Perspective

The Mythic Imagination and Contemplative Practice

By Dr. Sharon Blackie

When I was a small child, I inhabited, as most children do, a vivid imaginal world. But the products of my imagination weren’t created from inside my head: my imagination took flight as a result of my interactions with the physical and sensory world around me. The pitchfork-shaped, steam-spewing industrial structures which I could see across the river from where we lived were devils; moths were night-angels, fallen to earth. Living stories marched across the industrial landscape to the south and sailed in on the tides to the east. But then I went to school, and was taught that my rich and vivid imaginings were no more than just ‘making things up’, and that certain things were allowed to be real while others weren’t.

Just as many of us do, I came to understand at a very early age just how profoundly we have come to devalue imagination in the West – how we think of it now as little more than fantasy, or escapism. But throughout human history, until the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ actively disenchanted us, the imaginal world had always been known to be as real as any other. To the ancient Sufis, it was what scholar Henry Corbin called the mundus imaginalis: the imaginal world which exists between the physical world of our senses and the intellectual world, and a world in which images and stories have an independent existence. To archetypal psychologist James Hillman, who was profoundly influenced by this notion, the act of imagining was the act of soul-making; to contemplate the imaginal is literally to dream ourselves into being. But although such ideas might be alive and well in academic psychology or in the therapy room, they really haven’t much impacted our everyday lives at all.

It wasn’t always so. Until the Reformation, medieval culture in Western Europe was characterised by contemplative practices which depended on employing the imagination, and at the heart of this contemplative culture was a belief in the power of the imagination to connect us to the divine. There is also a rich tradition of Buddhist, Tantric, Hindu and Taoist practices in which the imagination is foundational; most of us would be familiar with practices like visualising the chakras, for example, or the contemplation of mandalas. But purposeful engagement with the imaginal as an everyday activity – or more than that, as a way of being in the world – is a rare thing here in the contemporary West.

In the face of the many problems which confront us in our ever-more challenging world today, this might not seem like the greatest of all possible tragedies. But in cutting ourselves off from the imaginal world, and in relegating the powerful act of imagining to mere ‘day-dreaming’ or ‘fantasising’, we are also cutting ourselves off from what philosophers and poets throughout history have understood to be the underlying reality of our existence. Because imagining is a way of knowing, and it is arguably the only way we have of coming to know the world which lies beyond the limits of the physical world which we can perceive with our senses. It is imagining which allows us to penetrate that veil, to see beyond the everyday, and into the world of myth and archetype – to begin to understand the ‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas’ which Plato suggested were the underlying structures of the cosmos. To engage in the practice of imagining, then, and to work with the mythic imagination, is above all a way of moving into relationship with the anima mundi: the ‘world soul’ of ancient Western tradition. It’s about moving beyond the limits of our ego and descending into the deepest layers of our individual psyche, in order to understand the ways in which we are uniquely entangled with the psyche of the cosmos itself.

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The times are hard; they’re certainly urgent. Many of us are possessed by an understandable tendency to want to find solutions, to ‘solve the problem’ of climate change, to do this or do that to save this or to save that. But I believe that the deepest and most necessary changes must begin with transforming the texture of our lives – with shifting the entire ground of our being. Because more than anything, we need to expand our awareness beyond ourselves, and to allow our own becomings to unfold in harmony with the becomings of the cosmos in which we’re so deeply and beautifully enmeshed. And to achieve this, we need to live in full awareness of the importance of the mythic imagination in our daily lives.

The practice of mythic imagination which I teach is premised on the fact that each of us has our own unique inner imaginarium – our own unique mythopoetic identity. We are each haunted by different images; we each resonate with different myths or fairy tales, and with different archetypal characters within them. And each of us identifies with different archetypal characters and patterns at different times in our own lives. How do we uncover those patterns; how do we bring those images to life, and let them work their magic on us? How do we unveil the guiding image which each soul brings into this world – the image which James Hillman called the daimon: an accompanying guide who helps us to remember our calling? How do we begin to engage with our daimon; how do we learn to hear? The practice of mythic imagination is about being open to, and about actively contemplating, the images which arise unbidden in our dreams, in stories, poems and art. It’s about exploring the symbolic languages of the imagination – the archetypal languages, for example, of the tarot and astrology.

