Sacred geometry

Imaginal Practice: Doorways and Directions (Part 1)

The set of talks and meditations from this course outlines the foundations and some of the possibilities for opening up a practice of the imaginal. Please note that this set forms a progressively unfolding series of teachings, so the talks and practices will probably be more fully understood and absorbed if they are taken in order.
Date7th August 2015
Retreat/SeriesPath of the Imaginal


Welcome, everybody. Welcome to this retreat and to this course on imaginal practice. I think tonight, by way of introduction, I'd like to start by talking a little bit about imagination, and particularly trying to open up some space if that is needed, in our minds, in our hearts, in our collective psyche, really, in relationship to imaginal practice. And also talk a little bit about the kind of doorways and directions that exist within imaginal practice.

So if we consider for a moment the range of ways that people practise with imagination or the range of uses to which imagination is put, particularly the kinds of directions, the kind of conceptions that form around imagination and imaginal practice, and the kind of flavours that that practice can have (so directions, conceptions, and flavours), we kind of see quite a range here. We can be aware of quite a range here. The imagination can be used for planning, for creative planning, for visioning in the sense of creative visioning. For example, people talk about visioning a different future for society, for civilization, for humankind, in regards to the challenges, for example, of climate change or environmental degradation/destruction. People speak about needing a new narrative, a new story there. This is a use of the imagination as visioning. Or, for example, at Gaia House we have, periodically, Gaia House visioning meetings: where do we want this organization to be in five, ten years, twenty years' time? What are the directions we want to move in? What would we like to see happening? So this is a use of imagination in a very instrumental, practical way, really.

Then there might be, for example, the use of imagination to develop certain skills or to rehearse. For example, in sports, to imagine a certain shot or a certain situation in a game. Or perhaps in music, a certain passage at the keyboard if you're a piano player, or on the instrument, whatever it is. Imagining mentally can actually develop the motor skills, interestingly enough, they've found, to increase one's skill and one's performance.

And then there's a whole range of the use of imagination for self-improvement in different ways, for the cultivation of qualities or attitudes, qualities and attitudes, that might be deemed helpful, necessary, worthwhile. Here the range is huge. So for example, in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the Buddha's basic discourse on mindfulness, one of the longest subsections in that is in the mindfulness of the body section, and it regards the contemplation of death. Part of that is going to what was an open cemetery grounds and contemplating corpses in different stages of decay. But the Buddha also says, "Well, if that's not possible, you can do it in your imagination."

And what's the purpose, what's the conceptual framework that's holding that? Well, the intention behind it is for dispassion, dispassion regarding this body and to a certain extent regarding this life, and also a sense of urgency, so urgency with regard to practice, with regard to awakening and the path, and dispassion with regard to other aspects of life and in relation to the body, etc. That's generally, in the Pali Canon, the sort of reason for doing that imagination around one's death. Here, it's interesting to note, in that practice, the imagination is regarded, the images used are used in the service of realizing a concrete fact: the material decay of the body, the impermanence of the body. So that's an interesting limitation on the use of the imagination, and an interesting direction. It's in the service of a concrete fact, and particularly material decay and the impermanence of the body.

Also in the Pali Canon, the Buddha, in a few different places, advises -- particularly if you're beset by the hindrances or feeling a lack of inspiration or faith -- he says, "Think about me. Bring me to mind." It's called recollection of the Buddha, a practice of recollection of the Buddha. This is said to bring inspiration, and bring also a sense of faith and sense of urgency, sense of possibility in one's self, in the path, in practice. Also within the Dharma, different Dharma traditions and other spiritual traditions, there's the use of the imagination in the service of cultivating qualities like mettā (loving-kindness) and compassion. For example, imagining the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara or Kuan Yin, or imagining the Buddha, or if you're in a different tradition, imagining Jesus or Mary, and through the image, constellating, if you like, 'channelling' perhaps, these qualities of love and compassion, that helps our love and compassion increase in our hearts, helps our hearts grow into, expand into those qualities. In some cases also there will be a growth, a support of aspiration: "What do I want to move towards in my life? What do I want my heart to open to and towards?" An increase in aspiration. An increase also in faith for some.

And very similarly, or extending from those kind of practices, is the whole vast range of tantric practices regarding the imagination, tantric visualization practice. Particularly I'm thinking now of practices involving tantric deities -- yidams, they're called in Tibetan Buddhism. And this actually is quite interesting because, by now, as it's moving into Western culture and becoming a bit more popularized, and lots of people are doing these kind of practices, the range of conceptions that kind of underpin tantric practice is huge. It's really quite varied. And we'll go into that perhaps more, later on the retreat.

