The important character in my story is not my grandfather, but the little bird. The little green Walt Disney sparrow, my voice of conscience, who had long waited for a release from her cage. In the suggestion of a walk in Hyde Park she sensed that chance had come. She knew in her bones something that I had never known: the earlier view, held for millennia, of an ensouled world.
To the little bird, the soil, plants and trees were all part of the same living world soul, what the ancient Greeks called 'the soul of the world', the anima mundi. A world in which the other animals, the sunshine and even the breeze were subjects like her, vital presences filled with intelligence and purpose. She felt bound to these other souls, a sense of belonging that had become obscured during her room-bound existence in my flat. Hyde Park held the possibility of play and chat with the great oaks and sycamores, the song thrushes and soaring swifts. Hence her fluttering around inside my chest, giving me qualms as we travelled across town on the underground. She wanted to spread her wings among the elements, to flit between branches and peer out once again from a high canopy.
Of course, the little bird did not get out to play straight away. She was not the predominant force. At that time I did not know the anima mundi. How my ancestors and the little bird saw, understood, felt and imagined was not how I initially experienced the park. The story I had inherited from my culture was of an impersonal and unconscious world, entirely indifferent and separate from my human consciousness. Clouds still passed over me, but not in the way they once did. They were silent clouds, insensate matter following mechanistic laws, not able to communicate. The park was not a sacred place. It was a dead place. All the thousand tattered leaves and racing skies arrived into my awareness filtered of their creative intelligence and soul. A state of affairs that I did not question.
My experience of the park as dead and without soul was structured by the background assumptions of the modern world-view. Clouds and rocks were obviously innate matter, without consciousness or intelligence. Birds might have some intelligence and trees too (at a push), but not like I had. As a human being I was different, the apex of evolution, set apart from an encompassing planet that was void of all human qualities. I saw the world through the lens of this human-centric story, a lens so entirely woven into the fabric of who and what I was that I barely gave it a second thought. If and when I did stop to think of my world view it was not as a story, a particular lens or way of looking at the world. It was with words like 'fact' and 'reality' and science'. How I saw the world was the way the world was.
The world-views of earlier peoples are much harder to miss. They stand out as stories. Elaborate creation myths and accounts of non-human beings that today seem fantastical and naïve. Supernatural in the sense of 'beyond the laws of nature'. Such beliefs might be respected, not as literal truths but as tales 'primitive' peoples told to help shape the dread and wonder of forces they did not understand. Yet the chroniclers of those earlier times did not report their encounters as folklore or myths, they set them down as substantiated facts, as reality.
Gervase of Tilbury, a medieval canon lawyer from Essex, writing in the twelfth century, recorded thousands of marvels and scraps of natural history. A collection that presents a colourful picture of the beliefs of that time. One record concerned the congregation of a Norfolk church who saw an anchor hanging from the sky:
“The anchor was caught on a tombstone. Attached to it and leading up into the clouds was a heavy chain. All of a sudden a sailor appeared from a cloud and climbed down the chain hand by hand, using the same technique as we do. He was seized by the churchgoers. The other world sailor suffocated by the moistness of our denser air and died in their grasp”
Even with my sympathetic take, I feel a strong reaction every time I read this report and others like it. I am troubled and a little afraid that such a thing could have happened. If it had been in medieval Tibet or Arabia that might be easier to stomach, to put safely into the category of myth and legend. But that people here in England, not far from where I live now, inhabited a mystical woo-woo-world and were reporting it as their honest truth is simply troubling. Multiple objections arise to protect me. Plainly, such a thing could just not have happened. This was a mass delusion, end of story. They must have been intoxicated on prayer, stirred up by a preacher, or just blind drunk. I want to know if Gervase spoke to more than one member of the congregation. If he did I want to know if he found agreement between them. Even if they did agree I want to find subtle differences in their accounts. Perhaps one saw a tall sailor with a hat, another in a hooded cowl, still another a sailor-angel with wings. If only one person saw the sailor, or they all saw different sailors I could fit that into my understanding of the world. I could explain it as a projection, a casting into the clouds of an inner fantasy. That separate minds entered into a collective fantasy is difficult to contemplate. It does not easily make sense to my modern mind.
