Sacred geometry

Soulmaking (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.
Date10th August 2015
Retreat/SeriesPath of the Imaginal


We've been using words like 'soul' and 'soulfulness,' etc., a little bit. And so let's take some time in this talk and the next few talks to explore a little bit what those words might mean for us, what they might mean for our practice, and for our way of conceiving of Dharma, the relationship between those kinds of concepts and the Dharma, and fill all that out a little bit -- open it up a little bit, rather than fill it out. Open it up for exploration.

Probably most people when they hear the word 'soul' tend to immediately conceive -- in most instances, depending on how it's used -- but tend to immediately conceive of some kind of entity, 'the soul,' 'a soul,' some thing which may not be material, but some kind of entity. Of course, then some people, and especially some Buddhists, would immediately jump up and protest about that: "It's not okay to believe in such an entity," or something like that.

If we just slow down a little bit, even if one was using the word 'soul' as indicating some kind of entity, even if one was doing that, there would still be -- I would hope -- the understanding that that entity is empty. It's empty of inherent existence. Knowing that, it's then okay to talk in those terms, and to use the concept or the experience of that entity, just as Buddhists talk in the language of self, and feel the self, and conceive of the self, and knowing (either through experience, or knowing just through doctrine) that it's empty. It's empty of inherent existence, this self, but it doesn't stop us talking about it and relating to it, and even having practices that are framed and directed in terms of and at the self.

Just as we talk about and practise and think of and receive teachings about things like the five aggregates -- body, and feeling, and perception, and mental formations, and consciousness -- these too are empty. They are not non-empty. They do not really exist. They are entities that are empty. We talk about them and we practise with them. We practise ways of looking that see them and regard them in certain ways. The processes, also, that the aggregates are fundamental to -- those processes are not real. The elements of the processes, the aggregates, the psychophysical constituents, are entities. The processes are, I suppose, a kind of entity in some sense. Empty, empty, empty. Empty entities.

So this is really important, not to jump on words like 'soul,' because one understands, if one uses it with the flavour of an entity at times, that entity is always understood to be empty, just as self is understood to be empty and we use that word, just as the aggregates, just as the processes and all the rest of it.

But actually, I would like to more often use a word such as 'soulfulness' rather than 'soul,' to take it away from that problematic notion of an entity -- although, as I just said, I don't have a problem with it. But rather to use more a word like 'soulfulness,' and also 'soulmaking,' which is a word that came from the poet John Keats, I think, originally. 'Soulmaking,' you'll notice, is a verb. We make soul. One can make soul, or soul is made, so to speak. Soulmaking. What does that mean? Or soulfulness is made. What we're really talking about, what I want to emphasize here by shifting the inclination a little bit (and at times, the vocabulary), what we're really talking about is ways of looking -- that means ways of relating, ways of conceiving -- and also ways of acting in the world. Let's call all of that ways of looking: relating, conceiving, acting. Ways of looking that nourish, sustain, increase a sense of soulfulness.

So that's what we might say soulmaking is, that it's the increase, the growth and the fertilization, and the nourishment, and the support of soulfulness. And what do we mean by 'soulfulness'? What do I mean by soulfulness? I mean that richness of resonance in the psyche that involves meaningfulness -- as I said, that's not the same as 'meaning,' but 'meaningfulness' -- a pregnancy of meaningfulness, the emotional resonances that are often so subtle and so nuanced (not always) and often beautiful. These kind of resonances of meaningfulness, of emotion, resonances of the heart, in the heart, the heart resonating -- this is part of soulfulness. But also ideas, the resonances of ideas that are resonating or quivering with, or triggered by or opened by, or associated with, whatever is feeding for us that sense of soulfulness. And remember, this word 'idea' is related to the Greek word eidos, and also includes, then, how we conceive and how we see. Eidos, how we look. So that also is a part of, wrapped up in the whole rich, fertile complex of what soulfulness is: resonances with ideas, and also informing and shaping and directing, giving depth to, the way we look and see and conceive. All this is wrapped up.

In fact, depth, as whole, is characteristic of soulfulness, I would say. Beauty, also, is very wrapped up in or characteristic of soulfulness. And as we said before, the range of beauty grows, so the heart, the being, the psyche, the eyes, the sensibility, expanding its range of beauty as the soulfulness grows, with the soulfulness. Beauty is a dimension, an aspect of soulfulness, of soul and soulmaking. With all this, importance, a sense of something being important, is also central to a sense of soulfulness -- so much so that we could say that what is soulmaking, or when there's a sense of soulfulness, there is, at those times, a certain relationship with death, in the sense that what is soulmaking gives us a sense of deep importance; almost this thing, in some way, 'transcends' is the wrong word, but echoes beyond, casts its image beyond my mortal span. "Into death, we see life." Sub specie aeternitatis -- in other words, from the perspective of eternity, from the perspective of beyond our death. When things are deeply soulful, they have that kind of resonance, beyond our life. And they frame, they form, they shape and deepen our relationship with death and with our own death. And not in terms of belief. I'll come back to this.

Soulfulness or soulmaking also has to do with seeing images, seeing or sensing images, let's say, but also with seeing life, or seeing this or that experience or event, or myself, or my trajectory in life, my unfolding, as image. So this 'seeing as image' is also a very, very central characteristic of soulmaking. Love, also -- we've touched on this, and we'll return to this -- how much different kinds of love are very much part of soulmaking, and give soulfulness different flavours with the kinds of love. And again, necessity -- this is something we'll return to -- the sense of the necessity of this experience, this unfolding, this image, whatever it is, when it has that characteristic, that feel, that sense of soulfulness.

