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Imagination: A Boundless Sea

January 6, 2017, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by

Thoughts are a boundless sea, and the effects and varying conditions of existence are as the separate forms and individual limits of the waves; not until the sea boils up will the waves rise and scatter their pearls of knowledge on the shore of life.1

The above wonderful expanded metaphor demonstrates one of the qualities of imagination. But what exactly is imagination and how can it help in Baha’i life? 

I think I’ve always lived, to some extent, in my imagination. Where the western world generally subscribes to the Biblical notion of “when I became a man I gave up childish things”, I wasn’t able to do so – at least not that magical faculty of imagination. So I was delighted when, as a new Baha’i, I learned that imagination is one of the five inner powers – a power of the spirit.2 And then I read: “The reality of man is his thought”.3 Yes, wow! Imagination rules! Or so I thought. But then I read so many warnings about imagination leading us astray, the term “vain imagination” occurring so frequently in the Writings, that perhaps it’s best to avoid it altogether! This reflects a long-standing mistrust of imagination in post-Enlightenment thinking, with a preference for scientific logic underpinning much of current preferred thinking.

Where then, do the Baha’i writings stand on the issue? Can imagination be trusted? As it is a spiritual faculty, can it be used to advance the Cause of Baha’u’llah? My own answer to these questions is: it depends on what you conceive imagination to be.

Imagination is generally considered to be the domain of children and artists – the ability to create new ideas in the mind. Through research with disadvantaged high school students, however, I was able to develop a new theory of imagination: that it is not one thing but four distinct but overlapping types:

  • Creative imagination (the general concept of imagination);
  • Empathic imagination (the ability to see things, including ourselves, from the point of view of others);
  • Critical imagination (the ability to identify ways in which society and culture impact our thinking and understanding);
  • Fantasy (day-dreams, wishful thinking, creative visualisation, some forms of prayer).

I have detailed elsewhere how this relates to education and the need to both normalise and centralise imagination at all levels of schooling.4 Seeing how these ideas apply to Baha’i life is my next goal.

Creative imagination is the relatively easy part. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha encourages us to “be active and progressive in the field of inventions and the arts”5 and we can see that counsel carried out to its fullest in, for example, the works of painter Mark Tobey, poet Roger White, architect Fariborz Sahba, and musical duo Seals and Crofts, to name just a few.

But what of empathy, critical imagination, and fantasy?

Empathy is an act of imagination. To empathise with “the other” (another person, another group, or another culture) we need to make an effort to understand the world from their perspective – to see through their eyes. But again, we are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, we are asked to apply empathic imagination to the extreme of attempting to understand God “through His own eyes. Were ye to behold Him with the eyes of another, ye would never recognize and know Him”.6 But then, we read that “Man is not intended to see through the eyes of another, hear through another’s ears nor comprehend with another’s brain.”7 Taken out of context, these quotes could appear contradictory. I believe, however, that they are quite compatible. And when applied to daily life, empathic imagination is an essential tool in following the requirement to display equity, justice, mercy, compassion, and kindness “to every living soul”.8 Without putting ourselves into the shoes of “the Other”, our attempts to bring Baha’u’llah’s healing message to humanity may well be seen as presumptuous and arrogant.

Closely linked to empathy is critical imagination. We are all shaped by the social, political, and cultural forces that surround us and by developing greater insight and awareness of these forces, we can act to embrace and use those that are positive while rejecting those that are negative. Sounding like it comes from a Star Wars script (well, they had to get their source material from somewhere!), Shoghi Effendi describes yet another Force: a God-born revolutionising Force “acting even as a two-edged sword”9 simultaneously sundering age-old ties that cohere society while unloosing the bonds fettering the Baha’i Faith. Our ability to be critically aware is essential in perceiving this impact on society.

Finally, what I categorise as fantasy includes wishful thinking and day-dreaming. It is in this realm that “vain imagination” can be found and avoided. But it includes hope and that can be a kind of prayer, imagining something better for the world, or some of its inhabitants, or ourselves. Putting this into practice so that it leads to more than simply wishing, is the fifth of Shoghi Effendi’s five steps of prayer10: to act as though your prayer has been answered. Athletes may know this as creative visualisation, seeing themselves scoring the winning goal, hitting that hole-in-one, or holding the victor’s cup aloft.

What do you think of these categories of imagination? How have you applied imagination to your life, whether in searching for Truth, teaching the Faith, organising Baha’i administration, being professionally creative, or any other related area that illustrates the positive power of that great spiritual faculty of imagination? Please comment below or if you’d like to share your thoughts for a book I’m compiling, please contact me at [email protected]. May the Force (of imagination) be with you!