But again, a person might be viewing the use of imagination or practising with images in order to develop their own strength, a quality like that: my strength, my ability to be strong in life, courageous, bold, upright, set boundaries, etc. So sometimes borrowing from tantric practice, for example, the more wrathful deities, fierce, demon-looking like creatures, and imagining and visualizing them in practice in order to develop these qualities for the self and the self's unfolding path. Even, I heard, someone told me Jon Kabat-Zinn, in teaching mindfulness, suggested on occasion to imagine oneself as a mountain, or just to imagine a mountain, for the purpose of bringing in or allowing in or imbuing the moment with a sense of unshakeability -- unshakeability of being, of perhaps equanimity, also a sense of groundedness. So again, it's the use of the imagination in order to develop or bring in certain qualities that are helpful for the self.

Then there's a whole range of possibilities, again very wide these days, of certain more recent psychological and psychotherapeutic uses of imagination, Gestalt psychology and other psychotherapy and other forms. So for instance, the inner critic or the superego, and beginning to imagine them and dialogue with them perhaps, put them in another chair and enact them and move between the self and the inner critic, etc., or a figure from a dream. But often in these kind of psychotherapeutic approaches, all these figures, whether it's the inner critic or a figure from a dream, they're all regarded as somehow belonging to the self: they belong to me, they are parts of me somehow. And in some way, I want to kind of integrate them into me, to make myself more of a whole human being, a more balanced human being. I don't want them being stronger than me somehow, more powerful. I want, in a way, to tame them, to subordinate them to some kind of more, perhaps, rational or at least sensible sort of executive decision-making self. And there's a kind of unitive view there, that all these disparate figures, crazy as they might seem, uncompromising as they might seem at first, or unusual, whatever, they're all brought in to be made part of a kind of unity, a wholeness of self, and that's often the vision or the conceptual framework or the directionality of that kind of psychotherapeutic work.

In many traditions, something as simple as looking at a candle and then shutting one's eyes and meditating, focusing on the inner image, the remembered visual image of that candle, is used purely as a concentration practice. Again, that's quite a narrow directionality and conceptual framework. There's no significance given to that object. It could be anything: a candle, a stone. It doesn't really matter. There's no significance at all to the imagined object. It's just an exercise that's useful for developing focus of mind, steadiness of mind. Actually, on this retreat, starting tomorrow, we'll talk about using the imagination to develop what I call samādhi, and I'll explain how I'm going to use that word. There's more than concentration. I'll explain that tomorrow.

We can use images to work with opening up the energies of the body and what I'll call the 'energy body,' which I'll also explain, to bring a sense of resource, of harmonization, or energization, of openness, of well-being, into the being. So we'll explore and explain all that.

All these and actually many more that I want to go into in quite a lot of detail are possible, in terms of the ways, the directions we can go in with the imaginal practice, and the ways we can think about them, conceptual frameworks we can put them in. And, of course, there's the possibility as human beings just to be lost in daydreaming, to be lost in worrying about the future and rehashing the past in what we call papañca in the Dharma tradition, just the mind spinning, perhaps with images and fantasies, but not really very helpful in any way at all. So all that and much more is possible in terms of directions, doorways, and conceptions of imaginal work and the use of images for us as human beings.

When we get into this, and probably as we practise more with images, work with images and practise with them, we start to realize, I think, especially if there's an open-mindedness, it actually begins to occur to us that the most interesting aspect of working with images and imaginal practice is not in fact the images themselves. They can be, and we'll go into this, really far out, or don't seem particularly interesting at first sight, but it's actually not the images themselves that are the most interesting aspect. The most interesting aspect is rather our relationship to those images, and particularly the conceptual frameworks that we bring to bear around the images, that support those images, or send them in certain directions -- the conceptual frameworks that we create, if you like.

That aspect ends up being the most significant, but also the most interesting. When we talk about that, and as I kind of alluded to before, just a few minutes ago, many conceptual frameworks are possible in terms of images, imaginal practice. Many directions are possible. For me, almost all of them are interesting, and they're all okay with me. So I really want to emphasize that. All of that's okay. Well, most of them are okay, in terms of how you're going to use images, how you decide to use images. If I'm honest, I'll say the agenda I have for this retreat -- and I do have an agenda -- part of my agenda is really to support you in your practice with images, and open possibilities for you.

