“When the World Is Sick, Can No One be Well?”: Imaginal Ecology In the Time of the virus part 2

8 When the world is sick….

“When the world is sick can no one be well? But I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong…” from  “God Bless Our Dead Marines” by Thee Silver Mt Zion

Storm, soil erosion, extinction,  wildfire, deluge, drought. Sometimes it seems as though nature itself is sick.  In the 60’s RD Laing spoke of the impossibility of being sane in a mad world.  He meant  “world” as a sphere of human interaction, whose madness revealed itself in institutionalised normalised acts of violence towards the insane.  The true madness he sought to describe in Sanity Madness and the Family and the Divided Self,  was how violence is internalised, inflicted on the self and considered normal.

How though, might we think now of world, with an eye that “world” was not and never can be only a sphere of human interactions and meanings?  Can we imagine an ecological reality itself in the throes of a kind of psychopathology?   How would we even start to imagine what it would mean if the world itself is sick?

Let’s begin with a description of the symptoms in the viruses country of origin. I want to do this, not to single China out. The pollution China has accrued, whilst the responsibility of its government,  reflects not just it, but the way that industrialised practices have outsourced their pollution to places they don’t have to live.

This viral swarm originates in China, which has beecome the world’s factory for the last 30 years. It has industrialised faster than any nation in history. Here are some quotes from a newspaper article about how China’s rapid industrialism has affected nature:

“More than half of China’s surface water is so polluted it cannot be treated to make it drinkable, the Economist reports, and one-quarter of it is so dangerous it can’t even be used for industrial purposes.”

“Following closely on the heels of deforestation and agricultural development is desertification, the destruction of vegetative land cover that results in a landscape defined by bare soil and rock. About 1 million square miles (2.6 million sq km) of China is now under desertification — that’s about one-quarter of the country’s total land surface, spread across 18 provinces, according to IPS News Agency.”

“In Shangba, a city in southern Guangdong province, the river that flows through town changes from white to a startling shade of orange because of varying types of industrial effluent, Reuters reports. Many of the river’s contaminants, like cadmium and zinc, are known to cause cancer.”

“All the fish died, even chickens and ducks that drank from the river died. If you put your leg in the water, you’ll get rashes and a terrible itch,” He Shuncai, a 34-year-old farmer from Shangba, told Reuters. “Last year alone, six people in our village died from cancer and they were in their 30s and 40s.”


China’s disregard for it’s own natural environment is far from unique to China. It’s disregard follows from what David Kidner calls the industralism. Industrialism is not just a set of practices, but also the dominant psychological approach to life. China, humiliated by the British Empire in the 19th century has slowly and surely been finding ways to regain power in the world. To do so it has adopted the same aggressive industrialism  that subjugated it.  This mindset is our mindset too.

After all, what fuelled this catastrophic expansion of Chinese industrialism? Who have been it’s willing customers? Do we see in the viruses aggressive mutations within our bodies and the way it’s image dominates our psyche a mirror of our own aggressive expansion into pristine wilderness, replicating our own selves and our own lifestyle? In it’s destructiveness do we see our own destructiveness, offset into parts of the world we don’t even have to see?

It doesn’t seem right to hold our hands up and say “we are the virus”  After all what our image of what a virus “is” has already been formed by the industrial mindset that has turned people off the land and into factories and cities, at the same time as it sought sanitation and medicine to heal them.

In Lagos, Nigeria, there are huge neighbourhoods packed with people where there are no birds singing, no space for any non human life, huge rubbish tips the size of a town. In Wales, the rivers are filled with slurry from the huge increase in cattle numbers. Insect populations have crashed worldwide. Water shortages, droughts, storms have increased driven by breakdown of previously stable weather patterns.

Chinese pollution is part of a pattern throughout the world. The mindset that allows this to happen is a form of pathology that does not recognise it’s own sickness and cannot find it’s own home.  It is one that does not recognise the Earth as alive, or if it does, sees it as less important that human life.

9 The Earth, including the Coranavirus, as alive

Descartes cut open dogs whilst they were alive in order to understand how their bodies worked. His dictum “I think therefore I am” acted as a validation of thought as a purely human phenomenon.  This prizing of human cognition as the heart of existence enabled him to believe dogs felt nothing at all, were automatons, were “less than human”. This may strike us a vile, yet we too find it hard to appreciate just how deeply we are perceived when we step into an ancient woodland, it’s soil a teeming yet structured mass of root, node, mycelia, fungus and microbe that have the complexity of neural networks.