And yet my interest in 'wild imagination' accepted the possibility of a sky-sailor climbing down his chain from the clouds. What worried me more than this happening in medieval Essex was it happening to me in digital London. The encounter with my grandfather had dragged me unexpectedly into a new world. Questions about the reality of imagined people, long dead people at that, were challenging my basic beliefs, my world-view. I was worried where all this might be taking me and whether others might follow, or think me strange. The dangerous element of 'wild' came to the fore. Something in me wanted to stop, to put these nice ideas back in the box. And from what I went on to learn this was not surprising. I was pushing up against centuries of persecution.
Events such as the sky-sailor of Norfolk have not just been a problem for the modern mind. The Church had long since viewed them as troublesome. Whole congregations giving god-like significance to sky-sailors was deemed pagan, a 'worship of false gods'. God was the one true source of meaning. Humans alone had intelligent souls. And yet in the early days of the church the widespread understanding of soul remained the millennia old system of human nature as a tripartite of spirit, soul and body. Soul, in this tripartite system was not a personal soul, confined to subjectivity. In the pre-modern age soul was a blurred intermediate zone of perception between mind(spirit) and matter(body). With a blurred boundary between self and world, people were drawn out into the world and at the same time felt it penetrate and move into them. Consciousness was not neatly divided between concrete objects and subjective thoughts, it partook of both. Neither a subjective thought nor a physical thing, soul was in-between, a form of consciousness that saw not just with the physical eye but also with the eye of imagination. A perception that allowed for a metaphorical sensitivity in a world of malleable impressions and shifting symbolic meanings. In the phrase of the anthropologist Levy-Bruhl, life for the indigenous peoples of the pre-modern era was a 'participation mystique', an enfolded participation with the encompassing world that amounted to a partial identification. 'I' and earth were part of the same living world soul, the anima mundi. Earth was not a thing, an object to sit upon. Earth was alive, an ensouled other to sit alongside. Clouds, sunsets and all the animals were imbued with an imaginal presence that directed and shaped the lives of indigenous peoples. A source of significance and power the Church resisted.
To better deliver pagans into God's fold a meeting of the Council of the Principals of the Holy Catholic Church was held in 869AD, in the Byzantium city of Constantinople. If soul as the realm of living images was a devilish distraction then the way forward was clear. The sanctioned view of human nature had to be changed. A decision was made to replace the tripartite understanding with a dualism of spirit(mind) and body(matter). Soul was conflated into spirit, becoming a human only quality and separate from the natural world. Soul as the intermediate realm between self and world, the animate world of living images, no longer officially existed.
This decision by the Church to personalise soul was a significant step in the evolution of the modern mind. Over time, a gradual differentiation of self from the world occurred. It fell to Rene Descartes, sitting on the banks of the Danube in 1619, to be the first to fully capture the vision of the modern world view. In a dream (really, a nightmare) he saw nature as a vast machine, entirely void of soul. An impersonal nature that followed mechanistic rules, indifferent to our unique human consciousness, the only seat of soul. The task of the new Science emerging at that time was to cultivate an emotional detachment from which to better observe the world, so much so that when Descartes' students baulked at the screams of the live dogs they were dissecting he simply reassured them that animals, being non-human had no souls and therefore felt no pain. The dog's death throws were the wheezes of an impersonal machine.
Today animal vivisection is better understood and contemporary science points towards a more joined-up world. However, centuries of investment in the belief that empirical science presents an accurate description of reality make this view slow to change. By and large, the idea of a personal soul endures, an autonomous self, set apart from the wider world. Soul as the vital spark that makes me me, the core of my being, my real self. A soul that in my alienation I had pushed further and deeper inside, trapping the little bird within.
I had been afraid of not completing my dissertation. The task was new and seemed enormous. Like one of Descartes' scientists I discounted my qualms, adopting a dispassionate professionalism. The tight feedback loop between screen and thought became the cave from which I looked out. In time this dispassionate stance leaked out into my wider experience. I saw and heard and interacted, but did not feel the people and events around me. Hyde Park that day with Beth was an impersonal place, an ersatz park, like the words on my screen, flattened and objectified. The lake, trees and clouds as indifferent to my existence as I was to their’s. This made me feel safe but I knew something was wrong. The little bird cooped up inside her cage, able to watch but not touch the park, chirped, 'it's not meant to be like this.'
