Negative Imagination (20 September 1988)

Gurdjieff often spoke of the dangers of uncontrolled imagination. So far as I can see, it was Ouspensky who formulated the concept of “negative imagination.” In this first exploration of the topic, I will set out something about imagination, then I shall briefly turn to negative imagination, and then finish with some material from Mr Adie.

About imagination, the first point is that it has both a positive or constructive side, and a negative or denying side. In Russia, Gurdjieff noted that to become a true monk, it was necessary to have “very strong religious emotions and a very strong religious imagination …” (In Search of the Miraculous, 46). This points to imagination as the capacity to represent to oneself what is not present, to conceive in the mind a picture of what is not there. By itself, this ability is neutral; but is either useful, neutral, or harmful, depending on the purpose it serves and whether it is directed with judgment, or is uncontrolled, functioning automatically. In the case of a monk, it is valuable if he can conceive images which positively stimulate his faculties, strengthen him in the troubles of life, and fill him with good qualities.

Gurdjieff is reported to have said:

‘Imagination’ is one of the principal sources of the wrong work of centres. Each centre has its own form of imagination and daydreaming, but as a rule both the moving and the emotional centres make use of the thinking centre which very readily places itself at their disposal for this purpose, because daydreaming corresponds to its own inclinations. Daydreaming is absolutely the opposite of ‘useful’ mental activity. ‘Useful’ in this case means activity directed towards a definite aim and undertaken for the sake of obtaining a definite result. Daydreaming does not pursue any aim, does not strive after any result. The motive for daydreaming always lies in the emotional or in the moving centre. The actual process is carried on by the thinking centre. … Daydreaming of disagreeable, morbid things is very characteristic of the unbalanced state of the human machine. After all, one can understand daydreaming of a pleasant kind and find logical justification for it. Daydreaming of an unpleasant character is an utter absurdity. And yet many people spend nine tenths of their lives in just such painful daydreams about misfortunes which may overtake them or their family, about illnesses they may contract or sufferings they will have to endure. Imagination and daydreaming are instances of the wrong work of the thinking centre. (Miraculous, 111)

In The Fourth Way, Ouspensky makes mention of a particular type of daydreaming: negative imagination. It is, he said:

imagining all kinds of unpleasant things, torturing oneself, imagining all the things that might happen to you or other people – things like that; it takes different forms. Some people imagine different illnesses, some imagine accidents, others imagine misfortunes. (The Fourth Way, 9-10).

Again, we must return to this in future posts. But now I will present an exchange with Mr Adie on Tuesday 20 September 1988.

Ninette:   When I get tired or upset, if I have to perform a task, such as today in the movements, I will start to feel that I’m either doing it wrong or badly, I sort of negative. I think oh no, not that movement, I don’t like, I find it difficult.  Also, I also start to imagine, and I don’t never know whether it might be true or not. For instance, I started to imagine that you might say to everyone that I am the worst in the class and start pointing out the difference between me and the others.

Mr Adie:    Do you know what that is? That is negative imagination. Well, It’s rubbish. Again, you see it, but you don’t pay any attention to it.

Ninette:    But just say I start having that thought, what should I do?

Mr Adie:    Just recognise it as nonsense. If you wee not negative, it probably not find a place in you. But when I’m negative and identified, any rubbish can find a place. My thought is on this level. If I’m not identified and a bit conscious, my thought is on a level here, which is cleaner. It hasn’t got quite so much rubbish in it. It’s got a lot, but not so much.

It’s really like that. I have to try and get into the level where all this rubbish doesn’t take place. That means I come to my sensation, my breath, and I remember myself. So that’s a pattern of the work. Think about it, don’t let it go.

But negative imagination is unreal, so that I can just let go, and I will save a good deal of energy, at once. Pushing against unreality I may emerge into reality.

Any news, so-called bad news, can plunge me into negativeness. But what is the good? Now did that completely satisfy you on those questions?

Ninette:    With identification I always, if something’s going to –

Mr Adie:    You’re a bit crafty, you don’t answer my question. I try and answer yours, but if I ask you anything, you start talking about something else.

Ninette:    Well, I was going to say, I don’t know how not to become identified if it’s something to do with me, and I don’t know if it’s going to affect me, then I tend to become identified.

Mr Adie:    There you’ve got a whole mass of imagination. You don’t know, you say, but you imagine that it will affect you. You said you “don’t know that it will.” But it will affect you according to your own imagination, only it’s your imagination that does it. It’s what goes on up here (probably pointing to his head). I can dream out the most fantastic things that seem true enough, and people can do things which seem to be aimed at me. Yet, they don’t even know I’m there. If I’m in a stupid enough mood, negative enough, I’ll take everything I see as aimed at me. And that’s dangerous.

If people get ill and they have negative tendencies, they imagine impossible things. Everybody’s trying to get at them, if they’re offered any help, it’s an insult. Because how should they be helped, when they’re perfectly alright? If they’re not offered it, then everybody is mean and miserable, and not taking account of the whole situation that they’re in. This is the sort of life they live. Beautiful. That’s imagination.

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