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‘Alone with the Alone’: Henry Corbin and Visionary Experience – Part Two

July 11, 2016

Whilst on my recent 14 day dieta with Don Ayahuma, I read the second 100 pages of Henri Corbin‘s book ‘Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi’. I previously wrote about the first 100 pages of this book here. In this earlier blog, I wanted to show that Corbin has much to offer in providing a detailed phenemonology of the visionary realm.

If Thomas Moore’s book ‘The Planets Within’, which was the other book I read on the dieta, (and which I wrote about in my last blog post), is subtle and complex, Corbin’s book is even more demanding on the reader. This is because Corbin is exploring, with great erudition, traditions within mystical Islam that have had relatively or little no impact within mainstream Western thought and are therefore unfamiliar to us.

Additionally, whilst the book is highly scholarly, (and full of terms such as christology, angelology, theophany etc., which are unfamiliar to the average reader but which have a precise meaning for Corbin), it is profoundly esoteric, which mirrors the tradition he is elucidating. You will not find a simple self-improvement manual here nor a seven-step path to achieving ecstatic union with the Godhead, which would be anathema to Corbin. In fact, his whole philosophy is arguing against a rational, wilful approach to spiritual experience.

As I commented in the previous blog, I reckon I again understood less than half of what I read, but what I could understand – and it was helpful to have time to read the book slowly – left me entranced and deeply reflective.

Alone with the Alone Book CoverThere is no way I could attempt a summary of the 100 pages I read, but I would like to offer some comments on particular themes that help contribute illuminating perspectives on my experience with La Madre Ayahuasca, which is the central theme of my writing – how do I as a highly (in conventional terms) educated, white, privileged, white Western man, from an agnostic family background, come to understand my experiences with La Madre Ayahuasca.

Some people, I would suspect, would argue that it is neither important nor necessary to understand these experiences – and perhaps it is not with everyone, as the medicine works with each of us in unique ways according to our aptitude and styles of being. I agree, too, that it is vital not to over-analyze and dissect these experiences in a classic left-brained manner.

I see the purpose of understanding our experiences as more akin to interpreting dreams.  Here, I want to follow Hillman’s lead by refusing to interpret dreams in a narrow, literalistic way that ‘shrinks’ the dream to a reductive explanation – be it classical Freudian wish-fulfilment theory or some overly simplistic Jungian schools in which each dream symbol has its pre-given meaning. Rather, we need to let the images from our dreams speak for themselves and, in so doing, allow them to deepen. Likewise, we need to contemplate the visions Madre Ayahuasca offers us by approaching them with imagination rather than analysis.

So what does Corbin offer us?

1. First of all, Corbin lays stress on a dialogical relationship between the Creator and the Created, the Worshipped and the Worshipper, the Beloved and the Lover. This last coupling is especially found within the Sufi tradition, notably Rumi and Ibn ‘Arabi, where it can take the form of a mystical, ecstatic union, which I understand is not inconceivable within Christianity, but certainly not within the Protestant Christianity I was exposed to as a child.

I have found this reciprocity in my experience with La Madre Ayahuasca and other plant spirits. As Leonard Cohen sang:

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

Corbin frequently quotes the Sufi text in which God says: “I was a hidden Treasure and yearned to be known”. Likewise, I think the plant spirits want to be known to themselves through us.

I hope this does not sound sacrilegious. I do not want to equate plant spirits with God, though, in more fanciful moments, I see them akin to the Catholic saints, offering us pathways to God, and mediating our relationship with the Creator God or, in the language of native American traditions, Great Spirit.

2. This brings me to my second theme, what Corbin calls ‘Divine Names’. He follows his beloved Sheikh, Ibn ‘Arabi, in outlining an idea – though clearly for him it is less an abstract idea than a lived reality – that each being has a divine name, bestowed upon it by the creator.

Since reading this book, I have realized that the idea of divine names is not so far from our own Western traditions. At a recent Thanksgiving Service for my grandson, one line of the prayers offered to God said:

“We thank you that we are known to you by name and loved by you from all eternity.”

Additionally, this idea of hidden names of people and objects, whose discovery can confer magical power, surfaces in the fantasy literature of Ursula le Guin in her ‘Earthsea’ novels and also in Patrick Rothfuss’ ‘The Name of the Wind’ – in which the most mysterious and feared teacher at the University is ‘The Namer.’

