How I Harnessed My Imagination To See Ghosts And Grow Spiritually

How I Harnessed My Imagination To See Ghosts And Grow Spiritually

Part 1: Mystical Knowledge Through Imagination

When people recommend a “spiritual discipline,” I usually zone out. Dietary restrictions, uncomfortable physical challenges, guided meditations that try to force your brain to work in specific ways (“Now imagine that you’re walking through a path underground. You walk and walk and then you meet your spirit animal. Look him or her in the eyes, and take in what you see and feel…”): none of this appeals to me. I won’t wind up seeing my spirit animal; I’ll just be sitting there, feeling bad that I’m not picturing some warm, amazing llama or panther. I will not feel pure and fabulous because only kosher food is entering my body; I’ll miss the glorious ability to duck into any welcoming restaurant and order something that intrigues me. Independence is a central theme of my life, and spiritual practices that draw groups of people towards communal goals and restrictions rarely work for me.

A few years ago, I did discover an incredible spiritual activity, one that has come naturally to me since early childhood: free-flowing imagination. I’ve used it spiritually since my earliest conscious days, but I didn’t know it until recently. Think about it. In our day-to-day lives, we’re limited by where our bodies can take us and what our bodies can do. Imagination opens up entirely new realms. You can imagine having a mystical experience, meeting God or spiritual forces, entering a non-earthly spiritual realm, hanging out with friends during the Messianic age… absolutely anything your mind can cook up.

It may feel like playing. Honestly, it is playing. But it might also be a conduit to truths we’ll never see if we limit our perceptions to our daily lives as normally defined.

If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering about proof and validity. Sure, we can let our minds roam into strange and wild territories, but does this give us a line into something that’s real or true about the objective reality beyond our skulls? My experience at a workshop with Bruce Moen in Scottsdale, Arizona, during the summer of 2014, boosted my strong hunch that it can.

Bruce is a kind, retired engineer who has switched his focus to imagination and afterlife exploration — in particular, using imagination to connect with real personalities who have left their physical bodies. The workshop’s culminating activity involved using imagination to meet and communicate with a deceased person chosen by a classmate. This seems counterintuitive, but Bruce sees imagination as a faculty that can create fiction and tap into real situations and minds. What feels like imagination can, at times, lead people to confirmable facts (or so the theory goes). Bruce picked names out of a hat and passed them out; we each got a scrap of paper with one name and no other information. We had no idea who in the class had selected this person, and we hadn’t spent time discussing deceased people we’d known. I assumed I’d fail; my track record for these spiritual workshops is dismal.

Before I even received my name, an image of a lively, precocious boy, maybe seven years old, had entered my mind. I was viewing an active scene, almost like a movie, of him dancing and smiling in a bowtie and blazer. He was a true showman — that word seemed perfect for him. Though I couldn’t see an audience or a stage, I had the strong sense that he was performing. A non-visual person rarely able to picture anything, I marveled at the ease of this process. The boy seemed to insert himself into my consciousness; I wasn’t groping or even trying.

At one point, Bruce asked us to discern the person’s interests, and I saw signs of music: a ukulele, a harp, the boy singing. Then the boy hugged his mother tight. Throughout his tenure in my mind, he was frenetically active, his whole body waving and swaying, never taking a rest.

Eventually, I saw him as a young adult and sensed that this energy began working against him after childhood, drawing him into trouble. I got the impression that he was outside whenever possible; few scenes happened indoors. At Bruce’s request, I asked the man to show me something that would represent a memorable event, and he showed me stage curtains. Towards the end of the exercise, I saw a Christmas tree and felt that it was very important to him.

When I spoke with the woman who had submitted this man’s name, she marveled at the accuracy. He was her boyfriend; he died in middle age. He’d been a child star, performing often and thriving in that role. This really struck me: my first and strongest impression of him was a child “showman”: the word itself rang clear. He headed into my mind with clanging strength, as a child performer dressed in show clothes. No idea if he’d been famous, but I’d never heard his name so that didn’t jog my brain (the little entertainer actually entered my mind before I even saw his name).

He was indeed extremely energetic — and this did get him into trouble as an adult. He told me he’d calmed down since his death and was much more content. His girlfriend was thrilled to hear it. When she heard he was hugging his mom, she explained that he’d been wrongly accused of killing his mother, when in fact the two had been wonderfully close. Since he spent considerable energy trying to prove his very real love for his mother, this gesture was extremely fitting. He did adore music and being outside; they were signature features of his life.

The Christmas tree was particularly intriguing. I hesitated even to mention it because he had a potentially Jewish name and I thought it might be inaccurate. But I did, and learned that his last Christmas was extremely important to him. His girlfriend (interestingly enough, she is African American, from a Christian background) did not want to make a big deal over it, but he loved Christmas even though he was Jewish, and pushed for an active celebration. And finally, stage curtains to symbolize a memorable event seemed perfect; their first date was at a play.

