The layman always thinks, when he says “reality” that he is speaking of something self-evidently known; whereas to me it seems the most important and exceedingly difficult task of our time is to work on the construction of a new idea of reality.
~ Wolfgang Pauli, Nobel Prize Winner in Physics
Rob Burbea is most well known for his work in the Insight Meditation tradition and for writing the book “Seeing That Frees”. I’ve been following Rob since 2010, spending many silent retreats exploring his approach, and his conception of emptiness is at the core of my understanding of the purpose and practice of meditation.
That work, profound as it is, is all locatable within the insight meditation world; a broadly defined coming together of spirituality, psychology, and western ethics (see David Chapman on Consensus Buddhism). Rob’s most recent work, however, is a radical departure from what could be identified as Buddhism* or meditation. In sharing it with the world he has been called a ‘heretic’ and a ‘dangerous man’.
It is my belief that Rob has journeyed to the furthermost reaches of human consciousness and come back with a new and profound vision of human experience and spirituality. It is, in my estimation, a paradigm shift for spirituality and how we make sense of reality.
In Zen stories, they refer to masters as dangerous men, because they would take from you every way you made sense of the world.
In that sense I agree, he is a very dangerous man. 😈
What’s the Big Deal?
The paradigm that Rob has created is called alternatively ‘The Soulmaking Dharma’, ‘Sensing with Soul’ and the ‘Imaginal’. The conceptual framework was constructed in dialectic with major movements in the western intellectual tradition; figures such as Freud, Jung, Feynman, Hillman, and Foucault feature prominently. The Imaginal is also the product of a human being who spent a lifetime being deeply moved and disturbed by the plight of our planet and the destruction of our ecosystems.
The Imaginal emerges out of the deepest process of deconstruction that I can imagine. It is informed by the method of abstract post-modern deconstruction as practiced by thinkers like Foucault but further enriched by the deconstruction of phenomenology that is the fruit of deep and rigorous contemplative practice. Not mere sensory deconstruction; nor mere intellectual deconstruction, but the coming together of both in a heart and mind deeply on fire with concern for the fate of our planet.
It is the only spiritual praxis I know of that I would feel comfortable describing as ‘post-post-modern’ (insert your favorite word: integral, metamodern, fluid mode, metasystematic, etc). It is a reconstructive participatory spiritual praxis with a new vision of ethics, ontology, cosmology, and epistemology.**
One facet of the approach I really enjoy is how it guards and protects against all forms of reductionism. It thwarts physicalism, realism, scientism, materialism, fundamentalism, as well as subtle forms of contemplative reductionism (‘It’s all just flow, man!’). In acknowledging and responding to the traps of reductionism it opens the door to a radical horizon of infinite discovery. The core insight of the Dharma is that everything is empty. If everything is empty then we are free to create. This approach is the praxis of that infinite creativity.
The Crisis of Meaning
The Imaginal approach also seems to be a perfect response to the crisis of meaning that permeates our era.
My current understanding is that the crisis of meaning is a key pattern that allows many of the multiple (and multiplying) crises of our world to grow unchallenged. The crisis of meaning underlies the mental health crisis, the opioid crisis, the ecological crisis, and the crisis in democracy. When meaning is compromised our personal sovereignty is damped. When meaning is flowing we tend to be healthy and energetic.
It may be that well-being is the Archimedes lever of sociopolitical transformation, and further that meaning may be the Archimedes lever of psychological well-being.
The Imaginal approach makes explicit how and where meaning is already flowing in our lives and gives us the technology to amplify that meaning, to make it more robust and complete. If meaning is not found in our lives, it gives us the tools to liberate it. If meaning is present it gives us the tools to embellish and empower it.
The ‘reality’ that most humans operate from fails to recognize the infinite permutations of ways of seeing the world because they fall prey to some variety of reductionism. When we live in such realities our aspirations are generally reduced to the dimensions of the material; possessions, reputation, experiences, etc. If we are spiritual our aspirations may be vaguely related to our own personal healing and empowerment. The invitation of the Imaginal approach is to expand our conception in order to discover and create entirely new dimensions of meaning, devotion, beauty, and depth.
So…What is It?
I’ve noticed that ideas on the frothy edge of the human experiment can be very hard to communicate (see Holochain). Because I’m intellectually lazy I’ll simply draw broad comparisons between the movement of Soulmaking and the movement of Awakening and give you some resources to learn more if you want.
The movement of Awakening is the process of learning to fabricate less through the practice of particular ways of seeing. This process results in things like Stream Entry & Kensho. This process:
- Ends suffering
- Brings peace (awakening)
- Deconstructs self, other, and world (emptiness)
- Ends the world (cessation)
Now, compare this with the process of learning to fabricate skillfully through Soulmaking & The Imaginal approach. This process:
- Creates and discovers more and more meaningful meanings
- Brings passion, eros, and beauty (soulfulness)
- Freedom to construct self, other, and world in an infinity of ways (cosmopoesis)
- Enchants the world (heaven on earth)
For me this approach has opened completely new liberations beyond what I had experienced from my thousands of hours of contemplative practice. It has led to a kind of ‘meta-liberation’ or ‘meta-freedom’; exposing ways that I had been boxing myself in that I was completely blind to.
My intention with this article is to persuade you to take the time to dive into Rob’s work and explore for yourself.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much material out there except for the source material, which is an intimidating collection of hundreds of hours of talks. The community surrounding Rob is located in the UK, so unless you’re nearby you are essentially out of luck. There are folks working on creating a new online home for Rob’s work, but that’s not ready yet.
Instead, I’ll make some recommendations of talks for folks who want to learn more.
For philosophy nerds, I recommend his series on Ikon and Eidos. It is an account of the lineage of philosophical tensions the Imaginal approach resolves.
For Buddhist geeks, I recommend his series on ‘What is Awakening’ from the Mirrored Gates retreat. He explores problems with many conceptions of path and awakening and offers a vision for the path that will be provocative for folks steeped in the pragmatic dharma or consensus Buddhism worlds. You might also be interested in his talk ‘Buddhism Beyond Modernism’.
If you just want to dive straight in I recommend listening to the Eros Unfettered retreat.
If you end up getting interested in this weird stuff I’d love to hear about it. ❤️
*With the exception of some forms of Vajrayana. Even so, the Imaginal diverges in key ways.
**The closest thing to the Imaginal that I’ve found is Jorge Ferrer’s participatory spirituality, but it is missing the fine-tuned conceptual framework that enables this as a method of practice. Still, cool that it has a such a similar orientation.