Cultivating a Visionary Imagination
OK justice seekers, pop quiz! Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: “I am hopeful about the future.” Talk amongst yourselves!
For those exploring spiritual activism, this is more than just a question of a glass half full or half empty. This is a high stakes inquiry into how we stay grounded in the truth, marinating in all the facts and realities of our day, yet still imagining a positive future. And finally then how we inspire others to walk (and work) with us towards that vision.
Recently a friend of mine in his 50’s shared his experience at a staff retreat of an international environmental organization. A facilitator lead their team through a closed-eye visioning process that where they were invited to imagine the biodiversity hotspot they are tasked with protecting decades out into the future. When they opened their eyes they were asked to share, and what happened next was shocking and unfamiliar—the older activists had imagined a more hopeful future than the younger ones!
What? I thought I’d misheard him at first, having watched a majority of social change practitioners grow more cynical with age. But it was true, he said: the younger generation of staff members shared dismal visions of a future of destroyed rainforests, polluted rivers and runaway dirty energy extraction, a world where we were barely surviving and mitigating the myriad impacts of climate chaos. The older folks in the room had a much more hopeful vision of ecosystems still intact and thriving, and of indigenous communities experiencing equity and peace in their homelands.
Regardless of whether this youthful view of the future is well founded and grounded in evidence, or that it represents a healthy pragmatism essential to face the realities of our time, I couldn’t help but wonder what possibilities, solutions and opportunities the team might be missing in the absence of a more visionary imagination.
So, how then to cultivate this in all of us—from people who work full-time to address various environmental crises, and others just learning the extent of the challenges we face? I think reading, writing and sock puppets (yes, sock puppets) may hold the key to a cross-training fitness regime that can strengthen our collective visionary imagination.
Reading! A number of great books out there challenge us to imagine how complex and interconnected economic, ecological and social systems could transition toward a livable future rather than into chaos. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities is just one of a number of works by Rebecca Solnit that fit the bill. Joanna Macy’s book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess we're in without Going Crazy is also a great workout for the mind and the heart.
Writing! Speaking of Joanna Macy, (see S&H’s interview here) there are a number of writing activities and exercises she offers in a body of work known as ‘despair and empowerment’ work. This allows us to chart our inner world, confronting and giving voice to all that might keep us from exercising our visionary imagination, and finding strength to forge on despite it all. And in Fierce Medicine: Breakthrough Practices to Heal the Body and Ignite the Spirit, yoga teacher Ana Forrest guides us through a series of practices, including a writing exercise imagining we had only 24 hours left alive. For me the results inspired a more visionary and imaginative approach, both to how I live my own life, but also how I contribute to the healing of our earth community.
Sock Puppets!? Taking part in the contemplative practices like those reading and writing exercises mentioned above reveals even deeper need for healing and humor. So I've found a release by creating an actual voice and character for my own inner cynical naysayer. Meet Zipper Mouth (See this blog post's image above). I recommend a healthy dose of elaborate sock puppet theatre, letting all those limiting (though arguably fact-based) thoughts have their time in the spotlight. Get playful with the complexity. Clean out your sock drawer, get out your glue gun and stage an absurdly spirited debate. Perhaps giving (silly) voice to all those reasons why not might make more space for a return to the imaginative vision of what is possible, despite the evidence and against the odds.