So that's my agenda, and that's partly up to you where you want to go with it. There is my agenda, but there's also (and you'll pick this up; I might as well flag it right now and admit it right now), I have this agenda of supporting and opening what's your desire and your inclination with regard to images, but you'll pick up that I also have a leaning, personally, and I'm not going to hide that. I have a leaning to what we might say are more radical conceptions regarding imagination and images. I'll explain more what I mean by that, but the kind of conceptual framework around images that is most interesting to me, and that I probably lean to more right now of that range, is rarer. It has a rarer appeal, I feel, it seems to me, as I look around me and listen to people, etc. Not that many people are interested in it. But you'll pick up that that's my leaning, and you'll see what's involved, because I'm going to unfold that quite a lot over the days.

I'll explain, as I said, more what I mean by that, what's included in that radical conceptual framework, but part of it includes being open to the range of the kind of images that may come up or that we might entertain or work with. So to put it a little simplistically, I am very interested and I would like to open the doorway to the whole range in terms of the kinds of images -- both the kind of gentle, sort of white light, angelic kind of diaphanous images that might appear to us full of obvious love and gentleness and kindness, and, or rather, all the way to including what might seem at first darker or weirder, or might seem to some sensibilities or preconceptions a little bit more disturbing, perhaps. So I really want to open up that range and make it all really okay, really trustworthy. And I mean more than that in terms of conceptual framework, and I'll explain as we go on. But that's tricky, then, because I'm in the teacher role here, and so I'm asking you, if this is possible: can you please, is it possible, please trust what you want, how you want to orient in terms of imaginal practice? Which might change for you over time. But please trust your sense of your purpose with all this, with images, imagination and imaginal practice.

It might be for some, even at the end of this retreat, of this course, you do all this stuff, you explore, and you take away very little. Maybe you take away, just occasionally you might use, very occasionally in your Dharma practice, a kind of interesting technique using images, maybe occasionally, and that's all it ever is for you after this. Occasionally you spice things up when it's a little flat or something, and that's fine. That's completely up to you. Or it might be that what you come to (and some of you may already be there) is more a total kind of explosion, a total revolution in your way of seeing and conceiving of practice, seeing and conceiving Dharma, what that means to you, seeing and conceiving the self, existence, and the world. A total kind of -- more than just a shift -- an explosion, a revolution, as I said, in all of that. Very profound, very far-reaching.

We could ask, "Imagination and images in the service of what?" In the service of self-development? Fine. In the service of standard Dharma practice? Fine. In the service of maybe something even bigger than that? That's a question: what is imaginal practice in the service of? What are images in the service of? Or rather, what am I making imaginal practice and images in the service of? What am I allowing images and imaginal practice to be in the service of?

So that's up to you. And again, I'll be honest, and I'll say that for me, one of my deeper aims and reasons for giving this retreat, offering this retreat and this course, one of my deeper aims is because I'm really interested in the possibility of opening up a different sense of existence. I feel and know that that is possible through imaginal practice, as it is through other means. But particularly through imaginal practice, certain ways that the whole sense of existence, of the self, and of others, and of this very world that we live in, the sense of all that can become quite different in a very beautiful and lovely and profound way. With that, wrapped up in that, not just the sense, the perception that's available, the perceptions of self, other and world, but also the conceptions of existence, and also the conceptions of Dharma. So one of my deeper aims for the retreat is opening up the sense of existence in those ways, and the conceptions of existence and the Dharma.

Part of the reason for me saying that is because it also implies, then, that in a way, having or getting a visual image or visual images a lot in one's practice is not really that important. This is going to sound funny maybe to some people. A visual image is not that necessary, because we're actually interested in something else, in a different sense of existence, in a different conception of existence, of Dharma, of practice, of the world opening up. I'm putting that in now, and I'll repeat that. But that also may affect the way you might grasp at, "I want to get an image," or "Why am I not getting an image?", if that happens, and I'll talk more about that. I have a different aim in mind at a deeper level.

