I have an overactive imagination. Not an hour of the day goes by when I don’t insert myself into a future that is not yet realized. Such a faculty may be useful for some aspects of creative work, but most of my fantasies are not directed on a specific outcome. Instead, I’m led astray by my imaginative faculty when I’m trying to undertake normal tasks like reading, writing, or listening, and it regularly distracts me when I should be serving God with zeal and vigor. I’m often in a fantasy land that creates an escape from my Christian duties.

What is imagination? Unlike a distinct memory, a relic of something that has already happened, an imagination (or fantasy) is something that has not yet been realized in material existence. You are using your mind to conjure a scene, situation, or outcome that—at the current moment—is fiction. Therefore, imagination is future-oriented, whereas a memory, whether enjoyable or not, is past-oriented. Your ability to recall memories is limited by the fixed limitation of memories, but with imagination, there is no limit to what you can invoke. Taken to the extreme, imagination may lead to a complete break from reality.

Orthodox Church Fathers state that imagination comes from the nous, which is the eye of the soul. The more damaged your soul, and the further you are from Lord Jesus Christ, the worse your fantasies will be, to the point where they cause you to sin and completely intrude on the ability to have a normal adult life.

…imagination is one of the faculties of the soul that plays an important role in the action and development of passions. It forms the image of a person or thing within us, then provokes sensual pleasure to capture our nous. Once taken captive we commit sin.

[…]

Since the Fall man’s imaginative faculty has run wild and is full of fantasies. Apart from man, the devil also has imagination. For precisely this reason fantasy and imagination are an efficient conductor of satanic energy and the devil uses them to ensnare people. Fantasy and imagination are a bridge between man and the demons, which the demons cross to trouble him.

Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

When classifying imagination, I noticed two variables that determine the severity of one’s disconnection from reality. The first variable is the proximity of the fantasy. Does it take place in the next hour or does it take place in a faraway future? The second variable is the likelihood that the fantasy will happen. Are you imagining the conversation you will have with your friend as you are driving to his home or are you fantasizing about being a world-famous singer? If the imagined event is proximal and likely to happen, your fantasy can possibly be described as a rehearsal, but if it is distant and not likely to happen, your fantasy may be a dangerous form of delusion.

Here are five types of imagination that I have noticed myself doing…

1. Things right about to happen

A type of imagination that I’ve never heard labeled as dangerous is rehearsing for an event that will soon happen. Examples include same-day preparation for a speech, job interview, sporting performance, work meeting, or difficult conversation with a spouse. You mentally arrange the pieces of what is right about to happen to increase the likelihood of success. Such imagination may include logistical planning, dry runs, and scheduling.

To write this article, I had to imagine various ideas and test them in my mind before committing them to paper. My imagination was focused, deliberate, practical, and based on a reality that I wanted to perform. Most jobs require this mode of imagination.

One limitation of this type of imagination is when conversing with others. If you already prepare what you’re going to say to someone, or what advice you’re going to give, you may neglect to listen to new information or perceive the shifting needs of the listener and end up speaking at them instead of with them. It’s easy to turn spontaneous conversations into a lecture through excessive rehearsal and planning.

2. Things that are likely to happen soon

We now extend the timeline to things that are planned for the future but which may not happen. Last year, I was booked for a speaking event in Atlanta. I drafted a speech with the expectation I would deliver it, and imagined speaking before the crowd, but the event was cancelled by multiple venues. Another time, I planned to visit my friend in the mountains. I imagined some topics I was going to talk to him about, but my car broke down and I could not go. Another time, I imagined making vegan banana pancakes and the joy I would get from eating them, but my mom ate all the bananas and I could not make them.

In this category, we’re starting to see a failure in the realization of our imaginations, even though the failure is unexpected. After all, you did expect the event to occur, and wanted to be prepared for it. I wonder if the most useful aspect of our imaginative faculty is simply helping us prepare for common tasks so that we can give and receive the most spiritual value from them.

