There is a long history of staring to activate the imagination.
From the new book, Caves and the Ancient Mind, we learn of the importance to Greek philosophers, proto-scientists, poetics, and mystics of the supreme darkness of caves and underground chambers. Prolonged looking into the darkness lit minds that shaped Western thought for centuries.
Leonardo da Vinci advised in his notebook, Treatise on Painting, to look closely at a random stain until it becomes alive:
“This is the case if you cast your glance on any walls dirty with such stains or walls made up of rock formations of different types. If you have to invent some scenes, you will be able to discover them there in diverse forms, in diverse landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, extensive plains, valleys, and hills. You can even see different battle scenes and movements made up of unusual figures, faces with strange expressions, and myriad things which you can transform into a complete and proper form constituting part of similar walls and rocks.
Don’t underestimate this idea of mine, which calls to mind that it would not be too much of an effort to pause sometimes to look into these stains on walls, the ashes from the fire, the clouds, the mud, or other similar places. If these are well contemplated, you will find fantastic inventions that awaken the genius of the painter to new inventions, such as compositions of battles, and men, as well as diverse composition of landscapes, and monstrous things, as devils and the like. These will do you well because they will awaken genius with this jumble of things.”
John Dee, an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, navigator, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century, would stare into an obsidian stone from Mexico. Dee was following the long tradition of mirror scyring (also known as mirror gazing) to obtain visions of the future and of universal ideas.
Raymond Moody, the famous collector of near-death experiences and author, uses a similar process today for people to see and converse with departed loved ones. He places the person in a darken room that he calls The Psychomantuem, seated in a recliner and they stare at a mirror that is tilted towards dark curtains, providing a blank canvas for their imagination to roam (see book).
Hermann Hesse revealed another form of staring, fire watching, in his book Demian. When his naive major character meets with a mysterious new friend, he is shown how to stare into a fireplace: “With rigid eyes I stared at the fire as I sank into dreams and stillness, recognized figures in the smoke and pictures in the ashes. Once I was startled. My companion threw a piece of resin into the embers: a slim flame shoot up and I recognized the bird with the yellow sparrow hawk’s head. In the dying embers, red and gold threads ran together into nets, letters of the alphabet appeared, memories of faces, animals, plants, worms, and snakes.” (Demian, Harper & Row, 1965, p. 106).
More recently, in the 1960s and 1970s, sensory deprivation was studied for its ability to open access to the imagination. John Lilly, plumbed the depths of flotation chambers that were closed off to light, sound, and changes in air. Water in the chamber was heated to match normal body temperature which caused awareness of the body to drop away (the body seemed to merge with the water). What was left was a mind free to fly off into detailed imagery.
A more modest approach to sensory deprivation is the Ganzfeld effect (article). Special eye pieces can be made from one ping pong ball by cutting it in half. These are placed over the eyes as a person reclines. Staring into this blank field along with wearing sound blocking headphones, will cause the mind to zone out and eventually images of all sorts will start to pour forth for the person who has properly practiced this technique.
Why it works
The mind hates a vacumn. Staring into darkness, an unchanging dark mirror, the white fog of ping pong ball eyelids, or the play of color/light/shadow, the mind gets impatient and seeks to pick up the pace. To do so, it pours out imagistic commentary on what it thinks it is seeing as well. It strives to find patterns. Along with these images come unique imagery from the mind. This imagery is probably the content of the day that churns below the surface reacting to what is going on in our lives at the moment and working on problems we are having or will have around the corner.
How to Do It
Pick an approach that appeals to you from the examples above (there are gazing mirrors available and the ping pong ball Ganzfeld setup just takes minutes to make). Expect this to be a slow process so don’t rush it. Also, it is likely you will have to make this a dedicated practice to release its full potential. Try 10 to 15 minutes every day for awhile. As you stare, relax your body, and keep checking in to find any tension that may have popped up. Relax again. Wait. Let your focus become fuzzy and give that approach a try. Switch back to a sharper focus if you find that more productive. Go with any hints of imagery that comes up before your eyes, in your thoughts, feelings in your heart, or sensations in your body.
Stare, let go, wait, and imagine…dreaming with eyes-wide-open.