The wood really does perceive us, it feels our touch. Yet when we reach for such ideas, we are often held back by the subtle ways that our thought are shaped and contrained by the industrialism we are born into.  As it shapes our thoughts we can’t ever see it quite clearly, just as an eye cannot see itself.   Kidner writes:

“Industrialism structures consciousness precisely to maintain it’s own partial invisibility, and we have more to gain from acknowledging this partial invisibility than from the pretence of a complete, rational understanding.” (David Kidner, Nature and Psyche p 8)

The main way that industrialism maintains this invisability is by continually re-inforcing the idea of an individual “in here” acting on a natural world “out there”  He writes:

“What is “within” ourselves and what exists “outside” is itself partly defined by the same industrialist patterning out of which the destruction of the natural world arises” (David Kidner Nature and Psyche. p 8)

The way viruses penetrate us undermines the idea of a split between an individual and it’s environment, reminds us there is a flow of matter in and out of the ecosytems of our bodies. Lynne Margulis writes of a strange moment at the imagined origins of life- that early life needed separation from it’s surrounding flux in order to become alive – the cell wall was probably  the beginning of life, just as the embryo is procted by the placenta.

It’s boundary defined the cell as separate  from the flux and began the processes that led to all the complexity of life on Earth.  Yet Margulis also depicts how our bodies are also symbionts, arrangements of organic structures into a working relationship.   Every boundary has some porous aspect; just as skin allows sweat out and sensation in.

In a similar way, psychological therapies seek to establish firm boundaries in order to help process and give shape to experiences. Yet  boundaries that are too rigid are as dangerous as no boundaries at all.  As a culture we have set up  thick moats of tarmac and concrete to separate us from nature. Despite our love of nature, our cities maintain boundaries of cement, weedkiller and industrial farmland  to raise back living growth, keep it immature and under control.  To a great extent our psyches remain protected by a fervent belief in human exceptionalism from the rest of nature.

10 Shame and Imagination

We may try,  like perhaps our ancestors, and many indigenous peoples, to imagine and dialogue with the images of archetypal figures that belong to the spirit of a place, the “genius loci.” However, the price we pay for this is either shame or inflation.  So long as imagination is seen as childish and unreal, and nature as inanimate, shame accompanies attempts to personify nature, to speak with it in a shared language.

Shame is an effective psychological barrier. We learn it early, and it makes like a fiery cage around our flesh. Yet those who work with images or make works of art, know that imagination cannot really be forced into existence. Images arises out of immersion in a particular situation. They too have an ecological function.  They allow us to dream, and create within this dream to participate in and create the dreaming of life through living the story of our lives.

The other danger, inflation comes when we lose ourselves comes from diving unreflectively into the images that animate us, of mistaking the great mystery for a personal secret, of forgetting the limits placed upon us by our bodies and matter. t

To imagine viruses as alive goes against the general grain of the formal scientific definition, which still classifies viruses as, like Descartes unfortunate dog,  not alive.  It does this to avoid the inflation of believing animals are just like us.  Anthropomorphism has becomes a sin within the dominant scientific paradigm and considered a kind of hubris.  Ironically, this reveals a new hubris, as by failing to acknowledge the ways we are similar to other organisms, materialism fails to recognise it’s own kinship spark in the life forms around us, and so places itself as the measure of all things.

11 Imagining animals versus anthropomorphism

Hillman tells us that personification is a keystone of the way imaginal perception works – imagination acts as if all things presented to it are alive. We have a poor understanding of imagination, which is why Hillman adopted the word “imaginal” to differentiate between acts of fancy and imaginal perception of the world. In imaginal perception, we consider it is “as if” certain things are alive – parts of the self, trees, weather, rocks, ecosystems.  And that this “as if” goes all the way down and also refers to us.

It is certainly not hard to consider viruses as alive. They multiply, mutate, organise their hosts behaviour and shape environments with their hosts to suit their needs. A virus is a skin with receptors, that surrounds a genetic code. They do not move on their own and they do not metabolise. They need to enter a host to replicate. Yet they enact a basic pattern of life. This pattern of endless mutation, replication, need to interpenetrate, and trickery reminds of the complexes of the psyche, which also mutate, regenerate, that also interpenetrate the soul sometimes bringing sickness sometimes health.

Let us not forget that the psyche which holds the key to  health and wisdom, also when mistreated can kill, and that epidemics of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation are also viral amongst us.  Shame too can suffocate and kill.

12 Viral archetypes

The psyche, a part of the living world can bring death or renew life.  Late in his life, Jung spoke of reality as “psychoid” and wrote:

“Since psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world, and moreover are in continuous contact with one another and ultimately rest on irrepresentable, transcendental factors, it is not only possible but fairly probable, even, that psyche and matter are two different aspects of one and the same thing.”

