kabirExcerpted from The Knowing Heart, A Sufi Path of Transformation

The greatest truths and aspirations are perpetually at risk of being subverted from their highest possibilities. We see tendencies arising these days which are rationalized through a spiritual rhetoric yet lack a spiritual center and which therefore are at the mercy of distortion by the ego and its narcissistic demands. This is especially true when there is any opportunism, any possibility of telling the ego what it wants to hear, rather than telling the Truth. These can take the form of celebrity spirituality, quantum affluence, psychological polytheism, mythological paganism, mystical eroticism, ego-empowerment, get-what-you-want-mysticism. Each in subtle and not so subtle ways misplaces the center, and is therefore out of balance.

So many new beginnings have come and gone, leaving behind a trail of disillusionment and pain. Well intentioned efforts are always in danger of narrowly missing their mark and continuing on a deviated trajectory. Small errors of judgment and metaphysical principles become the two-fold and three-fold compounding of errors.

Our post-modern world has seen a profound disillusionment with the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition, as well as with the scientific materialism that largely superseded it. This disillusionment has become so thorough among some people that we are seeing a reaction against these world-views in the name of the “new.” At the root of this reaction may be a wish to restore a lost wholeness, to heal a deep division within the psyche.

While reactions against religions which have abandoned their own wisdom tradition or against a science which could not respond to the needs of the soul are understandable, and to some extent justifiable, the reaction is in danger of being so extreme and unbalanced that it denies what has been known and practiced by authentic wisdom traditions for countless centuries. If Western culture has been ill, then psychological polytheism and other regressive cultural currents are not the remedy, but signs of a hypersensitive immune system, or, in other words, an allergic response.

Perhaps the most important contribution that any authentic wisdom tradition can make is that of establishing the quality of discernment based on clear spiritual criteria. This metaphysical clarity can be a spiritual compass in our ever-changing cultural environment, and can lead us beyond metaphysics to a deepening experience of the inward reality of the human being.

Considering the waves of invented spiritualities and pop psychologies which besiege us, I feel it is appropriate that some of their tendencies be made more explicit and seen in the light of traditional spirituality and the monotheistic perspective. In some important respects, many of these self-applied remedies further the illness. I approach these issues neither in the name of a “monolithic monotheism” nor any form of “orthodoxy,” but from a wish to do justice to and preserve the attainments of those whose exploration of the Divine Imagination has not been in vain.

Within the broadly tolerant culture of our time, few people seem to have much passion or conviction about metaphysical principles. If the Prince of Darkness himself were to offer a workshop at one of today’s growth centers, there would very likely be any number of people who would give him a fair hearing and perhaps find quite a few ideas to agree with, before going on to the next lecture or workshop. This willingness to consider anything is one of the naive virtues of our time, but if this openness does not lead to some developing certainty based on inner knowing, we are lost in the shifting sands of conjecture.

Often, the new spiritualities appear on the scene as if humankind had never faced the essential problems of human existence before. I do not wish to demonize these approaches or their proponents, but I believe truth and error sometimes stand very close together. Eventually, however, truth does stand out from falsehood, although we may have wasted precious time and resources for not having discerned one from the other earlier.

The Imaginal Power of the Soul

It is a common enough notion that modern humanity is suffering from a loss of soul which can be traced to the quantification and intellectualization of reality.

The development of soul depends on our understanding of what the soul is and what its possibilities are. What has to be restored is the presence of soul and its imaginative powers, but souls can be sick or healthy; souls can be created in this “vale of soul-making,” and souls can also be lost.

The prevailing Western culture, especially of the last century or so, has recognized only two forms of knowledge: the concrete/sensory and the abstract/conceptual. We have sense impressions and we have ideas. The proposition “Wheresoever you look, there is the Face of God” would be viewed as neither a statement of sensory fact, nor as a valid hypothesis deduced from sensory experience, but as a statement of the religious imagination. According to our cultural prejudices, whether the statement is inspiring or entertaining, it is imaginary, and what is imaginary is not real.

That existence can be imagined to be the “Face of God” signifies a way of perceiving which depends on a psycho-spiritual power which has more or less atrophied in modern humans. We have to rediscover it in order to know the value of the knowledge it offers. This psycho-spiritual power has been called the Active Imagination and its field of perception is neither the world of abstract impersonal concepts nor the world of sensory data, but the imaginal world (mundus imaginalis in Latin, or alami mithal in Arabic).

