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Imagination and the Will: What You Gaze On Is What You Become
February 2, 2021
How many times have you vowed to exercise more, eat better, or get more sleep? Or on a spiritual level, promised yourself that you were going to pray more consistently, practice certain virtues, or embrace asceticism more willingly?
Yet, when it comes time to move idea into action, from commitment to practice, something within us freezes and resists. Before long, we’ve abandoned our commitment and find ourselves frustrated and depressed.
When we think about growing in virtue, we usually envision muscling our way to a virtuous life through sheer willpower. But this is to forget an important reality of the soul: The imagination is more powerful than reason.
The Blindness of the Will
The will is the organ of action within the human person. It is the faculty of the soul concerned with doing things, with choices. The way the will works is quite simple: it is attracted toward a perceived good, desires it, and move us toward it, like a magnet being drawn toward steel.
They key word here is perceived. It’s important to realize that the will is in a very real sense blind. Left to itself, it cannot perceive anything, nor does it know which good to aim at or pursue. In order to act, the will must be informed about what is good through the senses, the imagination, the intellect, and other powers of the soul. Before it is informed about a good, the will is motionless, but as soon as it perceives a good and desires it, it move swiftly and decisively.
Usually, we try to move the will through the intellect alone. That is, we reason out a good course of action and decide to pursue it. “It would be better for my body if I cut out carbs, so I am going to stop eating bread and drinking beer,” we tell ourselves. This might be quite rational and indeed good. But no sooner have we made this commitment than we see a case of craft beer in the refrigerator at the supermarket. It is so tantalizing. We can call to mind the rich, complex taste. We envision the pleasure of a cold one on a hot summer day. We imagine the fellowship of a drink with good friends.
Before our rational faculties realize it, we’ve grabbed the case of beer and purchased it. What happened? Quite simply, our imagination overrode our intellect and powerfully moved our will.
The Will and the Imagination
As I have said, the will must be informed about a good to pursue in order to act, and we usually inform our will through the intellect—through reasoning out what’s best.
The problem is, our reason, our intellect, can’t create desire or move the will nearly as effectively as the imagination. In the example above, what we knew at an intellectual level, our goals set in accordance with reason, were overridden nearly instantly by the faculty of the imagination. Imagining the delight of a cold beer overpowered our rationally made decision to do what’s best for our health.
Simply put: When it comes to moving the will, the imagination is the most powerful faculty of the soul. The imagination is intimately connected to our emotions, and thus can create desire that motivates the will more quickly and powerfully than almost anything else.
Advertisers understand this principle and have honed it to a science. Research has shown that the average American sees between 4,000-6,000 advertisements per day in the form of search ads, banner ads, billboards, TV advertisements, YouTube ads, restaurant signs, etc. Most people find that number shocking. That’s because these advertisements operate at a subliminal level. That is, we don’t notice them. Nevertheless, they are at work. They are seeds planted in the soul that subtly move the imagination and emotions, and eventually, when we least expect it, they move our will as well.
A brief example. You see an ad for an athletic wear brand. The ad depicts a sports celebrity, someone who is an icon of strength, skill, and human potential. Bypassing your reason, that ad harnesses your imagination. Perhaps you imagine yourself wearing the brand, and as a result, unleashing your own human potential. Or perhaps you imagine yourself wearing it and being admired by your friends for your status and fashion. And perhaps most powerful of all, you see yourself being desired by a woman as a result of wearing this brand (sex, after all, sells).
It doesn’t matter if none of this makes sense at a rational level. In fact, your reason may even tell you that you can’t afford the product, or that it won’t turn you into a professional athlete. But it simply doesn’t matter. Your imagination has been captured, and it moves your will towards this perceived good. You act by making the purchase.
The same principle of imagination overriding reason applies to nearly every domain of life. Imagination is simply much more seductive to the will than the power of reason.
The Imagination: Good or Evil?
Because of the power and even seduction of the imagination, many religious traditions have advocated violently suppressing it. Reason can often, though not always, see the Good more clearly, and thus it is considered more trustworthy. Suppressing the imagination and developing the power of reason over the will is therefore considered a safer path.
Our own Christian tradition is no stranger to this spiritual advice. Eastern Christianity, especially, vehemently discourages the use of the imagination in prayer. Western Christianity, too, has had great spiritual works that advocate the silencing of the imagination and its desires, such as the Cloud of Unknowing and the works of such saints as St. John of the Cross.
It should be obvious that the imagination can easily lead us astray. It can lead our will to perceive goods that actually are evils. If we examine sins such as lust, we will realize that they almost always start in the imagination—as do many other sins and vices. So the imagination can indeed be dangerous.
What if, however, we harnessed the power of the imagination? What if instead of opposing reason and imagnation, we trained them to work together? Guided by reason, could the imagination not be a tremendous force for good?
True, left to itself the imagination can be deceitful. But if it were tempered and guided by reason, rather than suppressed altogether, it could lead us to soar heavenwards. Saints like St. Ignatius of Loyola understood the power of the imagination. Stuck in bed after an injury, he read the lives of the saints, and their incredible heroism captured his imagination and set his passionate heart ablaze.
Later, St. Ignatius developed his Spiritual Exercises which are nothing else than training and guiding the imagination and filling it with holy desires. Other spiritual disciplines, like meditating on the mysteries of the rosary, likewise harness the power of the imagination and direct the will toward holiness.
In a similar way, the via pulchritudinous, the Way of Beauty, advocated by theologians like Pope Benedict XVI, show us that contemplating beauty can set ablaze our imagination, leading us to contemplate and thus desire the Supreme Good, which is God. In the words of the Pope Emeritus, “A work of art can open the eyes of the mind and heart [through the imagination], urging us upward.”
Harness the Power of the Imagination for Good
The imagination is a powerful soul-force that can move the will quickly and powerfully. It can bypass the intellect instantaneously, leading us to reach for good or evil.
In and of itself, the imagination is not evil or good. It simply is. It can be led astray by tantalizing false-goods, and it must be tempered and guided by reason, working in concert with it. Nevertheless, if harnessed, disciplined and channelled, it can be a tremendous force moving us powerfully toward the Good.
The practical question then becomes: What are you contemplating? What images are you filling your imagination with?
A mind filled with pornography and violence and materialistic consumerism and all manner of false goods will desire these evils and mistake them for good. Such imaginations eventually move the will toward them, changing our conduct. On the other hand, however, an imagination filled with beauty, goodness, and virtuous examples, will desire these things and likewise change us from the inside out.
If you are struggling to change and doing the things you do not desire, consider not just what you know, but with what you are feeding your imagination. For the spiritual principle is simple: Contemplate holy things, and you will become holy. Contemplate evil, and you will become evil. The choice is yours.
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