As humans, we possess the capability to encounter in the present moment something that is outside of the present moment in a way that physically changes our brains.
It’s a little like having a superpower if you think about it.
As material beings, we live within the confines of space and time. Through our five senses, our brains collect data about what’s happening to us in the “here and now.”
So if you see something, you are seeing it in the here and now. If you feel something - the seat you're sitting in or the floor that you're standing on - that sensory experience is happening here and now.
But God, who is outside of space and time, wanted us to be able to encounter him even though he's beyond our “here and now.”
Enter the amazing gift of our imagination!
God designed us with this “sixth sense” of sorts which is capable of providing data that is not part of space and time to our brains. Through the gift of our imagination we can allow ourselves to be in a place beyond our current reality. What’s even more amazing is that study after study has shown that our ability to imagine has the power to affect us in a physical way.
Our imagination has the power to actually change our brains.
Consider meditative prayer. When we place ourselves into deeper spiritual realities through imaginative prayer and meditation, we go to a place outside of space and time and have a conversation that includes both the reality of this present moment, but then also something beyond. Through this experience, our brains are affected in a real and tangible way.
As an example, let’s say you're praying the rosary and you're meditating on the Joyful Mysteries. You begin praying with the Annunciation, letting your mind go to the place where Mary received that invitation from the angel Gabriel. You are putting yourself there with her, imagining what it was like for her to receive that message, that invitation. What was it like for her to be greeted as “full of grace”; what was it like for her to say yes? That's where you are in your mind as you're praying the rosary.
As you are holding the beads and saying the words in space and time, you're letting your mind go to a place that is beyond space and time. You're letting your brain encounter that reality through your imagination, in your mind thinking these thoughts, bringing up and creating this meditation. Through these encounters, our brains are affected!
Research makes it clear that our imaginations can change our brains, and this can help to resolve past wounds when applied to our experience.
Take, for instance, an experience of disappointment or hurt as a child - a time when we did not get the experience we would have wanted or needed, and we are missing something because of it. Through your imagination, you can actually go back to that experience and recreate the same kind of scenario, but now you can invite the presence of a healing resource.
Let’s say there was an experience you had in which you looked to your Mom to give you affirmation that you needed, but she instead responded in a way that was hurtful to you. Maybe you brought home a report card, looking forward to her excitement and affirmation of your hard work; instead you were ignored or brushed aside. You can actually go through a meditation in your imagination, imagining Mary as your mother, imagining that you bring home the report card to her. Instead of being ignored, Mary is looking at you, smiling. She’s beaming with pride and giving you so much affirmation and validation in that moment.
Having that experience in meditative prayer has a healing effect. That's the creative power of the imagination! It’s truly an incredible gift from God, and one that we have to guard against mis-using.
Because just as this “superpower” of ours can be used for good, it can also be hijacked and become problematic when our minds begin creating problems outside of space and time.
Rumination on events that happened in the past, or worry about imaginary scenarios we’ve created in our minds are ways this gift can be mis-used. If you close your eyes right now and start vividly imagining that you are in danger (maybe that your seat is on fire or that someone is breaking into your home) or even simply that your friend/parent/spouse/child is angry with you, you're most likely going to start to have an anxiety response.
Your imagination is that powerful! Our brains and our bodies react to the things presented to them through our imagination. That's how powerful this gift from God is.
So let’s stop letting the gift of our imagination get hijacked, and instead turn it towards a really beautiful way that God created to help us become better versions of ourselves.
For more on how amazing the gift of our imagination is, check out Episode #29 of the Being Human podcast: Three Ways the Imagination Can Help Us Understand God.