‘Alone with the Alone’: Henry Corbin and Visionary Experience – Part 1
Nearly everyone drinking ayahuasca wants to have, and generally likes to have, visions – unless they are of hell. Certainly some of my most powerful moments with the medicine have been when I have been vouchsafed some form of revelatory vision, penetrating the veil of consensus-based reality that most of us slumber in.
However, as my good friend – who is a respected and very experienced Western medicine man with over fifteen years of experience of working with ayahuasca – says: “If people come to me looking for visions, I tell them to go elsewhere. The point is the cura.” What he is getting at is that within the particular tradition of Shipibo medicine that he has trained in (there are a number of different traditions even within one ethnic group like the Shipibo), the point is to heal people, not to give them a trip. This essentially involves processes of cleaning and purification. If visions happen to be a part of this, all well and good but they are not the principal aim.
Incidentally, I am hearing anecdotally that many less-than-scrupulous mestizo and indigenous shamans in the Amazon are deliberately adding other plants to the basic aya brew of the vine and chakruna to try to make sure the gringos have the visions they say they want. One commonly added plant is toé. This has a very dark energy and can be used by skilled and highly unscrupulous shamans to manipulate, abuse and harm people. Be warned. Its important to know where the ayahuasca you are drinking comes from, who made it, and how they made it.
On the ten-day dieta I have recently completed – with the powerful shamanic tree Ayahuma (also known as the cannonball tree) – I read the 100 page introduction to the book “Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ´Arabi” by Henry Corbin.
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was an intellectual giant. Apart from being Professor of Islam and Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Teheran, he was also deeply knowledgeable about esoteric philosophy, theology and modern European philosophy. He was the first French translator of Heidegger’s magnum opus ‘Being and Time’ – a book which has helped set the course for Western philosophy until the present time.
He was a significant figure at the famous interdisciplinary Eranos conferences at which C.J. Jung also played a major role. His work has helped provide the foundation for James Hillman’s archetypal psychology and has influenced the American literary critic Harold Bloom and many poets worldwide.
This book is not an easy read. Corbin is an expert in the field of Islamic Shi’Ite studies and the highly erudite text is punctuated with references to little known Sufi and Shi’ Ite writers as well as more well-known figures like Rumi. Despite the enormous scholarship that the book contains, this is no dry exposition. Although he does not mention his personal experiences, one feels that he is deeply familiar with the lived reality of what he writes about. As James Hillman said of him in the opening sentence of his magnificent little book, “The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World“, which acknowledges Hillman’s debt to Corbin:
“You who have been privileged at some time during his long life to have attended a lecture by Henry Corbin have been present at a manifestation of the thought of the heart. You have been witness to its creative imagination, its theophanic power of bringing the divine face into visibility.”
(Note: ‘Theophanic’ means ‘a manifestation or appearance of God or a god to a person’)
Putting aside the difficulties and unfamiliarities of the text, however, Corbin gives us a detailed and complete phenemonology of the visionary experience. He situates and understands these mystical experiences within the particular traditions of Shi ‘Ite Islam (mainly Sufism). For most of us, this is a foreign cultural reference point, but his ideas are hugely applicable to the experience with La Madre Ayahuasca.
(As an aside, this book, like all of Corbin’s work, is a helpful antidote to the prejudice and ignorance we have about Islam in the West. I consider myself an educated person but, apart from Rumi’s poetry, I had little idea of the spiritual passion, complexity of thought and richness of vision within Islam’s mystical currents.)
This is an inner organ of perception. He is careful – as were the English romantic poets – to differentiate imagination from fantasy, which is the typically degraded and depreciated way imagination has come to be seen in the West under the influence of its overly rationalistic culture.
For Corbin, like Jung and Hillman, imagination is the primary activity of the psyche.
I find the idea of the creative imagination enormously helpful in making sense of my visions with La Madre Ayahuasca.
Although I call them ‘visions’, my experiences are not usually highly visual. I’m always hoping to see colorful and detailed visions like an Alex Grey painting (and that, especially under Don Ayahuma’s influence, is starting to come) but usually my visions have relatively little visual detail.
‘See’ does seem the right word to use to describe what happens, but it is not at all like the normal external sense perception mode of seeing. It is more, as Corbin suggests, that something is revealed to me. This usually happens in an instant – I get a glimpse from another reality, which is vast, and the experience is over before my rational mind can intervene and get hold of it (which is a good thing!) What appears to happen is that I see a whole new Gestalt, all at once – what some people I think misleadingly call a ‘download’ – rather than a normal view of only the visible and tangible component parts of that reality. If only, though, I could stop my rational, more right-brained mind endlessly processing the experience afterwards, especially as the mareación starts to wear off. That must be part of the more advanced training – I’m still in the beginners class.
Another of Corbin’s key insights is that visionary experiences occur in a world that is intermediate between our normal sense perception world and what he calls “the universe that can be apprehended by pure intellectual perception (the universe of the Cherubic Intelligences)”. I think he is talking about what is called in different traditions: the ideal forms (Plato); non-duality (Eastern traditions); the world of pure spirit.
