Thursday, August 8, 2013

Imagining Nature

I recently wrote about the importance of imagination in our lives. I would like to gather up that thread and spin it out a bit further this time. In the history of religious symbolism, the images of sun, blood, and water have prominently reflected the notion of Life, vitality, and purification, yet in the span of my life I have witnessed these powerful images revisioned as foci of death, danger, and contamination.   

Sun: I recall my mother telling me to go outside on a summer day to get some sun. We needed to be in the sun to stay healthy. SPF factors had not been heard of and few people used sun lotions. Skin cancer was not a concern. We felt bright, happy, and warm in the sun. We were safe.

Blood: a potent symbol of life and continuity. I remember making a cut on our hands with one of my friends, mixing our blood together becoming blood brothers, joined forever. A small abrasion at a friend’s house and his mother would simply wash it with soap and water, apply some mercurochrome, a band aid, and send me back to play. There was no fear by her of touching my blood. No one ever saw latex gloves. There was no paranoia about contacting blood. No medical person ever said to me, “Treat everyone as if they’re infectious.”

Water: once a precious liquid, life giving, baptizing, purifying. We could still drink from some streams and swim without worry in its refreshing flow. Today, many beaches, lakes, and streams are permeated with filth and debris. We purchase filtering systems for our homes and buy water in bottles to ensure its safety for heaven’s sake. This all astonishes me.

Lacking a pervasive guiding fantasy for caring for the environment and possessing a stunted aesthetic toward beauty, we have damaged the air, infected the water and wounded the land to the extent that it is difficult for the planet to care for us anymore. We experience no sacred immanence intimately present in the world. For many people, the guiding fantasy is that life is simply a testing ground pointing toward a greater life after death in our true Home for Eternity. Sacredness resides out there somewhere in heaven, that’s what need concern us. It is no wonder that when the planet is imagined as simply a commodity for our use, as inanimate (i. e., without soul), dead matter, that we do not cherish it.

Imagination is reality, our guiding fantasies shape our relation to the world. If we truly believed that nature was sacred then the Darwinian image of having evolved from earlier primates would not so much raise our collective ire as it would humble and soothe us as we would clearly be connected to the sacred nature of the world. It would be no shame to share an ancestor with the apes but a blessing. We would celebrate this relationship, not put it on trial. We would have a sense of being home and of belonging here. If this were the case, then I imagine we would take care of our home more lovingly. As long as we feel like outsiders, tourists in some distant motel, far from home, it’s not hard to imagine us trashing the rooms.

When Columbus invaded the New World, the world was already being imagined not as a living being, but as a storehouse of unlimited resources for consumption. In Beyond Geography, Frederick Turner suggests,

"To those who followed Columbus and Cortez, the New World truly seemed incredible because of the natural endowments. The land often announced itself with a heavy scent, miles out into the ocean. Verrazano in 1524 smelled the cedars of the East Coast a hundred leagues out. The men of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon were temporarily disarmed by the fragrance of the New Jersey shore, while ships running farther up the coast       occasionally swam through large beds of floating flowers. Wherever they came inland they found a rich riot of color and sound, of game and luxuriant vegetation. Had they been other than they were, they might have written a new mythology here. As it was, they took inventory."

"Had they been other than they were," how were they? They were consumers rather than conservers, they were businessmen rather than artists, they were Christian rather than pagan. Even with this great provocation of beauty, they could not imagine the world as sacred. Their cultural imagination displayed the land as ultimately cursed and given for their use. Beauty was in the adoration of the transcendent not the immanent. And here we are now, our fantasies about life darkened; impoverished land, impoverished soul, impoverished imagination.

Perhaps we can adopt a new credo: Cultivate imagination, Seek beauty.

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Healing Fiction

The poet Wallace Stevens once wrote, “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” For many years I have pondered Stevens’ meaning and through time, my understanding of the phrase has shifted, adding various subtleties and shades of meaning. I have wandered into a space in my life where I have adopted this as a personal credo.

There are certain propositions about the world which I assent to, which glue my world together, and that quite naturally, I hold dearly. I recognize their empirical unverifiability, they are fictions, but for me they are what James Hillman refers to as “healing fictions.”

The first is that there is a Way (perhaps Tao) expressing itself continuously.

The second is that elements of the Way are potentially knowable.

The third, that historically there are numerous disciplines by which we may discern this Way.

Fourth, the practice of astrology is one of these disciplines.

Now I don’t mean the trivial astrology found in the sun sign columns in the newspapers and magazines, nor am I interested in anyone attempting to tell me what the future holds, the future can take care of itself. I mean the kind of astrology that rather than providing answers to my worrisome problems, generates questions about what it means to be living this life here and now. It provokes new questions that lead off on adventures in meaning, that help to create/discover shifts in understanding. In some ways, it is astrology as spiritual practice. My only basis for believing these fictions reside in the heart of my own experience. I do not doubt their veracity though I could in no way prove them to you.

