The greatest crisis of our lives is not economic, intellectual, or even what we usually call religious. It is a crisis of imagination. We are getting stuck on our paths because we are unable to re-imagine our lives differently than they are right now. We hold on desperately to the status quo, afraid that if we let go, we will be swept away by the torrential undercurrents of our emptiness. The most important thing in the world, implies wisdom master Nachman of Bratzlav, is to be willing to give up who you are for who you might become. He calls this process the giving up of pnimi to reach for makkif. Pnimi, for Master Nachman, means the old familiar things that you hold onto slavishly, even when they no longer serve you on your journey. Makkif is that which is beyond you, which you can only reach if you are willing to take a leap into the abyss.
Find your risk, and you will find yourself. Sometimes that means leaving your home, your father’s house, and your birthplace and traveling to strange lands.
Both the Buddha and the biblical Abraham do this quite literally. But for the Kabbalist, the true journey does not require dramatic breaks with past and home. It is rather a journey of the imagination. In the simple and literal meaning of the biblical text, Abraham’s command is Lech Lecha… “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house.” Unpacked by the Zohar, it is taken to mean not “Go forth,” but “Go to yourself.” The journey is inwards, the vehicle–imagination.
It is only from this inside place that we can truly change our outside. It is only in the fantasy of re-imagining that we can change our reality. The path of true wisdom is not necessarily to quit your job, leave your home, and travel across the country. Often, such a radical break is a failure rather than fulfillment of imagination. True wisdom is to change your life from where you are. Through the power of imagination.
Virtually every crisis at its core is a failure of imagination. Two simple examples serve the point. Some years back, I took off three years from “spiritual teaching” to get a sense of what the world tasted like as a householder. All my life, I had studied and taught the Hebrew wisdom tradition of Torah. Talmud, Midrash, Luria, Zohar, and Bible were my best friends. I was driven to teach–to touch people’s lives and to offer a path to transformation. But what were the deep sources of my drive? Was my faith real? Or was I merely on a very sophisticated form of autopilot? In order to find out, I took off three years to experience the world from a different place. I took a job at a hi-tech company, and from that non-demanding perch, began to re-think my life and beliefs.
During this period, I did a bit of consulting with Israeli hi-tech start-up firms. Truth is, I had little good advice to offer, but some of the hi-tech entrepreneurs who had been my students would call me anyway. At one point, I received a call from a small start-up firm in Ramat Gan, Israel. The problem: they were almost out of venture capital, their market window seemed to be rapidly closing, and their R&D team was simply not keeping pace with their need for solutions.
Apparently, the problem lay with the elevator. The company was on the top floor of an old warehouse. The elevator was small, hot, and inordinately pungent. By the time the R&D teams would get through the daily morning gauntlet of the elevator, they had lost some of their creative sparkle. The president was convinced that this dulled their edge just enough to slow down the speed and elegance of their solutions. What to do? Again, I have to confess to you, dear reader, that I had not the slightest idea.
Our meeting was on Friday. As was my custom, I went home for the Sabbath and consulted with my own private consultant, my son Eitan. Now, you need to know that Eitan has two important pastimes – one is reading and the other is making fun of his father. So when I asked him what I should tell the company, he laughed and said, somewhat mockingly, “It’s simple, Dad–Cookies.” I did not find this particularly funny. I raised this subject with him several times, and each time he would only respond, with maddening gravitas, “Cookies.”
Finally, I gave up on him. Several days later, I went to tell the president I had found no solution. I was going up the same malodorous elevator when in a blinding flash I realized what Eitan meant. Cookies! Of course! While the rest of us were stuck in an impossible dilemma, Eitan had naturally paradigm shifted. We were all focused on elaborate ways to fix the elevator or to move locations. Eitan–with the simple brilliance of a child–reminded us of the true issue at stake. The crux of the matter was not the elevator, it was how the R&D team felt when they left the elevator. What to do? Cookies. We set up a table with juices, fruit and healthy cookies right outside of the elevator. So, even though the ride up the elevator was terrible, people would spend the whole ride in eager anticipation of the goodies that awaited them. A simple paradigm shift inspired by re-imagining.
Free to Dream, Dream to Free
Biblical myth masters tell us that the Exodus began with a man who had a dream. He was a man by the name of Nun, a Hebrew slave under Egyptian rule. One morning, he awoke, stunned by his night imaginings. He had dreamed what seemed to be the unimaginable. He saw a time when the Hebrews were free! More than free, they were warriors responsible for the dignity of their own destiny. News of the dream spread. It is said that the hope enflamed by this vision unleashed the dynamics of revolution, which ultimately led to freedom.