In many ways the faith in science as a reliable version of reality is well founded. No amount of faith and prayer in the old beliefs ever granted the miracles of modern medicine, transport and communications. And yet a more-than-personal soul has not been entirely lost from modern life. It survives as an enduring aspect of human experience, in those moments when we touch upon a connection to something beyond our separate selves. The main difference to earlier cultures is that we lack a shared story and language to validate for these soul moments. In order to survive, soul has gone underground, existing in niches outside mainstream culture, tucked into poetry and turns of phrase, in religion and some psychologies, transpersonal psychology in particular. For instance, to describe the visit I made to Hyde Park as a 'soulful walk' would not raise too many eyebrows. I would be understood as a speaking poetically and Romantically, of referring to the significance of my walk in the same way as I might describe a musician's performance as 'filled with soul' or a good meal as 'food for the soul'. Significant in that it took me out of my isolation into a participation in a wider life. A connection to the landscape, the trees and birds. A re-connection to Beth, to my writing and also to myself, to the little bird, my soul. A soul that in my alienation I had 'lost'.
Psychosynthesis is one of the cultural niches where soul found a refuge. Roberto Assagioli, the Italian psychoanalyst founder of psychosynthesis, was influenced by cultures and traditions that predated the scientific era such as alchemy, neoplatonism and kabbalah. Traditions that dealt with a view of the world and mysterious experiences not possible within a scientific understanding. Hence their later labelling by the scientific era as 'mystical traditions'. Ways of thinking that lacked a radical separation between self and world. In other words, thinking that allowed a place for the in-between realm of soul. However the difficulty for Assagioli was of how to best present a psychology of soul in the mid-twentieth century, a time when the mainstream scientific story of separation was still firmly in place. To have spoken openly of soul would have led to rejection. In order to gain legitimacy Assagioli decided to keep his pre-modern influences well hidden. Only a trusted few were admitted behind a 'wall of silence', to an esoteric circle where the flame of soul was protected from a critical world. Outside this circle, the old story of soul was presented in a disguised fashion. Psychosynthesis was communicated in a language the modern world might understand, a re-packaging of the age-old ideas as a science.
Assagioli wrote of psychosynthesis as having, 'full scientific value, in the broader sense'. Psychosynthesis was presented, as were the other emerging psychologies at that time, as a respectable scientific theory of human experience. This allowed Assagioli to carry the legacy of the pre-modern traditions into modernity. Soul was hidden in plain sight, yet nevertheless was in danger of being obscured by the strength of the modern story. Assagioli sailed very close to the wind.
Science only allowed for two categories: subject and object. The dualism that had eclipsed the third space, the in-between realm of soul. To empirical science, the kind of science our world view was still based upon, a more-than-personal soul just did not exist. The subject of modern psychology was not soul but the biographical 'me', the locus of subjective experiences, and the interactions of this 'me' with other persons. As the scientist observed the objects of the external world, so now psychologists would do the same with the inner world, applying empirical observation to the psychical processes of subjectivity. Disturbances were interpreted in relation to past causes and the interaction or psycho-dynamics between inner-objects. In this psychology, images were not real and whole in themselves, rather they were 'parts' of a personal psyche in a jam-jar imagination. A me-centric story within a human-centric world view. A double disconnect from the soul of the world, the 'anima mundi'.
At the heart of psychosynthesis is a tension between two competing stories – the story of an ensouled world of living images and the story of a scientific world of personal, subjective imagination. The cultural climate today allows me to explore this tension in a way that Assagioli could not. Contemporary science, psychology and philosophy are now offering mainstream critiques of the modern world view, in particular the radical separation between self and world that it rests upon. We are living through a time of transition. The modern world view is losing its hold. A new story has not yet been established, but it is on the way. And this offers an opportunity for psychosynthesis. The times are perhaps safe enough now for the flame of soul to come out from behind the 'wall of silence', to more confidently share the strengths of the old story as part of an evolving new story.
I first noticed the tension between the old story of soul and the modern story of science during my MA research into the use of imagination in psychosynthesis psychotherapy. In the psychosynthesis literature characters of imagination were 'inner figures' with whom I could conduct an 'inner dialogue', resulting in an 'inner integration'. Assagioli concieved of these characters as, 'semi-autonomous', which seemed to grant them a certain independence, but still not the full otherness of 'wild imagination'. And yet when I looked beyond the theory, at the phenomenology of what actually happened in therapy rooms with imagination, it was clear that something else was going on. Very often the client's experience involved a certain belief in the reality of an imagined character as an autonomous figure, whether seen as sitting on an 'empty' chair in the corner of a consulting room or in a landscape of imagination, such as a meadow. Therapists and clients alike were comfortable with 'wild imagination', in practice if not in theory. Here was evidence of the old story of soul enduring in the modern world, camouflaged in the guise of a jam-jar imagination.