This “active imagination” is a term used by classical Sufis who represented a metaphysics of pure monotheism in which only God, i.e. the Self, is real, while the “I” that separates itself from this unified reality is unreal.

The mundus imaginalis is a level of reality in which “meanings” are embodied as images which have a kind of autonomous existence. The alami mithal is an “interworld” in which visions, which are simultaneously meanings, are experienced by a psycho-spiritual faculty, the active imagination, or what Sufis would simply call the “heart.” It is important to realize that this level of perception was reliably available only to those souls which were to some extent “purified.” In its mature functioning it was certainly not a conceptual, intellectual, or merely symbolic experience, but a visionary one of the kind that many Western psycho-spiritual explorers touch only rarely in their life , but which is the natural medium of mature mystics. It is not uncommon for a Sufi to ask another, “Did it happen in the tangible world or in meaning (mana).” Whether the experience of the active imagination is in a “dream” or in wakefulness it has the quality of profound significance.

For some, whom I will call the psychological polytheists, the mundus imaginalis is the playground of “the gods.” They have appropriated the concept of the interworld for very limited purposes. The mundus imaginalis is not to be unlocked by either fantasy or intellect, but by the purified heart, understood here as a subtle but penetrating cognitive faculty of mind beyond intellect.

When it is proposed that modern man has lost his soul, one meaning is that we have lost our ability to perceive through the Active Imagination which operates in an intermediate world, an interworld between the senses and the world of ideas. This Active Imagination is the imaginative, perceptive faculty of the soul, which cannot be explained because it is itself the revealer of meaning and significance. The Active Imagination does not produce some arbitrary concept standing between us and ‘reality,’ but functions directly as an organ of perception and knowledge just as real as–if not more real than–the sense organs. And its property will be that of transmuting and raising sensory data to the purity of the subtle, spiritual world. Through the Active Imagination the things and beings of the earth will be made incandescent. This imagination does not construct something unreal, it unveils the hidden reality. It helps to return the facts of this world to their spiritual significance, to see beyond the apparent and to manifest the hidden.

The function of this power of the soul is in restoring a space that sacralizes the ephemeral, earthly state of being. It unites the earthly manifestation with its counterpart on the imaginal level, and raises it to incandescence. Isn’t this what is sought by most of those who are drawn to paganism, mythologies, and mystical eroticism?

Reinventing the Soul

One of the ideas that has gained some currency is a reinvention of the meaning of “soul.” Soul has commonly meant one’s essential, spiritual identity, one’s deepest self. Yet according to this reinvented view, soul is somehow contrasted with or opposed to Spirit.

In some forms of this view the soul has become a catch all term for deep, moist, feminine, imagistic energies that love to taunt, distract, and otherwise harass the rigid, self serious ego and the well-meaning, but rather dry and all-too-highbrow spirit. Yet this “soul,” at the same time, is also understood as the key to meaning, love, religious concern. Sometimes it seems that all that is left over for poor old spirit is but an impersonal bird’s eye view of all the messy stuff of life.

It is difficult to argue with concepts and categories that are often amorphous and self-contradictory. Is the matter of soul so beyond definition, beyond principles, that we can only make poetic lunges at meaning which lead to no particular conclusion? It may be that soul cannot be confined by anyone’s definitions and is fundamentally a mystery. Nevertheless, the idea of “soul” has a history within Western spiritual tradition.

The Neoplatonic heritage to which most Western spiritual thinkers must trace their idea of soul, can be read very differently. According to Plotinus, for instance, the human “soul” was originally free and super-sensuous, but turned its gaze earthward and bodyward and so fell into this earthly existence. Having lost its original freedom, its fulfillment will consist in “remembering” its condition prior to this involvement with flesh and material. The true self which consists oflogos and nous, pure knowing and reflection, later became obscured or veiled by the animal appetites and the desire to fashion material. As a preparation for visionary contemplation, this true soul must first go beyond the conceptualizations of the philosophers, and then must purify itself of the contamination of the body and its sensuality. Even this, however, is not the final stage. Union with the Divine can only be known through ecstasy, namely when the soul is taken out of itself and reaches identity with. . . Spirit.