So all of that, and more, probably, is what I'm trying to get to when I use that word, 'soulfulness.' And we're either nourishing it or not. It's either being made, soulfulness, soulmaking, supported, or less so. We could say -- and actually, it would be very wise to say -- soul is undefinable. It's one of those sort of what sometimes people call 'root metaphors,' and as such, it's undefinable. There would be a wisdom in keeping a sense of flexibility and plasticity and range in how we use that word. I think that's very, very wise and helpful. And so just saying it's undefinable.

And at the same time, we could say, for our purposes, that soul is those ways of looking, those ways of relating and conceiving and acting, that, as I said, nourish, fertilize, deepen, enrich, and support a sense of soulfulness, a palpable sense of soulfulness. So we can say soul is undefinable, and we can also define soul as -- rather than as an entity -- as a whole range of ways of looking that feed soulfulness. That definition may sound circular, but in a way, it doesn't matter; it's leading us somewhere potentially.

As an example of a non-soulful imagining or image, someone told me ages ago -- it was actually another teacher -- they were on a meditation retreat at the retreat centre where they worked and had a senior position. This is ages ago. And they were meditating in a room on their own. The heating pipes were sort of making noises that heating pipes do. They were meditating, and hearing the sound of the pipes, and then began to hear voices, sort of from in and from the sounds of the heating pipes as they were on.

They heard those voices, and started to listen closer, and thought they heard another teacher and a friend discussing some problem with the retreat centre -- I can't even remember what it was -- as if in secret. So he thought in that moment that he could hear their voices, in another room, being carried to him through the heating pipes. At one point they said, "Well, don't tell him," the meditator, the other teacher, as if they were trying to keep it secret.

Now, actually, that's more an instance of probably something like hallucination, delusion. It often comes actually when the concentration is too narrow, too tight, with too much energy. It's what we call a kind of yogi mind manifestation. It's one of the manifestations of what we call yogi mind. In that kind of imagining, there is no soulfulness. There is no recognition, "Oh, this is an image." It's totally concretized. He thought he was listening to an actual fact, an actual situation, a concrete situation that was happening in real time, in another room, etc. There's nothing poetic there. Very, very different thing there. There was no soulfulness in that sense there.

Now, we all know maybe that kind of thing, certainly. But we also all know papañca, this Pali word, this kind of craziness of the mind, ego-proliferation, the spinning of the mind like a dog that's got hold of a bone, or chasing its own tail, and just spinning, creating a mess of suffering and self-building and all that. So all human beings know that, to some degree or other. We can certainly say that is different than soulmaking. We really want to get the sense: these are two different things. Soulmaking and papañca are different, even though papañca might involve imagination and fantasy and all that.

Some of the differences between papañca and soulmaking include the fact that, in papañca, it's usually about ego-reactivity as the dominant thing. The ego is very tight and caught up in its reactivities. So if it involves someone else, we're trying to, in the papañca, get one up on this person, or get some kind of revenge or something. It's so narrow in the vortex there. The self-view when there's papañca is completely literal: I just believe what I am thinking or how I am viewing the self. I believe that is the truth about myself in that moment. If it's that I'm an idiot or I'm a failure or I'm ugly or whatever it is, a useless meditator, that's what I'm believing.

And that self-view is also very, very central in what's going on in papañca -- it all revolves around self-view, papañca, in contrast with soulmaking, where the self-view is not literal. It's not to do with ego-reactivity so much at all. There's not the centrality of the self and the self-view. Self-view is not being grasped at. There is not a preoccupation with self-view that characterizes papañca. All that's much, much looser, and more spacious, and more kind of see-through in soulmaking.

In papañca, we do not see, "This is image. This is fantasy." There's not that recognition. There is not, in papañca, a kind of diaphanous quality either to what is seen, or the self, or the image of the self. No light shines through that. There is no sense of something coming through that's perhaps divine or of another dimension, if you like, or depth, etc. There's not much beauty in papañca; we're just in this vortex, tightly spinning, and contracted, as opposed to the openness and the harmonization of energies and the sense of meaningfulness that characterize soulmaking. There's quite a difference between soulmaking use of images versus papañca or hallucinations or delusions, that kind of thing.

I've said this before, but it's so important, I want to emphasize it again: soulmaking happens, or is, exists, in relationship with images or experiences. Soulmaking is in the relationship or in the conscious working with images and experiences. That relationship, that conscious working, includes the conceptual framework. So soulmaking is in the relationship. It's in the conscious working with an image or an experience, or images or experiences. It's not in the images or the fantasies alone. That's, again, helpful to have it as a verb: soulmaking. It's in the working with, rather than it exists inherently, independently, in this image.

So that's really important. Now, we could just leave it at that. We could go a step further. In a way, it's a tangent now; I'll come back to this perhaps in later talks, I hope. But we could say, then -- okay, we've just said soulmaking is in the relationship, in the conscious working with, not in the images alone. But we could say that soul is that which views in ways that increase soulfulness, that feed and nourish and deepen soulfulness. So we could say that soul is that which -- that entity which, if you want to use the term loosely -- soul is that which views in ways, ways of looking, that nourish, increase, deepen, etc., soulfulness.

Now, compare that kind of definition with, let's say, in the Kabbalistic tradition of Jewish mysticism, where the soul, the human soul and the mind, are regarded as fundamentally not separate from the divine. So there's that entity that's not separate from the divine and the divine perception. Therefore, because of this non-separateness, the human soul and mind and psyche is kind of authorized -- because it's not separate from the divine, it's authorized and facilitated in its interpretations both of holy texts (this is this openness of interpretation that we were talking about before, this infinite interpretive possibility), and in terms of life and the world and others and self. So because the mind, the soul, is not separate from the divine, it gives the human range of interpretation authority and facility. It's actually helped because of having its roots in the divine.

