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.

Genius, Skill, Talent, Technique

Between the sufferings of both modern public school education and psychological neuroses, a lot of people fall into one of two camps of belief:

  1. I can be anything I want and be good at everything I do.
  2. I can’t do anything no matter how hard I try.

Both of these beliefs are false, as I reckon them.  In a way, they’re two sides of the same coin, with each influenced by and growing upon the other.  The first belief (that of supercapability) is overly positive to combat any self-doubt, but when taken to its extreme, it fails the holder of that belief and leads one into the second belief (that of incapability).  That second belief is borne out of sorrow and doubt, but is also easily refuted in at least one action which can cycle back into the first belief.  Some people never cycle between the two, getting stuck in one belief or the other, but either way these beliefs are simply wrong.

According to the doctrine of astrology and Hermetic philosophy, we’re all born with several things, such as a purpose, a history, a goal, and a set of things we’re good at and a set of things we’re bad at.  Taken together, plus a little extra, this might all be construed as one’s True Will, the thing we’re supposed to be carrying out in order to fulfill our role in the cosmos as children of the Divine.  After all, the whole point of Hermeticism and Neoplatonism is to reclaim our true heritage and value as children of gods and co-creators of the cosmos, and we can’t know what we’re supposed to create without knowing what we’re good at and where we’re supposed to be.  Knowledge of our True Will helps us focus our efforts on the things we should be doing, which is almost always correlated with what we’re good at.

In addition to knowledge of our True Will, there are several spirits among the heavens that can help us find out what we’re supposed to be doing.  Among those, there are the threefold keepers of Man: the angel of the nativity, the Holy Guardian Angel, and the angel of the profession.  The angel of the nativity is the guy whose name is derived from the natal horoscope based on the five hylegical places, and is a guiding spirit who helps us out in this life for this incarnation.  While the HGA is more for our Selves across incarnations and the heavens, the angel of the nativity is a spirit specific to this life for what we need to do now.  In a way, it’s like the good angel on the shoulder of cartoon characters, but is more knowledgable about what we’re supposed to be doing and how we’re supposed to be doing it.  The other name for this spirit is the natal genius, or the birth-spirit, that helps us do what we need to do for ourselves and our Selves in this life.  In other words, it tells us what’s Right for us to do.  And, like I said before, when we do something proper and Right for us, it tends to be easy or flawless. 

We often call people “genius” when they’re really adept or smart at something, but it wasn’t originally a title of intelligence or mastery.  Instead, “genius” referred to the guiding spirit who helps us be good at certain things because that’s the role we’re supposed to fill; it’s kinda like a cosmic version of Huxley’s “Brave New World”.  Knowing what we’re good at via our genius helps us figure out our talents, the things we’re innately good at in the cosmos.  This could be anything from simple skills such as memorization or a good eye for measurement to whole fields like mathematics or biology or counseling.  Whatever we’ve got a talent in, we should probably explore and make use of. 

Still, just because one has talent in something doesn’t mean one has mastery.  Mastery in something can be called proper technique, the totality of knowledge in how, why, and what methods to use for a particular goal or end result.  Talent helps with building technique, but talent alone doesn’t cut it.  Talent needs refining through building skill, which can be thought of as learned technique as opposed to inborn technique through talent.  Skill helps refine talent to be used for specific, fine things in a regular, repeated manner that talent alone may not be able to do.  It’s like the difference between having a vague subconscious understanding of something and a total comprehension and coherent knowledge of it.

Other people, however, have little to no talent in a given technique, but still want to learn that technique.  In this case, skill is all they have to go on.  They’ll need to become more skillful to make up for the lack of talent, but this doesn’t mean they can’t learn technique or master something.  It just means they’ll have to learn and focus more on building up the skill that people with talent may already be good at.  However, spending time to build up skill in something in which one has little talent often takes time away from building up skill in something one does have talent for.  Keep in mind that talent implies that we’re supposed to be good at something and that we’re supposed to do it; if one shows talent in something but is wasting one’s skill on something else, they’re probably being misguided.

A lot of modern society treats all people the same, which is usually a good thing.  After all, I enjoy and favor equality of rights and opportunity for all, because we’re all still human and capable of basic humanity with human needs.  However, things go awry when society treats us all as having the same talents, skills, capabilities, and inclinations for things.  This kind of social conditioning does real damage, because it assumes everyone has the same basic drive and same basic talents, when this assumption doesn’t hold up.  Some people are very good at written language but awful at mathematics, some good at art and some good at sports, and so forth; we should afford people the chance to explore everything if they so choose, but we shouldn’t force them to pass standardized tests that assume everyone’s at an arbitrary level of technique for an arbitrary number of subjects.

Not everyone is going to be good at everything.  That’s just a fact of life, and that’s quite alright.  There are going to be subjects, fields, and tasks at which we aren’t suited but that others are.  This isn’t to say that we should settle for mediocrity and laziness for ourselves instead of striving to know and become more than we are, but we shouldn’t try to become a jack of all trades when we’re really only good and supposed to be good in a handful of them.  There are so many roles to fill in the world that requires dedication, single-mindedness, and talent in addition to skill, any number of which might be considered taboo or dangerous or outré, even though they’re just as necessary as any other.  Society may say it knows what’s best for itself, but it doesn’t.  We’ve all got a purpose, indicated by our talent and genius, and we need skill to make ourselves perfect.  Only with genius, skill, talent, and technique will we be able to know and carry out our True Will, and make progress on the path to becoming full-fledged co-creators of the cosmos once again.