3. Things that are unlikely to happen anytime soon

The more spiritually sick a person is, the more he is dominated by all kinds of fantasy and imagination. The healthier he is spiritually, the freer he is from fantasies and imaginings. Even what are referred to nowadays as psychological problems are produced and retained in our souls by fantasies. The more we are freed from their oppression, the more we are healed from various psychological problems. This is why St John Cassian the Roman writes that a sign that someone has acquired the virtue of holiness and chastity is that his soul pays no attention at all to imagination or fantasy, even when asleep. —Ibid

With this category, we’re beginning to escape from reality, because we imagine things that—even if realized—won’t happen for a long time. There becomes a huge gap between the present time and when the fantasy can occur. For example, a man may meet a pretty woman and then later imagine her as his wife, or what it would be like to be intimate with her. A woman may get a haircut and imagine a handsome man who will sweep her off her feet because he finds her so ravishing. An unemployed computer programmer may imagine being a top executive at a prestigious firm. A single woman may imagine the names of her future children and how beautiful they will be.

Pleasure has begun to seep into the fantasy. The fantasizer disconnects from a boring reality and imagines a future that is pleasurable and more gratifying on the ego, just like how a drug addict ingests a drug to go somewhere else with his mind and body. He doesn’t like how his life is at the current moment so he imagines a better one in the future, which in turn causes him to neglect the present reality.

Prevalent are fantasies of the flesh. Unfortunately, I have spent untold hours with these types of fantasies in my secular days, which enabled my addiction to carnal living. The fantasies become the main fuel to engage in lawlessness. Fantasies can also exist on the complete opposite end of the spectrum where you imagine catastrophes, traumas, and other bad events that lead to anxiety, despondency, and despair, feelings that tear you away from the Lord.

4. Lofty fantasies that will never happen

Since the greatest and most terrible passion of all is pride, fantasy and imagination are closely linked with pride. Someone who is proud has something wrong with his imaginative faculty. It is inflamed. It conceives all kinds of images and fantasies and makes his soul an earthquake zone. —Ibid

The previous category had a shred of connection to reality, but now the fantasies become completely void of realism. For example, a man may imagine himself as president of a great empire while deliberating all the excellent laws he should pass, maybe even writing them down. Another man may imagine himself as a hero in a train accident, where his actions save dozens of lives. A woman may imagine herself as a saint who lived centuries ago. A timid man may imagine telling off a politician or policeman to a cheering crowd. A woman may imagine herself as inventing a cure for cancer and winning the Nobel Prize. These fantasies usually involve receiving adoration from a mob, absolute power, or a level of worldwide fame for nonexistent talents or virtues.

I admit that I have delved into this category more often than I like to admit. My insane pride has effortlessly led me to exalted fantasies where I was placed above all men to receive rapturous attention from the most beautiful women in the world. Someone can be especially prone to these fantasies if they are “bored” with their lives and want to add excitement or ego gratification without ever leaving their computer chair.

Ultimately, this category of imagination allows a person to believe that they are someone they’re not. Their entitlement grows and they begin to detach from reality. They fail to empathize with those who are “beneath” them in their fantasies, and in heightened states of delusion, they may actually believe their fantasies are truth. If you are experiencing this level of imagination, your soul has likely experienced heavy damage from secular life.

5. Vivid dreams, visions, and outright delusion

Dreams are fantasies, and they relate to the passions existing within us. From the images in these fantasies we can discern which passions we have.

[…]

It is noticeable that studying the writings of the holy Fathers crucifies the imagination, whereas reading impassioned writings, especially fiction, excites the imagination. The Fathers never concerned themselves with so-called Christian fiction, narrative tales and so on, because that sort of writing provokes fantasy. By contrast, even poetry written by the saints has an element of repentance and theoria of God. The poems of St Symeon the New Theologian contain a revelation of God. There is no trace in them of speculation or contamination with figments of the imagination.

—Ibid

If you’re regularly imagining yourself as a king or queen, chances are you have vivid dreams that further reinforce the belief that you are special, different, or better than others. The cycle becomes self-perpetuating: vivid dreams at night beget crazier fantasies during the day, begetting even more vivid dreams that you want to believe as truth or see as prophecies. More and more of your time is spent outside of reality to the point where you essentially have a second personality that none of your relatives or friends would recognize. You may be an office worker but, according to your imagination, you are an illustrious figure who is not “understood” by the common people you interact with. In such a stage of delusion, you buy your own hype and will almost certainly be humbled in a way that will cause despair, when how you see yourself is not confirmed but what life’s mirror displays.