So, in this definition, soul is that which views in ways that increase soulfulness. These kinds of interpretations, these kinds of ways of looking, at texts or tradition, or life or self or the world, are building soulfulness.

In the Buddhist tradition, there's this teaching of Buddha-nature, in the Mahāyāna, in the Vajrayāna traditions. That teaching of Buddha-nature gets interpreted in different ways and different directions. Some people just interpret it as saying, "Well, the mind is impermanent. There's nothing that's permanent there, and there's no sort of fixed essence to it, in which case it's sort of infinitely shapeable." So we have a Buddha potential. We have a potential, because there's nothing fixed in the mind and it's all impermanent, that it can change and be shaped, eventually, into a Buddha-mind, consciousness.

So sometimes that's the interpretation of Buddha-nature. Other times, Buddha-nature is more seen as, if you like, a primordial wisdom awareness that exists already within us, but is kind of covered up. Again, similar to the Kabbalistic interpretation, this primordial wisdom awareness already sees things as divine and empty at the same time. It sees self, and other, and beings, and this world, and materiality, and the whole cosmos, as divine manifestations -- empty, divine manifestations (so without concretizing them, giving them this kind of independent existence). That's what Buddhas know. That's how Buddhas see in the Vajrayāna tradition. And this seeing, this primordial wisdom awareness exists within us, within everybody, within every sentient creature, but it's covered over. In that context, tantric practice is actually, or a large part of tantric practice is actually, if you like, skilfully mimicking this vision of a Buddha, this ultimate primordial wisdom awareness. One sort of, if you like, fakes it till you make it. You practise seeing in that way, seeing how a Buddha sees, seeing empty divinity everywhere and in everything.

So again, relating it, it's not exactly the same, but soul, Buddha-nature, is that which views in ways that nourish, deepen, enrichen, heighten and support soulfulness. Or in a more modern context of some modern psychotherapies, Jungian and post-Jungian, etc., they say the mind or the psyche is imbued with archetypes and gods. They're part of the deep essence, if you like, or fabric of the mind. The mind or the psyche is rooted in the archetypes and the gods in that way. Again, these archetypes then, we see through the lenses, if you like, or possessed, if you like, by different archetypes, different gods. And they see in ways that, again, increase, fertilize, nourish, enrich, deepen, heighten, support soulfulness. So there are quite a few different traditions that, in some way or other, echo each other here by saying something like soul is that which views in ways that increase soulfulness.

We will return to those kind of ideas, I hope, later in the retreat. But if that's too much, let's just say soulmaking -- what I said before -- is in relationship with images and experiences, not in the images and the fantasies alone. It's in relationship with, in the conscious working with -- which includes the conceptual frameworks -- the conscious working with, the relationship with the images and experiences, in that relating. That's why we use it as a verb.

Let's go into this a little more. I've said, and I really want to make this so fundamental to the whole structure that's supporting this whole investigation, I've said and I'll repeat now: what is Dharma practice? Or how can we see Dharma practice in a way that ends up being most fertile, opens up the most possibility? I would say, what is Dharma practice? Dharma practice is the practice of many and varied ways of looking. Again, that phrase, 'ways of looking,' includes conceptual framework and relationship and ways of acting. Dharma and Dharma practice is the practice of a whole range, the development of skill and flexibility and facility and range of a range of ways of looking.

Now, it seems to me that any conception of the Dharma that doesn't open up to a range, that wants to either explicitly or implicitly make Dharma a practice of just this way of looking, or just this way of conceiving, when it wants to shrink it down like that, away from opening up this range and this flexibility of many, many ways of looking -- any one that tends towards singularity, implicitly or explicitly, will quite quickly run into either philosophical problems or dead ends, ethical problems or dead ends, or dead ends in practice and perception. That's a whole other subject. But let's say this: Dharma practice is the practice of many different ways of looking, and the development of that skill and range and facility.

Within that, we could delineate three broad possibilities, or three camps of ways of looking, if you like.

(1) The first is actually the one that most people are most familiar with: so-called 'bare attention.' It's not a phrase the Buddha ever used. What's come to be known as bare attention or something like that, we could say that sort of thing, that kind of simple mindfulness, what's come to be regarded that way, is one strand. Actually, in a way, it's a misnomer. It's a helpful tool to think about bare attention, that we can be with things directly, barely, in a kind of stripped way, as if that were really possible. It's not, because that kind of looking still includes all kinds of assumptions and conceptions wrapped up in a perceiving, in a mode of perceiving, a way of looking, that seems very bare compared to our usual ways of looking, but it's actually not bare. Nevertheless, it's a valid and helpful way of practising. So one possibility is bare attention, one avenue or camp, if you like.

(2) Then, as a second of these broad possibilities of the groups of ways of looking, there's a whole range of practices that fabricate much less than bare attention fabricates. So when we're in the mode of bare attention, of simple mindfulness, we really can have the sense as practitioners, "Oh, I'm not fabricating so much right now. There is not so much being fabricated in terms of papañca and story and concepts." So there's a degree of less fabrication in the mode of bare attention. But there's a whole range of practices in this second broad range of possibility that fabricate much, much less than bare attention, much less. So as the samādhi deepens, as the mettā deepens, or compassion practices, certainly emptiness practices go way, way deeper in terms of fabricating less perception so that the whole fabric of perception begins to deconstruct. Things start to become much less substantial. This is a spectrum here. Much less substantial, and then they start not appearing. This or that element of perception, of sensation, just not appearing -- all the way down to the total non-appearance of any perception, any sensation, any appearance or experience at all. So there's a range of decreasing fabrication that one can -- if one's practising in the right way and thinking of practice the right way -- develop that journey into less and less fabrication. There's a whole range of practices there. That would be the second camp. So you've got bare attention as a mode, if you like, or an idea, and this decreasing fabrication, a whole range of practices that decrease fabrication.