A core preoccupation of my work with the mythic imagination is in finding ways to relate it to our embodied experience – because, just as I did when I was a small child, I still always feel more connected to the physical world around me when I am in imaginal contact with it. If this world, as poet Percy Bysshe Shelley suggested, is a living being – ‘full of gods’ – how then do we approach it? How do we enter into relationship with it, and ask who is this rock, who is this wind which plays with our hair? These are questions which cannot be asked in words, and nor do the answers come in the form of sound waves entering our ears. These are questions which we have to approach through the imaginal world. Through that place which lies somewhere between the intellectual world and the physical world – a place where stories are lurking, just waiting (if we’re lucky) to happen to us.

In my book The Enchanted Life, I wrote about moving back to Ireland from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides – a place which was steeped in the mythology of the Cailleach: the wild and powerful old woman of Gaelic mythology who created and shaped the land. Just as they are in Ireland, mountains and other places all around Scotland are named after her; she is immanent in the land itself. Directly in front of our island home was a long, low mountain which had the shape of a reclining woman; as I learned more and more about the Cailleach’s mythology and her association with high and rocky places, I began to imagine that she was present in the mountain, and to make up my own stories about how that came to be. The Cailleach-mountain dominated our village and the headland, and as I walked the land each day, through all the difficult times we had there, I spoke to her as if she was an old friend.

Although much of Ireland is also steeped in the mythology of the Cailleach, in the particular place where we then lived I could find no local stories about her, and no specific landmarks named after her. I felt curiously lonely and utterly cast adrift. How could I possibly come to belong to a place where there was no Cailleach, whose stories had claimed me so powerfully and dominated my imagination for the better part of four years?

On the hill behind our cottage there was a wood, and in the wood there was a heronry. Every day, we’d see herons flying along the small river which tumbled across stepping stones at the bottom of our garden, and sometimes in the early morning, as I walked with the dogs along the lane which led up to the high bog, I’d see a heron standing on a stone in the middle of the fast-flowing river, the still point in the turbulent birth of every new day. When you live in close proximity to such beautiful, iconic creatures – and especially if, like me, you are immersed in myth and story – they not only capture your daytime imagination, but begin to infiltrate your dreams.

In the Irish language, the word for the grey heron is corr; it also happens to be the word for crane. Heron and crane, then, are interchangeable in Irish mythology, and in those old stories, she is a powerful and a liminal bird. She haunts the thresholds where water, land and air intermingle; she guards the treasures of the Otherworld and is a guide to those who wish to travel there. Now, surrounded as I seemed to be by herons, I read as much about them and their crane counterparts as I could find. They are associated, I discovered, with longevity; in some of the old stories they are connected, too, to hags and old women. Thinking about this as I walked along the lane, one winter morning at dawn, I stood and watched as a heron flew up from the riverbank, shrieking. There was something oddly hag-like about her call, and all of a sudden, a character popped into my head: Old Crane Woman came to me, part woman, part bird. By the time I arrived home, she had taken possession of me. Springing directly from this place I lived in, rising fully formed out of my river, I had found the Cailleach in another form.

This is what I wrote about her: sometimes, if you happen to be walking along a track within reach of water at dusk or dawn, you’ll see her there, Old Crane Woman: a tall, gangly figure wrapped in a mid-grey cloak. Her legs and her arms are unusually long, and seem to bend in odd directions. Sometimes you’ll find her standing in the river, still as can be, on one leg; you’ll know her by her long nose, her frayed grey and white dress, and her long, thin arms with the sharp, sticking-out elbows. Don’t startle her: she’ll be gone in a flash.

Old Crane Woman was one of those stories just waiting to happen to me. She is as vivid to me today as she was then; she has come, in some sense, to embody my personal daimon. She has her own voice, her own rhythm, incantatory, the rhythm of place – or the power of place, speaking. She might have been new to the mythology of that particular corner of Ireland, but she emerged in the only way that is meaningful: not just out of my head, but directly out of the place itself, and the creatures that inhabit it. Old Crane Woman is an act of co-creation. This is how the land draws us into relationship with it; this is how the anima mundi reels us in.

Such experiences break us open, and invite us to open ourselves up to the possibility that there might be an order of reality which lies beyond that which we can experience through our physical senses. An order of reality which we can access through the practice of the imagination – because to contemplate the imaginal is ultimately to court the world soul, and to put ourselves directly in touch with the sacred.

You can join Dr. Sharon Blackie June 14 – June 16, 2019 at the Garrison Institute for “The Mythic Imagination: Unlocking the Magic of Everyday” workshop. Click here to learn more and to register.

Photo by Max Felner on Unsplash

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