Physicians, preserve your capacity to enjoy and express the Imaginal

©Daniel Hayes CoachDanHayes 2011

The Problem: Loss of your imagination

This age of information technology (IT) may hurry up your accounting information system, but it is bad for your soul. The era’s emphasis on numbers and quantities is likely to be eroding your ability to imagine. And you should consider taking action to preserve it.

With its focus on information that is competitively conveyed or stored in “bits,” “bites,” and numbers, the IT era promises every advantage of quick access to data–and what’s concrete or quickly transmissible. Consider your day: Faster computers, DSLs, and smart phones bombard you with frenetic exchange. To complement this “hurry sickness,”1 friends and business associates nod and gesture to hurry you through your conversational. When an actual person answers your telephone calls, you often find you have less than a second to begin talking before a hang-up. You have almost certainly become inoculated with these behaviors.

The shift to emphasizing numbers and quantities when thinking and speaking was recognized by Meyer Friedman, MD as a common feature of the heart attack-prone behavior pattern he first termed “Type A Behavior” (TAB)1 Although Friedman observed the main markers of TAB to be time-urgency, status insecurity, hyper-aggressiveness, and, in severe cases, self-destructiveness, he noted that a secondary feature of TAB was a preoccupation with numbers and a relative inability or unwillingness to speak or think in images or metaphors . In short, TAB-prone individuals prefer to speak concretely and pride themselves with “getting to the point.”

Although we depend on the exchange of concrete and specific information, an inability to escape from this mode of interaction deprives us of a world of ideas, visions, and solutions not available to us by linear thinking. On the other hand, our internal internet-like web of mental associations can be served by a willingness to be hooked up to the imagery conveyed by metaphors and similes. Metaphors are words that lead us to make associations in our mind beyond their usual definition. For example, a particularly charismatic leader may be referred to as the “heart” of an organization.

Metaphorical associations are often mysterious, mythical, and empowering. They are refreshing! Consider, for example, the evocative mental images of General Patton in the movie “Patton.”There we saw scenes of Patton (as played by George C. Scott) reviewing his WWII tank division in North Africa that were interspersed with flashbacks of Roman legions marching to heraldic trumpeting. Leaders can be inspired to embrace a sense of gratitude and servitude reflecting on images of Celtic kings who stood in a giant cauldron and ladled a ceremonial soup to their people.2 (The soup was made from the flesh of a horse that had been allowed to roam the realm for a night – but that’s another story). Does that image move the furniture in your head?

The danger from the stultifying effects of preoccupation with quantities is not new. Charles Darwin wrote, after his years of gathering and cataloging data, “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact.” He concluded that he had developed an atrophy of his brain “upon which the higher tastes depend.” Ultimately, he had lost his former appreciation for music, pictures, poetry, and Shakespeare.3

Darwinhas not been alone in his fate. Mathematician Bertrand Russell, who even received the Nobel Prize for collaboration with Lord Alfred Whitehead for their contributions to mathematics, later concluded that his absorption with numbers had caused him an intense mental exhaustion from which he never recovered. Having neglected the development of his imaginal and sensual side, Russell described himself at the age of forty as a “failure as a human being.”1 Fortunately he subsequently met Lady Otteline Morrell, who introduced him to eastern philosophy, a broader sensuality, and the richness of the imaginal world. Eventually he turned away from his absorption with numbers and mathematics and spent the rest of his life devoted to pacifism, education, social and political issues, and writing fiction.

The liabilities associated with loss an imaginal world can also be illustrated by the story of a certain accountant. A master at productivity, he had survived graduate school by setting aside involvement in what he regarded as unproductive habits. These included such activities as reading a novel, viewing a romantic movie, or attending a play. He came to measure his worth in terms of productivity and to rate his and his children’s accomplishments through numbers. When he married, the accountant made a pact with his wife that after completion of his professional degree he would support her return to school to complete her own degree. However, by the time he completed his education, the couple was busy with children. He became absorbed in his accounting practice, his wife immersed herself in raising the children.

As years passed, our man became well established in his profession and known for sound advice and assistance in his community; but he became less and less available to his wife. Her requests that he accompany her to a play, an opera, or a musical were met with his protests that those forms of entertainment gave him no pleasure. He often stayed late at the office. He was restless on Saturday morning unless he had gone in to check his mail.