(3) And then a third possibility is you've actually got fabrication, that we can skilfully fabricate. We can fabricate self and other and the perception of self and other as this or that, the whole world around us and objects and all that, and fabricate in different ways, in lots of different colours, if you like, to that fabrication, and directions within that.

So there's bare attention, a decrease in fabrication, and fabrication -- three broad possibilities that break up or make up that range of ways of looking. Lots and lots of modes in there, except the bare attention, which is a more singular type of practice.

Now, we cannot live in bare attention. You can try, but we cannot live in bare attention. We cannot live a life without fantasy. And I'm using that word in its beautiful sense, 'fantasy,' on this retreat, mostly. We cannot live in bare attention. We cannot live without fantasy, and without a kind of cosmology, if you like, a sense of what this cosmos is in which we seem to be existing. Fantasy, cosmology, give structure, direction, and meaningfulness to self and the world, the cosmos. So we can have periods when we're in the mode of bare attention, in that possibility, that avenue. But I cannot live my life that way.

There are all kinds of very important aspects to that statement and sort of implications of that statement, and roots or origins of where such a statement or idea that we even could live that way come from -- for example, in the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this gradual change in human conception of the world that took place, centred in Europe. With that came the elevation and the dominance, slowly, of the idea of being able to know reality in an objective way -- removing the subject and the influence of the subject from the perception of reality and the world and materiality, or even other humans or society; the idea that we can know them objectively if we take ourselves and our distortions out of the picture.

With that, again, came the elevation, the dominance of measurement as the dominant paradigm and way of knowing. Many of you will know, of course, this idea of objectivity and the absolute possibility of measurement grew and grew and grew, and got more and more, but then actually sort of came back round on itself and began cracking its own structure with modern physics about 100 years ago. Relativity, and particularly with quantum mechanics, the whole idea of being able to be absolutely objective sort of cracked.

But anyway, with the Scientific Revolution, there was, to borrow a phrase from Richard Tarnas, all this brought about in the wider consciousness, the collective psyche, a sense of the 'ontological diminution' -- what he really means is the sense that certain aspects of human experience became less real, or were seen to be less real -- ontological diminution of things like emotion, or aesthetics, the aesthetic aspect, the emotional aspect of human experience. These sort of became second-class or second-tier aspects of reality. They were seen as less real, the ethical dimension, the imaginative, the intentional. Now, this is actually crucial, because these aspects -- the emotional, the aesthetic, the ethical, the imaginative, the intentional, etc. -- these are actually, if you like, the most human aspects of our experience.

More recently, people, some psychologists, think you can measure emotion by brain response or skin galvanic response or whatever it is. Or you can get people to fill out questionnaires, and then rate their answers, scale of one to ten, and therefore it's brought in again. But it's pretty weak that way, in terms of the richness that's available to us. So those aspects that, in a way, make us most human, that are so central and so rich to our experience of being human, were actually slowly relativized and seen as less real than materiality and things that we could measure, things that were more so-called objective. With that, with all that, what happened to the sense of meaningfulness in life and meaningfulness in the cosmos? It also got undermined, radically undermined, with all that. This is the culture that we have, the cultural paradigm and dominant view that we've absorbed.

But we need, as human beings, we need conceptual frameworks and fantasies that engage us and enchant us, that are soulmaking. We need soulmaking. That involves conceptual frameworks and fantasies that engage and enchant us. That's what the soul or psyche or a human being needs, part of a human being needs, we could say.

There's a lot to say about this. Recently, I've been having a lot of hospital visits, in and out, and lots of tests and this and that, talking to doctors about test results and things like that. With all that, facing the possibility of possible death in the not-too-distant future, etc. Interesting, going into these environments, and the modern medical system and hospitals, which are so wonderful in terms of what they're able to offer and make possible for human beings these days. But actually in relation to soul, quite interesting, reflecting or seeing them through the lens of what is and isn't soulmaking. Soul and soulfulness, as I said, has -- there's a special relationship with death; soul and death go together, the sense of soul and life and death. The sense of life and death is central to soul.

Entering into the modern medical system in the West, wonderful [as] it is, there's a lot of talk about statistics, and survival statistics, and long-term survival statistics, and biology and matter -- and, in a way, really treating the human organism as a machine whose functioning we want to kind of keep ticking over, and whose functioning we want to optimize, or minimize the damage of. All of which is great. But what happens to soul when that is the only conversation going on? What happens to soulfulness? What happens when there's no space around those conversations? Which are important, and of course are useful. But what happens when those conversations about machine function and statistics of survival, etc., and risk factors and all that, and material biological factors -- what happens when that's the only conversation? It takes up all the time and all the space. And one looks around the hospital -- again, wonderful environment, and so lacking in soulfulness or attention to soulfulness as a key element. There may be a chapel, a small room there, but other than that, not. It's designed for functionality in terms of the biological machine.

So what happens to soulfulness? If I were, or one were to bring that up, to let's say the board of directors of a hospital or whatever, they might assume that one means, "Oh, beliefs, the different beliefs that human beings have about what happens to them after they die, because they might die in hospital, or they might be facing death. So how can we address those beliefs?", or something like that. That's very quickly the assumption around these kind of words and conversations. But I'm not really talking about belief. I'm really not talking about belief, I should say. I'm talking about perception and experience and appearance here and now, of self, of other, and of world.