I think it is fair to say that astrology falls short of empirical validity There is a blatant attempt by astrologers to move into the neighborhood of science where most cultural validity resides, kind of like gaining increased status by having rich and important friends, or they simply know little about the workings of science. Astrology is an art form, an applied poetics as writer Thomas Moore suggests. Like many good things in life it is not to be taken literally. The painted portrait is not, nor does it necessarily reflect, the literal person, the well told tale (Shakespeare, for instance) does not need to be historically accurate to imbue its listeners with meaning and value, the stories of the Christ or the Buddha do not have to be authentic to carry power and import into our lives. These are mysteries and fictions with the capacity to heal and move us into new spaces.

Fictions and fantasies do not reflect categories of diminished value or useless inquiry, but have great consequence and that even science and technology are expressively permeated by many fantasies. There is no need to be locked into a monocentric view of things. There is no longer one right way to approach life, no quest I need go on to find it, but many ways now. I can also recognize that there are many styles of being in the world and though mine may be right for me, it is not necessarily right for others. Each person is a unique expression of life, a particular facet on this gem of the world.

The astrological imagination is effulgent with polycentric perspectives and respect for others. Almost by definition, it includes tolerance and diversity with less need to pathologize the ways of others. Every person is fitted perfectly into their lives with even the struggle to fit, fitting.

To see the beauty of celestial rhythm reflected in the everyday affairs of my life grants a certain feeling of serenity and contentment upon which I can fall back in the midst of my own crises. I have said this before but I think it bears repeating, because my life at times seems out of my control is not to suggest that it is out of control, there may be larger guiding factors in play. To engage the fiction of astrology to acquire this learning is for me a worthwhile endeavor.

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Imagination is Heavy

I believe that we are constantly imagining the world and that imagination has a central rather than peripheral place in our lives.
I like the ambiguity of imagination. Imagining is still a controversial issue in psychology and philosophy. I think we all know what we mean when we say the word but find it difficult to articulate a good definition. Imagination may be understood as our capacity to generate any possible reality. We are imagining when we dream or envision situations but we are also imagining when we close our eyes and place a finger to our nose or navigating in the darkness through our house late at night. But imagination is not simply representational, it is also creative of new realities.

Cultivating imagination is not emphasized in our upbringing. In fact, we occasionally hear remarks such as, “It’s just your imagination, you’re dreaming, it’s all in your head, that’s only a story,” which are used in a dismissive fashion, something which says the issue at hand is unreal or unimportant. These are negative value statements. Gore Vidal once wrote that it “is the spirit of the age to believe that any fact, no matter how suspect, is superior to any imaginative exercise, no matter how true.” Imagination does not have a valued place in our culture.

The late historian of religion, Ioan Couliano noted that whereas the Renaissance was a culture of imagination, the Reformation of the 16th century led to the total censorship of the imaginary. Religion, generally locatable within the province of imagination, witnessed immense differences arise in liturgical style between the Roman Catholic tradition and the new Protestant worship. The once sensuous liturgy was transformed into sterile formality. Gone was incense, chant, bells, intonations, Latin, candles, costume, rich tapestries, statuary, relics, and the deep mystery of the Eucharist. The Reformation brought unadorned interiors, somber hymns, plain pulpits, suited pastors, and a new focus upon the sermon in the common vernacular. An imaginative and sensuous worship was viewed as idolatrous. The worship experience shifted from sensory experience to explicated meaning. Apparently, in the beginning was the Word not the Image.

I believe it is mostly the poets, artists, occultists, and madmen who have kept imagination alive to us. William Blake at the turning of the 19th century, wrote, “Man is all Imagination. God is Man and exists in us and we in him.” “The world of Imagination is the world of Eternity.” “The Imagination is not a State, it is Human existence itself.” For Blake, imagination, experience, and existence were all of an inseparable piece. A century later, Jung was proclaiming, “What appears to us as immediate reality consists of carefully processed imagery... We live immediately only in a world of images.” “Image is psyche.” If image is psyche and psyche can be defined as soul, then when we cultivate images, we are also engaged in the task of soul-making. 

Contemporary archetypal writer, James Hillman describes soul, not as a thing but as a perspective, a way of seeing that is reflective, deepening events into experiences, adding layers of depth and richness to our lives. One of the qualities of poetry is to take an ordinary event and through reflection, probing, and working it as an image describe it anew in such a way that it becomes meaningful experience, something which actually moves us. Soul-making is about differentiating this middle ground, creating imaginal space between the event and its impact upon us. Another way of grasping soul-making is the notion of attending closely to the minute and mundane details in our lives, paying attention to the sensuousness which surrounds us when we waken, when we bathe, when we prepare and enjoy food, when we meditate, when we make love. Through attending, we become alive to the world and the world in turn becomes alive to us, vital, a living being. An animated world is a world permeated by soul, anima (soul in Latin) brings us round to the notion of World Soul. Emerson has a marvelous essay on the World Soul, which he terms the Oversoul and I heartily recommend it. 

In reclaiming imagination, giving it an honored place, we more easily care for soul and deepen our relationship toward life.