Related to that, it's worth noting that my experience, for myself and working with individuals with imaginal practice, is that as one works with images and one practises more, the whole practice, the whole of imaginal practice kind of evolves, in many different ways. But one of the ways it evolves, like many practices, is it evolves into more subtlety. It gets subtler and subtler in many ways. Often, at first with imaginal practice, and often for a while, certainly in my experience, it was quite clumsy and quite gross, and there might be a tendency for many people to identify rather too tightly or closely with an image or an imaginal figure. Or for a while to feel, "There are no images. I'm not getting anything." One's view of what should be happening is a little too tight. Again, I'll go into this more. But whether it's clumsy and gross like that, or whether there seem to be not many images arising, either way, what can happen over time is more subtle sensibilities start to open. And this, again, is more actually what I'm interested in: the support and opening and growth of a kind of more subtle sensibility regarding existence, regarding the world, that is more imaginally imbued, more imbued with mythos and fantasy. I'll explain what that means as we go on.

So some people will be drawn to this course because they already have lots of dreams every night, and quite vivid and intense, or they have a lot of images that come to them in meditation or at other times, and they feel, "I want a way of working with this. I intuit that there's a fruitfulness that's possible here with these images." And somehow they sense that they need a framework for conceiving of those dreams and images, that that would be really helpful as well. Our culture at present generally is quite poor in terms of the frameworks it has for working with images and regarding them. The history of cultural attitudes and present cultural attitudes regarding images is quite interesting. And in a way, there's been historically quite a lot of denigration of the imagination, both philosophically and psychologically in the culture, in Western culture over centuries, millennia perhaps.

In a book called Invisible Guests, written by Mary Watkins, psychology, she talks a little about this, and partly coming out of the view of scientific reductionism, partly because of the medical model of psychology and psychotherapy. It comes out of a medical model that was really established in, let's say, the nineteenth century really firmly, mid-nineteenth century onwards really firmly, perhaps even before. It's interesting today, by way of aside, that the secular mindfulness schools are also kind of rooted -- not completely, but a large part of their rooting is in a kind of medical model. That's where they come from, that's what they're rooted to, and that gives them certain attitudes, presumptions, and allegiances, if you like.

So historically, in the nineteenth century, psychologists would and then the wider culture would look back on people like Socrates who spoke with his daimon, his guiding counsellor, if you like. People like Socrates, people like Swedenborg, people like St Catherine of Siena, or Dante, other great artists, many people, and retrospectively -- none of these people held to a medical model of psychology; none of these people had any allegiance to scientific reductionism, but retrospectively, nineteenth century psychology, and that whole medical basis for that and attitude for that, regarded them as kind of crazy. Maybe high-functioning, but kind of crazy, because of their sort of relationship with imaginal figures.

Even, amazingly enough, Descartes (who of course was one of the hinge pins of the Scientific Revolution), actually, I didn't know this until recently, had a being that followed him down streets, urging him not to abandon his search for truth. So some kind of imaginal character followed him and kept pushing him not to abandon his search for truth. So even that would have been regarded as crazy, and is regarded as crazy, despite everything else these people would have been able to do and give birth to in their lives. So perhaps that has a place for artists, perhaps in some other places and dimensions of our existence, but it's pretty limited, and the whole attitude in modern culture towards the imagination is not really to explore it very widely unless it's for a very limited purpose, like you want to make a crazy movie or something, or you're a novelist.

Instead, what comes into the whole sensibility and the whole way of seeing -- either images, but really the world -- is a kind of literalism. It's just, there's an absence of other dimensions. Everything is just what it seems to be. We see also, more specifically, in the kind of more common psychological assumptions as we moved into the twentieth century (still talking about the history of cultural attitudes in the West regarding images), the psychoanalyst W. R. D. Fairbairn, died in about 1964, I think, and there, to sum it up too briefly, the attitude was, "If there is inadequate parenting, the young child will seek to withdraw or escape in an unhealthy way from external reality, which he/she should be confronting, dealing with, opening to, relating to. External reality -- that's the primary thing. That's what's most important. Should be doing that at the exclusion of any attending to internal fantasy, private presences or figures." So when there's inadequate parenting, there's a withdrawal, in this view, from external reality, and an increase in the sort of internal private fantasy figures. And that's regarded as pathologically unhealthy for the infant and, because of that, into adult life, etc., something very unhelpful.

Then, just a little bit later, the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, who died in 1971, a little more room for the imagination through his work with play and work with children, and had the idea of a transitional object. So for example, the teddy bear for the child is regarded as a transitional object. It's not regarded by the very young child as totally created by the self and controlled by the self, but neither is it something totally separate and discovered. It's in between those two modes of being completely subjective, being created and controlled, and completely discovered and separate from the self. And Winnicott said this is okay, this is even important, but it's transitional. It's a transitional phase. We want to move beyond it. Proper growth, proper psychological maturity means moving beyond and eventually leaving behind these kind of imaginal figures.

