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Fantasy vs. Imagination: YSP 1.9


About a month ago now, I was working with YSP 1.9 — shabda jnana anupati vastu shunyah vikalpah – fantasy or imagination as a thought pattern or form of knowledge for which there is not corresponding object in reality. In other words, it’s about the stuff that exists in our heads.

Today’s Daily Dharma over at Tricycle Review made me think about this for a little further clarification. It’s a quote from Norman Fischer on the subject. He did such a great job of putting the ideas together, I’m just going to quote him outright.

Imagination draws its energy from a confrontation with desire. It feeds off desire, transmuting and magnifying reality through desire’s power. Fantasy does the opposite; it avoids desire by fleeing into a crude sort of wish-fulfillment that seems much safer. Fantasy might be teddy bears, lollipops, sexual delights, or superhero adventures; it also might be voices in one’s head urging acts of outrage and mayhem. Or it might be the confused world of separation and fear we routinely live in, a threatening yet seductive world that promises us the happiness we seek when our fantasies finally become real. Imagination confronts desire directly, in all its discomfort and intensity, deepening the world right where we are. Fantasy and reality are opposing forces, but imagination and reality are not in opposition: Imagination goes toward reality, shapes and evokes it.

Gosh, I wish I had said that.  Fischer really encapsulates the issue. Imagination is working out the possible. It’s mentally trying on various options. It’s our intelligent planning function. If I want to go to Halifax to visit my sister, I need gas for the car. In order to put gas in the car, I need to save some gas money from my paycheque. This is the elementary common sense that most of us use on a daily basis. Without imagining potential futures, nothing would be accomplished. We would continually be surprised by the most routine consequences of our actions. Imagination is an important tool to use for the skilful navigation of our own lives.

These days I’m making course selections at UNB and given my recent health status, I have to imagine myself in various scenarios. I think about the demands of a night or evening course, and I foresee that I won’t have the energy to do it justice. Actually, these kind of decisions are an interplay between imagination and memory. I check with my recollection of past night classes and imagine trying to do them in my current state and figure out that this isn’t such a good plan for this year. In this case, imagination is linked to reality and it serves me well. Used this way, it reduces my suffering and increases the ease and well-being of my life.

Getting lost in fantasy, on the other hand, frequently ends in disaster. I once had a close girlfriend who descended so far into the world of fantasy that she completely lost touch with reality. What in smaller doses would have been a bit of mindless amusement became genuine mental illness. She ended up losing her house, friends, trashed her credit rating, lost a job, burned her bridges at possibility for the re-education and training she desperately needed. Her suffering increased exponentially as did the suffering endured by her two children. All of this came about because she was using her mind’s fantasy function to flee “into a crude sort of wish-fulfillment that seem[ed] much safer” instead of imagining a realistic and possible future.

At the time, I lacked the wisdom to intervene. I still regret my non-action, although I must admit I really didn’t know what to do at the time. I didn’t appreciate until much later how desperately ill she had been and by the time I realized it was more than just a little personality quirk, the damage had been exacted on her life, and regrettably on the lives of her two children.

This episode of my biography is one of the reasons I try to be so exacting about thought and the means of knowledge. My wrong thinking at the time allowed a great deal of harm to happen. That memory informs me to this day. I like to imagine that the next time it arises in my life, I will react from a place of greater discernment and wisdom. That doesn’t mean the end results will differ – but bringing the topic back to this week’s discussion on abhyasa and vairagya, my job is to put in the effort and let go of the results. The end of the story is not mine to write and I’m good with that.

Thanks for reading and Namaste,




About Kate MacKay

I'm a certified Viniyoga teacher, in Fredericton, NB. I was a 9-1-1 operator and emergency services dispatcher for 22 years. Surprisingly, the two worked well together, or as I liked to put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous -- all in a day's work. I'm currently off work as a result of a stress-induced cardiac condition that's thrown a few crimps in my lifestyle. I'm not actively teaching yoga in the classroom right now and probably won't for several more months. That said, this blog is one of the forms of practice I can do and I thank you for joining me in this exploration of all things yoga.

5 responses »

  1. hello kate! love reading your posts, as always. i thought quite a bit about this one. fantasy i suppose in a way, is imagining a different reality to an extreme? it’s always a fine line between someone who succeeds in his/her crazy dreams and someone who is plain crazy and ungrounded in reality – sometimes it seems success (or failure) determines someone’s sanity (with regard to business and life-career fantasies at least).

    i suppose there are constructive fantasies and destructive ones? sometimes i do find the world has too much of “you can be whatever you imagine” but yet undeniably some fantasy-like things have happened (as in modern technologty, etc). i suppose for yogis, two criteria for whether a fantasy might be going down an ok path, is whether i) the outcome will serve someone other than ourselves, and ii) whether it will help us achieve some form of peace of mind.

    maybe… and lollipops i suppose don’t quite fit in that criteria haha.

  2. Great to hear from you Michael. How was your trip??

    I think you’re right about the criteria — who does it serve and does it increase or decrease our suffering? I think the point the ancient philosophers were making was imagination is powerful and can be used both for good and for bad. We need to develop the discernment to use it wisely.

    Thanks for stopping in. As always, great to hear from you.



  3. Kate,

    Fantasy is more than wishful thinking, it is filling your mind with not just how great things might be, but actually thinking how great things are; imagining that you already “won” and believing what your are dreaming about is real… for awhile. You escape from your reality, whether from fear, depression, or just an empty spot. It may well be motivated because you feel safer there, but I think it may also be because you need the relief.

    Relief is important for a moment, but when one starts to depend on it, or if it becomes pathological, a replacement for that most important of characteristics of a fully functioning person, then it crowds out opportunity for growth through imagination.

    Imagination is a tool for the expansion of the spirit and passion in one’s life. No other lesson or academic course can serve its true purpose without it, and with it, we are in a much better place to, as you say, “… workout the possibilities.” And, for all of us there are so many possibilities.

    You make me look, you make me think, you make me imagine…

    Thanks and Namaste…
    Lawson Meadows

    • Lawson:

      You’re right on the money as usual. Good to hear from you as always but I’m really liking your opening point: Fantasy is more than wishful thinking!!



  4. dear kate, the trip was quite a trip! there were some good things and some bad things, as usual with a trip that long (6 weeks), but was pretty glad to come back in one piece. it is pretty amazing how people survive there in such inhospitable conditions – the tibetans are like the fremen in dune, in some ways. however, big changes are coming as roads are vastly improving. some tibetans love it – modern conveniences are a godsend; others hate it – chinese or not-chinese, modernizing is seen to be an evil influence.

    if ur interested, feel free to check out some of the pix here! (under inner mongolia 2010 and tibet 2010)



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