Monthly Archives: August 2016

Beyond reason and imagination

Beyond imagination and reason
Carl Jung wrote extensively about the marriage of opposites and the transcendent function. Often imagination and reason are pitted as opposites or as I’ve done in some of this recent writing spoken of as a sort of balance between the two. It certainly seems as if that is one way of learning to function, in other words conscious awareness of both aspects. In contemplation the aim is to move beyond both conscious reasoning and conscious imagination to a point beyond the world of duality where there is reconciliation experienced as an emptiness which may also be the fullness of God.

The transcendent function suggests that as you struggle and you pit one idea against another it is possible to reach a point where something new emerges… a breakthrough and perhaps a bit like a Zen koan. Here there could be integration of what is apparently irreconcilable but also something new. Various mystics suggest that the truth lies beyond reason and contradiction and it is in experience and intuition where God can be discovered. Western thought needs Eastern thought so that there can be an integration of the intuitive, the imaginative, the symbolic with thought and reason. Could this be some new expression of faith to tackle the domination of the disastrous effects of Western industrialism and materialism? Yet neither the East nor the West has the whole truth. The truth cannot be found through any theory but can only be experienced – it is about what we can be in our very being. The ideal is to follow Christ – open to vulnerability and transparently compassionate.

Bede Griffiths was asked in later life ‘What is the meaning of life?’ He replied ‘The meaning of life is love and there are two ways to love. One is through dedication of the whole of your life to the spirit and the working out of that dedication. The other is to love another human being so profoundly that that initiates you into the divine love.’

To love in that way requires knowing our self and learning to love our self which is not in any way an easy thing to do but also involves an opening ourselves up to something that we can barely glimpse…and can barely accept: mercy. We can learn from others that the love of God is for everyone and can overwhelm and embrace us so that we are held. As Thomas Merton puts it at the end of his wonderful book The Sign of Jonas: ‘I have always overshadowed Jonas with My mercy… Have you had sight of me, Jonas, My Child? Mercy within mercy within mercy.’

Reason and imagination 3

‘If you understand it, it isn’t God’ so wrote St Augustine in the 4th century; a sentiment similarly advocated by Thomas Aquinas who suggested that ‘the only thing we can say about God is that he is not what he is’. Interestingly Aquinas saw that the depth of the transcendent experience was so much more than all he’d written about, which he then described as ‘but straw’ compared to the great moment of illumination he experienced towards the end of his life.

In other religions the same idea is found, so in Taoism: ‘the Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.’ In Hinduism the description of the inexpressible mystery of Brahman is described as neti neti (not this, not this). In Judaism a 12th century philosopher said that God can only be described in negative terms – similar to the darkness expressed by St John of the Cross. But we don’t like not knowing, nor the negative and the dark and in times of chaos we look for certainty and definite answers. Darkness is rejected as evil and the emphasis is on the light yet often the dark places can also be or become wombs of life and new insight.

Sometimes we feel able to search for these experiences of not knowing and will ourselves to surrender completely into the hands of something more than ourselves, but usually the grip of the past is stronger – not only our personal history but the hold of the unconscious and past generations that affect the way we physically and psychologically are.

Bede Griffiths searched all his life to understand what he called ‘transcendent Mystery’ and ‘ultimate Truth’ which he saw were only terms to express the inexpressible. He saw this as the whole problem of life which continually baffles our reason.

‘The ultimate meaning and purpose of life cannot be expressed, cannot properly be thought. It is present everywhere, in everything, yet it always escapes our grasp. It is the ‘Ground’ of all existence, that from which all things come, to which all things return, but which never appears. It is ‘within’ all things, ‘above’ all things, ‘beyond’ all things, but it cannot be identified with anything. Without it nothing could exist, without it nothing can be known, yet it itself is unknown. It is that by which everything is known, yet which itself remains unknown.’

To even begin to grasp the experiences that we may be being offered we have to get out of our long established mindset based on reason and scientific verification. We are spiritually impoverished unless we can explore from our own lived experience and set aside discursive reasoning. We clearly need to use our egos otherwise we will be mad but we also need to cultivate our imagination alongside reason. Our intuitive wisdom and our sense of connection with other creatures and with nature needs to be encouraged and developed. Accepting that we cannot know everything and that much of life is a mystery is also an opening up to another way of being.

