The Versatile Imagination: 3

Traveller, there is no road. You make your own path as you walk – Antonio Machado

When I get in the car to drive somewhere, first I have to bring to mind where I am going and how I am going to get there. Well, no: I might leave the second part to the sat-nav to work out for me. But for shorter or familiar journeys, I rely on my imagination to mentally map the way in advance. If I am preoccupied with other thoughts, I will find myself automatically taking my most habitual route instead. Then I will have to make an even more conscious effort to envision how to get where I want to go from here: a rapid shuffle of inner flashcards will give me snapshots of the route and get me back on track.  If I ask someone for directions, they will go through much the same imaginative process, searching their mental maps and images of the places in question, so that they can point the way. We can thank the imagination for our ability to remember, organise and plan.

Perhaps some people visualise a map, rather than a series of landmarks, to guide their journeys. Perhaps some hear an inner voice giving directions. Some may feel their way intuitively – this way feels more ‘right’ than that way. However you go about it, you first have to bring to mind an idea of where it is you want to go, and then – in imagination – link that place in your mind’s eye to where you are now. Otherwise, you must either set off at random or stay paralysed in the same place.

This knack of picturing a series of stages in advance works for almost anything you do. The more distinctly you can imagine the sequence of events first, the more smoothly you can bake a cake, teach a class, send an email, attend an interview, take an engine apart and put it together again. Imagine it first. Before starting any activity, imagine the process that will lead to the outcome you want. In effect, this is planning ahead, mentally mapping your use of time. Or it is planning backwards; starting with the outcome, and then imagining the steps needed to get there. Imagine it first allows you a preview, a swift mental rehearsal that will help you to meet a situation more effectively.

If you do not imagine first, you are more likely to drift, be late, feel unprepared or panicky. It means you are leaving it up to someone else to decide the outcome. A classroom experiment that had primary school children spend the last five minutes of every lesson quietly looking back on the lesson just finished and thinking ahead about the coming one, found that they were more alert and focused when they moved on from one class to the next.

Imagining an outcome in advance does not guarantee that events will turn out that way. You can picture your desired goals as much as you like, but unless you can make some mental link leading from here to there, they will be no more than castles in the air. At the start of my journey, it is not by picturing the destination that I want to reach that I will know how to get there, but by mentally reviewing, or previewing, the stages on the way, the turnings I need to take, the landmarks to look out for, the time to allow.

Whether you have a doctor’s appointment, or are going shopping, or have a list of tasks to get through today, imagine them first. Have you asked yourself what outcome you actually want? It is surprising how often events turn out much as you sketched them out for yourself to begin with. It is perhaps more surprising how often we plunge into decisions and actions without first framing to ourselves what we want to achieve by them. If you are unsure what exactly you hope or intend, at least you can imagine yourself feeling gratified by the end result. Then, picture the process that got you there. What has to happen first, to get to where you want to go?