The imaginative faculty can be so damaged that some people can experience disassociated hallucinogenic states and visions while awake without the use of drugs. In other words, they dream while awake. In extreme conditions, medical treatment may be required, which often requires doping the patient to turn down the biological activity of the brain.

Conclusion

Outside of sensible rehearsing for upcoming events, I don’t see any positive use of being taken hostage by my imaginative faculty at times when I should be focused on other tasks. The fact that random fantasies come to me when I’m attempting to serve God, such as while praying or attending a Liturgy, tells me that imagination is more of an intrusion upon my mind instead of an aid. If I want to write a short story, I will sit down and direct my imagination onto the story, but more commonly it seems that my imagination is directing me into strange places and ideas. Before, I would play with fantasies and use them to help me escape the meaningless of life, but since I have found meaning in Christ, I have little use for the games that my imagination wants to play. Unfortunately, I damaged my nous to such an extent from so many years of secular life that I must now battle with this problem daily to attend to my obligations before God.

Read Next: The Salvation Of Your Soul Is Not A Game

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Great article, and worth pondering some more.

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This is an understated problem among young people. I have an overactive imagination to the point where I think it impeded my development into proper manhood. I realised I would imagine things, like a particular direction I could take in life and basically get a dopamine hit from it and then just never actualise it. I could alter my emotional state and maintain a fantasy world, neglecting reality.

It was really pathological, I actually wasted money on a therapist before becoming Orthodox and reading the Holy Fathers’ sober take on the imagination. It was something I was praised for before. Now I try to catch myself doing it and ignore it and snap out of it.

It manifested itself in some insane ways when I was younger. I remember playing FIFA career mode and conjuring such a vivid backstory for my player and his rise to stardom that he almost felt like a real player I’d followed that I had an attachment to. Similar with other games like Skyrim and a fantasy world I created for DnD games.

Since becoming orthodox I’ve noticed that the devil uses it against you. Things like random sexual fantasies about women I know whom I would never, ever have looked at in that way before. It was quite troubling.

The imagination is a powerful thing and I understand why the Orthodox treat it with such discernment.

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Secular thinking creates this problem. I call it "main character syndrome", where everything you do and all that you are is so important that everyone else fades into the background. It causes anxiety and mental breakdowns.

Imagination feeds the ego, and it creates pride. I remember how American school pushed me to be greater than everyone else, have more, get a great job, and so on. They think it leads to us bettering ourselves but really it's just unhealthy jealousy.

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I think you are missing a facet here which is hope. The types of imagination you say are probably of spiritual benefit exhibit an element of hope, but I think you miss the mark because you don’t explicitly recognize that virtue as a relevant facet.

This essay reminds me of “Fear and Trembling” by Kierkegaard. It is an essay which proposes that nobody understands the story of Abraham and Isaac. That one aspect of this event is that Abraham’s actions are not understandable by human reason but only in the revelation from God. Kierkegaard isn’t proposing that he understands the story, he is saying, I don’t either and it’s not possible for humans to do so, this is a Divine event in which we are called to participate but not understand.

Kierkegaard has the concept of a “Knight of Faith”. The Knight of Faith hopes for that which is clearly impossible in this world, but commits to such hope fully and completely because all things are possible for God. This is the barren woman who has been told by medical science that it is not possible for her to have children, who nonetheless with her loving husband together plans their life as parents. They do not expect to be parents, they are fully prepared for the reward of their faith to be in Heaven and not in this world, and yet they persist in a complete and optimistic hope for the impossible.

I think that looking at imagination, which comes ultimately from the Creator, with this in mind, you get a clearer picture. It is easier to see where imagination is perverted by concupiscence or is an escapist response to despair. Whether or not the the imagined reality is potentially proximate or achievable is irrelevant, since all things are proximate and achievable for he who relies completely on the Lord.

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Great article and really interesting perspective. I have a tendency in my day-to-day life for permitting rampant imaginative thoughts to take me through multiple emotions: apprehension, delight, rapture, et al.