But even way before this, before the twentieth century, before the nineteenth century -- James Hillman chronicles some of this in some of his writings -- even the Council of Nicaea, the church Council of Nicaea in 787 AD, there was already a doctrinal move in the church, very significant, very far-reaching, to depreciate the images and the significance and the sort of status of images. And then, less than a hundred years later in the Council of Constantinople, the doctrinal move to regard the soul as being purely the rational spirit. So less the realm of images, and that realm of images, the soul as a realm of images. We'll talk a lot about this over the days. That whole understanding or dimension of soul was, again, either cut off or regarded extremely suspiciously or belittled.

And again, as the so-called Western Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth, seventeenth centuries, where it started and gained more momentum over the coming years, the emphasis and the elevation of reason and reasoning, and empiricism, and materialism, really, and measurement, over such qualities like the imagination, capacities such as the imagination. So that was, again, a very, very important move in the culture, a development, if you like, in our cultural history that we've inherited. But again, some, for example Henry Corbin, a great champion of the imaginal, a scholar of certain forms of Islamic mysticism in the twentieth century (I think he died in the seventies), points even further back than the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, to the twelfth century, when philosophically there was a sort of debate between the school of Aristotle and the school of Averroes, and Aristotle triumphed and became more influential. This was a move away from what was more dominant Platonism. And again, with that, laid the seeds for empiricism and a denigration of the imagination and the place of images.

Why am I saying all this? Because it's our cultural heritage. It's the air we breathe, or more than that, it's the water we swim in, like a fish swims in water and doesn't -- well, who knows what fish think, but -- doesn't even realize, we don't even realize, this is the dominant view that we imbibe, and that we think through and see through. We see through, by means of this view, regarding images and imagination this way. So all of these aspects of the cultural history, just highlighting a few points there, all of these and more give rise to or set in place -- and often quite rigidly -- a whole set of attitudes and a whole set of beliefs, in fact, regarding the imagination, regarding the self, regarding psychology.

Beliefs are interesting, because most of the beliefs we have encrust and encase and enclose the views that we have, and oftentimes we're not even fully conscious of what our beliefs are, about self and selves and psychology and images and reality and all of that. And we can even believe that we have no beliefs, or the belief we are practising in a way, "I'm practising mindfulness, and therefore I have no beliefs. I've gone beyond beliefs" or something. No, look a little closer. There's a lot more going on in terms of unexamined, unconscious beliefs. So all of these cultural, historical events and movements and developments, if you like, set in place and create a kind of enclosing space, a weight, even, of attitudes, of beliefs that inform our practices, what we practise, and also what we don't practise, how we practise and how we don't practise. So this, to me, is very, very important, to realize and then to investigate.

It's interesting for me, teaching in the last few years, teaching imaginal practice, and beginning to find ways to teach that to people and work with people around that. It seems to me, or what I've noticed is, there are four main reasons, four common reasons that some object to imaginal practice or what we might even call imaginal Dharma.

(1) One -- and you can recognize some of this in the cultural heritage -- one is, "Well, surely it's going to make you crazy. You start entertaining all these images and fantasies, and you're not in touch with reality, and it's going to fragment your self, and you'll go crazy." So that's really quite a common view that I encounter for some people.

(2) The second reason, or a second reason, is that, again, similar to what I just said, the dominant cultural view regarding what is real is immensely influential, and usually unquestioned. So this is just what we learn from the culture, it's what we learn in school, etc., and most people don't have the sort of adequate philosophical tools to really explore that and really question it. We just absorb it from the culture. This is what I call, there's a metaphysics provided. Again, it's usually unconscious, and it's usually unquestioned, and we get that from the culture.

What do I mean by 'metaphysics'? Traditionally, metaphysics, in philosophy, it involves three areas of philosophy: it involves ontology, which is the whole investigation of what is real, the whole classification of what is real and what is not real. It involves epistemology, secondly, and that's the whole classification, investigation of, "How do I know anything? How do I gain knowledge? What knowledge can I trust?" Again, for example, "Imagination is not trustworthy, but if I can measure something, or kick it, or everyone agrees on it, or other people see it, it's not just subjective, this is knowledge I can trust." So metaphysics involves ontology, epistemology, and also cosmology: what is the structure of this world, this cosmos that we live in? So these three areas form a kind of metaphysics, usually unconscious, usually unquestioned, that we just simply absorb from the dominant culture, and then this affects all kinds of things in our lives, all kinds of things. And hugely it affects practice. It affects how we think of and regard and relate to and conceive of images and imaginal practice. So that's a second reason.