For Corbin, God brings the divine names into being through his breath, more specifically through a sigh. This is originated by God’s sadness, what Corbin calls pathos, his/her yearning to be known. Each of these divine names further manifests itself as a concrete being in material reality. However, this is not a linear sequence nor a one-off event, like the big bang. It is constantly recurring.

So, we have a God who suffers, who is lonely and years to be known, is sad, and who brings the world into being through compassion and love. What a different conception to the Christian God I distantly encountered as a child and later rejected, which, to caricature him somewhat, bellowed instructions from on high and seemed invested in making me feel guilty.

As far as I can see, and I may be wrong about this, the divine names would be similar to Platonic ideal forms, or even Jungian archetypes. I suspect this is a very crude comparison, though it helps me grasp what Corbin is pointing towards. The key point, however we conceptualize it, is that there is a hidden, invisible world beyond material reality, which is its manifest form. I would think nearly all people with a more than limited acquaintance with La Madre Ayahuasca, would concur with this.

Corbin says:

“The fundamental idea is this: visible, apparent, outward states, in short, phenomena, can never be the causes of other phenomena. The agent is the invisible, the immaterial. Compassion acts and determines, it cause things to be and to become like itself, becuse it is a spiritual state, and its mode of action has nothing to do with what we call physical causality; rather, as its very name indicates, its mode of action is sympatheia.”

Elsewhere in the book, Corbin puts out that the notion of causality he is grappling with is similar to Jung’s idea of synchronicity – an acausal connecting principle.


Corbin indicates that these divine names allow each being to praise and participate in their divine nature, and through that their creator, in their specific, individual way. He gives the beautiful example of the lotus, quoting from Proclus, the Greek Neoplatonist:

“The lotus manifests its affinity and sympathy with the sun. Before the appearance of the sun’s rays, its blossom is closed; it opens slowly at sunrise, unfolds as the sun rises to the zenith, and folds again and closes as the sun descends. What difference is there between the human manner of praising the sun by moving its mouth and lips, and that of the lotus which unfolds its petals? They are its lips and this is its natural hymn…………we should be aware that it is a hymn to its king, such as it is within the power of a plant to sing”

What a different poetic and imaginative way of describing the opening and closing of the lotus than the typical scientific explanation! And, importantly, no less valid!

Reading this book and contemplating its contents, I had some small epiphanic moments on my dieta. Once, I attentively watched the flapping of a butterfly’s wings when it was at reast on a wooden beam in the roof of the small traditional house (tambo) in which I was living. It did not seem too exaggerated to see this as form of prayer. Likewise, at a stretch, I could look at plants and see them, too, in their growth, as a way of glorifying both their own being and that of their creator.

  1. Sara permalink

    I was reading some pages of that book when I stayed at your house 🙂

  2. CosmicDrBii permalink

    A good friend wrote this to me in response to this blog in relation to a book called ‘Earth Beings’ by Peruvian anthropologist, Marisol de la Cadena:

    Here’s a tidbit that reminded me of both points you develop from Corbin, about dialogical relationships (reciprocity) and ‘divine names’:

    “Apparently, knowing-doing in Mariano and Nazario’s (the Andean shamanes Marisol ‘co-labors’ the book with) way requires first being able to identify the request an earth-being (a volcano for example) makes or imposes to establish a relationship with it, then willfully entering into that relationship and always steadfastly nurturing it. The relationship usually materializes in the form of a successful apprenticeship and eventual deployment of practices that can be broadly understood as healing (or damaging) and that include actors beyond the earth-being and the yachaq (shaman): other humans, animals, soils, and plants. …This kind of knowing-doing that Mariano and Nazario were famous for is a relation that both earth-beings and runakuna cultivate constantly, even when the practice (and the runakuna practitioner) travel to faraway places.” (p. 18)

  3. Jeffrey Backstrom permalink

    Haven’t taken on Corbin himself yet, but I found Tom Cheetham’s “All the World an Icon” to be an inspiring and comprehensible introduction. And, La Madre’s lessons are certainly relevant prep!

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  1. Earth Beings and Plant Spirits | Conversations with Don Machinga and Other Beings

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