Eventually his wife met a woman friend who accompanied her to artistic performances and she enrolled in classes at a community college. She became less available to him.  Eventually, the accountant began to reconsider his excessive involvement with his work. He turned once again to his wife and sought a renewal of their companionship. When she responded with less intensity than he had anticipated, he became frightened. And whenever his wife traveled with her woman friend, the accountant became despondent. Finally, he developed panic episodes and suicidal depression.

In concrete terms, we could say that this man became over-involved in his professional career and ignored his marriage. Metaphorically speaking, we could say that he failed to tend to his garden, to what really nurtured him. Notice that bringing in the image of a garden enriches the story and provokes images and sensations that do not arise in us with only a concrete account of our accountant. Imagining our friend in his garden, we can empathized with his pain over lost opportunity and remember our own failed harvests. Even women may judge him less severely when envisioning him in his unattended plot and remembering the withered petals of their own failed gardens.

The poet Antonio Machado speaks of the grief in later life that descends upon us when we realize we have failed to nurture and protect our garden. The subject of his poem “The Wind One Brilliant Day,” when offered the odor of jasmine for the odor of his roses, weeps and admits, “I have no roses. All the flowers in my garden are dead.” We leave the subject asking himself, “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”4

Should our accountant abandon his naivete and begin to build and protect his garden, we might see him consciously devoting more time to the magic of language (poetry and other well-spoken or well-written ideas), personal history (memory), movement (dance), music, and perhaps sculpture.  Eventually we might be able to share his hope for his seeds and perhaps smell the sweet aroma of overturned earth.

The renunciation of imaginal and metaphorical ways of thinking or speaking is not the norm in other cultures. Men in Transcaucasia still gather and recite for hours lyrical tales of their ancestry. The aboriginal people of Australia encode their paths across terrain in memorized ancestral “song lines” that guide them from pond to rock to hill. Visiting that culture, one sees the hand of the imaginal man in intricate designs and figures painted on rock walls, desert floors, and the faces of initiates. There, “abo” elders spend much of their time preparing rituals for youth. Jungian psychologist James Hillman reminds us that the people of Latin America, Eastern Europe, Russia, traditional Africa, and Muslim cultures still recognize what the Papua New Guineaisland Trobrianders call “the force of magic [that] resides with man and can escape only through his voice.”5

As you may guess, metaphor and imaginal ideas abound in what we call “art.” And moved by his own awareness to this, the philosopher Albert Camus said: “A man’s work is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art, those images which first brought him into life.”

The Solution: Take Action and Preserve your Imaginal Capacity

“Don’t let a chance like this go by” (Kabir)6

In my coaching practice, I encourage my clients to maintain balance in their lives and:

Begin to build a garden and protect it.

  • Select and read fine literature.
  • Read poetry with a friend.
  • Take up dance.
  • Begin to play a “mus(e)” ical instrument or take up one that captured you earlier in life.
  • Join a community theater production.
  • Create a mask that expresses an aspect of you.
  • In general, become more involved in art: go “into the temple” (where the “muses” reside” among song, poetry, dance, drama, art) to place in your garden. Set aside and jealously guard the time you choose to devote to this effort.
  • Go on a mission to find a piece of sculpture or art that captures your sentiments for your relationship with your lover. Bring that object right into your bedroom to remind you to stand guard over that relationship. As you do this, consider reading the Grimm’s folktale “Faithful John.” In concrete terms, this is a story about John, a faithful servant whose relentless protection of his master leads to his being turned into stone. But viewed metaphorically, John’s loyalty can be seen as a reminder to protect what is most dear to us.

Memorize poetry or aphorisms (the language of gentle thought)

For example, memorize the poetry of Rumi,7 Kabir,6,13 Pablo Neruda,12 Emily Dickenson,12 Robert Frost,12 or William Butler Yeats12. Seek out and read a book of famous quotations or aphorisms, such as:

“Very few things worth measuring can be measured.”

“The most difficult thing is to know yourself.” – Thales

“There is no learning to live without learning to love.” – John Powell, SJ.

“Memory is reading oneself backward.” – Walter Benjamin

“You shall have joy or you shall have power, said God, you shall not have both.” – Emerson

“If you don’t know pain, you haven’t been born into life.” – West African proverb

Reclaim your memory

Set aside some time to recall past pleasurable events. Consider practicing recalling these events for ten minutes a day. Contact an old friend and reminisce about the fields, canals, attics, barns where you used to play. Recall the texture and aromas of the cut hay you rolled in, a rope you swung on, the first cheek you kissed. Revisit the thrill of lightning storms, the smell of ozone in the air, the rawness of nature. Consciously revisiting the past and allowing yourself to be seized by a longing for that which cannot ever return can ignite a passion for the remaining moments of your precious life.