Although it would take many years for it to become real in the world of realpolitik, this was the true beginning of the Exodus. Slavery ends when we can re-imagine ourselves as free men and women. Nun is no one other than the father of Joshua, successor to Moses, who led the people into the Promised Land. All freedom begins with our willingness to stand and say, “I have a Dream!” And, even if we don’t get to the Promised Land, we may well set into motion currents of redemption that will eventually heal our world. If we don’t get there, our children will. Nun’s entire generation died out before reaching Canaan. Yet, all of his grandchildren grew up in the Promised Land.
Prophet of imagination Nikos Kazantzakis writes, “You have your brush and your colors, paint paradise, then in you go.” This is a near perfect description of the spirit animating the biblical myth ritual that yearly celebrates the Exodus from Egypt. Every year on the anniversary of the Hebrew Exodus, which is celebrated in the Jewish holiday of Passover, people gather for a uniquely dramatic biblical myth ritual, Passover. Unlike the Fourth of July or other freedom anniversaries, it revolves not around commemoration, but imagination.
The guiding principle of the holiday is that every person is obligated to see him/herself as if they left Egypt. This talmudic epigram, the guiding mantra of the ritual, is unpacked by the Kabbalists as an invitation to personal re-imagining of the most fantastic kind. You are in Egypt–your own personal Egypt. Egypt, in Hebrew, literally means ‘the narrow places,’ the constricted passageway of our life’s flow. Egypt, kabbalistically said to incarnate the throat, symbolizes all the words that remain stuck there, the words we never speak. The stories of our lives that remain unlived, unsung, unimagined.
We are slaves. Slavery for the kabbalist is primarily a crisis of imagination. Consequently, the healing of slavery is a ritual of imagination. For an entire evening, we become dramatists, choreographers, and inspired actors. We re-imagine our lives as the first step on our path to freedom. As George Bernard Shaw reminds us, “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire; you will what you imagine; and at last you create what you will.”
God is the possibility of possibility–limitless imagination. The first of the ten commandments is “I am God.” When this God is asked to identify himself, He responds, “I will be what I will be.” That is, “You cannot capture me in the frozen image of any time or place. To do so would be to destroy me.” It would be to violate the second commandment against idolatry.
Idolatry is the freezing of God in a static image. To freeze God in an image is to violate the invitation of the imagination. It is to limit possibility.
Children who play in fountains are the guardians of the imagination. They know of the gibberish and flow quality of words, qualities nourished by the imagination. Almost all children at some point write poetry until someone tells them their poems are not good enough or not serious enough. Then, they become adults.
My niece just shared with me a new book of poetry written by 11-year-old Mattie Stepanek. Mattie has a rare and fatal form of muscular dystrophy. He is not the first in his family to have it. Each one of his three brothers and sisters before him has had it, and each one has died of it. His mother, too, has found out that she shares the disease. Mattie is an ambassador from the world of childhood as well as from the world of pain. The following poem is called “Faces of Faith”:
Everyone is born with a Heartsong,
But as we grow up,
Sometimes we forget about it,
Because we don’t listen to it enough.
And the people of war, well,
They really need to get them back.
Their Heartsongs really need to live,
Because when we die,
They are what rise up…
I will remember to listen to my Heartsong.
I will remind others, especially the grown-ups,
To listen to their Heartsongs, too.
And for the people who have forgotten theirs,
I will share mine with them.
We seek to save our children, to protect them from what psychology has termed the “magical thinking” of their imaginings. Yet, perhaps they are the ones saving us, protecting us, from our “rational thinking” and lack of imagining—sharing with us their Heartsongs.
Little Jane comes to us in tears. “I wished Tommy would get hurt, and he did. But I didn’t mean it.” We comfort little Jane, wanting her to know that she is not responsible for the accident that happened to Tommy. And, we are partially right, but only partially. The essential intuition of the child needs to be validated and not explained away. Our kids need to know that they are powerful. They can re-imagine the world. For good or for evil–to hurt or to heal.
Imagination is essential to responsibility. We need to nurture our infancy, our in-fancy, to encourage its power rather than undermine it with scoffing and ridicule. It is for this reason that we intuitively look for our children to create a better tomorrow for all of us. Hebrew tradition interprets the word banim to mean both “children” and “builders.”
Children are always building imaginary realms, constructing fortresses and castles with such exquisite imaginary aptitude. Dashing around as superheroes, saving banks from robbers and the like, is the lifeblood of children. We have long since forgotten our true nature as agents of transformation.
We have forgotten that we are superheroes. Eaten away by moths, our capes are long forgotten at the backs of our closets. Birds don’t fly because they have wings, they have wings because they fly. We are what we imagine ourselves to be. The wings always come in good time. We need to reclaim our capes of holy imagination and heal our fear of flying.