Accessing the mundus imaginalis with the modern mind

Martin Shaw asks: “So the stories are here, but are we?”

Charlotte Du Cann says that we do not “create” myths. Like the first law of thermodynamics myths are not created nor destroyed, only altered in form. Myths are eternal in this way: they’ve preceded us and will outlive us too. Sharon Blackie explains it like this: that myth is “actually present in the world”—and, she adds, a nod to psychologist James Hillman, “perhaps it is not we who imagine, but we who are imagined.”

Martin Shaw echoes this when he asks: “So the stories are here, but are we?”

But are we? The question here is less focused on solidifying our existence and material presence in this physical world; rather, it is an ask of us to be here as participants, recipients. We are not being asked to be agents, nor actors, alongside these stories; we are being asked to still, listen, behold. “I think we are losing the capacity to behold them”, Martin Shaw writes. “We see them for sure – our eyes swiftly scan the glow of the computer screen for the bones of the tale, we audition them for whatever contemporary polemic is forefront in our minds, and then we impatiently move on.” To behold is to do more than seeing alone: it connotes a sense of awe, wonder.

I read once before that beholding involves something “mind-shattering”. When Martin Shaw says that “we are simply not up to the intelligence of what the story is offering”, that our “so-called sophistication has our sensual intelligence in a head-lock and is literally squeezing the life out of it”, and that we have “lost a lot of the fundamental house-making skills for how to welcome a story”—I think that this may be what he is alluding to.

We must allow our minds to shatter in order to welcome the stories that are present, into the realities that we know, because our modern minds are not able to conceive of the reality that the world of myth inhabits.

In The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell received a story from an old Yakut dwelling near the Lena River. His name was Alexejev Michail, and he recalled: “in the old days, the shamans bellowed during the seance like bulls. And there would grow on their heads pure, opaque horns. I once saw such a thing myself. There used to live in our village a shaman whose name was Konnor. When his older sister died, he shamanized. When he did so, horns grew on his head. He stirred up the dry clay floor with them and ran about on all fours, as children do when they play 'bull.' He mooed loudly and bellowed like a bull."

Joshua Schrei posits that our “modern” minds will tend to process this story, The Case of the Man Who Grew Horns, by coming to one of four conclusions, that everyone who saw those horns: were under the influence of strong and theogenic substances, were having some kind of psychotic experience, wanted to believe in it so much that they “saw” the horns, or, finally, that they lied. To this he asks: what if none of those were true? What if, “Konnor did, in fact, grow horns from his head”? Schrei continues to say this: “there aren’t very many who would believe that these days, now are there?”

Whether or not Konnor grew horns isn’t the point of this story; the point is that the beholding of myth shatters the mind. Or, as Schrei puts it, “the cultural centring of the imagination [...] this vision space [...] to such a degree that the imaginer, the voyager, the visionary, is often the one determining the future, passing onto the children, shaping history, and the whole community shares in it [...] it bends our mind a little—it’s supposed to. [...] It’s supposed to shake us into a different mind.”

What kind of a different mind? Was the mind that could perceive this story as real truly so different from the “modern” mind that we know today?

Geneen Marie Haugen notes that in contemporary culture, “the images we respond to are largely provided by commercial advertising, political strategists, and news media; our imaginations have been hijacked and filled with desires, fears, and ideas created by others. Most of us are not accustomed to attending to the images (which include felt-sense or other perceptions) that emerge spontaneously into our awareness”. In contemporary culture, a time of “information overload, the digitization of connections, and hegemonic knowledge”, our sensory perceptions are absolutely overwhelmed, perhaps to the point of numbness and refusal. If we are so consistently, relentlessly bombarded with images—indeed a hijacking of our imagination—how can we make space for anything else?

The ancient mind, Schrei shares, “fundamentally experiences the world differently than we do.” Those who had (or rather, have, more accurately, as there are still people who possess such minds) the ancient mind “had access to a vision space”, “a deeper, intuitive creative visionary world that lives parallel, above, or overlapping our world”. The words “vision space” allude to the idea that the imagination is not just a different, alternative, fantastical world—it’s a very real sensory experience. In parts of the world today where massive cultural fractures (through which art, spirituality and science are isolated from each other) did not happen, “we can glimpse what it is like when the imaginative state remains central to a society, even as it develops socially, politically, and scientifically.” Imaginative practice plays a “central role in the traditions of South Asia”, Schrei says, citing the region as one part of the world today in which access to this mystic state of the imagination is still within current and recent memory.

In ancient Tamil and Sanskrit, the word “imagination” denotes something more real than mundane reality. “Imagining was a direct bridge, a funneling from the confused world of day-to-day thought, to the shimmering crystal-clarity of the one universal consciousness.”

The reality of this sensory perception can perhaps be best understood through the work of Henry Corbin, a twentieth-century French theologian and philosopher who wrote extensively about these ideas in the context of Islamic Sufi traditions. In 1972, Corbin had already realised the modern Western reader needed to be shaken out of their minds to see this different plane. He wrote that the Western reader “has to be roused from his old engrained way of thinking in order to awaken him to another order of things.” That within the Western, English-speaking world, the term “imaginary” had come to unfortunately equate to “unreal”, “something that is outside the framework of being and existing”.

Corbin coined the term mundus imaginalis, which he intended to encapsulate this: “a world that is ontologically as real as the world of the senses and that of the intellect. This world requires its own faculty of perception, namely, imaginative power, a faculty with a cognitive function, a noetic value which is as real as that of sense perception or intellectual intuition.” For Corbin this world exists between the empirical and the abstract intellect, both intermediary and intermediate, “described by our authors as the ‘alam al-mithal’, the world of the image”. Corbin was not merely theorising nor philosophising: he was describing something that for him was very real.

The forms and figures of the mundus imaginalis “had indeed extension and dimension, an "immaterial" materiality compared to the sensible world, but that they also had a corporality and spaciality of their own.” Because of this it was not possible that this was the product of one mind, and because it was impossible that they were unreal, the existence of this world “became a metaphysical necessity”. The question then was, as it is today, how do we access the mundus imaginalis?

“What is this organ capable of producing a movement that constitutes a return ab extra ad intra (from the outside to the inside), a topographical inversion? It is not the senses or the faculties of the physical organism, much less is it pure intellect. Rather, it is the intermediary power which has a mediating role par excellence, i.e., active imagination.”

Henry Corbin, “Mundus imaginalis or the imaginary and the imaginal”

How do we tap into what Corbin called “the psycho-spiritual senses”? He expressed that the world communicates to us through image, but not through the passive form of imaging that we associate with daydreaming, or dreaming in our sleep (though Corbin was deeply influenced by and influenced Jung); rather it required an active form of imaging. In a world where much of the images in our modern minds are determined for us, developed by new forms of technology to be incredibly vivid, we must learn to lean into a different kind of imaging for ourselves, while understanding that it is nothing new, just something we have forgotten, and forgotten how to retrieve and listen to…


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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