C.G. Jung, On the Nature of Psyche, in the Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 8, trans. R.F.C. Hull (London: Routledge, 1960, p. 213

What can we make of this statement?  What dynamic exist between what is happening in our collective psyche, and a coronavirus that emerges from the “margins” of nature?  The virus has certianly responsed to our own encroachment onto it’s territory.  This encroachment follows our own mass replication,  our hunger for growth, expansion and domination. Our ancestors desired descendants as multiple as the grains of sand, and this wish has been fulfilled.   Yet there has been a cost.   We have both threatened the animal hosts of viruses, and the living territory of the virus and it’s animal symbiont. In our trangression, and our multiplication we have offered ourselves as new hosts.

We are  faced by a virus whose main purpose is to replicate itself and multiply, with us as it’s environment. For us to become an environment to be exploited rather than an exploiter is a turning of the table.   It seems to point to a harsh reality, as if a return of the repressed has been enacted physically.  

However, for Jung, it is never reality we see, but an image of reality.  This image is not just interior abstracted reality, created by humans.  The image rather is a meeting place between self and world. Therefore,  an archetypal approach to this viral time would ask: What is the image of the virus?

Here we approach the pandeamonium of images that Hillman spoke of. For the image of the virus are as multiple as the virus itself – virus as threat to civilisation, virus as ecological mechanism, virus as metaphor for humanity, virus as dumb dead matter, virus as protean predator of the lung cells.  Virus as challenge for the omnipotence of science, tech and data.  Virus as the crown for the age to come.   Virus as confirmation that nothing will change.  Virus as revenege of Gaia, virus as a call for things to not go back to normal.  Virus as a reminder of the bravery and humanity of the ordinary, of the courage of nurses and doctors, of the necessity of care staff, shelf packers and cleaners.

Surely, we are in this liminal space, where all certainties and material of our present crisis have been shaken up and confused, like leaves on the bottom of a lake in a huge storm

Yet from this pandaemonium of images comes both whole and parts, the one and the many, integration and falling apart.

13 The Eyes of the Soul, the Imaginal Heart

“Human beings are integrated colonies of ameboid beings – just as ameboid beings…. are integrated colonies of bacteria. Like it or not, we come from slime” (Margulis: 115 What is Life?)

All psychology teaches us we are made of parts – most famously ego, id, superego for Freud.  Biology seems to confirm this; if our organs and bodies are ancestrally symbiotic, then how much more our psyches?  Stories are patterns composed of many characters, dreams have been thought of as representing parts of the psyche.

If the shadow of the virus touches us, either through tragedy in our personal life, or contemplation of the world it arises from, which part of us does it touch?

James Hillman and Stephen Harrod Buhner describe a form of perception latent in us, that we have forgotten or discredited. Both describe it as the perception through imagination, which they describe as a perception of the heart. Here we must take care, as the concept of heart and of imagination seem trapped in materialist confusion. 

Let’s consider this perceptual heart as an intelligent, animal heart. A heart that perceives by sensing it’s environment and in doing so generates a language of sensual, intelligent images of it.

Perhaps the heart is not so much a source of wisdom, as the place of the operation to find it; that, like the glass egg or alembic in alchemy the heart is the container that holds the operation, rather than the place we recieve final guidance from.  To say “follow your heart” suggest that the heart always knows where to go, or we always know how to follow it.  The heart may guide us only if we pay attention to what it needs and how it speaks.  The heart is a process, rather than a fact, a seat of operations rather than a stone angel.

It’s language we know of very well, as the mode of perception that we use to understand the poems, songs, stories and artwork that moves through us and which we turn to in isolation.  We find it’s roots in the language of dreams. If any mode of perception allows us to participate in the language of the Earth, it is this language.

Buhner, with characteristic pragmatism asks to consider this simple practice to awaken the imaginal heart. In each instance rather than asking “how do I feel?” instead ask “how does it feel?” This shift from “I” to “it” breaks the narcissistic mirror. It allows our feeling sense to feel out beyond the glass coffin, towards the animate world, and the ecological matrix that sustains us.  This question “how does it feel?” shifts our perception to the imaginal realm, returns our sight to it’s archetypal roots.  It could be thought of as the heart of the creative process. And it is there at the meeting point of nature and psyche.

Becca Tarnas, in her essay seeking out an imaginal ecology writes of this kind of imagination as “the eye of the soul.” (Tarnas 2016)  The heart turned outwards sees and feels and animate world.  It provisionally identifies with things it is not, just as in dreams we become characters we are not, or in therapy we imagine the responses of those whose lives have affected us.  Tarnas writes:

“The imagination is a mediator, existing between the physical world and the world of abstract thought. Imagination is the realm in which images bloom more tangible and accessible than the mental, more fluid and impermanent than the physical.” (Tarnas 2016)

The imaginal heart can reveal patterns that connect, and so the places of disconnection. Something we might encounter in our present liminal space is the extent to which we have lost touch with the way the imaginal heart allows us to hear the language of nature. The animal imaginal heart may find this language that contains the heritage of all of nature’s journey experienced as an intuitive, visionary perception that we are within.