Begin a journal of your dreams

Your dreams are rich sources of imagery that can be preserved in a simple spiral bound notebook kept at the bedside.

Obtain and keep at your side literature characterized by what Marcel Proust termed â”sufficiently noble frames of reference.”

  • Keep a book of meditations on your nightstand.
  • Read legends and fairy tales for yourself, your partner, or your children.
  • Read Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov’s precious boyhood recollections of times with his father and mother and his butterfly hunting around St. Petersburg.8
  • Read Albert Camus™ posthumously published autobiography The First Man.9

The manuscript for this book that Camus was writing was discovered in the wreckage of the car in which he was killed in 1960. After his death, the author’s wife and close friends avoided publishing it because they feared a negative reaction from the world. But in this story of his metaphorical search for his father, who died in World War I, Camus reveals his journey to the “land of oblivion where each one is the first man” and must discover his own answers. Utterly dismantling his reputation as a cynical “existentialist,” Camus story will awaken the passions with which you entered your own life with his accounts of adventures with his mates on the shoreline and mudflats of Algiers and hunting trips with the men who blessed him.

Escape from your concrete world and practice living with uncertainty and ambiguity.

A good source of inspiration for this practice is Simon De Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity.10

Carry a good poetry book into dull conference meetings and places that drain you.

The practice of survival in the age of information is not easy. The practice requires effort, it requires consciousness, it requires inconveniencing yourself to learn new habits. Otherwise, as poet William Stafford warns “…a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”11

Daily practice to preserve or enhance your imaginal thinking*








Practice recalling past pleasurable events for 5 mins. Read a piece of fiction or literature that has no profit value. Memorize a stanza of a poem or an aphorism (language of gentle thought). Practice recalling past pleasurable events for 5 mins. Memorize a stanza of a poem or an aphorism Practice recalling past pleasurable events for 5 ins. Read for a half hour from a piece of literature of no apparent “bottom line” value.
*Follow or modify this template to guide your daily practice. Tape it over your wash basin or on your mirror. Surviving the Age of Information Technology. CoachDanHayes


Daily practice to preserve of enhance imaginal thinking*








Write in your journal for 15 minutes. Memorize a stanza of a poem or an aphorism. Write in your journal for 15 minutes. Memorize a stanza of a poem or an aphorism. Write in your journal for 15 minutes. Memorize a stanza of a poem or an aphorism. Practice recalling past pleasurable events for 5 mins.
*Follow or modify this template to guide your daily practice. Tape it over your wash basin or on your mirror.Surviving the Age of Information Technology CoachDanHayes


1. Fdman M, Ulmer D (Eds). Treating Type A Behavior and Your Heart.New York: Fawcett Crest. 1984.

2. Gerald of Wales. History and Typography of Ireland. Translated by John O’Meara. Viking Penguin. 1983.

3. DarwinF. Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters.New York:Dover Press, 1958.

4. Machado A. The Wind One Brilliant Day. From: Times Alone: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado. Translated by Bly R.Middletown, CT: WesleyanUniversity Press; 1983.

5. Hillman J: Language: Speaking Well and Speaking Out. In: Bly R, Hillman J, Meade M (Eds), The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men.New York: HarperCollins; 1992.

6. Kabir. Knowing Nothing Shuts the Iron Gates, translated by Bly R. From The Kabir Book.Boston: Beacon Press. 1977.

7. Moyne J, Barks C (translators). Open Secret: Versions of Rumi.Putner,VT: Threshold Books. 1984.

8. Nabokov V. Speak, Memory.New York: G P Putnam’s Sons. 1966.

9. Camus A. The First Man. Edited by Burnes S and Translated by Hapgood D.  Vintage Books. 1996.

10. De Beauvoir S. The Ethics of Ambiguity.New York: Citadel. 2000.

11. Stafford W. A Ritual to Read to Each Other. From Stories That Could Be True. Stafford W; 1977. (out of print)

12. Bly R, Hillman J, Meade M (Eds).The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men. New York: HarperCollins; 1992.

13. Bly R. The Kabir Book. Boston: Beacon Press, 1977.

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