(3) A third reason some might object to imaginal practice is that actually, when we really start to get into imaginal practice and sort of open it up, we start to get a sense that sometimes it may be possible, or it may even invite us, to go beyond or outside of the whole paradigm of ending suffering or reducing suffering -- which is central to the Dharma as most people would conceive it, and the Four Noble Truths are all about suffering and the end of suffering. Yet, practising with images, we start to get a different -- what becomes available to us, and what becomes important to us, is a different inclination at times, or there's space for a different inclination, a different direction, a different range beyond just that. That may not sit comfortably with some people. But I'm going to talk more about that too.

(4) A fourth reason some people might object to imaginal practice is that the images that arise for them at times, or the images that they hear about (either from me teaching, or from someone else who shares), those images don't fit into the kind of usually unconscious fantasy or mythos or image range of the Dharma for them. So for example, the stranger images, the more erotic images, the weirder or the so-called darker images, it doesn't fit. That's not the fantasy flavour of Dharma that a person has entertained up till now, and that's disturbing, or something's pushing against those limits. And/or the images that arise for them or they hear about from different people feel foreign to them, outside of the range of fantasy, of image, of mythos, of archetype that that person favours or feels comfortable in, and that makes them uncomfortable. Partly related to that, as well, is a, perhaps, sense for many people that the self-image operating dominantly is quite singular and not plural, and to have a multiplicity of self-images coming up, a multiplicity of images in the psyche operating and given equal validity, equal sense of beauty and significance, opens up the whole sense away from singularity, into a multiplicity, plurality. For some people, that too is a little bit scary.

Now, some people, however, are not okay with the dominant cultural view. They're not okay with all that, and they're drawn to imaginal practice. They're drawn, in fact, for many reasons. It might be, for example, that they are attracted to or they sense already other senses of self. They sense themselves or their being or the psyche in this more pluralized way, and not in a way that's necessarily crazy. Something also might feel attractive or ring true or deeper or more interesting in the sense of the self that's opened through imaginal practice. Something feels, something is bigger and more wide-ranging than the sort of typical humanistic way we tend to regard the self these days in our culture. Perhaps a person resonates with, finds meaningful, intuitively recognizes a kind of truth to a more daimonic notion of the self: the self, our human self, as, if you like, 'channel' of -- hard to put it into words -- some other angelic or archetypal being. What kind of reality does that have? We'll get to talk about all this. Someone senses that in and through their life, actually senses it, feels their life that way or intuits it already, perceives self that way. Sometimes that is the case, and that makes imaginal practice very attractive in some cases.

And for some people or other people, imaginal practice legitimizes, it finds a place, it resanctifies certain aspects of being that can very easily be sidelined or dismissed or denigrated or looked down on. Eros and the erotic, more wrathful energies, divine madness, a tricksterish quality, not so straightforward and simple -- all these are dimensions, if you like, of being. They're archetypal faces. They're aspects of self, if you like. And a person might feel that they have been squeezed out or unlegitimized, their holiness not seen. So this also makes imaginal practice very attractive to many people.

And in relation to that, it's quite interesting now, because I would say in the twenty-first century, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries -- well, long before that, even -- our modern sense of self, it seems to me as I read the Pali Canon, obviously talking with so many people, our modern sense of self is not the sense of self, the experience of self and the whole notion of self and personality that existed at the time of the Buddha and in the Pali Canon. You read the Pali Canon, there's almost no reference to anyone suffering with inner critic, which is epidemic in our culture, so huge in relation to the kind of self we feel we have. I don't know anyone [in the Pali Canon] who suffers from feeling like they're not expressing themselves, or even regards self-expression as something important, or anyone who talks about something being repressed in themselves or their self-expression. No one relates the pain of, for example, not feeling seen deeply or met deeply or heard deeply. These are very modern notions, experiences, feelings, sensibilities. No one complained, it seemed to me, back then, about their self-expression being blocked, etc.

