YSP 1.9 — shabda jnana anupati vastu shunyah vikalpah
Fantasy or imagination (vikalpa) is a thought pattern that has verbal expression and knowledge, but for which there is no such object or reality in existence.
Tonight, if it’s a clear night outside, look up. The sky will be dominated by that closest of celestial bodies, so familiar that we rarely account for it in our consciousness. The moon, just three days off its fullness, is reflecting back to us the light of the sun that drives all life on this planet. Give yourself a five minute break from everything and just look at the autumn moon tonight and when you do, remember this: the moon has footprints on it.
If memory serves correct, the moon has a couple of golf balls as well, along with some ATV tracks. The reason they are there is at the heart of today’s sutra. Human minds are blessed (or cursed) with imagination. We can envision a reality that exists only within our minds. As Albert Einstein said “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”
It wasn’t until I started writing this column that I realized how much I take imagination for granted. I’ve never really examined how much impact is has on my daily life. All our creative acts, whether they are acts of engineering or paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, start in the mind through the function of imagination. For centuries, humans have looked up in the sky and wondered the nature of that softly glowing orb. On July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong took that one giant leap for mankind and walked for all of us on its dusty gray surface. His trip was made possible by the power of human imagination and ingenuity.
Every single thing around me right now – the computer I’m writing this on, the chair I’m sitting on, the coffee cup I’m drinking from — exists in the material world because someone, somewhere, imagined its existence. Right now, I can’t think of any aspect of my life that’s untouched by human imagination.
To the best of our knowledge, imagination is something that is uniquely human. It’s not just engineering and art that springs from our imagination. Physically, we are a weak animal and we’re not very fast either. Despite our physical limitations, we have become the dominant life form on this planet (well, it’s not like bacteria count…) because of our uniquely human imaginations. Our survival as a species is closely linked to our innate ability to imagine ourselves in the circumstances of another. This is the foundation of social relationships and understandings. Empathy and compassion are the products of imagination. We can imagine all kinds of possible futures, including the one John Lennon gave us, where there is “no hell below us and above us only sky, imagine all the people living for today.”
Of course, human imagination hasn’t always lead to positive outcomes. Western culture is still trying to grapple with the consequences of one despotic megalomaniac who envisioned a Europe without any Jewish people in it. We have the power to imagine not only the wonderful but also the depraved. In and of itself, imagination is neutral. It’s how we use it and respond to it that makes it either positive or negative. We can use it to dream of things wonderful not yet made manifest or we can build the prison walls of our own Hell with it. Hallucinations and psychotic breaks with reality would all be examples of imaginations that increase our suffering.
Without going to this extreme, I find myself frequently engaged in problems that originate in my imagination. At many times in my life, I have used my imagination to create real suffering for myself. I’ve dreamt up all manner of imagined perils that could beset me or those I love. These imaginings engage my emotions and I feel real pain. I’m suffering based on an injury that exists only in my imagination.
Just to recap, in this section of the Yoga Sutras, we’ve examined three of the five functions of mind and forms of knowledge listed by Patanjali. The first two were thoughts concerning things that exist in reality. We either see them correctly or we perceive them incorrectly. This aphorism is different in that its subject is those things that have no corresponding item in reality. They can be thoughts, emotions, or images.
For the record, yogic tradition includes dreams while sleeping in the vikalpa category. I find this very interesting that dreams are seen as a valid form of knowledge and understanding.
Next week, I’ll be moving on to ‘dreamless’ sleep (nidra) as a form of knowledge. Until then, thanks for reading and Namaste,