Corbin is very interested, to put it mildly, in this intermediate world, which he calls ‘the Imaginal World’ – he never uses the word ‘imaginary’ as it suggests this world is not real. He says this is: “the world of Idea-Images, of archetypal figures [like our visions of Madre Ayahuasca and other plant spirits], of subtile substances, of “immaterial matter”…where the spiritual takes body and the body becomes spiritual.” It is a world in which symbols show their inner meaning.
Corbin writes (p.13):
“This intermediate world is the realm where the conflict which split the Occident, the conflict between theology and philosophy, between faith and knowledge, between symbol and history, is resolved.”
The rules of this world are very different from the world as we normally experience it through our external senses. It is not spatially or rationally ordered, time is not linear, miracles can and do happen. (Interestingly, Freud was onto this as he realized that what happened in the psyche was eternal and outside the normal frame of linear time. Having understood this though, he went on to take a number of wrong terms). In this intermediate world, explanations linking facts together in historical cause and effect relationships do not hold. This, to me, is the world of our ayahuasca visions.
Perhaps, at this point, a personal example would be helpful. In the third ceremony of my recent dieta, an aboriginal woman appeared before me. She told me which tribe she was from and in which part of Australia the tribe live/lived. She showed me three sacred stones and asked me to take care of the stones. I think she said they were made of ‘emerite’ – afterwards I wondered if this might be ‘meteorite’.
I looked closely at the stones and visually examined their different sizes. They seemed concrete and substantial. I believe I even touched them. “Wow!” I thought. “These are real. They have materialized from another world and will be here in the morning”. The ego-related part of my mind thought: “How cool is that!” But, an hour or so later, when I looked down where I thought the stones were, they were gone. They continue to have their existence but not in this world.
This illustrates what I wrote before – I did not have a strong visual sense of the aboriginal woman – though I did of the stones. I could not recall her features. But she was definitely present to me in a way that I know was not a mere hallucination. I ‘saw’ her – and I saw there were other shadowy figures in the distance who were looking for homes for their sacred artefacts.
Later, I thought that she came to me because she knew that I am initiating a project to create a small cultural center/museum to compile and house aspects of traditional Shipibo culture, which can be available to children at intercultural Shipibo schools in the indigenous part of the city of Pucallpa. I now want to extend this project to include exhibits about other indigenous cultures, such as the Australian aborigines. I am extremely motivated to make this project happen. This is an example of how a vision can have a dramatic effect on our subsequent action in the world, rather than existing as a kind of hallucinatory bubble divorced from our everyday worlds.
Corbin further argues that this intermediary world, through which the divine is revealed to us, is unique for each of us. It is highly personal. We each receive and create what we have the capacity for. The God that is revealed to us is also the God that we help create.
To do this, we receive the help of an angel, who again is our unique, personal angel. In the words of the great poet/singer/songwriter, Leonard Cohen:
“I forget to pray to the angels,
And then the angels forget to pray for us.”
This is the authentic basis of what it really means to be an autonomous individual.
Corbin contrasts this kind of inner experience of the divine with orthodox religion, which sets out to guide people to an already pre-defined collective, religious experience. Without saying it so explicitly – though he gets close sometimes – Corbin provides a devastating critique of conventional religion. He sees it as concerned primarily with external or exoteric forms – the rules, the Law, the dogma, the outer rituals – but what to him is immensely more valuable is the inner or esoteric dimension of these external forms i.e. the dimension that is hidden and which is accessed through symbols.
He points out that many Islamic mystics, in common with mystics in other traditions, always risked persecution from ‘the Good Doctors of the Law’ because their experiences represent a threat to the established order and its regime of power. For this reason, the mystical traditions in Islam were careful to respect the external form of the religion. As Corbin says (p.45):
“They observed the precept “Do not strike at the face” – that is preserve the outer face of Islam, not only because it is the indispensable support of the symbols, but also because it is a safeguard against the tyranny of the ignorant.”
This did not stop a number of them, though, losing their lives. A good example is Suhrawardi – one of Corbin’s heroes – who was executed in Aleppo in 1191 by Salahaddin – known to us as Saladin in the European West from our history lessons about the Crusades.
I hope this is now enough to give a sense of the depth and richness of Corbin’s work. Really, I have only scraped the surface here. I can now understand why Tom Cheetham has written a series of four books all introducing Corbin’s ideas. These books, particularly the fourth one called ‘All the World an Icon: the Angelic Function of Beings’ are excellent.
Additionally, Steve Beyer has written a good blog about visionary experience which references Henri Corbin’s work.
PS (27/12/2014) I just found an amusing and well-written article by medicine hunter Chris Kilham called ‘Psychedelic La La Land – When Visions go Wrong’. See: http://www.medicinehunter.com/psychedelic-la-la-land-when-visions-go-wrong.
This is the key passage:
“Because here is the sober psychedelic fact of the matter. While some visions experienced in the throes of ayahuasca, peyote, mushrooms, San Pedro and other agents are in fact prescient, insightful, revelatory and wise, other visions are mere head salad. If you are going to journey with the aid of psychoactive substances, you must learn to discern the difference between manna from the gods and mental cole slaw. The former may set you on a new, luminous life path. The latter may send you down a rabbit hole.”