I had a few misses: He showed me a pool ball, and his girlfriend didn’t see a connection there. He also showed me 1971 and 1972 as important dates, but they meant nothing to her. She thought the ball and the dates might have meaning and planned to do some research… who knows.

On the whole, though, the results were striking: despite no history of any psychic success, I appeared to have used my imagination to reach an actual deceased soul. I’m far from convinced that this actually happened. It’s not like I came up with some startling, specific fact: his quirky nickname, his love of pickles mixed with ice cream, the odd name of the small town where he’d grown up. It’s quite possible that my imagination roamed in purely fictional territory. Still, the ease of visualization despite my usual inability to see anything not in front of my eyes, the vivid imagery, and the playful, low-stress feeling I had (I usually tense up during these workshops) combined to make me feel like something special had happened. Whether I’d located a deceased soul or simply tapped into an exhilarating way of gaining new insight, I had an intuition that Bruce’s broadened definition of imagination as a potential source of truth was valid.

Bruce claims to have met many deceased souls and non-earthly realms throughout many years of tapping into his imagination, and also claims to have traveled beyond his body many times. He has written several books about his adventures. I cannot begin to say whether his assertions are valid. For that matter, this is not a black-and-white question. It’s possible that sometimes he’s tapping into “objectively real” realms and souls who exist beyond his brain, while other times, he’s enjoying a fanciful romp and nothing more.

All I can say is this: he struck me as unfailingly warm-hearted and genuine, nothing like many of the stunningly arrogant spiritual leaders I’ve met through the years. And, more important, when I tried his technique for seeking truth through imagination, I felt I had tapped into something far beyond my own small life. This in itself strikes me as an enormous event, whatever it might mean in an ultimate sense.

It didn’t work for everyone in the workshop. One woman — a well-dressed, well-put-together type — began crying after she realized the exercise hadn’t led her anywhere worth mentioning. She said she tries and tries with this sort of thing and always fails, and I greatly sympathized, for this was the first time I’d ever sensed that I had succeeded in this arena. The guy who received the name I put into the hat (Abraham Wellen, my maternal grandfather) kept mentioning generalities based on the fact that he could tell this was a Jewish name. Well-meaning dude, for sure, but I was not moved by his efforts this time around.

I suspected it worked for me, though. Me, of all people: normally, I’m the one sulking quietly while my workshop mates share tales of spiritual insight and enlightenment. I wasn’t converted to a definable worldview, or hooked on Bruce Moen in general, or anything concrete like that. But I took away a powerful sense of imagination’s potential importance to me as a vehicle for mystical wisdom. That in itself was fantastic for someone who usually leaves spiritual workshops profoundly disappointed in a leader who turned out to be arrogant and insincere, feeling like I had gained little beyond the fun of having yet another tale about some clown whose egotism and desire for adulation outweighed his ability to reach, teach, or inspire me.

Part 2: Spiritual Implications

When I returned to my home in Cambridge, MA, I started to treat my imagination with more respect, even a hint of reverence. I began attending the Cambridge Shamanic Circle, held in a Quaker church fairly close to my apartment. Twice a month, a group ranging from five or six people to upwards of thirty (when an enthusiastic shamanism class from Boston University joined us) meets to share various rituals. We begin by passing around slowly burning sage and move into personal discussion, drumming, “dancing” (in quotation marks because even I can comfortably participate despite my utter lack of grace and coordination — we move however we want, which could involve simply swaying our arms or walking thoughtfully around the room), and, finally, the centerpiece of the evening: journeying. Journeying involves traveling wherever our minds take us, usually with some sort of initial prompt from the evening’s leader. We’ve journeyed to help fellow participants, to meet our “spirit guides” (usually animals, but the possibilities are endless), and once, to see where our personalities might find themselves after death (my idea: this question is my passion).

This differs from the guided meditations I’d done countless times in group settings in one key way: we are freer. No one is saying: “You see this, now you see that, now you’re thinking about XYZ.” That never works for me; my mind never goes where it’s supposed to. But I can daydream with the best of them, and shamanic journeying feels like daydreaming with a purpose. I’ve pictured myself scooping ice cream from a mystical cloud; jumping from the earth, soaring through the air, and reaching a realm where thought controls everything and bodies don’t exist; communing with a wordless but wise and loving puppy… it’s always fun, often profound, and oddly exhilarating. I certainly don’t see myself as a full-blown shamanic practitioner — I feel like I’m in alien territory when my fellow journeyers speak earnestly about their lifelong spirit or animal guides, or their interest in witchcraft. The key, for me, is imagination — the freedom for my thoughts to take me somewhere new, useful, or special.

Many in the group seem to believe that all of their journeys are empirically real, in the sense that, if we had a way to prove it, we could show that they really did meet with a being from a different dimension: an actual being who exists with its own consciousness, apart from the consciousness of the person who envisioned the scene. Or an actual wise sheep living on some kind of parallel earth-like plane. Or whatever they might have dreamt up.