Sometimes a text seems to speak directly and I found myself much taken by the last two lines of a hymn sung last Sunday: ‘only believe, and thou shalt see that Christ is all in all to thee.’ Is it possible to only believe? Is it possible to trust in ‘unknowing’? Can we set aside prescriptive doctrines and experience what is all around us?

Reason and imagination 2

I like the quote about the Jungian analyst and follower of Eastern religion Toni Sussman who was known to say: ‘Go home and meditate on the difference between the Important and the Essential’. Clearly reason is important but I think imagination is essential.

It seems that most of the current funding and interest is in counselling and therapy that focuses only on reason – take CBT as an example. This seems the perfect therapy for our current age of superficiality, economic utilitarianism and materialism. What could be better than one to a maximum of six sessions to get you back to work – out of your depression – blocking all those irrational anxieties and functioning once again in what is called reality. Obviously people find it helpful and it certainly works (up to a point) and I’m certainly not romanticising mental distress in any way, however, often (even after CBT) the imagination in terms of inner fantasies can still overpower reason. The way to disentangle what is going on in the imagination which is fuelled by the unconscious usually needs more than six sessions and a simple reworking of conscious thought.

Because of course the imagination can help us or hinder us. Often the anticipation of something is much more worrying than when it is actually happening. Much of our fear is derived from early experiences laid down in impressionable times that may be inaccessible to our conscious mind until recovered in therapy. Then our imagination can be tempered by reason and logic as we talk it through, in other words there can be a balance. Sometimes the overly reasonable means that life is purely one-dimensional and the imagination is banished as silly, irrational or childlike. For it is through our imagination as a creative force that we can move out of the restricted limited view of the world and open ourselves to a world of faith:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.

William Wordsworth from ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.’

This is where depth psychotherapy can help by opening us up to our irrationality and what lies below the surface and again to allow our imagination to roam freely through our experiences. To believe in God we need to allow our imagination to be free and to include what may frighten us as well as what may bring us joy because it is through imagination and allowing a sense of presence that we can establish our faith and relationship with God.
I very much like the section of the Upanishad quoted by Shirley du Boulay at the start of her biography of Bede Griffiths Beyond the Darkness. It was apparently a favourite scripture of Father Bede:

I know that Great Person
of the brightness of the Sun
beyond the darkness.
Only by knowing him
one goes beyond death.
There is no other way to go.

Reason and imagination 1

Reason and imagination 1
‘It was when the human mind became separated from its roots in feeling and instinct that it became diseased, and the infallible mark of the disease was the ugliness of its productions.’
This quote from Bede Griffiths reflects the philosophy he developed early in his life when comparing the ugliness of the modern city with the beauty of the Cotswold towns and villages. He went on to say that ‘when the mind was in harmony with nature… Then its products had a spontaneous beauty.’ He thought that imagination was the real essence of our human existence and that reason in contrast was a destructive nihilistic power working as ‘Anti-Christ in our human pilgrimage’.
Later on as he turned towards Christianity he began to read the Gospels and believed in an objective truth that had to be faced. In particular St John’s Gospel he had no doubt was the record of an experience of unfathomable depth: ‘I realised that to reject this would be to reject the greatest thing in all human experience; on the other hand, to accept it would be to change one’s whole point of view. It would be to pass from reason and philosophy to faith.’
It’s often the case especially in both depth psychotherapy and in contemplation that reason falls away and it seems as if there is a divide between the polarities of reason and faith, intellect and experience, mind and heart. We cannot discard reason but there is a sense from many mystics that wholeness and the inner truth goes way beyond. So there is imagination and there is faith and beyond both or through both are great glimpses of awareness of the love of God. These are often described as moments when the harsh external world dominated by reason, busyness and noise is perceived through the state of enlightenment so that the eternal truth and beauty is realised as the universal law. Then everything is seen differently even in the city streets:

‘Everything seemed to lose its harshness and rigidity and to become alive… The hard casing of exterior reality seemed to have been broken through, and everything disclosed its inner being. The buses in the street seem to have lost their solidity and to be glowing with light.’

That’s the description from Bede Griffiths which has great similarities with Thomas Merton’s famous revelation in downtown Louisville. It is described this way in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander :
‘In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.’

If we can really allow our imagination and faith to be freed up and so be in touch with the transcendent then everything is imbued with the sacred…even what is rational and reasonable such as a bus!