It is not among the realized saints of Spirit that we find dryness and denial of the earthly, but among the “pharisees,” and certain academics and religious professionals. The saints by contrast are the first to meet the salt of the earth on their own terms. This is what Spirit does, in addition to lifting the human being up. It is not Spirit which denies the validity of earthly existence, both its pleasures and suffering, but that indulgent hedonism, which is more likely to be the outcome of psychological polytheism’s Fellini-esque concept of soulfullness. Psychological polytheism conceives the psyche’s basic structure to be an inscape of personified images. Through the lack of a true center, it diminishes and trivializes the human soul by reducing it to the terms and level of the social disease of our time: psychic fragmentation. Mysticism would propose that this is not the psyche’s basic structure or nature, but only a superficial layer of the psyche. Beyond this psychological menagerie lies a deeper selfhood which alone can give order and meaning to life.

Doesn’t it strike anyone as strange that the psyche should be composed of an inner pantheon of ancient literary creations, as if such a pantheon were an objective personification of the human psyche? Why select one mythology out of all the world’s many mythologies and give it central importance, especially considering that it was probably supplanted many times over by later “myths” that were more alive and of much wider application The return to mythology is a narrowing of our consciousness on an archaic and idiosyncratic soap opera, which is not to say that some human psychological truth can’t be found in it. But just because the human psyche creates characters does not necessarily mean that the human psyche is determined by the characters it created.

Yet a pure monotheism need not be monolithic nor abstract. Zoroastrian monotheism had its angels: an angel of the earth, angels of the mineral and vegetable worlds, an angel of feminine wisdom, an angelic counterpart for each human soul. Islam, the matrix within which ecstatic Sufism arose, has its Divine Attributes, which fall into the two categories of gentleness and rigor, intimacy and awe, hope and fear. Although Plotinus did not reject polytheism out of hand, he saw the “gods” as manifestations of the One Divine. Historically, however, his successors deviated further and further until their polytheism degenerated into superstition, magic, and theurgy, which are distractions from the One Spirit and Unity of all existence. Psychological polytheism could contribute to a similar degeneration.

What distinguishes psychological polytheism from monotheism is not its willingness to admit diversity; rather, it is that polytheism has no center. Polytheism is a not an uncommon state in the modern world, an unconscious and chaotic idolatry of appearances, a fragmentation and disintegration of the psyche, which is a living Hell. It is the state of the one whose identity is always shifting, a dissociation of voices and images absorbed from the mass media, an identity without integration. A comedian like Robin Williams, who can shift persona in mid-sentence, is an entertaining example of psychological fragmentation; at least he makes us laugh. Some would have us believe that we are nothing but a menagerie of animals and mythological figures, and that any integration around a center is a ploy and fantasy of the ego.

One of Jung’s contributions to our understanding of the psyche is the discovery of autonomous complexes (archetypes) that create drives and produce images and stories that seem to have lives of their own. These archetypes are relatively independent of the conscious ego and are sometimes opposed to it. Jung, however, believed in a central and essential archetype, the Self, which is the unifying principle of all other archetypes. For Jung, all archetypes were in service of the Self, and the end of conscious development is a harmony between ego and Self.

It is true that our greatest disease in this post-modern era is “the loss of soul,” but this is not necessarily because we have denied the image-making capacities of the psyche (our culture is dominated by images), nor because we have denied ourselves a soulful sensuality (we live in the era of unrepression), nor because we live at such a spiritually transcendent height; we have lost our soul, our interiority, within the artificial and unnatural conditions we have accepted as everyday life and within which it requires an extraordinary sense of purpose to sustain that interiority. We have set in motion forces which have their own oppressive momentum oblivious to the rhythms of the human soul. As a result, we have surrendered to compulsive and stressful living, and have seen our attention fragmented. More and more, these unnatural conditions have driven us toward more unconscious sensuality and materialism in a blind effort to grasp something real.

Psychic Fragmentation & Spiritual Minimalism

As we are pulled into the future, our developing technologies shrink time and space, while increasing information. More and more information and fantasy is available and it is available more easily and cheaply. Whether we gain access to this new world of fantasy, instant shopping, and pornography by cable in Atlanta or through a “satellite walla” in a Calcutta slum, old boundaries are dissolving and new “realities” are beckoning.

Satellite television, VCRs, computer networks are offering us a world of entertainment and distraction, most of it created and controlled by commercial producers whose main interest is to make profits. In traditional, pre-modern societies, culture developed out of whatever sacred framework the tribe or community shared. Such sacred frameworks were the repository of wisdom and experience and of the needs of the unconscious. Today’s mass culture is created by marketing departments who are seeking to hold people’s attention by any means possible, regardless of whether what is communicated affords any personal, social, or spiritual benefit.

Our subconscious dream life has now been exteriorized through the omnipresence of surrealistic images and sounds. It could also be proposed that the entertainment environment is degrading our subconscious psyche by indiscriminately, if not perversely, catering to our appetites and egoism.

We may be creating psychic ghettos in which a poverty of human values, an unemployment of creative powers, an overcrowding of inner space, lead to gratuitous violence, atrophy of will, and addiction to mind and heart numbing entertainment.

Just as the sociological ghetto is the outcome of our dark side of economic exploitation and social injustice, leading to the fragmentation of the family and community, so with the new psychic ghetto of inner world decay.

The perverse individualism we have accepted as normative is based not so much on the human being as the center of the universe, but on human egoism having usurped the wholeness of the human mind. Many human problems are rooted in the slavery of the human ego to a formless, unconscious, selfish search for individual pleasure which becomes increasingly a numbing addiction.

This tyranny of the ego is the direct result of the abandonment of the principles of transformation, sacred to all traditional wisdom cultures, involving sacrifice, love, presence, humility, and surrender to the Way of the Universe.

It may seem unfashionable, untimely, or politically incorrect to offer a prophetic voice at this time, but perhaps we need a reminder that many “civilizations” before us have perished through their own excesses, the loss of control of their own selves, their transgressions of common sense, harmony, and balance.

Not all choices and developments in an individual human life or in a society’s life are necessarily the healthy self-correcting, self-regulating powers that may sometimes be found in a healthy or nearly healthy psyche. Sometimes the unconscious (heart) has the power to guide, heal, and redirect the conscious (ego), but this exteriorized dream world we are living in may be the nightmare of a collective mental illness.

If so, what are our possibilities and choices? The conscious self can make certain decisions and choices which reflect upon the health, and, might we say, purity of the unconscious. In the past, these choices would have been informed by the collective wisdom of the culture, a wisdom which included such values as humility, self-respect, patience, sacrifice, and self-awareness. But then the culture might have been the product of some wisdom and not of mere marketing. Hearts need education and refinement just as the body needs exercise and moderation. While a large percentage of our planet’s population is malnourished, a large percentage of industrial culture is overfed and toxic. Likewise, to the extent that we do not incorporate some conscious principle of transformation, some uplifting agency, our souls are malnourished and toxic, our hearts are numb, and our wills are atrophied.

Perhaps what is called for at this time, more than anything else, is a spiritual minimalism, a reliance on the principle of less is more: less distraction, less cynicism, less entertainment, less pleasure seeking for its own sake, less indiscriminate consumption of information and fantasy, and more inner silence, more concentration upon our own nature and being, more unmediated sharing of each others simple human presence, more development of our innate human qualities of friendship, nurturing, awareness, sensitivity, humbleness, and awe.

The outer dream that surrounds us may be the manifestation of our own psychic fragmentation. It may be less an embodied vision than a broadcast, commercially sanctioned schizophrenia. When the heart has been awakened and refined, its dreams are freed from neurotic subjectivity and become more objective, symbolic, and inspired. These are obviously not the dreams our consumer culture is dreaming. It doesn’t take a brilliant observer to realize that the quality of our dreams has been becoming more morbid and perverse even in the relatively tiny span of recent decades. How will we wake from this disturbed sleep? Are these the symptoms of an illness that will finally be acknowledged? Where would we find the collective will to commit ourselves to our own recovery?

The Soul as Unifying Center, Presence, Interior Space

If there is a realm of soul it is this: presence, which is the attribute of the Self, the center of the being, and which as center can integrate all the levels of the human being. Presence is a faculty that operates at all levels of being and which also makes the mundus imaginalis intelligible, but only if we have “presence” on that level of refinement, which may only be achieved by not being dominated or ruled by sensual concerns–which is not the same as denying or repressing them.

The psychological polytheists often attack a caricature of spiritual work–which is not to say that such caricatures do not exist and thrive in the marketplace–which focuses on the transcendent at the expense of the immanent. It is true that there are pathologies of spiritual aspiration. But the realization of the spiritual is always allied with a realization of our own humanness in humility. It is the helplessness of our human situation, our weakness in relation to our subconscious complexes that lead us to surrender to the wholeness of the Self. While the unconscious may produce complexes which challenge the autonomy of the ego, the soul is precisely that unifying presence and interiority which experiences and reconciles our finite humanness and our spiritual transcendence. Both the ego and the unconscious complexes, on the one hand, and Spirit, on the other are held within the embrace of presence.

All true spiritual work is based on the unity of these different aspects of our being. An alternative to the conception of the human being proposed by psychological polytheism and other regressive pathways, and one more consistent with the highest wisdom traditions, would be the following model which is based on three essential factors combining to form a whole. The terms that must be used in English are, unfortunately, somewhat vague and imprecise. By defining our terms, however, we can give these terms a more exact meaning within the context of our studies.

1. The “ego” (or natural self, eros), a complex of psychological manifestations arising from the body and related to its survival. It has no limit to its desires, but it can supply the energy necessary to aspire toward completion, or individuation.

2. The “spirit” or “spiritual self” (essential self, essence,logosnous), the center which is capable of conscious reflection and higher reason and is in communication with the spiritual world. The essential self can help to guide the natural self, limit its desires to what is just and reasonable, and, more importantly, help it to see the fundamental desire behind all desires: the yearning to know our Source. It can help to establish presence on all levels of our being.

3. The “soul,” sometimes called “the heart” (including the psychic functions, active imagination, presence), and interior presence which includes the subconscious faculties of perception, memories, and complexes, and which can be under the influence of either the ego or the spiritual self. When we speak about involving ourselves “heart and soul” we are speaking about this aspect of ourselves. Living from the heart, having a pure heart refers to a deep condition of spiritualized passion. Losing one’s soul refers to a condition of having the soul dominated by material, sensual, and egoistic concerns. Such a “heart and soul” is veiled, dim, unconscious. The heart is the prize that the “animal self” and “spiritual self” struggle to win, but when it is dominated by the “animal self” it is not truly a heart at all.

4. The “individuality” (the result of the relationship of the other three). When the spiritual self has been able to harmonize with the natural self, and “heart and soul” have been purified, then the human being exists as a unified whole, fully responsive to the divine, creative will.

One way to conceive this model is as three successive layers. The outer layer is the “natural self” which contains the deeper level of “the soul” within which is contained “the spirit.” If the soul, as presence, is not in place, there cannot be a relationship between the natural self and spirit.

We are not the first people on earth to attempt to understand the human soul and its purpose in the universe, nor are we necessarily the best prepared or the most mature. The principles of the Way are neither so mysterious nor complex. Essentially the work means transforming the ego, the desire nature. Some religious traditions have proposed weakening the ego and the body in order to experience the spiritual self, but weakening ourselves is denying what we have been given. A more complete way is to strengthen the essential, spiritual self, purify the heart and bring ego and eros into harmony with it. Only a strong and healthy individuality can reach completion, or gnosis. The individuality needs strength and passion to reach spiritual completion.

Both the spiritual self and the body have their needs. The body needs to be cared for, nurtured, and trained, and exercised. It should not be allowed to dominate the heart. The more the animal side dominates, the more the heart is weighed down. The more the spiritual self predominates, the more lightness and spirituality we feel, the more our desires are in harmony with the Divine will. Such a person will be content with relatively little in the material world, whereas a person dominated by their ego’s desires will never have enough sex, pleasure, money, or power. All of existence is the manifestation of Spirit in a vastly colorful and real array. The soul and its imaginative power is that which experiences Spirit, unless, of course, it only experiences. . . the body and its emotions.

Psychological polytheism seems to overlook the degree to which the unconscious complexes may also be related to the ego. The ego, then, in a desperate attempt to assure its own survival at the expense of the wholeness of mind can produce unconscious complexes of nightmarish power. One suspects that what is sometimes meant by soul may be the deep voice of eros/ego, of hedonism, of narcissism, of simple indulgence.

Perhaps, real healing and real wholeness on the individual level is when we operate as a whole, when we are not in disabling conflict, emotionally or physically. On the spiritual level, health is realizing that we are integral to this universe, not a part of it, not a microcosm of it, but coextensive and consubstantial with the Whole, the true Center. The awakened soul is characterized by presence of heart. Through its purified imaginative powers the awakened soul raises the earthly and ephemeral facts to the level of spiritual incandescence. By virtue of its reconciling power it brings about a loving marriage between the natural self (ego/eros) and spirit.

The world is a place for fashioning the soul, in the sense that soul is not given to us automatically, despite our assumptions to the contrary. Our interiority, our presence must be created from within the distractions and forgetfulness of everyday outer life, from within the constant clash of pleasure and pain, happiness and loss. Our soul is a space for our experience; it makes the difference between being nominally alive and consciously alive. It makes a real connection possible between the ego and Spirit.