When I was younger I had a vast imagination. I was obsessed with all things fantasy. I loved unicorns, fairies, witches, trolls, and gnomes. I created entire worlds in my mind – medieval lands where I interacted with people in King Arthur’s court. I believed that I had magical powers, and would often try to cast spells or speak with fairies or make unicorns appear in my bedroom. I loved being in the woods, where I hunted for fantastical creatures and nurtured my sense of wonder.
I often shared my imagination through stories. I wrote mini novels on my great-grandmother’s typewriter and dreamt about being a New York Times bestseller. In high school I wrote hundreds of poems and even had a piece published in a national literary magazine. My teachers praised my imagination and said that my writing was among the best they’d seen.
Then I went to university.
In university I fell in love with two things: science and achievement. And I fell hard.
I poured my writing skills into my academics. I excelled on exams and essays, often getting the highest grades in classrooms of 500 people. Tests became my drugs. I was addicted to checking my grades – the better the grade, the bigger the rush.
I became enamored with research methods. I loved the process of asking questions and searching for answers using data and statistics. My professors praised all things quantitative and observable: hard numbers, rigorous analytic techniques, and strong theoretical models. There was no room for “fluffy” concepts – especially within psychology which was having a hard enough time proving that it was a “real” science. Theorists like Freud and Jung were discussed – but more out of respect for history than actually acknowledging any scientific basis for their reasoning. Alternative research methods, like conducting one-on-one interviews, were touched upon – but never to the point where I actually learned how to conduct this type of research.
And so I stopped writing poetry. I stopped reading novels. I stopped dancing in the woods. I stopped tapping into my love of fairies and magic and fantasy. I was embarrassed at having loved these things. I was taught that they represented childish urges that had no basis in reality.
But I got great grades. I had cool friends. And my life looked awesome.
Except for the fact that I was miserable.
I was on antidepressants. I was addicted to achievement. I cried almost every day. I’d become a grade-obsessed robot that had no other goal than to please her superiors.
I had utterly lost my creative life force.
And I’ve spent the past decade trying to get it back.
I started blogging about self-help topics that probably made some of my scientific colleagues cringe. Then I started researching these topics, which I’m sure made them cringe even more. I started reading about transpersonal research methods and I’ve opened myself up to the idea that while the modern scientific method has a lot to offer, it simply might not be the best way to study certain types of human experiences.
This path has led me to believe that we need more creativity, both in the sciences and in our everyday lives. Many aspects of the ivory tower simply aren’t working – from the ways that grants are allocated to the ways that data is collected to the ways that research is published. We need creativity and innovation to break through these outdated systems. Luckily this is starting to occur with explorations into open science (which you can learn about here and here) and even with the idea of spiritual research paradigms.
We also need more creativity and imagination in our personal and professional lives. How many of us, as adults, have forgotten what it feels like to play? Or to wander aimlessly? Or to open ourselves up to the possibility of magic? How many of us go through the same old routines at our jobs, without thinking to push the boundaries or make change?
Innovation isn’t always easy. Personally, I’ve tried to get creative in my professional life by experimenting with the idea that I can conduct research without being a tenure track professor. I’ve done IT research in the corporate world, I’ve done research for free as a volunteer, and I’ve charged for my services as an independent research consultant. And in order to reclaim my sense of imagination and play, I try to devote a significant chunk of time each week to reading, blogging, wandering, and personal development.
This isn’t a perfect formula. Sometimes I find myself full of self-doubt, wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life. I’m in my late 30s and I have no pension plan, I own no property, and I have no idea where I might be living 2 years from now. Heck, I don’t even own a car. I live in a country where I don’t speak the language and where it would be somewhat difficult for me to find a full-time job, especially as a professor. Sometimes, when I’m wandering in the park on a Tuesday afternoon, I start to seriously worry about my professional life (and my sanity). I worry about things like money and the big gaps on the timeline of my CV.
However my life is a continuous process of bringing myself back to why I’m choosing to live this way. And the answer is that I’ve seen the alternative. I know what it’s like to own a house and a car and have a corporate job. I know what it’s like to work in an academic environment that crushes your imagination. I remind myself of the complete lack of creativity and soul-loss that I felt during these times, and then I continue wandering.
My invitation to you is to open up to your imagination and your creativity.
Reclaim it, because it’s yours. Stop listening to people who tell you that your ideas are strange or that you need a dose of “reality.” Even if you feel like the most un-creative person on the planet, start trusting that there is creativity within. I like to think of us as caterpillars, as Bill Plotkin perfectly describes in this quote from the book Soulcraft:
“There are three phases to the butterfly’s life cycle: the larva (caterpillar), the pupa or chrysalis (in the cocoon), and the imago (a mature adult, a butterfly). No one knows exactly how the caterpillar changes form in such a dramatic way. But this much is known: inside the caterpillar’s body are clusters of cells called, of all things, imaginal buds. Imaginal refers to the imago, the adult phase, but it also means to imagine, and psychologists use the word imago to mean an idealized image of a loved one, including the self. The imaginal buds contain the idealized image, the blueprint, for growing a butterfly. While the caterpillar goes about its earth-crawling business, these cells, deep inside, are imagining flight. The caterpillar and butterfly are not really opposed to each other; the butterfly is not an alien organism within the caterpillar. They are, in fact, one and the same organism with the same genetic code. The caterpillar is to the butterfly as an uninitiated ego is to an initiated one. The imaginal buds are to the caterpillar as the soul is to the uninitiated ego. It’s no coincidence that the Greek word for butterfly means “soul.”
You too have imaginal buds that are waiting to be tapped. Start accessing them in whatever way(s) feel right to you. Perhaps you sign up for a watercolor class or read a science fiction novel or write a poem. As you continue reclaiming your imagination, your life will start to look more spontaneous, more innovative, and more fun. You will encounter solutions to problems that you hadn’t considered before.
What helps you access your creativity? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, researcher, and yoga teacher who helps people create a life they love. Check out her book, The Antidepressant Antidote, follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and join her whole-self health revolution.
If you’d like tips on how to create a life you love, plus some personal instruction from Bethany, check out her online course, Creating A Life You Love: Find Your Passion, Live Your Purpose and Create Financial Freedom.
Image courtesy of Mohamad Sabri.