In that vein, they're not all negative thoughts, but the endless scenarios and different "pop-ups" in my mind leads me to neglect my work or to be left completely scatterbrained in my interactions. I've noticed this increasing throughout the year that I find myself forgetting what I intended to say during a conversation, or I can't remember a scheduled event. At my young(er) age, I pray it isn't some early medical issue, because it's quite frustrating.

Nonetheless, I think it is interesting to ponder how imagination paired with--or perhaps leading to--a broken focus can completely trounce relationships and beneficial routines, since it's commonly cast in a wholly positive light.

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This is a very interesting and helpful article. I think a lot of problems occur in the gap between aspirational and delusional imagination (types 3 and 4 in the article). While most people would recognise delusion as harmful, a lot of secular society praises the 'ambition' etc. in type 3. But type 3 leads to type 4. I used to think to myself that imagining a successful future is good motivation. And yet time after time I found that imagining a successful far-off future, even if quite plausible, almost always pushes me away from actually doing the things necessary to accomplish that goal. And what was once possible, even likely, gradually moves into the realm of delusion.

I like the idea that the imagination's main role is to 'rehearse' events, to get one's thoughts in order, prepare for likely problems etc. I wonder if there is also some space for imagining historical/biblical events to help understand them.

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"...imagination comes from the nous, which is the eye of the soul. The more damaged your soul, and the further you are from Lord Jesus Christ, the worse your fantasies will be, to the point where they cause you to sin and completely intrude on the ability to have a normal adult life."

This sounds familiar. Before I became Catholic I had a very active fantasy life, mostly about 2 things: money and women. Daily, mutliple times, I would say out loud: "I want to be rich!" When I went to bed at night, if I couldn't sleep right away, I would imagine myself winning the lottery and what I would do with all the money. Or I would think about women.

Now my mindset is totally different. I have no desire to be rich. At all. I just want enough money to pay my bills, and my lifestyle is very simple. I don't go to concerts or movies ever, and I rarely dine out. My hobbies are very cheap (e.g., chess and hiking). And although I try not to think about women, getting a reversal of mindset in that department is a work in progress.

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Very convicting article. I’ve spent basically my whole life constantly indulging in #4, but was completely blinded to the negative effects of these self aggrandizing fantasies, and how many of my habitual sins are borne from them, before I encountered Orthodoxy. This is the kind of thing that received absolutely zero attention in the evangelical world from which I came, but is close to the heart of my spiritual vices.

I have an extremely powerful and vivid imagination so overcoming these fantasies is no easy task for me, but one which seems essential if I hope to be freed from the passions.

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I'll second it being convicting. I've been struggling with an overactive imagination especially since the beginning of my teenage years. One minute I'll be trying to listen intently to whatever the other person is saying, and the next something said will trigger my imagination and I'll be off daydreaming some completely unrealistic fairyland of a hypothetical future. May God have mercy on me a sinner, and help me to resist the distractions from Him and His work of my own mind!

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One of the imaginations I engage in is near-term; for example, I have been optimistically opining to my girlfriend about a job that I have received a contingent offer of employment, but they have to finalize their contract first, which is taking time.

I expound about the great schedule and how it will allow us to spend more time together; how it will be more money, how the company is good because I previously worked for them, and how I will gain more experience in a skill area that I possess.

She always stops and cautions me because “…it didn’t happen yet…”

I feel that I am just being positive and optimistic, but understand what she means; I cannot place too much emphasis on my own or other men’s power over God’s.

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Do Church Fathers tell us how to overcome this?
Is there some type of mental exercise one should partake in to get rid of a overactive imagination?
I suspect an anwer is Jesus prayer, but I wonder if there's more..

I agree with the term 'main character syndrome', pretty accurate.

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Do Church Fathers tell us how to overcome this?
Is there some type of mental exercise one should partake in to get rid of a overactive imagination?
I suspect an anwer is Jesus prayer, but I wonder if there's more..

I agree with the term 'main character syndrome', pretty accurate.

Start with the article I quoted throughout. The link is under the first quote.

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I think imagination is just a tool without characteristics such as being good or bad. It could be beneficial for planning things that will realize in the future or for better predicting possible outcomes when we can use imagination as a simulation without the need to experience that action.