I pursued this tension between practice and theory through a series of interviews with psychosynthesis psychotherapists. To each therapist I offered the same clinical vignette, taken from my practice, and asked how they would understand and respond to the client, assuming him psychologically stable:
“A client reports how he had been looking out a train window, more daydreaming than noticing the countryside slipping past, and how on turning back into the carriage he saw on the chair opposite him a little boy whom he recognised as his younger self, quietly sitting and looking back at him.”
The results of the interviews fell broadly into two groups. In the first group, the understanding of the 'little boy' was as a subpersonality, a sub-part or inner-object, an internalisation of my client's actual historical 'little boy'. In other words, the 'little boy' on the chair was not really there. What the client saw was a projection of a memory, a picture from childhood that lived inside and was momentarily cast out into the world. This first group would have offered this understanding to the client in an unqualified manner. For these therapists the idea of an inner or jam-jar imagination was not just one story among many, it was how things were, a fact, reality.
I was not surprised that the majority of my interviewees held a jam-jar position as it was the only presentation I had found in the psychosynthesis literature. A typical example of imagination being related to personal history is from Vargiu:
“The initial imagery of a guided daydream often reflects the present situation of the client. With the assistance of an experienced guide, it is often possible to trace the causes of that situation, which have their roots in the past.”
The possibilities for a 'wild imagination' were at best only implied in the psychosynthesis literature, as I will go on to discuss. Nevertheless, the second group of interviewees understanding of the 'little boy' reflected a sensitivity to ‘wild imagination’. In their response to the client they would have avoided the language of 'inner-child' and 'subpersonality', as well as any search for the historical origins of the imagined character. Instead these therapists adopted the same language as the client, calling the character simply the 'little boy' and using descriptive language that allowed for the autonomy and reality of the character. This second group were consciously avoiding inner/outer scientific thinking and language as they found that it led the client out of the 'suspension of disbelief' required for imaginative perception. One therapist described this approach to imagination as an invitation for the client, 'to live more from the basis of a mythic realm than from the centralised ego', another spoke of, 'a discussion of what makes the world a magical, meaningful place...which needs opened, validated, explored, so that the client can have it more consciously'. Here the old story of soul was alive and well. In refraining from scientific language the client's attention was not diverted from the activity of images in their everyday life – the 'little boy' sitting with them on the train. I concluded that only if the therapist held an understanding of 'wild imagination' would a client's presentation of it be received in kind and treated as such. Without this possibility on the part of the therapist the client's experience would be more or less distorted into the perspective of a jam-jar imagination. How the therapist understood imagination affected the quality of the client's engagement with images.
A 'wild imagination' took on new clarity and meaning when I learned of how James Hillman's Archetypal Psychology had used the idea of a 'mundus imaginalis' as a foundational concept. Translated into English 'mundus imaginalis' becomes 'imaginal world'. That caught my eye. This was more like it. A world of imagination. I read on and discovered that Hillman had taken the idea from Henry Corbin, a famous Sufi scholar who had coined the idea of an 'imaginal world' so as to faithfully translate the meaning of the Persian texts he was studying. Texts filled with tales of non-human beings and fantastical happenings that were clearly not attributable to concrete world events, yet were taken just as seriously, as if they were real. Corbin was reluctant to use the pejorative connotations of 'imaginary' to translate these tales, suggesting as it does something unreal and made-up. Instead he invented the term 'imaginal' taken from the Latin imago (just as the Latin origo has given us 'original') and used it to translate the idea of ‘alarm al-mithal’, literally ‘World of the Image’, into the Latin mundus imaginalis:
“…a world that is both intermediary and intermediate...a world as real as the world of the senses and the world of the intellect, a world that requires a faculty of perception belonging to it…as fully real as the faculties of sensory perception or intellectual intuition. This faculty is the imaginative power, the one we must avoid confusing with the imagination that modern man identifies with 'fantasy' and that, according to him, produces only the 'imaginary.' ”
For Corbin the imaginal-world had a status of its own, not to be conflated with the physical world of the senses or the ‘inner’ world of mind. An intermediate status that reflected the tripartite understanding within the Sufi texts of human nature as body, soul and mind. In adopting 'mundus imaginalis' as a foundational idea Hillman presented an explicit soul-centric psychology, reflective of this pre-modern understanding. Here soul was not camouflaged behind the scientific language of an 'inner' world, nor was it the incorporeal essence of a personal soul. Soul was once again the intermediate experience between thing and thought, 'the realm of images and the power of imagination'.