And wrapped up in that is a sense of death, but not a belief about "this or that happens after death, or doesn't happen," or this or that. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about perception, experience, ways of looking that are soulmaking here and now, and of the here and now.

It's complicated, and I don't necessarily have an answer to this at all, because unlike several hundred years ago, let's say, when everyone was Christian, and even before that, everyone was Catholic, nowadays, the range of what gives rise to soulfulness, what is soulmaking, is enormous in society. For different people, what would need to be there in a hospital, or through the medical system, to offer the possibility of soulmaking for each person is a huge range. For some people, it will be a religious belief, perhaps, or a religious context. Other people, it's more like, "I just really want to spend time with my family." The close circle of human relationships in this life, etc., have become what is soulful. There's a whole range there. Just an observation, really; I don't know what the answer is there, or at least I can't think of one right now. But to me, it's interesting. As a culture, we are lost, really, or we have lost any even hint of a direction, culturally, of where to find soulfulness again, how we can revivify that, re-engage that, find the threads that nourish and are soulmaking. As a culture, we almost don't even know where to look, or wouldn't even know where to begin to look.

So this has all kinds of impacts, all kinds of directions of impacts, this whole question of soulfulness and what gets lost from our life and our view when we jettison it and cut it off. That can happen in relation to practice, as well, of course, as I said. So I and many of my friends whose practice goes back many decades, or a few decades at least, know that it's possible to try and live as if one's just trying to be mindful all the time, trying to almost live in bare attention. That gets so much emphasis, and gets set up as a sort of possibility of, "This is what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to live in bare attention."

And if one really, really loves mindfulness, and really loves practice, and one goes for that, one will find a kind of aliveness that comes into one's life. It will make one, or aspects of one's, dimensions of one's existence feel very alive. There will be a kind of radiance that comes into the sense of things. And there will be a decrease in suffering, to some degree. But I know, and many people have told me, trying that and then feeling, as someone said to me not too long ago, "I feel neutered," was the word she used. "I've been practising mindfulness with all my heart, and I feel neutered after these years." Or someone else, a close friend, said she felt like something in her soul was dying. She didn't quite recognize: at the very same time as something felt very alive, something -- a dimension, a very important dimension, the soul-dimension -- was being killed or neglected. All kinds of implications and problems, limitations, can come out of that.

So we can try to live in bare attention, and try to make my whole life a practice of mindfulness and bare attention. But the soulmaking actually will come then around practice, around the whole notion of the path, the whole fantasy of and idea of who the Buddha was, what he is or was. It will come around all that, around the tradition, and around the self as the person walking the path or in the lineage of this tradition. I can try to be mindful as much of the time, and yet, still the soulmaking will come in, because it's what the soul does. It will come in around practice, if my practice is just mindfulness and this kind of shaving off of soulfulness (because that's what the bare attention does, just as when there's less fabrication, in those moments there will be less soulmaking). It's only in the fabrication, of those three broad possibilities, that there's the possibility of soulmaking, really.

But if we're practising just mindfulness, then the soulmaking comes around practice, path, Buddha, tradition, self, etc., as fantasy, as mythos. Even in the time of the Buddha, in the Pali Canon, out of their meditation, the monks and the nuns would have had this whole fantasy, mythos, conceptual framework of awakening as the end of rebirth, etc., and that was the trajectory, the journey, the noble path that they were on. This whole fantasy/mythos about the Buddha, and the fortune of living in the time of the Buddha, as this sort of once-in-an-aeon manifestation, etc., in Theravāda Buddhism.

And it still enters, the soulmaking still enters in relation to practice and Dharma, around practice. If the practice is very narrow, and the practice itself is not so soulmaking, it will come around it. And that is not a problem. It's more just something to recognize and observe and know this is happening. It's not a problem. It's not that we are engaged in soulmaking when we can't handle reality, we conjure fantasies and mythoi and images when we can't [handle reality]. It's not like that. It's simply how the psyche works, how the soul works. Through image, through fantasy, through mythos, it creates soul, so there's soulmaking, there's the nourishing of soulfulness.

You can see this in all kinds of things -- for example, food, in relationship to food. What are the fantasies that get woven into relationship with food? Really interesting. Cooking shows seem so popular these days on TV. Sometimes I find even some of the coordinators spending an evening reading cooking -- it's not because they have to cook the next day; they're just interested in these cookbooks, and fantastic pictures, and such sensuality in the pictures. What's the fantasy -- this is not a criticism -- but what kind of fantasies get wrapped up in food? Sometimes it's the fantasy of nature and connection with nature. Sometimes it's that richness, or 'the good life,' and that's wrapped up in the fantasy that's keeping us, if one is into this. I'm not, but if one is into watching cooking shows or this, that may be one of the fantasies.

You will find plenty of hardcore Buddhist practitioners -- and I've been in this camp myself -- of just regarding food as fuel. Then that becomes the fantasy. It looks like it's not a fantasy. It looks like it's shaved off: "I let go of all fantasy and papañca around food. It's just fuel." But wrapped up with seeing food as just fuel is a renunciate fantasy, and the way people can fall in love with renunciation and the path of renunciation, the simplicity of it, the surrender of it, the stripping bare of it. Again, that may be tied in with the whole conceptual framework of the Four Noble Truths as transcending clinging, or letting go of clinging, etc.

