To balance out some of the abstract theological matters discussed in the last post, this evening I'll be introducing another practical exercise for use in cultivating the imagination. This is an old trick, but there are lots of ways it can be used.
The basic trick is that when you imagine things with more of your senses involved in the image, the experience becomes more intense and immersive. Here's a simple example: imagine the smell of buttered popcorn. It seems kinda vague if you try to do it with just that. But now add in the sound of it popping. The smell becomes a little easier to recall, right? Now recall how it looks, how it feels to lift a small handful out of the bowl and into your mouth, and take a bite. The imaginary smell becomes a lot more vivid as you do this.
This works for all of your senses. Try imagining the sound of raindrops. For some people this comes more easily than for others. But if you add to that image the feel of dampness in the air and the smell of rain, the sound gets stronger. Bring in the feel of raindrops falling on your head, and the image of them splashing on the ground, and perhaps the taste you remember from catching them in your mouth when you were a kid, and you can definitely hear the sound of rain in your mind.
So as you can see, the imaginary senses (that is, the faculties for perceiving imagined things) work in synergy with each other, just like the real senses do. And just like you can train your visual acuity, refine your palate, or develop an ear for music, you can improve the depth, richness, and fluidity of your imaginary senses. And fortunately, it's actually easier to do this than it is to fine-tune your senses for the physical, since you don't have to travel around to seek out diverse stimuli.
What follows is a simple exercise for the imaginary senses. First I'll present the skeleton of it, then I'll suggest possible elaborations. If you come up with some neat ways to enrich it in your own practice, I'm eager to hear them in the comments!
So here are the basics: get each of your senses involved with each imagined object, and imagine objects that fit into different categories. We'll use the categories of food, tools, devices, plants, animals, people, and landscapes. (Yeah, the distinction between a tool and a device is sorta fuzzy, but it's easy to tell that a computer is a device and a hammer is a tool. For a limiting case, the movable type used in a printing press is a tool, but the press itself is a device.)
Now, you don't have to, but you might find you are more capable of getting deeply involved with these imagined objects if you use the relaxation exercise I posted the other day, or one of your own choosing, before you start imagining these things. That will help direct your attention away from your immediate surroundings and your physical body and make it easier to imagine yourself interacting with these things. By no means is it a requirement to see what this exercise can do, though. It may also help to close your eyes when you're doing this, but with practice that won't be necessary.
Let's start with food. We already did popcorn, so let's try something less processed. I really like oranges, so we'll go with that for the example. First imagine the look of an unpeeled orange. It's probably around the size of your fist, and hopefully it's orange. It's got those little pores on it, and if you imagine holding it while you're looking at it, you can feel them. Imagine digging your fingernail into it, and the feel of peeling it. Recall the subtle sound of orange peel tearing, and the smell that releases into the air as you do so. Now that a peeled orange is in front of you, look closely at its surface, how part of the whitish peel remains in some spots but you can see through to the orange part of the fruit in other spots. Feel the texture of the peeled orange, and take a close whiff. Now separate it into halves with your thumbs, and hear the sound. Take a section off (hearing that sound too) and bite it. Taste it, and feel the juices - some of them dripping down your chin perhaps, most of them releasing into your mouth. Finish the delicious imaginary orange if you want to. It's just as tart or sweet as you'd like it to be.
Next let's move on to the tool. Let's imagine a retractable ball-point pen with a clicker. You can imagine what it looks like, or what it feels like, first, but soon you'll have both in your mind. Feel the weight of it, and maybe twirl it in your fingers if you like - make sure to see and feel this process. Now try pressing the clicker. Feel the resistance of it, and hear the sound. Maybe go a little stir crazy clicking it rapidly, the sort of thing that would drive one of your teachers from high school crazy. See the tip of the pen stick out with every other click, and remember how the clicker's resistance alternates, too. Now imagine a sheet of paper and make a big fat scribble on it with the pen. Feel the texture of the paper in your hands and hear the sound of it as you move it to your nose, and smell the ink and paper together.
For the device, don't imagine your computer if you're sitting in front of it - that's too easy. Instead, imagine a microwave. Look at it and feel the texture of the plastic and metal. Press one of the buttons (or several) and hear the beep and feel the resistance of it. Open the door of it. Now take one of those orange sections from earlier (or something else, if you ate them all) and put it in the microwave. Put it on high for 30 seconds, close the door, and start it. Listen to the vrooming sound, and watch the plate slowly rotate. Listen for that high-pitched squealing as the pressure builds up inside the orange section. Now turn the microwave up to extra high (an imaginary setting). Watch the orange section explode! Now before you're done with it, open the door and smell the hot orange juice all over the interior. Hopefully you'll imagine a clean microwave next time you need one.
Now it's time for a plant. If you spend some time browsing Wikipedia you can learn a lot about the life cycles of various plants, but for the example we'll try something basic and familiar, the oak tree. Start with an image of the general shape of this oak tree - does the trunk split low to the ground, or higher up? Are its leaves fresh, dry, or gone? Now feel the bark. It's got a pretty distinctive texture. You can chip off a small piece of the bark if you like. Imagine that the wind blows, so the leaves (if there are any) rustle, and the further branches creak. If it's a suitable shape, try climbing it. Now get a ladder and a saw and trim one of its far branches. Hear the sound of the saw and the feel the friction of it against the tree. Smell the sawdust. You can also imagine planting one of its acorns, and moving quickly through time so that you can watch the new tree grow up. Imagine how the tree's roots feel, in constant embrace with the ground.
This next one is always a joy for me. I'm sure you get the basics of the exercise by now, so we'll gloss through a bit. Let's go with a big frog. It's got a somewhat slimy skin texture and a degree of suppleness to its flesh, and you can imagine it leaping out of your hands if you like. It's also got that distinctive amphibian smell, and makes croaking sounds every so often. If you've got a hungry imagination, you can have some frog legs, but before you try that, there's something really cool you should try first. Now that you've got the frog vividly imagined, project your perspective into it. Feel how it is to leap as the frog, to swim as it does, to stretch your tongue out and catch a fly. This part may be a bit challenging when you're starting out, but the better you get at controlling your imaginary senses the easier this type of thing will become.
The next one is where it might get a little weird. When you're imagining a person for the purposes of this exercise, it's best not to go with one who meets too many of your standards for attractiveness, lest you become sexually distracted. Doing this type of work will improve your sexual fantasies as an added benefit, though. For your first time, imagine yourself as from the outside. Feel the texture of your skin in various places and your hair, look into your eyes, hear the sound of your breathing, smell your scent, and do anything else that comes to mind. If you're imagining a different person, particularly with different physical characteristics, it can be enriching to experience yourself as from inside their imagined form once you've gotten a feel for it.
Finally, let's try a landscape. Fields are easy to start with. I like to imagine mine as a large clearing in a larger forest, with grasses almost knee-high stirring in the wind. The sun is up at noon in the sky at first, and I feel it beating down upon me. The smell of the grasses meets my nose, and I feel the breeze on my fingertips as the sound of it fills my ears. Trees stir in the distance. Then, time speeds up, and the sun sets as the full moon rises. The wind calms, and a cool night sets in. The stars glimmer in the distance, and the same sense of calmness remains in the place.
Now, my suggestion would be to try different foods, tools, devices, plants, animals, people, and landscapes each time you do this exercise. If you like it may help to write down a list before you get started, or you can just be spontaneous. If you're not entering into a state of deliberate relaxation before you (or if doing so is easy for you by now) you can decide what to do as you go, perhaps looking up a few images on the internet as you decide upon each new object. Practicing this exercise daily will work wonders for the ability to imagine; practicing it occasionally will still have surprisingly great benefit.