Hillman further writes of soul as a 'reflective moment' that is found 'between us and events, doer and deed.' Such a moment occurred sitting on my bench in Hyde Park. A space opened up between me and the park, into which the little bird flew. All I had needed was a slight shift of perspective. The perpetual rustle of a million leaves and the warmth of the sun. The mote-filled air and whiff of humidity from the lake. All the gentle shapes and sensations allowed a softening of my boundary with the world. By the time Beth went off to get the ice-creams my skin had taken on a porous quality, soaking up the park. When I sat down on the bench rough grasses tickled through the straps of my sandals. My weight pushed down into the baked dirt. The earth pushed up into my feet. I turned to look for Beth. A sea-shell whoosh of breeze filled my ear. I closed my eyes.
Birdsong. A deep, repeated 'chook' sound. A metallic, 'pli,pli,pli' response. Insistent. Where are you? I pictured two small birds, reddish-brown, hopping through the branches, circling nearer then away. I felt a tug of sweet feeling in my chest.
The predominance of sight had given way to hearing, a much less used and therefore unguarded sensing. Pli,pli,pli. The little bird heard her friends. Alert for an escape route she wasted no time. Through the now wide open sound gates she leapt, out into the glorious space of Hyde Park.
I opened my eyes upon a new world. I felt intensely there. The park now a theatre, the birds and trees lit up as actors on a stage. The small pebbles strewn across Rotten Row multiple haloes of aliveness, mineral beings. Drawn out of my alienation I gratefully welcomed the park into me.
Hillman writes, 'between us and events, doer and deed, there is a reflective moment...and soul-making is differentiating this middle ground...a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself'. On my bench I was having a, 'reflective moment'. Which is what I went on to discover park benches are so good for. An opportunity to listen to the voices of the animate world, to enter into imaginative reverie. A 'reflective moment' that is a certain quality of awareness, not a 'thing' in itself, more, 'a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint'. And here Hillman's description of soul meets with the idea of 'I' in psychosynthesis. An 'I' that is our, 'consciousness and will', which is not to be conflated with whatever content it is aware of. In other words, 'I' is not a thing, nor is it any particular feeling, thought or sensation. 'I' is a perspective, a viewpoint, as is soul. Both are the space that opens between viewer and viewed, the gap between self and world. 'I' and soul dwell in-between. A spaciousness that is the 'mundus imaginalis', a realm of living images into which we can enter and interact, whether from the medieval Persian deserts or the Royal Parks of London circa 2008.
The little bird sang sweetly as she flew between me and the park. Her cage door now wide-open. Free to come and go as she pleased. Into the dry heat she soared, out across the freshly mown lawns, moving like a wave, a dart, a leaf.
I rode ripples of dejavu. A past lingered nearby, carried on the same scents then as now. Cut grass, dirt and sweat. Close, as if touchable through a rent in the air. A pigeon swooped overhead. A sudden grief came and I felt my small boy fingers clasped around the smooth shaft of a rake. My grandfather's rake.
Grandfather Frater, in his navy blue overalls, shirt sleeves rolled up. In the shade, on the shed step. His pipe bowl cupped in rough, strong hands. Thick snow-white hair, long enough to slick back. A pencil tucked behind his ear. A frown caught turning into a laugh. A face I wanted to curl up into.
'It's tiring watching you work. What's the rush?'
I could not respond. I just sat there. His attention on me like a soft cotton blanket.
There, but not like the leaves on the trees or the bird in the air. Not a physical presence, seen with the eye. Yet not an idea either. Present in a more subtle way. A kind of hovering, a vibration. A delicate consciousness. The possibility that plays in the soul space between matter and mind.
