 30-second TikToks or news chyrons flowing endlessly from one topic to the next to YouTube commercials playing in endless varying loops breaking up longer videos every few seconds, so much of the world around us gears us to instant gratification, talking-heads syndromes, and the like.  Resist that.  There’s no one way to build up your concentration, but learning what a distraction is and how it trains/conditions your mind to expect certain things or react to certain inputs is an important part of it, as is eliminating distractions in your life, setting yourself to the discipline of doing one thing for an extended period of time without looking at your phone or other tabs in your browser, meditation, going for extended walks, and the like.  One way I like to suggest doing this is to take a non-cellphone timer, put your cellphone on silent and away, and sit down to read a book for some length of time (5 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, etc.).  It doesn’t matter what the book is (and, honestly, the more boring it is the better); the point is to just sit down and read it without letting your mind wander off.  That itself is concentration, which is basically a form of mental stamina and discipline that we all have to cultivate.

I should note at this point that there is the phenomenon of aphantasia, which is the inability to imagine things.  It’s not well-studied, but there are a number of people (maybe between 1% and 5% of the general population) who claim that they just can’t imagine stuff, neither with visualization nor any other mental “sense”.  You don’t seem to be in this category by your own admission, but even for aphantasic people, there are other approaches to magic and mysticism that simply don’t rely on it (the use of dream that a number of aphantasic people report they have, recalling memory, etc.).  However, the use of the imagination to construct mental objects and worlds is a useful skill for anyone who isn’t aphantasic, so do give yourself the time to develop it as a skill.

I’ll be honest: how often do I use imagination in magic or ritual?  It depends, but…it’s hard to sort out sometimes what’s my “imagination” (as in something I’m actively constructing) versus what I’m getting from other inputs (like spirits putting an image into my mind).  For daily prayer, making offerings, or divination, imagination doesn’t really come into it at all.  For contemplating and delving deeply into a topic, notion, or semantic field (e.g. the spiritual world of a planet or element), imagination is used hugely.  When working with spirits…it’s complicated, since I’m not really sure what’s clearly on either side of my-imagination vs. its-image something might be on, because the imagination (as I consider it) is the faculty by which I sense (and make sense) of spiritual realities.  I genuinely don’t know how conjuration of a spirit works for someone who is aphantasic without resorting to tools like yes-no divination to ascertain whether a spirit is present or not, or how strongly someone might translate imagination into physical senses (e.g. someone getting physical sensations like goosebumps or temperature fluctuations in their body around spirits and translating that into spiritual information).

I admit, it’s hard for me to consider what the world would be like for an aphantasic person, because I’ve always had an active and busy imagination for as long as I can remember.  At the same time, I also recall actively diving into imagined, imaginative worlds as a child, playing with imaginary friends, reading fantasy stories and extrapolating from them to continue the story further in my mind with me taking the role of a character, and the like.  Because of that, I don’t consider my imaginative skills to be something inborn, but rather something cultivated and practiced, for much the same reason that someone taking music lessons as a child and just playing around with instruments generally ends up becoming a musician without music being some sort of inborn ability.  Imagination is a skill like so many others, and as a result, requires practice and cultivation in order to become useful beyond a few seconds or beyond a glimpse or so.

In today’s world of modern media where so much is already just given to us (movies, TV, YouTube, TikTok, video games, augmented reality, virtual reality, etc.), it’s a skill that can easily be forsaken because of (shall we say) platform redundancy; why bother imagining things and constructing your own world when you can have a whole world just delivered to you through your already-inborn physical senses?  At the risk of saying what doesn’t need to be said due to its obviousness, I don’t think that’s a useful approach for mages and mystics—or anyone really.  After all, to live just in someone else’s worlds is to give up the right to build and live in your own, which I strongly feel is a matter of self-expression and self-fulfillment.  For most people who are surrounded by constant media, their own skills of imagination can easily become attenuated or enervated, just like how learning a language in a non-immersive environment and never having a chance to use it outside book exercises can make it difficult to understand or apply that language.

Imagination is a skill.  At least for those who have the capacity for it, it needs to be developed, built up, cultivated, and maintained just like any other.

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