So there's fantasy and conceptual framework wrapped up in the idea or the viewing of food as fuel. Or the whole thing that's brought to food might be about mindfulness. You get this a lot on retreats, in retreat centres. And then the fantasy, the mindfulness fantasy in relation to food, is about tasting the moment, perhaps, or a tasting life -- literally tasting life, but also in its broader meaning of 'tasting.' Or it might be, and for so many people, their sense of mindfulness and presence, their fantasy that's woven into mindfulness, their practice of mindfulness and presence, has to do with nature and their love of nature, and what nature is, and interconnectedness, and all that. It's all wrapped up in there as well.

Or again, if mindfulness is the main thing in relation to food, mindfulness of taste, mindfulness of greed, it's plugged into a more renunciate fantasy and a more renunciate framework that has to do with transcending clinging, transcending this world and attachment to materiality, attachment to sense pleasure, perhaps even attachment to manifestation, not being reborn again. Or there could be a food fantasy -- this would probably be a lot more conscious and deliberate in a lot of cases -- of food as the nectar of the gods, or, in a slightly darker image, the blood or the body of the gods. One can actually practise that as an image, as a fantasy, in relation to food.

But it will come in. One way or another, in relation to something like food, often, when it's alive for us, when we're interested and there's connection there, the fantasy comes in, a fantasy comes in. Which one is it?

So this fantasy, mythoi, images -- the psyche and the soul need that. They need soulmaking, and they do it through image/mythos/fantasy. Wrapped up in all this (and we've touched on this before) is the whole question about reality. Is this a delusion, or it's going away from reality, and not being connected with reality? All that stuff that comes up for people as a sort of philosophical objection.

Understanding emptiness can be really helpful here, a deep understanding of emptiness, this journey into really practising ways that decrease fabrication in the moment so there's a dissolution, a loss of substantiality, and then a dissolution of all appearances. That whole spectrum, journeying on that spectrum, and then coming up and realizing what that more and less fabrication is dependent on, how things get fabricated. We understand: all these appearances are empty. I'm not trying to live in a state of non-fabrication; I could not anyway. Or a state of less fabrication. But to see, going up and down that spectrum of fabrication, understanding it, I understand the emptiness of all appearances, and that frees fabrication. It frees me to fabricate. It gives license and permission and beauty to the play and the playing with fabrication, to soulmaking.

So it frees up fabrication, including the imagination. Very often, someone will say, "Soulmaking, fantasy, that's fabrication," with the sense of, "That's just not true. It's a lie. It's fabrication." But once I understand emptiness deeply enough through practice, I really understand all experiences are fabricated. All appearances are fabricated. There are none that are not. That frees up this whole investigation into soul and image and imagination and fantasy. It's not quite that simple; it's not that all appearances are fabricated in the same way, or have the same kind of conventional reality, but it can go a long way to freeing up the permission and the avenues to explore fabricating in different ways, including the whole range with image.

Now I'd like to add to our meaning of 'soulmaking' -- or maybe say it's characteristic of it -- but let's add it, this realization, knowing, that this is image, this is fantasy. There's an awareness, knowing image as image. I want to say that's part. I don't think it's what everyone includes in their definition of soulmaking, people that use that word, which is not that many. But let's include it in ours. There's a recognition that this is image, this is fantasy; I know image as image. Even more than that, there's a flexibility around conceptual frameworks and views. We're not landing on one and reifying it and saying, "This is the truth. This way of seeing things, this way of seeing images, or this way of seeing life, this way of seeing, this is real." So included in what I want to call 'soulmaking' is this flexibility and skill and being able to move between different views. That's really, really helpful. It's a desired attribute, capacity, skill.

That flexibility in regard to conceptual frameworks might come through emptiness practice itself, as it goes deeper and deeper. It might come through imaginal practice, too, interestingly. Or both emptiness and imaginal practices. It might also come, for some people, through more modern philosophical investigations -- postmodernism, post-structuralism, and that sort of thing. But it can come in different ways or a combination. And some people already are just able to do that; they're very loose and flexible in how they hold conceptual frameworks, very able to move in and out of different ones even if they seem contradictory. And it might be, I often wonder, it might be that some people may never be able to do that. For whatever reasons, it could be that some people just won't ever be able to have that flexibility of conceptual frameworks. Their whole way of looking is just regarding things as concrete: it either is or it isn't, it's either this or it's that, etc. It may be that some people just will never be able to stretch and open that way, just as it says in the Mahāyāna tradition, "Some people will never be able to understand emptiness deeply, so I want you to be careful who one teaches it to." It may be the same around all this stuff. I'm not sure.

But if we take this as part of what we mean here, for our purposes, this flexibility and ability to move between different conceptual frameworks, and to entertain them without locking down on this or that as true, or the only truth, or reality. If we include that, then part of what we're entertaining, in terms of soulfulness, in terms of what is soulmaking, part of the conceptual frameworks that we're entertaining that give rise to and support and nourish soulfulness, we can go through aspects of that, of what we're entertaining.

There is the idea, the eidos, that we're entertaining, of the necessity of this image that is meaningful to me, that's resonant for me. That sense of the necessity of this image, that entertaining the idea of the necessity of this image, that's part of soulfulness. It's part of the soulfulness there. Again, to repeat what we've already said, I can sense that necessity, but I'm also acknowledging that it's given to the image through my way of looking, through my way of conceiving. So certainly I have that experience of it being sensed as necessary, but I know also that it's given. A necessity doesn't imply, "Oh, this image is necessary, therefore it's the only image or the only fantasy for me." It doesn't imply a kind of singularity. So with respect to the self and soulmaking, there's also the idea, the eidos, of opening up a sense of a multiplicity of fantasies, of mythoi, of imaginal figures and characters. That multiplicity is very much an aspect of soulmaking and soulfulness and soul.