So, anyway, it seems to me that we need something more in our notion of the self for the modern West. In the modern West, I think there's quite a lot of confusion around the self, which is a whole interesting thing in itself. But we live in a culture where the self is very emphasized and highlighted and sort of, in a way, celebrated. It has a kind of triumph, there's an elevation of the self, but at the same time, we really pooh-pooh ego, and point at that very quickly, especially in spiritual circles, very quick to regard this or that as a manifestation of ego. So we have a confused relationship with the self and its importance or what it actually is, how we experience it and how we relate to it.

But even more than that, the modern West, I think, has a relatively poor, relatively thin, uninteresting psychology around personhood. Not really honouring of personhood as fully, as extensively as might be possible. We seem a bit confused about all this. And a personhood -- somehow we sense, palpably, the beauty of a person, and yet, intellectually, we're supposed somehow to regard a person's personhood as having its roots in nature and biology and neurology, or genetics, and/or in nurture, the so-called nature/nurture debate, in the environment, in the environmental causes and conditions, etc. So the roots are pretty thin for this personhood which we somehow also, many of us feel to be so beautiful, so important, such a lovely dimension of existence, of being alive.

There is also, in that, this whole sense of the singularity of self that we're sort of accustomed to conceiving of -- a singular self, versus a more multiple self (although, in some situations, that is acknowledged). This is one of the things that I want to open up on this retreat: a wider, more pluralized sense of self, as I said earlier. This is not just the same as some of the ways some people talk of anattā, this teaching of not-self of the Buddha. We're not just wanting to say, "Oh, yes, I have many characters in me," and then sort of just let them be or not empower them. We want, actually, or I want to emphasize in some of what I present in the coming days the possibility of empowering those characters, that multiplicity, of bringing them to life, vivifying them, giving them more life, of viewing them differently. So sometimes this multiplicity is acknowledged, but sometimes it's just on the road to sort of disempowering these different characters, if you like, that make us up, if you want to put it that way. But I'm interested in something different. Sometimes it's acknowledged. So for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the novelist, wrote, "There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn't be. He's too many people, if he's any good." So it's recognized that there's that plurality. But I want to go even beyond just the recognition of it.

Still on the theme of what draws people to explore this kind of practice, for some people, exploring it a little, imaginal practice, they begin to get a sense quite quickly of how it frees up the sense of self in relation to what I was just saying before. There's a flexibility that comes into the self-view. Quite a few people have said to me, "Emptiness is easier to get a sense of now through playing with imaginal practice," because, in a way, one is playing and practising with a flexibility of self-view and a flexibility of world-view in imaginal practice. One is playing with that flexibility of views of self and world in different ways.

For some people, it's the other way around: as their practice matures and they begin to have more, wider and deeper insights into emptiness, and for some people also a little bit of more modern philosophy and postmodernism and that sort of stuff, doors are opened for them in their practice and in their life, really, that revalidate or make valid for them the imagination and the exploration of the imagination and images.

And some people are drawn to imaginal practice, or they begin to realize anyway, just by paying attention more sensitively and discerningly, if you like, to their experience and their psychological experiences, that fantasy and image imbue our life anyway, and imbue even what we regard for ourselves as 'the Dharma,' our path and our practice and everything that involves. Some people realize that already, and so that realization invites them through a doorway and in certain directions in relation to exploring images. And then some people already have a sense of existence, a sense of the world, of the cosmos, that is already not confined by the sort of dominant cultural view of what I call modernism. Or they're drawn to opening that up, opening up a different sense of existence, of the world, of the cosmos.

So this is the thrust of tantric practice, to open up that different sense of the world, of the cosmos, of existence. In the Jewish tradition, or actually in modern scholarly writings on the Jewish tradition, they talk about the midrashic condition. So midrash in the Jewish tradition is sort of their interpretations of, particularly, Biblical passages. And what's interesting there is there is never regarded a right view and a wrong view; there's always a sort of infinity of interpretations, infinity of openings that are possible for any one piece of a text. And so some modern scholars have talked about the midrashic condition, this condition, this way of being that sees not just the Bible but also self and other and world and cosmos as open, infinitely open, to an infinite range of interpretability. And through that, whether it's through tantra, or this midrashic condition, or what we're doing, there can be something, I feel, so important, so beautiful: a re-enchanting of the cosmos. And something perhaps that the world and the human civilization at present is desperately in need of, a re-enchanting of the cosmos, an opening of our sense of what is sacred. Some people are drawn because they sense, maybe clearly, maybe just vaguely or intuitively, sense that possibility through imaginal practice.

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry