Read the updated version of this post here: Active Hope and Imagining a New Future
How much time have you wasted staring out of the window today? If you want to be productive, then the answer should be – a lot!
Freud dismissed daydreams as infantile wish-fulfilment, but now we know they actually make us more creative and productive. Daydreaming allows the unconscious to come up with solutions to problems, often while we’re busy doing something boring, like the washing up or our day jobs. One study has shown that our minds wander 47% of the time while we’re awake. It’s probably higher in my case, especially when I’m meditating 😉
Daydreaming is usually seen as a waste of time. We’re supposed to be efficient, hard-working cogs in the machine, not idling our lives away on silly dreams. Our culture values hard-nosed realism and objective facts. If something can’t be measured and defined in strictly logical terms, then it doesn’t exist. Dreams and imagination can’t be pinned down – they’re not ‘real’ – so they don’t matter.
Many of us are discouraged from using our imagination at school, where the focus is on remembering facts and figures, and passing tests. We worry about how literate and numerate our children are, but ignore their dreams.
Everything starts in our imagination
The devaluation of imagination is one of the many blind spots of our materialist culture. Limiting ourselves to the facts and what we already know means we can only deal with familiar situations. This way of thinking assumes the future will be more or less like the present. But we have no idea what the future will bring. The only way to see where we’re heading, beyond the immediate horizon, is to imagine it.
Everything that we have created or achieved, was imagined first. To change a situation we must imagine alternatives. To overcome a challenge we must imagine new possibilities. Our dreams and hopes for the future give us something to aim for and a direction to move in. And when we hit obstacles or experience setbacks, a vision of the future can inspire us to keep going.
These achievements were once dismissed as hopeless dreams:
- The ending of the slave trade
- Women having a vote
- An African American as president of the United States
Okay, so we still have slavery, and women are still abused and oppressed even in countries where they have the vote, and young black men still get shot by white policemen for no reason…
We have a long way to go before our imagined world matches the ‘real’ one.
Three Stories, Three Futures
In part one of this series (Spiritual Revolution: The Story of Our Time) we looked at three stories that are shaping our world today: Business As Usual; The Great Unravelling; and The Great Turning. Each of these stories imagines the future in a different way:
Business As Usual sees the future as one of continuing growth. The world looks the same as it does now, perhaps with a few tweaks to keep the liberals happy, like better healthcare or faster broadband. This version of the future is delusional and betrays a failure of imagination (and commonsense). If you don’t understand why, read this.
The Great Unravelling sees the future as one of terminal decline. As climate change takes hold, civilisation will collapse and our world will descend into a dystopian nightmare of police states, absolute surveillance, starvation and misery. A bit like North Korea, but probably worse. This version of the future seems more certain every day. Need convincing? Read this.
The Great Turning sees the future as one of sustainability and hope. It recognises the fears and potential reality of The Great Unravelling, but is willing to work to prevent it. This version of the future seems unrealistic and impossible, but is it?
You may say I’m a dreamer…
The consequences of doing nothing about our current predicament (i.e. staying with Business As Usual) are horrifying and will bring about the end of civilisation as we know it. Industrial society will breakdown at some point anyway, either because the economy collapses when we hit the end of growth, or because climate change overwhelms our ability to adapt. This could happen sooner than we think.
How can mere dreams help us here?
The only sensible course of action is to transition into a more sustainable way of living together on this planet. To do this, we must first imagine the future and believe it’s possible. Our vision must be compelling and inspiring enough to keep us motivated when things get tough (and it’ll get extremely tough). We must really want the vision to happen. It isn’t enough to just think about it. The vision, and the intention behind it, must have emotional heft.
In other words, it must be personal.
“Because we can never know for sure how the future will turn out, it makes more sense to focus on what we’d like to have happen, and then to do our bit to make it more likely. That’s what Active Hope is all about.” – Active Hope
It’s important to find a vision that is personally inspiring to you. Listen for the vision that calls to you most strongly and resonates with your particular blend of personality traits, strengths and weaknesses. It makes no sense to force yourself to do things you don’t believe in or that feel wrong to you, even if they may be right for someone else.
The following process of finding a vision can be applied to anything, not just saving the world! Whenever you need to make an important change in your life, you can imagine solutions before you try them out. A practice called ‘imaginary hindsight’ may be helpful here: you approach a problem by imagining that it’s already been solved and then look back to now from the imagined future. Taking this approach, the solutions you come up with will be more creative and detailed. You also get the added benefit of knowing what your future achievement feels like and this can help to keep you motivated.
There are three stages to finding an inspiring vision:
- My Role?
Start by looking at a specific situation and imagining what you would like to see happen. Don’t allow yourself to be put off by thoughts like: it’s not possible, that could never happen in a million years, and so on.
Next, work backwards from your vision of the future to discern the steps needed to get you there. Note the various possible paths by which the steps can take place – there’s usually more than one way forward in any situation.
Finally, work out what you can do to help the vision come about.
For example: a vision of a life-sustaining society might include things like clean air, renewable energy, processes for dealing with conflict, lifestyles of voluntary simplicity, etc. For each of these possibilities, you can break it down further. So to achieve clean air you would need fewer cars and trucks, no incinerators, scrubbers on smokestacks, more renewable energy investment, more concern about the health impacts of air pollution, etc. Again, each of these ideas can be broken down into steps. So to get fewer cars and trucks you would need bicycle lanes, pedestrian malls, higher fuel prices, more public transport, more carpooling, etc.
You can keep going with this, breaking each component down into steps, until you find something you can act upon now. An obvious possibility for the above example would be to pledge to use your car less, to walk more or take public transport, use a bicycle, organise a carpool at work or for your child’s school, etc.
On their own these actions may seem trivial, but embedding them within a larger vision and seeing how they contribute towards building a better world, can motivate you to make the necessary changes to your own life. There’s no guarantee that your vision will become a reality, but when you allow yourself to be guided by hope it makes that future more likely.
We are all part of a larger consciousness that is dreaming us into being. There is a deeper intelligence at work behind our current crisis, and when you catch an inspiring vision you are being called to take action on behalf of that intelligence.
We will live together, or not at all.
In the final part of this series we bring our imagination down to earth in Learning to Fly: How We Can Change the World