In retrospect, I hesitated to follow through on the fullest possibilities of 'mundus imaginalis'. I did not quite set 'wild imagination' free. As was in the name, I took the 'imaginal world' to be a realm, an immaterial reality somehow beyond this dust and dirt existence. Not seen with the physical eye or heard with the physical ear, I thought of imagination as sense free. In other words, imagination was separate from the natural world. An understanding that prolonged my alienation and held me back from making the connection between place and imagination. The little bird had flown her cage only to find herself at the end of long thin leather jesses, still tethered to her cage. A new confinement, spacious enough to fly and converse with ancestral spirits in ancient gardens, but still not free. A Sufi's gilded cage was still a cage.
The modern world-view had a deeper hold on me than a bit of study and reflection could shake loose. This is apparent when I read back over the books and papers I used in my MA research. The key ideas that form the basis for a connection between place and imagination are all there. Yet on first reading, and for quite some time after, I did not take in these ideas. I was not ready. I had to live my way in. The encounter with my grandfather was a start and it drew me back again and again to Hyde Park. I walked along Rotten Row. Sometimes I touched elements of that first imaginative encounter, other times not a lot happened. Either way, walking up and down felt like the kind of quiet care I needed. Ideas and reflections came while walking, but I was hesitant to write them down. I feared a repeat of what had happened to 'wild imagination' in the writing of my dissertation. There was no rush. The message from my grandfather had been to slow down. Only after some months did I start to carry a journal with me on my walks, scratching out slow trains of thought while sitting on a bench or sheltering from the rain under Serpentine Bridge, the stone arches of which created a majestic frame for the lake, trees and grey skies. Over time ideas gathered momentum, made links back into memory and spread out into reading, taking my inspiration down new paths. I was learning the links between imagination and place.
I had critiqued the modern-world view for stuffing meaning and significance into subjectivity. What I missed was the other location of soul that had grown alongside the emergence of humanity as separate from nature. The divine was to be found within humans and also elevated into a supernatural reality above. Modern consciousness had been shaped by the Christian view of the ultimate locus of meaning and value in a transcendent God. A God who had a special relationship with humanity, so much so that 'Man was made in the image of God'. Soul was stuffed into subjectivity and packed into heaven. The flip-side to a disenchanted natural world was an enchanted supernatural heaven, a secular version of which I now realised had become my distorted 'wild imagination'.
The indigenous peoples of pre-modern cultures had no conception of an immaterial, supernatural realm. They had no heaven and no hell. In the lines of Lennon, 'Imagine there's no heaven / it's easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky.' There was only this world of the senses. In such a culture, the encounter with my grandfather would not have been understood as a projection of internalised memory, nor as a visitation from heaven or a supernatural 'wild imagination'. Indigenous people viewed the earth as the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. On death a person's presence did not vanish beyond the physical world, there being no idea for such a possibility. Rather, a person's presence, not being identified with the body, on death was returned to the living landscape and remained alongside the living to be met in the earth and trees, the night stars, the water and winds.
In the modern view places have no feelings of their own, only those we project into them. In an ensouled world, each landscape, place or thing, a tree or a window box or a skyscraper, possesses its own feeling field. Despite a lack of language to acknowledge the feeling field of place it nevertheless operates unconsciously upon us all the time. For example, when I walk into a crowded bar or get onto a bus, I use my sensitivity to the feeling field to decide where to sit, who to talk to or whether I should stay or leave. Some places just don’t feel right. Such as a poisoned river with dead fish floating in it. If several people spend time by this river and all report similar responses of anxiety and upset then perhaps it is the river that is the source of these feelings, rather than individuals projecting the same feelings onto the river. Other places are more attractive to us, they feel good. Take a forest. If several people go to the same forest and all report a similar feeling of ease and calm, then perhaps it is the forest that has the ease and calm, which it has shared with those who walk there. Human feeling is not just the product of the human mind. The human psyche is bound through our physical senses to the wider natural world, an embedded relationship that has evolved over millennia.
