Unlocking Imaginal Religion — Part 4: From Image to Action
As we give life to God, God gives life to us.
Soon it becomes clear that we are not separate in any way, and actually that the concept of “God” was as much an obstacle of the concept of “I”. All separation between the two is mind-created. But that doesn’t mean it has to stop! It takes two to tango, as the saying goes.
We might sense this movement of mutual love, discovery and creation as the self (the divine within) engaged in an eternal co-creative love dance with the not-self (the infinite other, the divine without) — just as lover and beloved are able to exist in both unity and separation. If it was all unity, there would just be infinite formlessness… but separation allows diversity, allows birth, allows the world of form to emerge: a magical play of appearances, driven by love and seeking ever-greater expression and ecstasy (literally ecstasis, a coming out of onself) in beauty. Through each and every one of us the infinite holy mystery is exploring it’s infinite array of possibilities for perception. That exploration is what life is: an unlimited creative outpouring of love.
When reading a text or scripture that includes the word “God” I will often change all the He’s to She’s or They’s. The latter could indicate either a nonbinary / androgynous God (as symbolised by Ardhanarishvara above) or the plural ‘they’, which might express a very beautiful conception of God as all beings. This little exercise in pronoun-switching serves as a constant reminder that God the concept, the persona, is only ever a symbol for the living God, the holy mystery, the light of love that is the essence of our being — and of all existence. You could also replace the word God with ‘Love’ as you read, to see if it makes religious texts more accessible and relatable. Works for me.
Each of us are invited to find and work with our own images of the divine and to explore what they move in the heart and body. This stream of images, as they bubble up from the unconscious, will lead us back to the ocean of infinite Love (God), if only we learn to listen and respond to their invitations. The course of that imaginal stream is our unique soul path through the wilderness of the psyche. Our dreams will always provide a rich source of such images; the Sufi tradition is notable for its interpretation of dreams as initiation and guidance from the divine realm (more on that here), as are many indigenous cultures.
To me, this following of our unique soul images/fantasies/desires is a more beautiful and life-enriching path to God than using the images of ancient religions (such as Jesus talking on a distant mountain). These images will be much closer to home; we might actually overlook or neglect them at first, if they seem too mundane or ordinary. But they will resonate strongly in our hearts and bodies and thereby help us to navigate our unique embodied/social/ecological/historical situation in the direction of universal unconditional love.
While traditional religious symbology is an undeniable part of our heritage, and may deeply colour, influence and energise our conceptions of the divine, we must be careful that it does not take precedent over our personal imaginal journey, and that it does not tyrannise, devalue or refute that journey.
Somewhere at the roots of the mind, in the depths of the unconscious, is the seed of our divine, higher Self that lives in constant knowledge of infinite Love, and is a manifestation of that Love. The stream of images and symbols that we receive through dreams, visions and fantasies are the soul guiding the ego home to that divine Self, which is “eternally free and self-aware” (Radhakrishnan). These images and symbols are showing us the way home — only we have to go through the wilderness to get there.
Importantly, images do not have to be visual but may also be aural/auditory, kinesthetic/energetic, emotional, or even multisensory / synaesthetic. For example, I might have a fantasy-image that arises as a beautiful and sacred melody, internally “heard” with/by the imagination, and a related sense of that melody emanating from my heart-centre up to the throat, mouth, and tongue, to flow into the world as a musical expression of love. That might inspire me to sing and to share this song with the world. This example traces the full arc of Imaginal Religion from image to action.
Increasingly we can “root” or “ground” all of our worldly activity in these images, which are the essentially the fantasy objects of the heart’s sacred desires. God (universal divine Love) dreams of a more beautiful world through our unique imaginal landscape; we are each invited and called to make those dreams manifest through our actions, in the way that only we can.
To do this, we learn to tune into the sense of soul, or soulfulness, that certain images and symbols carry for us. This involves developing sensitivity to the resonances that different images evoke in us. These could be psychological, energetic, embodied, or emotional. (This is the great value of developing awareness of the subtle body, or energy body. Again I would recommend Rob Burbea’s teachings on this as a starting point).
We are touched by images. We may sense beauty, divinity and meaningfulness in them. This doesn’t mean we are concluding “image X means Y”, but rather sensing and validating the feelings of profoundness, importance, significance — the meaningfulness — that different images stir in us. In this way every image, dream and symbol carries a potentially limitless plurality of meanings, none of which we are bound to, and all of which we are free to investigate, drop, or go deeper into.
It’s like living in a dark cell and suddenly being yanked outside into rich warm sunlight and a blossoming garden that stretches as far as the eye can see. There are mountains and forests on the horizon, and the air is fresh and rich with countless aromas.
Everything is alive.
To arrive here is our soul-initiation into the open space of the unlimited imagination, the divine psyche, the infinite play of the heart upon the void. Life on Earth in this majestic cosmos is just one miniscule sliver of that play, but it is also an essential one, and it is our utter privelige and honour to participate in this sacred unfolding into ever-greater beauty, complexity, and connectedness…
Where it goes next — that is entirely up to us.
The impossibility of using reason to describe or access divine love is what creates the necessity of using images and symbols to attempt to do so. This is why love-mystics such as Rumi and the Sufi poets, also the Surrealists, Romantics and the haiku-wielding Zen Buddhists, turn to poetry. Because poetry speaks in the language of images and symbols.
Like a passing butterfly, you can’t capture the ineffable without killing it. But you can use language — or music, or paint, or dance — to evoke and express the impression that the butterfly’s beauty had on you.
Poetry is the only linguistic form that has no obligation to remain sensible or coherent. This allows it to dance through the paradoxes, contradictions and impossibilities of Love — to leap over the Intellectual Gatekeepers leaving silvery moondust in their eyes (it makes them fall asleep and dream). Next thing you know it is in the desert, twirling and singing to the sky and pressing its head to the ground in awe and reverence.
Poetry makes the divine accessible because it bypasses the intellect: no-one is expecting it to make any sort of truth-claim or final statement about reality.
From the intellect’s viewpoint, it’s “just a poem”. But herein lies its hidden power: it can introduce images of God / divinity that appeal to someone’s intuitive, aesthetic, imaginative and emotional senses (i.e. their non-rational ways of knowing), without ever making them feel that they are being persuaded or convinced. As millions will attest, you don’t need to hold any belief in “God” to have your world transformed (and your heart opened) by one of Rumi’s poems.
When love floods into the city of the self, the Intellectual Gatekeepers have no choice but to step aside and allow love to pour in — dissolving, drowning and destroying the whole structure of consciousness which was previously geared towards serving the personal self exclusively. Now consciousness can be reconstructed to serve the Whole. Without walls or gates, without defences, Love (God) is free to flow through the city of self, and the self (including the intellect, the rational mind, the Logos) is reborn as a servant of love, a “friend to all creatures, who does good to them without expecting anything in return” (Radhakrishnan).
The intellect still operates but is now aware of its context and belonging in the universal mystery. It’s function is to serve the whole, with all of its intelligence, creativity and genius.
It seems that Love wants nothing more than to flow into us, through us and out of us. It wants to use our hands and bodies to heal the suffering of the world — which of course stems from the pain of disconnection from Love (God) — and that is continually enforced by the Intellectual Gatekeepers. It longs to touch the things of the world and rearrange them into ever-greater beauty (as artists, artisans, poets, musicians, gardeners…).
You think you’re searching for Love until you realise:
Love is searching for you.
Again: the mind cannot take us to God (Love), but the heart is already there, and always has been. Because the heart is God, is the source of unconditional universal love, made manifest on Earth through us (us!!). If we can muster the courage to surrender our selfish desires, to give our life and soul to the world, then we become freed by love.
We come back into conscious loving relationship with everything within us and everything outside us, with all beings, all realities, even all possibilities.
It seems that the love in our heart is the love in everything, the same love that makes the world possible, that initiates and sustains the whole cosmic process. This helps us to see that we all depend on one another so completely as to be utterly inseparable. All beings merge in this love. We belong here.
Look at the complexity of any living organism — a frog, a whale, a redwood tree — and tell me that this Love is not so majestic and beautiful and heavenly as to not be worthy of the name “God”! Okay, maybe you don’t want to do that — and that’s okay. It doesn’t matter at all, actually. What matters is the appreciation and respect and love we can hold — and act upon — for that frog, that whale, that tree.
If we find ourselves struggling with this, because life on earth is also ugly, violent and painful, we might take Rilke’s view that God (universal Love) is actually not yet born, or is in the process of being born, and the pain of our lives is the pain of birth:
“Why don’t you conceive of God as an ally who is coming, who has been approaching since time began, the one who will someday arrive, the fruit of a tree whose leaves we are? Why not project his birth into the future, and live your life as an excruciating and lyrical moment in the history of a prodigious pregnancy?”
— Rainer Maria Rilke
Rilke’s question “why don’t you conceive…?” reveals the knowledge and freedom of a master poet: that we can recreate and reimagine reality itself — even God — via the crafting and cultivation of our images, myths and fantasies.
He is not saying “God is this or that” but rather inviting the reader to play and experiment with his conception of God, in the hope that it might provide a poetic aesthetic to live by; an opening in the heart to the ineffable and infinite.
If you are still asking “So what is God?”. I cannot tell you. No one can. You have to close your eyes and give up the search. The search is an activity of the mind, and it will never get past the Gatekeepers. Instead of trying to get past them, we can go to the garden, sit down and gaze at the sky. We can listen to our bodies, dreams, and imaginations. To the song of the world as it flows through us. Then our intuitive sense of sacredness will re-appear, as bright as springtime. Love will take care of the rest, will take care of everything (actually it already does — the trick is to realise this and be freed by it).
There is nothing to do but drop into love and beauty. Deeper and deeper, until we realise: the journey is infinite. We are free.
Through meditation and prayer we can practice dropping into love, every day, every hour, until it is automatic and we have become Love’s servants — because then it is so obvious that it is not ‘I’ that doing all of this surviving, striving, and helping the world. It is Love. There is no doubt about it. And this lack of doubt brings an incommunicable peace.
Every human is a source of limitless love. The pain, suffering and selfishness come when that love is constricted to a less-than-universal region of the whole (like the personal self, or one’s team, tribe, or nation exclusively). But this love is seeking the whole, and will find it eventually. When it does, we are liberated, free to express and act upon our unconditional love for all beings (just as we did during childhood). This requires that the Intellectual Gatekeepers step aside, stand down and surrender to the suprarational, impossible, inconceivable Love that created all this, will destroy all this, and will remake this world of pain in the living image of the selfless loving human. Such a person is the incarnated symbol of Infinite Love, the alchemical union of the opposites (matter and spirit, body and soul). This shines through when we surrender to love’s longing to embrace and serve every single being in all of infinite existence.
When all beings find their home in universal love, freed from the prison of self, the cosmic process will be complete. What then? We cannot know. But perhaps we can imagine it. And if we can imagine it — all beings free from suffering, at home in love, fully aware of their divinity and perfection, their infinite power as creators and artisans of beauty, rhythm, music, movement, soul — then it can manifest.
Can we trust that love will take us here?
Our hearts already do trust this. Our hearts are crying out:
“We are already here! Just look at the mystery, the magic, the impossible miracle of Life on Earth. Look at the Love that made all this possible!”
Perhaps it is time that our minds began to listen.
Okay. We’re now ready to open up Part 5: Resurrecting The God Images.