Trust Your Imaginary Friends, and Don’t Scare the Horses

As a fiction writer and a person of faith, I can be stymied by worries over what is “real” versus “in my head”. Where is the line that separates fictional archetypes and imaginative projections from a genuine encounter with an unseen deity, and what distinguishes both of those experiences from the voices heard by the mentally ill?

I’ve never forgotten a Buddhist workshop I took a decade ago, which gave me a refreshing perspective on the question. The Western philosophical model, especially in its post-Enlightenment form, draws a sharp distinction between subjective and objective, self and world, which is foreign to Eastern thought. In Buddhism, the instructor said, the interpersonal realm of consensus reality and the interior landscape of the individual are both equally real, in the sense that they are part of our experience, and both equally illusory, because these transient specific manifestations are not the ultimate form of pure Being.

So what is sanity? Western rationalist psychology tries to diminish your involvement with the voices in your mind, and to refocus your attention toward external interactions. By contrast, a spiritual or artistic ideal of mental health might emphasize mindfulness about which realm you are in, and equanimity or non-attachment so that you don’t get lost in one dimension and lose touch with the others.

Sometimes it seems to me that religion, like writing a novel, is an attempt to introduce other people to your imaginary friends. If enough of them also develop a relationship with Jesus (or Captain Kirk), your inner world becomes the consensus reality, and you’ve just shifted the reference point of sanity in your direction. Conversely, what we call mental illness may be a real inner experience that the patient can’t get others to believe, or can’t express in consensus language because she confuses literal facts with metaphors. (For more on this point, see Gail Hornstein’s groundbreaking book Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness.)

And then something happens that really does feel like a message from the Beyond. While undertaking the Great Book Purge of my office this week, I discovered one of my notebooks from 2000-2001. (My inner child must have bought this one, since the cover art is a wistful dragon on a bed of petunias, gazing at the moon.) In it I found my notes from the Buddhist workshop I mentioned above, as well as the teacher’s name and the workshop theme, which I’d been unable to recall: “The Spiritual Problem of Giving Yourself Away” by Polly Young-Eisendrath, April 29, 2001, at Tibet House.

Here are some excerpts from those notes. It appears that this was a workshop for women about boundaries and self-realization versus selflessness in our spiritual practice. Any errors in reproducing the original presentation are my own.

…Many religious teachings focus on letting go of the individual self, particularly in meditation. But women who read that often feel, mistakenly, that they should stop working on self-development. But what’s meant by letting go is that you give up a certain attitude towards the self — not that you give up functioning as a self.

The religious language of letting go presumes that you already have a secure personal sovereignty over yourself — that you have been acting on your free will and are conscious of your intentions. Self-determination is part of a spiritual life, not something you want to give up…Self-determination means that you know you can live with the consequences of what you do…


…Buddhism involves ethical practice, wisdom practice, and meditation practice. You need all three. After a certain point, you can’t do it alone. If you go too deeply into meditation practice, you may have powerful mental experiences that you can’t understand or cope with by yourself.

Impermanence, change, limitation, interdependence, and compassion are the conditions of reality. Also mystery — the uniqueness of every moment, every being, inspires awe. Learning to cope with these conditions is the goal of all religions.

A meditative state dissolves the sense of consensual reality (the agreed-on world of ordinary perceptions), which can be dangerous. You may get lost in the other mental realm of images and forces, the archetypes [Young-Eisendrath is a Jungian], etc. Shamans can go into that realm and draw power from it. The goal is to push beyond that to experience the transcendent source. You don’t want to be attached to that realm, because then you get distracted or go nuts.

People kill each other over religion because they identify with some image in that realm, and then say “my entity kicks your entity’s ass”. They’re not experiencing the oneness of things, but are stuck on the images or manifestations without having clarity in observing them…

The realm of the archetypes is real, though it isn’t the ultimate reality. That’s because Buddhism doesn’t make the distinction between self and object. The angel is in your head and is real. You just have to know which realm a thing belongs to! Your goal, in this life, is not to stay in the transcendent source, but to be more mindful in every realm, including the ordinary one where we spend most of our time…

Other gems in this notebook include a career self-assessment questionnaire from 2000, when I quit the legal profession:

If I had six months to live, I would: Get baptized. Eat fattening food whenever I wanted it. Finish my damn novel already. Write nasty letters to any influential person I’m currently pissed at. Write a short inspirational book about why I came to Jesus.”

“Write a description of myself: My personal style is intellectually rigorous but emotionally nurturing…Outside work, my interests are poetry, spirituality, dolls, cooking, fashion, and a lot of other girly shit.”

And who can argue with this bit of wisdom from my 2002 New York State driver’s ed class: “When can you use a horn? Not when passing a horse — you might scare it.”

I got my license (in Massachusetts) on the fifth try. The horse was not to blame.

4 comments on “Trust Your Imaginary Friends, and Don’t Scare the Horses

  1. Andy Winternitz says:

    We blog-readers hope for the appearance of the novel in whatever realm we can get access

  2. sharon carter says:

    I’d like to think in your exposition about the spiritual and existential concerns on mental illness that you would have also added a note about the strong evidence for genetic and biological contributions for its basis. Otherwise it sounds a bit one-sided. I’m an advocate for the them as you can tell. Thanks.

  3. Jendi Reiter says:

    Thanks for your attention to the complexity of mental illness. You’re right that we need to look at many factors. It’s been my experience, as a trauma survivor and activist for same, that the “identified patient’s” place in the family system and in wider cultural structures of inequality are under-emphasized as contributing causes. Psychiatry’s baseline assumption — that the world is sane and the disturbed individual is malajusted to it — isn’t necessarily true for victims of intimate violence and/or political oppression. In that instance, the “illness” model can wrongly reinforce the victim’s sense of personal brokenness and self-blame.

    I can’t do anything about my family’s probable genetic history of depression and anxiety, but it was their generational pattern of abuse that activated those traits in me (like genes that are only expressed in the presence of certain environmental stressors). Behavior affects biology as much as the reverse.

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