  1. Abdu’l-Baha,The Secret of Divine Civilization1875 []
  2. Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 317 []
  3. Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks []
  4. Bland, Derek, Imagination for Inclusion: Diverse context of educational practice, Routledge, 2016 []
  5. Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 129 []
  6. Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 152 []
  7. Abdu’l-Baha, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 151 []
  8. Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 158 []
  9. Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice, p. 47 []
  10. Ruth Moffet, Doa, the Call to Prayer, Carl Gore Printing, 1933 []
Posted by

Derek Bland

Derek and his wife, Linda, live and work in Brisbane, Australia. Both joined the Baha'i Faith over 40 years ago and are very pleased that their children have made that decision too. Derek has been involved in education at various levels, teaching art and, more recently, teaching and advocating inclusive education at tertiary level. Derek is now entering an exciting new phase of life centred on painting, writing, and applying a whole lot of imagination.
Derek Bland

Discussion 13 Comments

Idle fancies or functional fancies. Vain or effective.

Allen Warren

Allen Warren (January 1, 2017 at 9:23 PM)

Yes, vain when idle, but then effective (or functional) and potentially powerful when developed into creative imagination.

Derek Bland

Derek Bland (January 1, 2017 at 4:15 AM)

Thanks..edifying..much appreciated..

Rooplall Dudhnath.

Rooplall Dudhnath. (January 1, 2017 at 11:05 PM)

Einstein thinks imagination is more important than thinking. Because it is the mother of invention. I hope I quoted him correctly.

Firooz Oskooi

Firooz Oskooi (January 1, 2017 at 12:13 AM)

Hi Firooz. I’ve used Einstein’s quote a lot with my teacher education students. I first saw it on a school sign and thought how enlightened that school must be.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Derek Bland

Derek Bland (January 1, 2017 at 4:19 AM)

The idea for the new book sounds exciting. Do you have any guidelines for chapter authors?

Linda Shallcross

Linda Shallcross (January 1, 2017 at 1:09 AM)

Hi Linda. Thanks for asking! Prose and poems relating to Baha’i themes will be very welcome and you don’t have to be a great writer as I will help with that side of the process. In fact, you don’t have to be a writer at all but maybe a visual artist or photographer with work that shows imagination (e.g., inspiring gardens, buildings and sculptures; images of imaginative games) in a Baha’i context. And please spread the word to others you think would be interested in contributing an article. [email protected]

Written articles should be between 300 and 1000 words, using Microsoft Word (or compatible software), in 12pt font. Images should be clear and original work – any person shown in an image must give written consent for their image to be published).

Derek Bland

Derek Bland (January 1, 2017 at 4:23 AM)

A very stimulating article. The four categories of imagination thus described make much sense to me, and have led me to review my previous concepts in an exciting way. I will come back and review this article in the future to consider if and how my pre ions understandings have moved on. Many thanks.

Patricia Wilcox

Patricia Wilcox (January 1, 2017 at 3:20 AM)

Imagination has the power to change one’s reality. Thanks for the enlightening interaction.

Khoeli Pholosi

Khoeli Pholosi (January 1, 2017 at 12:03 PM)

Thanks Derek for such an enlightening article. I have always been a great believer in creative imagination and always encouraged my children in their imaginative pursuits, thus I have one daughter who is a professional artist and another who was a dancer and is now a teacher in USA specialising in literature for yeferentar 7. I myself trained as a printmaker and now I do painting and drawing in different media. So I believe that imagination is very important in children’s education and should be encouraged and given high priority. Thank you for your article and I look forward to reading more from you.

Wendy Jewell

Wendy Jewell (January 1, 2017 at 4:16 AM)

Thanks Wendy – it’s exciting to see our children (and grandchildren) following the lead of their imaginations. I have a son teaching creatively in the USA and a daughter involved in a major theatre venue here in Brisbane, so both in their own ways encouraging the imaginations of others through their professions as well as their Baha’i activities. I’d be very interested to know more about your artwork and your sources of inspiration.

Derek Bland

Derek Bland (January 1, 2017 at 8:15 AM)

Hi again Derek. You asked about my inspiration for my artwork. Mostly it is the environment, mostly the garden as well as the coast as I live at Wellington Point and recently I have been been doing some work from Russell Island where my daughter lives and works. She is also a great inspiration to me. but I also like to use my home environment. Maybe I will catch up with you personally one day as I am also a member of he Redland Baha’i community.

Wendy Jewell

Wendy Jewell (January 1, 2017 at 10:08 AM)

Not quite neighbours but pretty close! You are very fortunate to be surrounded by such an inspirational environment. Did you at one time live in the Wagga Wagga area?

Derek Bland

Derek Bland (January 1, 2017 at 12:38 AM)

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