I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. I’m open to the possibility, but it strikes me as being somewhat farfetched. As with so many issues in this life, I don’t see this as an all-or-nothing question. Maybe, every once in a while, they hit on some kind of “real” dimension or being, while, usually, they’re just letting their minds run and creating scenes that exist nowhere outside their brains. The experiences that are “only” imaginary could still have vast spiritual implications. Maybe, sometimes, they’re communing with future events: catching glimpses of them in the midst of their imaginary tales. Maybe they’re somehow sensing emotions or needs of a real human being in the mist of their flights of fancy, even though none of what they see actually exists in a full-blown sense. For instance, someone might imagine a depressed six-year-old boy who in no way exists in the flesh, but this image reminds the dreamer of her very real neighbor who has similar feelings to the imagined boy. Possibilities and combinations of truth interspersed with pure imagination are endless. An imagined scene with no empirical basis in reality could bring the imaginer very real insight.

Over the past few years, I’ve imagined many potential tales of the afterlife or mystical experience. I’ve long wanted a “real” mystical adventure: to all of a sudden feel some kind of transcendent truth thunder within me, or actively whisk me away to an extraordinary realm, later depositing me back in this life with magnificently enriched understanding and a sense of peace. But it hasn’t yet happened, and I’ve decided that the best way to simulate this sort of enlightenment in an active way might just be to imagine it.

So I have, many times, and have written up the results. They appear as chapters in my new manuscript (and hopefully future book) about my lifelong quest for insight into what might happen to “us” — our consciousnesses, souls, selves, whatever you might want to call it — after we die. I have an intuitive sense that, on some level, we create our own afterlives, and many who have had mystical experiences while close to death have corroborated my impression. In this scheme, the consciousness in question creates its own reality after the self separates from the body. Since I resonate with this hypothesis, I thought I might as well start playing with possibilities now. What might I see if I separated from my body or had a life-changing mystical experience within my body? What struggles might I encounter? Who might I meet? How would the adventure impact my experiences afterwards in this life?

I’ve played with issues like guilt, punishment, communing with intelligences far beyond our own in scope or depth, reincarnation, desire to maintain selfhood forever, consciousness without physical substance — or with a very different kind of physical substance from the bodies we’re used to, ways of communicating and connecting that transcend language, spiritual abilities that might linger after touching another realm and returning to earth, and other topics that intrigue me. Additional ideas come to me often. I feel a kind of low-key thrill when thoughts along these lines arrive.

It’s no all-encompassing mystical paradise. I’m not the wise prophet on the hill, swooning from my encounter with the divine. But I smile. I make myself laugh. My thoughts inspire more thoughts and fabulous questions. And I’m taking an active role in my spiritual journey: I’m not just hanging around waiting for spiritual insight to strike and lift me into a glorious new plane. For all I know, I’ve touched valid new planes through my speculations. It all feels very possible.

Part 3: This-Worldly Implications

This all goes beyond mystical possibilities. Our imaginations are healing and building tools when we focus our attention squarely on this life, this earth, and day-to-day existence. Of course there are boundless implications for creativity in the arts and other realms: creative envisioning inspiring wonderful writing, visual art, music, and even scientific breakthroughs (I know professional scientists who imagine situations before testing their ideas empirically). Possibilities for mental health are less celebrated but equally impressive. Lately, I’ve found that simply imagining scenarios can make feared experiences feel less acute. I dread growing older (though I sure want it to happen: as my grandmother always said, it beats the alternative!) I’ve pictured a much older me, laughing with friends, enjoying good times and excellent health, and felt a wave of peace. If my mind can see it, maybe the future will bring it.

I’ve also imagined handling difficult social situations with ease, picturing myself putting off nosy relatives or nasty acquaintances in style. And these fantasies have given me actual ideas for handling the real situations that are likely to come. I envisioned myself telling one particular person that every interaction with me from now on is a game, and, if she asks about me or provides any commentary at all on my life, she will lose and I will win. I giggled. I actually found myself looking forward to seeing this person so I can try it out. Minor heartache, for sure, but that sort of thing can overtake our lives when we can’t handle it effectively. Imagining realistic scenarios where we triumph during social or other challenges can give us splendid ideas for tackling hard scenes that might come up.

As a culture, we tend to denigrate imagination. Typical schools fawn over standardized test results and take great care to ensure that teachers cover specific skills and facts, while the art of imagining scenes, worlds, lives, dimensions, and solutions is forgotten or, at best, an occasional novelty that’s never explored in depth. But, let’s face it, kids forget a very large percentage of the facts and skills they cover in school. They’ll never forget how to imagine. If they’re lucky enough to have some teachers who encourage them to explore with their minds and souls, they’ll hone these abilities, boosting complexity of thought and capacity to enter imaginary realms with ease. Whether they’re budding mystics or simply human beings trying to get through this difficult world with passion and optimism intact, they’ll relish these lessons throughout their lives.

Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine's 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.

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