It is a God-given ability. Unfortunately, we people are good at abusing anything, including imagination.
Daydreaming about sinful acts will probably later bring the realization of it, and using it as an escape from responsibilities harms us too.

A man should master his mind, not let it dominate him.

And my favorite imagination so far this year? Having a time machine that will take me to the 50s.

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I was on a Roosh imposed ban followed by a requested ban when this article was published, and surprisingly -- my imagination took me to a lot of places in the last couple of weeks. I even started the first job I've had in two years, and promptly quit because it was dirty and my feet hurt.
I went to church two Sundays in a row, visited my pastor who has been on a mental illness leave of absence, went to visit Vets, baked a birthday cake for my uncle's 64th birthday and serenaded him with When I'm 64 while my mom was in the bathroom, learned about code for plumbing on main streets that I'd never delved into with the historic preservation work I did in college, planned a family reunion, booked two vacations with family, made a Professor Chaos costume for my 11 year old and helped him make a truly heliocentric model for the universe out of a frame made of yard sticks and attached at the center with a bolt that suspends from the ceiling, made my first Orthodox Cross in a friend's pottery bard, and bought one pair of Muck boots that were way too expensive, but had half of my last name in the code for the sku, and I did ask for those boots to be manufactured, so... .

Now I just need to quit fantasizing about doing yard work and actually go out there and do it. Though, it's very wild and I can imagine all sorts of snakes, and I would rather work in the pottery barn!

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I spent so much of my life wrapped up in "vain imaginings" of type 3 and 4 listed here. It was something I never even recognized as sin until relatively recently, when the Holy Spirit prompted me with that phrase: vain imaginings. Then when I felt one coming on I could cut it off and they are less and less now. But still- how did I spend so much time doing this and not realizing how harmful it was? The phrase "excites the imagination" jumped out at me from your article. That phrase is used a lot to describe books or movies and it is seen as a positive thing. For instance, a book review might write a glowing critic that a work of fiction "excites the imagination" and I always saw that as a good thing. In reality, it's not at all. It's potentially soul destroying, as you've stated.

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Another insightful and useful article. I have to admit when I was a young man, say up until 30 I was a real day dreamer. It was a habit I got into as a child I think. In my 20s these day dreams largely consisted of delusional ideas of a future successful career that was going to start "any day now" - I am embarrassed to admit this but I kind of believed in these and I told myself that all I needed to do was get started. However, as I got older I realized that nothing beats reality and I accepted these things were largely just pretensions. It was good because I became more grounded and focused on my family and my faith. I still have a lot of interior monologues with myself often about things that are worrying me or disappointments about the past which I am continually trying to explain to myself but never really seem to come to a conclusion about. The Lord has challenged me to address these concerns to Him in prayer and I strive to do that when I catch myself doing it these days. I think another thing that stopped me day dreaming excessively was that as I got older I started to become kind of bored with any kind of life in this world and more and more I find myself wondering about the future life in heaven and asking myself, in the words of the psalmist, when can I enter and see the face of God? There is nothing in this world that really excites me anymore. Is that a good thing or a bad thing, I am not totally sure.

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I think this is why imagination is pushed so much for children. Imaginary friends are really pushed in children's books and videos. I'm convinced that the imaginary friend thing is a way to possibly seduce children into contact with demons.

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I'm guilty of overactive imagination. I recall retreating into imagination once I realized I was not going to do well in sports. I spent too much time with photography, watching auto races and reading about useless topics like UFOs.
My sister also had an overactive imagination and slipped over the edge when the love of her life dumped her for not being a "traditional" Italian girl despite speaking fluent Italian. She wasted time on graduate degrees that were unfinished and alcohol. Now she works as a pharmacy tech making $18 per hour and "borrows" money from my mom. She never pays it back, though.

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My sister also had an overactive imagination and slipped over the edge when the love of her life dumped her for not being a "traditional" Italian girl despite speaking fluent Italian.

Um, speaking a language doesn't make you a traditional girl of a nation that speaks the language. It merely only means this: you. speak. the. language. Nothing more.

She wasted time on graduate degrees that were unfinished and alcohol. Now she works as a pharmacy tech making $18 per hour and "borrows" money from my mom. She never pays it back, though.

Doesn't sound traditional at all.

Maybe dude was right?

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