On tuning in to the feeling field of a particular place I then encounter the corresponding images that arise from that place. Assagioli describes this interconnection between feeling and imagination in his psychological laws. Any particular feeling state will have an associated image, thought and sensation. In Hyde Park the summer's day vibe was borne on the warm breeze, the scents of cut grass, the rustle of leaves and the sharp colour contrast of a baby-blue sky against deep green. Sight, smell, hearing and sensation combined into a synaesthesia, an overall feeling tone. A tone particular to the exact spot where I was sitting. In allowing this feeling tone to deepen I entered into 'wild imagination' or what Goethe called, ‘sensory imagination’. Between me and the park rested an image of my Grandfather. An image particular to me and my personal history, and also to being in that particular place on that particular day. A psychology of soul acknowledges the dependence of such living images upon the interaction between body, mind and world. Imagination is not something that happens in my brain, nor is it a supernatural fantasy realm. Imagination is a form of perception, interwoven with sensation and feeling, arising between self and world. In this the mind-body connection is given a wider context within the mind-body-world connection. Where I am, the particular place I occupy, will impact upon my imagination, my feeling sense and my mind. I am a situational being. The rush hour traffic, the blinking fluorescent light as well as the sunshine and the breeze, all these affect who and what I am at any given moment. Without including the importance of place our ‘me’ centric psyches are disconnected and ill at ease, our senses robbed of their integrity and our minds of their coherence.
Psychosynthesis is based upon philosophical assumptions from the story of soul that might allow a basis for a connection between place and imagination. However, I was beginning to see that the presentation of psychosynthesis within the assumptions of the modern world view were a distortion and now unnecessary packaging of psychosynthesis theory and practice. In proceeding along these lines I wanted to tread carefully, with respect. I knew psychosynthesis was strong enough to handle some critique, but worried how best to return soul without messing things up. Some time was spent mulling this over and in the end the solution came directly from Assagioli, as if he had been called up by my concerns. He came in the form of an article that he wrote towards the end of his life in which he reflected on how to evolve psychosynthesis without losing its distinctive features. With remarkable clarity he simply lists seven core concepts that distinguish his theory: disidentification; the personal self; the will; the ideal model; synthesis; the superconscious; and the transpersonal Self. Any future changes would need to demonstrate a relationship to these seven core concepts to remain a genuine psychosynthesis. This was the bench mark. If the scientific language was removed and a soulful version presented, it would need to meet this criteria.
Not only does the loss of a scientific presentation maintain these core principles, it is my contention that they are revealed more clearly by doing so. There are several points of departure within the psychosynthesis literature that offer a basis for my argument for a soul based presentation. Points of departure, more implications that explicit teachings, that I like to think of as clues that were perhaps deliberately hidden among the camouflage of a modern psychology. Buried treasures, waiting for a future age when the times would be hospitable to their development. Indeed, only recently I heard a report that in Assagioli's home in Italy, now turned into a museum and archive, a discovery of a false wall had revealed a secret room stuffed full of ageing manuscripts and files. Who knows what will be found there. However, for now there are within the existing theory plenty of what I call 'seed thoughts' that with the right intellectual handling could grow and develop. The following seed thoughts are a start, and with more time no doubt further work could be done relating them to the core concepts.
One seed thought, hidden in plain sight, is how Assagioli diagrammed his psychology in the Egg Diagram. Both the field of consciousness around 'I' and the border between the personal psyche and the collective unconscious are given a dotted circumference, to illustrate their permeability. The 'I' is not a closed shop, it is open to outside influences. 'I' is described as, 'passing through our external encounters with...other people and the environment.’ Without the assumptions of 'inner' the 'I' is free to move in and out, between self and world, no longer solely a subjective experience. Rather it is an interaction with events, a participation in place and life 'beyond' the personal. An 'I' that takes us into the hazy, in-between realm of soul and imagination.
Another seed thought is the emphasis within psychosynthesis on meaning making. Here Assagioli writes of the roots of psychosynthesis within existential psychology, which has a similar meaning making emphasis. Existential psychology emphasises the same phenomenological description and avoidance of interpretative language as the second group of my MA interviewees did in response to the ‘little boy’ vignette. And while Assagilio did not write explicitly about the non-dual philosophical assumptions of existential psychology, it is nevertheless there to be discovered as an implicit pointer towards a psychology with soul. For existential psychology is not a modern psychology based upon a biographical ‘me’ isolated from place. In existential psychology the subjective factor of experience is inseparable from the objective world, and meaning is understood to arise between self and world. A meaning that speaks to the intermediate realm of soul. A soul which Hillman describes as that which, ‘makes meaning possible’. A soul that is an imaginative perception which gets beneath the surface appearance of the world and discovers meaning. A meaning that does not rest in the visual seeing, but in the imaginative seeing which allows us to touch this otherwise invisible dimension of the world. An imaginative seeing that happens so quickly but is nevertheless operating all the time when we see and then understand ‘chair’, ‘table’, ‘bus’. In the image of my Grandfather I touched upon the meaning in the park. A clear message to slow down and also an intimation of my participation in a wider world beyond my isolated self.