Also the idea, the eidos, of a certain autonomy that these imaginal figures, these archetypes, these gods have -- that's also very much a part, an aspect, a necessary ingredient of soulmaking. So we are not regarding them as factors or essential qualities of the self or the psyche or whatever. An imaginal figure is a person, in some sense, equal to the self. It's not a constituent of the self. It's not a part of the self to be somehow integrated to this chief executive self that will then make decisions, and balance everything, and navigate successfully through life in a balanced way or whatever.

An awakening, then, is not so much a process of, say, collecting the whole set of these constituent figures or qualities or whatever, and having them together, the full set, in a balanced way, without any conflict between different characters, figures, or aspects, or qualities. We can open up the sense of awakening to even include the possibility that sometimes these figures make impossible and unreasonable demands of us and our lives. I'm going to come back to that whole question. That's a very different image of awakening -- not as necessarily balanced in the way that we might think; not as completely lacking in contradiction or conflict; not as devoid of unreasonable and impossible demands on the self, coming from, let's say, the depths of the soul, the wider psyche, these imaginal figures. So all this means that perhaps there are multiple styles, if you like, of awakening, or directions of awakening. I've talked about this in other talks, so I won't say too much. But the views open, the view opens in relation to all that, perhaps.

Then, also, we're entertaining the idea, or an idea entertained that's really helpful and really opens up the sense of soulmaking and soulfulness, is that the human being is in the psyche, or in the soul, rather than the other way around, that the soul or the psyche is something in the human being. That's quite radical. Esse in anima, Jung wrote in Latin. Esse in anima, 'to be in the soul.' The human is in the psyche, the soul. The soul is something much bigger, if you like, than the human and the human's life. We are in that, rather than that is in us.

All of this has implications in relation to the images and working with images and the imaginal figures that come. When we see these imaginal figures, and the plurality of them, the multiplicity of them, we can see, "Yes, not self. They are not self. This is not self, this image." But it's a different sense. It's beyond just the viewing them as anattā, as not-self in a more classical Buddhist sense. As a way of letting go, I see, "That's not-self. That's not-self. This is not-self. That's not-self." It's a way of deep letting go, this anattā practice, anattā view, way of looking. It's a way of letting go. In this way of seeing this image and that image and all the multiple images are not self, it's a way of letting go of clinging, but it's empowering and vivifying, giving life to those imaginal figures, as well, through all these other ways of fantasizing with the images and the conceptual frameworks around them.

Again, in regards to the whole question of necessity, who wants to come through? Which image wants to come through? Which imaginal figure wants to come through? Who is it that acts or feels or sees this way? This is also a question, a dimension of the question, that comes out of seeing the necessity of these images.

When we personify, when we let things take form as persons or imaginal figures, there is a disidentification with that, to a certain extent. But the "who?" -- "Who wants to come through? Who sees this way? Who feels this way? Who acts this way?" -- that's a different kind of "who?" than you get in, say, the Advaita tradition, when they say, "Who is asking this question? Who is wanting to be enlightened?", etc. There, the thrust of that turning the question "who?" back to the asker is that there is no answer, or nobody really is wanting that, or oneness is wanting that, or whatever. Here, it's very much more not this dissolution into universality (no one, or oneness, or whatever it is), but actually letting form as an imaginal figure a person with all that depth and complexity and richness, knowing also it's empty. So the "who?" goes in a different direction.

With all this, with this seeing, "This is not self, but we're empowering," we're not then claiming this image as a part of the self, as I said, or claiming this image to be in service of the self. Now, we could relate that way. We can regard imaginal figures and try to see them as somehow serving us, helping me with this, helping me with that, making me become more whole, more balanced, more this, more that, more successful, grow on my path, etc. It's possible. But to me, a more interesting way is not regarding them that way.

In terms of regarding that way, there's a short passage in The Iliad, in Homer's Iliad, where it says the muses met Thamyris the Thracian. He was a musician. And he boasted that he would win in a singing match with the muses themselves. This angered them. The muses were divinities, daughters of Zeus. This angered them, this boast that he was a better musician than them and would win a contest. They struck him blind -- this is the bit that I want -- they robbed him of the divine gift of song, and caused him to forget his harping. So they robbed him of the divine gift of song. In other words, there's a view there embodied in that. It's quite a striking passage. But the view that these gifts of the self are really belonging to the self, or in the Dharma they don't belong to anyone, here they're regarded as a divine gift. They come from the daimon. They come from the divine, from the archetype, if you like. They're not in service to us. We may be in service to them. So it's a different view. It's a sort of 180-degree spin on how we may be tempted to view these things.

We want and we need soulmaking. The psyche needs that. You could say the soul needs soulmaking. James Hillman, I can't remember where this was, but he wrote about reflecting on psychotherapy, and the sort of years of psychotherapy that went before him. And he said, "It may be that what people were coming for was not just to be loved or cured, but to be told into a soul story."[1] So what do we want? Not just to be loved or cured, but to be told into a soul-story. 'Story' here, soul-story is another word that we can use for the words I'm using, fantasy or mythos. And a soul-story is not my story so much, my human story coming from my life, but rather it's a story that we're in. We are lived by the story. What does that mean? We are lived by the story. Again, this is a 180-degree flip, if you like, in how we view our lives. We are lived by a story. And that doesn't necessarily mean a mythic story, or rather, a classically mythic story, but this mythic storying of life (which doesn't mean classical Greek or whatever it is, or Buddhist). The mythic storying of life. What does that mean? What would that mean for us, to view our lives that way, and not in a clunky, rigid way? "Everything become liquid," to use that archetypal metaphor again. We're entertaining a mythic storying of life, but without being too rigid about it, without viewing it in a clunky way. Seeing it all as liquid. So it's poetic, it's subtle. We know image as image.

