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The Creative Imagination

February 22, 2014
Dawn TierraVida 825KB

Photograph by Michael Roberts

In this blog entry, prompted by conversations with my fellow dieteros on the ten day dieta I have recently finished, I want to try and weave together a number of threads arising from previous posts.

One of the joys of a dieta is the companionship of others on a similar path though one (or at least in this case ‘me’) has to be careful of not getting overly distracted by the possibilities for social interaction. Traditionally in Shipibo medicine, dietas were done alone, isolated in the deep jungle, to facilitate contact with the spirit of the plant that was being dieted. Some people now talk of ‘modern’ dietas, which cater to the needs of people to be able to carry on their lives whilst simultaneously dieting a plant or plants.

In this dieta, because of work commitments in Pucallpa and the fact that I was previously away for seven weeks in Mexico, I needed to be able to work whilst simultaneously doing the dieta.

Practically, this meant that over the ten day period I came and went from where I live in Yarina to the dieta center where the ceremonies were held every other night. This involved a beautiful boat ride across the laguna at Yarinacocha just as the sun began to set.

On the boat one day, I was talking to a friend who is familiar with Tibetan Buddhism. He told me something that Chogyam Trungpa, the unconventional, highly controversial Buddhist meditation master and exponent of “crazy wisdom teaching style” had said:

“Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment.”

This remark really tickles me. It is pithy, wise, humorous and seemingly paradoxical.  (Another quote I also like from him is that: “Enlightenment is better than Disneyland.”)

His first remark reminds me of Jung’s great saying:

“Every victory for the Self is a defeat for the ego”

Our ego (and later I will consider what I understand by the ego) usually has all kinds of expectations of and demands about what La Madre Ayahausca might give us. Of course La Madre is smart enough to continually confound these expectations. They are usually deeply limiting and/or grandiose.

For example, I often hope that I might have some huge experience of shamanic initiation such as those I have read about that last hours and that involve dismemberment, death and reconstruction. In fact, the only experience I have ever had in three years of drinking ayahuasca in which anything approaching initiation happened was over in a blink of an eye before my mind could catch on to it.

Shipibo artwork

Likewise, I am always hoping to see the wonderfully intricate, brightly colored, patterned designs that the Shipibo use in their artwork and which represent the icaros (the healing songs) the Shipibo Maestros and Maestras sing. Each ceremony I think maybe this time I will see something and each ceremony something different happens.

The ego is a cunning beast. His (and I always think of him as a masculine presence) primary orientation is towards control, being able to plan and predict what happens. In many situations, such as getting up in the morning, planning a journey or getting married, this is a useful and necessary ability. Part of the frustration and at times delight of working here with the Shipibos, as I wrote about before, is that they have not been fully conditioned into rational, linear, ego-reinforcing, means-end thinking – though Peruvian national education is doing its best (and largely failing) to indoctrinate them.

One of the most useful, far-reaching and lucid accounts of the ego and its functioning can be found in Iain McGilchrist’s masterwork, ‘The Master and the Emissary’. In his view, at a collective and individual level, in the current historical moment, the ego has now usurped control of the wider psyche, and has become the Master rather than the servant.

I see a strong parallel here in the way that my ego seeks to colonize the experiences I have had with La Madre Ayahuasca. This illustrates the well-known warning that the greatest danger on any spiritual path is pride.

“Humility is a strange thing. The minute you think you’ve got it, you’ve lost it.” (E. D. Hulse)

McGilchrist’s work is very helpful in defining the ego as a way of perceiving, and therefore of being, primarily evoked by the left side of the brain, which is focused on survival and self-interest and whose tools are literalistic language, linear thinking and logic.

His work argues passionately for the importance of the other way of being evoked by the right side of the brain which he sees as primary, pre-conceptual, (in the language of the phenomenologists “returning to the things themselves” rather than our conceptions of them), seeing things in wholes, and profoundly connected with music and creativity.

He believes the right brain’s way of being has not just been dangerously devalued in our  culture as a whole but also by mainstream neuroscience which shares the dominant cultural paradigm and tends to regard the right brain as primitive.

I would rather call this mode of being indigenous.

As writers like Martin Prechtel and Jay Griffiths have pointed out, the West is in danger of losing its indigenous soul and its juicy, sensuous connection with the wild soul of the world.

La Madre Ayahuasca, if she does nothing else (and she usually does a great deal more) takes us beyond the limitations of our ego/left brain (to describe it in shorthand). But where do we go? That is the sixty four thousand dollar question.

We certainly each go to very unique places. If you participate in an ayahausca ceremony with a number of people, the range of experiences embodied in each person is extraordinary. Compare that with drinking alcohol which bludgeons and numbs people to a kind of lower common denominator or what others of a more ‘new-age’ inclination call a “low vibration”. We really are distinctive but interconnected universes.

For me, these individual universes are imaginative worlds. By using the word ‘imaginative’,  I don’t mean purely subjective and imaginary in the sense of fantastical or illusory (as much of mainstream psychology characterizes the imagination) but something much more fundamental along the lines of what Henri Corbin, the brilliant scholar of Islamic mysticism, refers to by the Latin term “mundus imaginalis” – the ‘imaginal’ rather than imaginary world.

For Corbin, as for Jung, imagination is the primary activity of the psyche. Jung said “image is psyche”. This does not mean that images are necessarily literally pictorial, visual representations. James Hillman says that imagination as understood this way is a perspective, the soul’s mode of experiencing.

Islamic archAs I understand Corbin, this world of the imaginal exists between the human, earthly, sensory world and the divine, spiritual world. Each of us mediates the divine world in our own unique way through our imaginative or soul capacity.

The divine pours itself into us but we experience that in an inexhaustible myriad of ways, always different for each person and for the same person at different times.

As Heraclitus said:

You could not discover the limits of soul, even if you traveled by every path in order to do so; such is the depth of its meaning.”

All of this, of course, is a wonderful counter to any religious dogmatism which seeks to impose on people a predetermined, officially sanctioned way of experiencing the divine.

I find this perspective very helpful in understanding the whole area of what in the ayahuasca world is called ‘visions’. What I understand as visions is not some direct channeling (or downloading) of some kind of universal, transcendental, timeless, singular truth but La Madre Ayahausca helping us activate the imaginative capacity of our souls. We are engaged in a co-creation or dance with the divine – not simply receiving it as a given – in which the divine creates itself within us and we help the divine take form.

Leonard Cohen describes this reciprocity beautifully in the lines of one of his songs:

“I forget to pray for the angels and then the angels forget to pray for us.”

This discussion brings us onto the difficult, complicated ground of soul and spirit. The most illuminating way I have discovered of differentiating these terms is in the work of James Hillman. His life’s work is a rigorous defense of soul against the dual encroachments of materialism and the spirit.

For Hillman, soul moves us towards the depths and the wooded valleys, whilst spirit wants us to climb mountains. Soul attaches us to this world, to our entanglements and our messy lives. Spirit looks for transcendence and to soar to the heavens. Soul enables us to turn events into experiences. Soul is deeply connected to death. Soul is polytheistic and multi-vocal whilst spirit tends towards monotheism and unity.

Soul involves us in the confrontation with our shadow. An over-emphasis on spirit risks fleeing from our personal pain and the pain of the world – a process that John Welwood first called spiritual bypass, an idea,which has been developed in the work of Robert Augustus Masters.

Ultimately, of course, these distinctions – as any attempt to pin down what happens in the crucible of the encounter with La Madre Ayahuasca – fade and no longer hold.

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