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Martin LeFevre: Insight and Imagination

Meditations (Spirituality) - From Martin LeFevre in California

Insight and Imagination

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The deluge of the last couple of days—the first storm of the season—has transformed the parkland. Autumn is in full leaf in the northeast corner of California’s Central Valley.

The creek roils with an almost copper current, as months of silt and debris are swept downstream. The air is fresh, cool, and redolent of damp earth, decaying foliage, and wet grasses that haven’t had moisture for months.

There are a lot of people in the park--couples strolling, bikers rolling, and runners tolling up the miles. Most are unaware of their surroundings, and of other people, lost in their separate worlds of thought. But every once in a while—one person in ten perhaps—there is an open, friendly face.

Letting go of thought, which is inherently a separative mechanism (for good or ill), the brain comes into direct contact with the living fact. It sees clearly, not ‘through the glass darkly.’ All the senses are open. Fully mature, one ‘returns and becomes like a child.’

Incongruously or not the day before the US election, BBC America did a piece on the new museum opening in Hitler’s home town of Linz, Austria. Linz will be the European capital of culture in 2009, a designation that Hitler tried to give it with art looted from across the Continent.

The organizers thought it best to tackle the issue head on by holding an exhibit on Hitler in Linz, the city where he grew up. In the process however, they have opened themselves up to charges of whitewashing Nazism, or worse. “I don’t’ see no glorification in the exhibition,” said Peter Assman, the Director of Upper Austrian State Museums, answering the charge with a double negative. “Hitler is fact; we just face these facts.”

Perhaps, though, as the illustrious governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger can attest, Austrians are as susceptible as Americans to the tendency in human nature to sand away the painful edges of history. After all, as the BBC report said, “the fantasies [of transforming Linz into a cultural center rivaling Paris and the Louvre] stayed with Hitler right up to the final days in the bunker in Berlin.”

Art derives from the power of imagination, whereas evil derives from the imagination of power. Both have imagination at the center. In one direction, imagination enlightens, educates, and elevates the human spirit; in the other, it degrades, darkens, and deadens it.

Artists generally see imagination as the most important human faculty, and it is easy to see how they make that mistake. Not only would creative expression be impossible without imagination, but so too would vision and design, and therefore the construction of cities, bridges, and buildings.

Indeed, there could be no cultures without imagination. But when imagination is given priority over stillness of mind and transparency of heart, all manner of darkness and evil can and do ensue.

Imagination is a faculty of ‘higher thought.’ It is the ability to picture things that do not exist, to generate images, indeed entire cities and societies, from the mental materials of the past. To create a completely different kind of global society, which obviously has the “fierce urgency of now,” we unquestionably need imagination. It is not without reason that people speak of one of the greatest failings as being “the failure of imagination.”

Even so, the creativity of imagination flows from the spaces between and beyond thought. Insight is not imagination, but the foundation and fountainhead for imagination. Hitler and Nazi Germany had great imagination, but no insight, and so he and they ran amuck.

The Austrian museum director is onto something however, at least in his expressed intent. It is very difficult to simply see facts as facts, and face things as they are. But the intent to do so is essential, and that intent orders one’s life in a salubrious way.

Most people, including philosophers, presume that humans are ‘hermeneutical’ creatures, which is to say that interpretation is inescapable. It is indeed exceedingly rare to perceive without interpretation, since as long as one is using language one is interpreting the world, consciously or subconsciously. But the very rarity of ‘immaculate perception’ heightens and accentuates the disparity between it and imagination.

It is quite possible to let go of words and images altogether, and see what is without interpretation. And if the brain is capable of being in a state of non-interpretation, however briefly, that needs to be given the highest priority.

A person who learns the art of methodless meditation can have artistic imagination and creativity; but the artist who puts imagination first cannot meditate. The paradox is that creativity, like creation itself, flows from negation and emptiness, not addition and accretion.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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