Again, quoting James Hillman, he says, "To be in mythos" -- so what's included, what do we mean when we talk about soul-story, or the mythic storying of life, with this liquidity, with this sense of emptiness? He says:

To be in [a] mythos is to be inescapably linked [to] divine powers [archetypes], and moreover, to be in mimesis with them [to mimic them, that means].

Some people would hear that word, 'divine,' and go, "What on earth does that mean?" It can make us nervous, depending on your background and inclination. But there's an idea. It actually comes from Neoplatonism and people like Proclus, of epistrophe. It's a Greek word that means 'reversion' -- reverting to the archetype, the sort of primal form, to revisit what we talked about earlier in terms of archetypes. So that our life, or rather, the way we're seeing our life, is seeing them in relationship to these archetypes, these gods. That's a concept, also, that Corbin writes about in his explanation of the mysticism of Ibn 'Arabi. There it's called ta'wil in Arabic. So epistrophe, ta'wil, this sort of echoing, seeing in relation to, mirroring of the image, and also of the life -- mirroring the god, the archetype, or a manifestation, an appearance of god, angel, archetype, daimon.

Is it possible to open up and give life to these -- they're old ideas, centuries old, but arrive at them or approach them now with a much more sophisticated understanding of what the word 'real' might mean? A much more open and sophisticated understanding, rather than either a naïve one or what has come to be the modernist notion of reality. Can the Buddhist teaching of emptiness help us there? I think it can. What would it be to entertain words like 'divine' or 'god' or this or that, knowing that they're empty, fully empty? God is fully empty. So hopefully we're going to come back more to this.

As I said, in working with the images, we can actually sense something other, something beyond, if you like. Sometimes that's in the sense of timelessness of an image, the eternality, the non-temporality of an image. We actually sense that, again, like a poetic image. That sense of timelessness, of something beyond, of otherness, that helps the image gather potency, be powerful, be deep for us. It gives it a sense of significance. It gives it a sense of something more than the human. So we can sense all that without needing to contract around a kind of naïve belief in the reality of some kind of concrete God figure or something like that, or a concrete view of an angel or something like that. Maybe God is not separate from my life and the way I view my life, the way I view my duty, my journey, my acts. There are all kinds of possibilities here, but we need to open out and be a little more sophisticated with our notions of reality, our philosophical notions of reality.

When we talk about story, we're talking about fiction. A story is a fiction, generally speaking. And this is crucial in relation to all this. Because a fiction, a story, is actually a shapeable thing. My story, the story of my life, is not a fixed, concrete thing, once and for all written down, and now it's gone, the past. It's shapeable. The past is shapeable. We can shape different stories out of the same material of our lives, and different soulmaking. We can make different soulmaking stories, if you like.

A story is a fiction. A story is also not therefore something posited as real. It's not a rational explanation. I overheard someone the other day making a joke about, "Oh, of course, saying it's God's will would be of equal explanatory power." I'm saying that was a joke because I know they didn't really mean that, and they were pooh-poohing the whole idea of God's will. But the idea of God's will, at its best, is not a rational explanation: "This happened because it's God's will." "Oh, thank you, that answers my questions." No, it opens up a different dimension of relationship then with the event that's happening, with the journey that one's on, with this thing that one's looking at or relating to. The story there, the fantasy, the image of that, is not functioning -- it's not even intended to function -- as a rational explanation. It's intended to open the soulmaking in relationship with. Big difference. Subtle difference, but big. Story, in this sense, fantasy, gives life. It is soulmaking.

Again, James Hillman points out:

[Story] is the only mode of accounting or telling about that does not posit itself as real, true, factual, revealed, i.e., literal.[2]

So in all this, in the soulmaking, or rather with soulmaking, through images/mythoi/fantasy, whether it's an image that appears to us, or whether it's seeing our life as image/myth/fantasy, in that sense, something is healing here. Something is healed in this way of looking, these ways of looking. Something is loosened. Aspects are loosened. There's a letting go, a loosening of self-fixation.

In a way, we no longer see ourselves, when we see in terms of soulmaking, as so isolated. Because we're connected through this epistrophe, this echoing and mirroring and rootedness in the angelic or the divine, if you like, there is this reintroduction and reconnection with what I was calling the vertical dimension that hopefully I can say a bit more about as the retreat goes on. Therefore, we're not isolated and two-dimensional, one-dimensional.

In all of this, when we use words like 'soulmaking,' and think more about that, or regard things in that way, conceive of things in that way, 'soulmaking,' that takes the focus and the question away from, "Is this true or real?" The question becomes, "What is soulmaking?" How do I recognize that? Well, it feels a certain way, opens up a certain way in the psyche, in the consciousness. It takes the question away from this oftentimes too narrow, too unsophisticated philosophical regard of truth and reality. It takes the question away from that into, "What is soulmaking? What nourishes, deepens, enriches, vivifies, gives depth to, gives range to soulfulness?" So it's a different way of relating. It's a re-orienting, both to image and fantasy, and to existence, self, world, other, etc.

  1. Paraphrasing James Hillman, Healing Fiction (Thompson, CT: Spring Publications, 2019), 56, 15. ↩︎

  2. James Hillman, Loose Ends: Primary Papers in Archetypal Psychology (Irving, TX: Spring Publications, 1978), 3. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry