9 Ways to Cultivate a Beneficial Imagination, With Some Help From C.S. Lewis

If you think imagination is only for artists or creatives, think again. I believe we're all artists in one way or another, with gifts that can be enhanced and developed through imaginative growth. These ideas offer some hints on how to access the imagination in a world that doesn't often value or encourage its beneficial growth or see it as a viable source of information about truth and reality equal to what reason can provide. Like anything else, the imagination atrophies if it is not used well. I believe our collective imagination has atrophied to the point where we no longer trust it and relegate it to the realm of make-believe. Author C.S. Lewis had a different understanding that allowed imagination an equal place on the scale with reason. And it is this understanding that I believe is vital for us to recover. 

1. Value the Imagination.

C.S. Lewis possessed a nuanced understanding of the imagination. That is, he believed it was not simply one thing or one entity. It had facets, like a gemstone, and each facet provided a different way to understand reality. Our culture sees imagination as the realm of make-believe, that world of children and stories, but ultimately false. Lewis didn't believe this was the case. He believed that the imagination could be used for both good and evil, but ultimately, if rightly used, it enabled us to understand truths about reality in a way reason could never provide. This was especially true for Lewis in matters of faith. Our starting point must be to believe that the imagination offers us more than simply make-believe, that somehow the history of art and creativity point to something more than merely the imaginary.

2. Throw Your Phone Into the Ocean. 

I stole this one from writer Austin Kleon. His idea is more directly related to reading, but the principle applies to imagination as well. If we turn off our devices from time to time, it puts us in a more receptive and less distracted mood. When we aren't receiving tons of stimuli from our phones, our minds are free to wander, to be more open to possibility and creativity. 

3. Slow Down.

Our hyper-connected and hyper-busy culture doesn't encourage us to climb up on a rock above the current and let the world go by. Others might think we are old-fashioned, and we ourselves might think we are being left behind, but this is simply one of the deepest habits of the digital mind. Constant change is the new constant. If it doesn't move, it dies. Constant movement is antithetical to reflection and the space to allow creativity to flourish. Why not take a couple hours on a day when the sky is full of great cloudscapes to simply lie on your back and stare and drift. Often times the best ideas come to us when we step outside of the stream. C.S. Lewis used to walk for miles in the country or spend hours upon hours reading. Charles Dickens did the same thing. In fact, Dickens would do much of his writing while walking these great distances.

4. Look Carefully. Listen. Focus.

Separate from the expected. Wonder. Dive more deeply into something you're interested in. Look at the common things you take for granted. A tree contains a great number of mysteries. A telephone pole has the story of its life stamped on its side. A stop sign has eight sides for a reason. These are trivial examples, but when you look more closely at any given thing, you begin to see a deeper story and greater revealed truths. Developing a beneficial imagination means allowing for not only freedom, but the discipline of focus. Lewis called this type of seeing or looking the satisfied imagination. This type of imagination found delight in the familiar and the mundane.

5. Explore the Path Less Traveled.

Robert Frost was right. Practice directed serendipity. Discover what you didn’t know you wanted and needed. Begin with no idea of the end. Minimize the rational and logical. Author John Stilgoe writes, “Ordinary exploration begins in casual indirection, in the juiciest sort of indecision, in deliberate, then routine fits of absence of mind.” Allow yourself to wander, to drift. This could be a physical wandering, a mental wandering or a digital wandering. The important thing is to begin with something intriguing and then let it take you on a journey with an unknown destination. Who knows what you'll find.

6. Kill the Critic.

Don't create and analyze at the same time. I can't tell you how many times my internal critic has quelled an idea before I even had time to think about it. Unfortunately, the critic will always have a voice, but the goal is to create regardless of what it tells you. Let it babble in the background while you continue to create. Once you learn how to tune it out, you'll be able to develop ideas without judgment. The critic will come in handy after you've had time to flesh out your idea, but not before. 

7. Go Analog. 

Our imaginations have been hijacked for so long by the onslaught of digital technologies that we often feel lost without them. They have become our brains. As difficult as it can be to separate, it is a necessary exercise from time to time. You will access a different facet of your imagination by rediscovering pen and paper and glue and colored pencils and a pair of scissors. Writing by hand activates a different part of your mind than typing on a computer keyboard. 

8. Share with Others.

Imagination shared in community can be a great thing. Even if it's a spouse or one other friend, sharing ideas not only helps us to think more accurately about what we've created, but can enable someone else to see something differently. We are limited by our own understandings, and we need the eyes of others. And others can spark ideas in ourselves that we would never have thought of. Lewis was part of a famous group of men called the Inklings who gathered regularly in Lewis's rooms smoke pipes and share their creative works with each other and receive feedback.

9. Trouble Getting Ideas?

Borrow someone else's idea and let it be the starting point. Then improve on it and create your own take. C.S. Lewis himself did this when he rewrote the myth of Cupid and Psyche and published it as Til We Have Faces. Even in The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis was drawing on all sorts of myths and outside sources. Author Austin Kleon believes that all art is theft. We simply borrow what others have done and add our own viewpoint. 

Want to know more about C.S. Lewis's imagination? Click below to get two free chapters from The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis.