Imagination & the Sacred

I just returned from two weeks away at some marvelous events.  Some of you may have heard of The Great Mother conference which has been put on my American poet and catalyst for the conscious men’s movement Robert Bly.  Bly is quite a man and a terrific poet with great depth and heart. This conference which has been going for 34 years is a real treasure for anyone who loves poetry, as I do.

I went to put some new fire under my poetry writing, which has proceeded sporadically over the last 15 years.  I love to write and have come to appreciate with even greater clarity the absolute importance of enlivening the imaginative soul; for it is in honing our sensitivities for beauty in all its forms that we gain a consciousness supple enough to feel deeply into the nature of things. 

I have a vivid image of Thursday night at the conference with the meeting hall full and on stage was Robert Bly, Rumi translator and poet Coleman Barks, sitar player David Whetstone, table player Marcus Wise and cellist David Darling. The musicians were playing incredibly inspired refrains as Robert and Coleman read or recited from memory one poem after another for almost two hours. 

I dare say I was drunk with spirit–certainly reflecting the tenor of the ecstatic poets being read–like Hafez and Rumi.  During the week I felt myself becoming so saturated with heart that I had to take off and visit nearby Damriscotta for a respite. Such is the way it is for those of us living on planet Earth in the time/space Ken Wilber defines as flatland–a land devoid of the sacred and sense of soulful present. In other words, few of us are accustomed to the Presence of the divine, of deep soulfulness, since we live so much of the time on the surface.

There is no doubt in my mind that we cannot have the world we want without a culture of inwardness that honors the human imagination and its capacity to access the divine in all its forms. God and the sacred world are not reached through rational, linear thought. Faith is not an act of will or determination-those are moral attributes–but comes from the courage to imagine the unseen. Knowing without knowing, our heart becomes the fertile soil for for the upwelling of deep spiritual feeling in which lies a “sense” that “something out there” exists beyond my complete understanding.

As we enter stillness, and feel into the nothingness of pure consciousness itself, we sense sense some part of ourselves so vast and beyond self and, curiously, at the same time so intimately ourselves. “Tell them that “I am” sent you” was God’s revelation to Moses when Moses asked at the burning bush how he should describe to the Israelites the God of heaven and earth. God was revealing the God in Moses to himself, and that revelation requires an exquisite sensitivity to the soil of the soul.

That’s why Moses was asked to remove his sandals for the “ground on which you stand is holy ground.” We remove the deadness from our souls when we unburden our feeling nature with the everyday cares of this life, and let our hearts soar into the beauty and truth of the moment, however that arises.

Where is the burning bush in our lives? It rests in the capacity of the heart to perceive imaginatively, like what happened to me one night at 3am when I was living in Bellingham Washington. The year was, I think, 1979 and I had just had the year before a spiritual awakening. I was looking out our window at Bellingham Bay and noticed how bright the moon shimmered on the water. Genesis came to mind: “And the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the deep.”  Why I held that phrase that moment as a possible literal truth, I don’t know, but it occurred to me briefly that the Holy Spirit was, in fact, out there on the water, reflected in the moonlight that evening.

Then, all of a sudden the Spirit hovering over the water came right into the living room, and I felt a most tangible and powerful, numinous presence about two feet to my left and in front of me–so powerful, in fact, that I literally fell to my knees sobbing like a baby. When I regained a measure of composure, I found myself wondering “What is this,” shortly after which I heard an inner voice–not my voice say: “I’m here,” and then ” I love you.”

This was none other than the presence of Christ Himself, and that presence has stayed with me until today. 

Did I make this up?  Is this just a case of overactive imagination? Am I, and people like me, crazy for thinking we can communicate with a divine presence? To all these typically skeptical questions I would say “Yes and No.” Yes, I did use my imagination but not in a way we think of as “making up.” It’s more like I was willing to entertain a notion, to make my intuitive capacity available to experience something beyond what we can touch and see. And in that receptive mood, my senses were able to take my mind by the hand, so to speak, and say “Come with us to this place and see for yourself,” not with an actual seeing or hearing, but with an even more powerful perception of our inner being–so that we “know that we know” beyond rational causes. 

To me, this is the heart of the creative process and explains the redemptive power of the arts, to lift us off the material plane and help us enter into the presence of the sacred in which we are able to enter eternal truths and sense the connectedness of all things.  It is from this place that the world becomes whole in our being, and we start to walk with greater dignity and reverence for life. 


The Practice of Mindful Stillness

 Do you have a way to  become quiet within yourself each day? During the day do you let that stillness remind you to be mindful or observant of your thoughts and feelings as you live life? If you do, then you’re taking some good steps on the path to awakening. If not, you may be more troubled and bound up than necessary with the the incessant nature of your thoughts and feelings, unable to easily get enough distance from them to simply rest in the goodness of your own inner being. 

The mind can be a wonderful tool when it is made subject to the heart, our awakening being. For most people, however,  much of the time their minds run out of control. A stream of thoughts and feelings runs so far in the background that they are not even aware how much thinking process goes own outside of awareness. It is this undisciplined thinking–what the Buddhists call “monkey mind”–that causes personal, and ultimately family, community and world suffering. The only way to tame “monkey mind” is to notice it, and in so doing to achieve enough distance from thoughts and feelings that they begin to lessen their grip and no longer run our lives. It’s the difference between you having your thoughts and feelings or them having you. 

Eckert Tolle in A New Earth   has given us an excellent description of this suffering saying that most people’s identity is derived from the contents of their minds and emotions, and not the essential nature of mind which is pure, content-less awareness. Mental and emotional contents form the basis of our identities, the ego or small self. We humans form our identities, likes, dislikes, values, fears and prejudices based on culture, family, personal experience. Our Identities and personal experience of reality on a day-to-day basis remains fairly predictable within a certain range of experience, unless significant change or stress upsets our equilibrium. It is during these periods of stress–and sometimes trauma–when transformation is possible. Otherwise, without some sort of discomfort and unhappiness, we are more likely to remain “fat and happy,” as the saying goes.

The scientific term for this state of balance is homeostasis which is found in all biological systems and is necessary for the continuance of life. Just imagine how counterproductive constant turmoil would be! So, the status quo has its purpose so that trees can get rooted and grow, for example. But in the human realm, the mindset of humanity that has served us through the millenia up until now is precisely what must transform for the species to enjoy a generative future. We’re at a turning point in human consciousness, and all of us are feeling the stress of the world unraveling. We’re being pushed into disequilibrium, toward change.

In my personal life I cannot imagine how I would cope with the busy-ness and stresses I feel each day unless I had some kind of way to ground, be quiet and reflect. This has now become so routine in my life that when I travel I have to work extra hard to keep my balance. 

Many people I know have some way to stay physically or emotionally and spiritually healthy, but that is not the norm in American and other industrial societies. Health reports show us to be increasingly overweight, unhappy with our work, stressed, in conflicted relationships, socially isolated, disenchanted with our institutions and political leadership, not well connected to our communities and living with a feeling that our lives our absent purpose.

This is the time in history for personal responsibility–to realize that we make our own world through how we think. The truth of that statement would be recognized by many people today. But understanding and doing are two different things. You can know what to do that is good for you, but if you are not disciplined enough to put your knowledge into practice, you’re just on  a head trip. Buddha, Christ and all the great spiritual guides make similar points in their teaching.  You won’t really know the path unless you walk it. The wisdom that liberates the mind comes from experience, not books or simple hearing of the truth.

Lao Tzu said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.” But what keeps us from really committing to that first step?

Here’s some common excuses I’ve heard from many people, including myself from time to time.

  • “I’m so busy, I just can’t seem to find the time.” 
The busiest people always find time for the things they feel are important. So this is a question of beliefs. What if I told you that cultivating stillness in your life was simply THE MOST IMPORTANT THING you could do for yourself and the world? And what if you really believed that? Consider, then, your thoughts about how important caring for your heart and mind are. 
  • “When I take time to be quiet, something always interrupts me.”
At first, there will always seem to be something that gets in the way of being quiet. It may be your children, your spouse or a neighbor making noise, or (more likely) your own rampant thoughts. You’ll need a certain amount of determination to find or make your own space where there can be relative quiet. Also, don’t trip yourself up with thinking the environment has to be without sound altogether for you to get quiet inwardly. It’s possible to have even a deep interior experience when sounds are present, as long as you don’t fixate on the sounds and wish they were not there. The wanting something to be different than it is causes subtle resistance in the mind which is the basis for stress.
  • “When I take time out to be still, nothing happens and I wonder if this is doing any good at all.”
That’s just the point. Nothing is supposed to happen. People with this thought often come to stillness with an agenda that something ought to be happening. They want an immediate payback or proof that taking a time out for themselves is going to be worthwhile. This shows doubt and impatience. If you have similar concerns, simply note them in your mind “Oh, I seem to be impatient,” or ” I notice I’m doubting that this will work,” and then just carry on anyway. The minute you become aware of these states of mind, they begin to lose their power over you.
  • “It’s great to take time out, but I often feel guilty that I should be doing more.”
If you’re driven to be active and doing most of the time, do a check up on your sense of worthiness. Many women I know suffer from low self-esteem where the only way they got recognition for their worth was through what they could do for others. Love conditioned upon what one does for others is no love at all, but a form of manipulation and control. Recognize that false love and the false doing for what it really is.