Assagioli wrote in his early writtings of an, 'interindividual psychosynthesis'. A psychosynthesis that takes into account the place of the individual within a wider web of relations to the group, community, culture and nature, the study of which, 'might prove very illuminating'. A modern psychology would explore inter-individuality using reductionistic thinking, as relations between the separate entities of 'me' and 'world'. A psychology of soul offers another way of thinking, one that understands the interplay between 'me' and 'world' as inseparable. A co-creation that does not deny the physical world, but rather delights in the play of imagination and meaning that occurs in our interaction with it.
Perhaps the most blatant seed thought is psychosynthesis as a transpersonal psychology. 'Trans', most simply presented as 'beyond', points to a psychology not limited to the personal, that includes a wider conception of 'psyche' than the subjective 'me'. A psyche that is greater than 'me', that surrounds, penetrates and acts upon 'me'. Not just a growing into a larger sense of 'me', or an awakening of personal potential. A more-than-personal psyche that the fuller Latin meanings of 'trans' describe. 'Trans' as not only beyond but also, 'across, through, pervading; so as to change, transform; occurring by way of.' The subject of such a transpersonal psychology is a psyche broadly conceived. A psyche that pervades within a personal 'me', yet also moves 'across' and 'through' this person, in an active fashion, seeking to 'transform'. Here the 'me' boundaries of modern psychology rather fall away. Psyche is everywhere. It is within us and also we walk surrounded by it. A conception that takes us back to the Greeks and the indigenous world-view. The 'anima mundi', the soul of the world. An idea that comes full-circle in the English word 'soul' which is a translation of the Greek 'anima' and also the Latin 'psyche'. Psychology as originally conceived is not the study of mind, but the study (ology) of soul ( psyche).
The limitations of modern psychology are reflected in the wider world. The radical split between subject and object is a divisive story, a root cause of not just psychic numbness and impoverished imagination but also the social, economic and ecological crises in the world today. To the extent that I assume the world 'out there' is objective and dead, it makes it difficult to care and easy to ignore the costs of my indifference. To the extent I consider myself an isolated self it makes it hard to form relationships. Set apart my energies go in the opposite direction, defending and strengthening my isolation. Heroic inflation, alienation and burnout ensue. The way out of these problems, both personal and collective, will not be served from within the same story that caused them. As Einstein said, 'We can't solve the problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them'. What is needed is a new story, a new world view. One in which science is not the only way of looking at the world.
What fires my imagination is the possibility of a cultural transition. The creation of a new collective story that embraces the tensions between soul and science. A story with a language that speaks to the relationship between self and world. A discourse that is able to fly around in the spaces between people and place. The anima mundi, the soul of the world, is such a story. And while I have not mentioned it until now, a key influence upon this article and one of the places where a new story is being worked out is in the thinking and practice of ecopsychology. The core subject matter of ecopsychology being the inter-relationship between human and the more-than-human.
The encounter with my grandfather in Hyde Park is an example of how a new story might not be so far away, even for those most alienated from it. I still find it hard to shake of the modern story. I am of this time, this age. And yet for moments and periods, with deliberate practice and shaping, I find I can move to the edge of the modern story. The habitual perspective of a separate 'me' becomes suspended and I enter into an immersion in place, out of which new perceptual possibilities and imagination arise. Most often this happens outdoors on longer walks with my dog Milly. Other times it can happen in the city, on the banks of the Thames or from the top-deck of a bus. An immersion that is not just about feeling better, which often happens, but is also a re-discovery and re-configuring of my basic assumptions about self and world.
The little bird now flies free more often than not, at times going quite far. Other times she comes home to roost, resting in her cage. The door is no longer locked and the jesses are no longer needed. On her perch she sometimes sings quietly. Her song is sweet.
Read Part one of this blog here.
Join our 2 day workshop Ecopsychology: The Mind-Body & World Connection 25th-26th Feb 2017.
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram
Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality by Jorge N. Ferrer
Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life by Andy Fisher
Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia by Stephen Harding
Re-Visioning Psychology by James Hillman
Ways of the Heart: Essays Towards an Imaginal Psychology by Robert D. Romanyshyn
Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View by Richard Tarnas