The imaginal  pulls us out of ourselves and to a mediating place in between, a place where things connect and identity is provisional.  As Tarnas writes:

“the imagination does not exist fixed solely in between; it permeates throughout, saturating physical reality and abstractions alike, birthing and being born out of both realms” (Tarnas 2016)

This sense Tarnas alludes to of the imagination as both guide and territory, both connecting and permeating nature and psyche takes us not just to a joyful symbiosis but towards the terrible also within nature and experience, what Marlon Stanon has investigated as sol niger, the Dark Sun,  and what James Hillman calls here “Pan”

“Pan, especially at night when the citadel darkens and the heroic ego sleeps, is a direct participation mystique in nature, a fundamental, even ontological experience of the world as alive and in dread” Hillman, A Blue Fire p 98

To know the image of the virus, means to know it’s shadow too, that joy and dread exist within the same abundant virility.

14 The Material within  liminality

The virus brings a crisis that leads us to a state of separation. Within this liminal place we re-encounter our prima materia, the raw material of our culture, known to us personally through our unfolding lives.  Deeper and beyond the personal story of each life, lies the psychological material that led to the crisis. Yet, our culture so lacks ritual wisdom, and suffers a massive split between nature and psyche, that it’s citizens often cannot see their or it’s own wounds.

Instead, we too frequently see through a wounded eye that recognises only an illusion of it’s own goodness and wholeness, or that rages at the mirror in misanthropy . The eye that doesn’t recogise it’s own wound sees only a chaotic nature that needs to be tamed, much as the Inquisition found in  heresy only demons to be cast out, and so committed it’s crimes against it’s people.

In the enforced liminal space of the time of the virus however, we might question the amputated understanding of what it is to feel, when it is imprisoned inward and stripped of it’s imaginal power. We might see in the sudden blooming of birdsong and lush green the contrast with a living world coated in pollution, of pristine waterways choked and no areas or any other form of wildlife.   We might encounter a worldview deeply troubled by it’s own systematic insistence that the living world is dead, or somehow less living than humans are.  This worldview seems to insist that spirit, or psyche, or soul, or mind, or intelligence, only live in the brains of human apes, if they exist at all.

This is the material I suggest we may be faced with – a polluted earth and a mind encased in a glass coffin, that considers itself a detached bystander to it’s own life.   

The viruses themselves with their endless replication and dependency  and predation on hosts offer and image of nature as dynamic regulator, as protean, ruthless, complex, mysterious, deadly.  To be resisted and guarded against, but within the broader understanding of the greater beauty that unfolds through it’s self inflicted suffering.  To be understood within a psycho-dynamics of a living Earth that has been wounded.

A human psyche that is permeated by a nature needs to both protect itself from and rely on nature. One task of this liminal time might be to discover a lens that can see both virus and image eco-psychologically, in a way that does not cut psyche from nature.

What would a medicine look like that really saw and understood both ecology and psyche?

13 The Tin Frog’s participation in the living world of nature and psyche

In Russell Hoban’s “La Corona and the Tin Frog” the tin frog, at the moment of midnight, sees for the first time that the picture of La Corona he has been staring at, heartsick, is not just a flat image, but a living reality that he can move into. He finds the gaps between the pixels and moves into the picture, diving into the depths of it’s ocean to find his beloved.   The  Frog is made of tin; he can be moulded, but has to learn to feel his way into the picture.  First, he must see with his heart

The virus changes the world into itself. Nature is psyche, images encountered as if real.  The zoe of Dionysos, the indestructible life force plays out a complex dynamic with sickness and soul, propelling  as it brings sickness and death.  It is with us as we attempt to journey like the clown Hero,  from the ghost garden to a living world, with only heartbreaks and shadow to guide us.

In Phil Ford’s dream, the virus brings the wisdom of dread. The world was more uncanny, more morphologically sophisticated and cunning than we wanted to know. Once the virus has penetrated the room the question arises – what then will prompt us, like the Tin Frog, to find the invisible gaps we have in our picture of the world, and, like him, step through them and begin to participate in the living world?

Becca Tarnas : 2016:  Towards An Imaginal Ecology https://reimaginingmagazine.com/project/imaginal-ecology/
James Hillman : 1989: A Blue Fire, Selected Writings
David Kidner : 2001 :Nature and Psyche: Radical Environmentalism and the Politics of Subjectivity : State University of New York Press
Stephen Harrod Buhner : 2014: Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm Bear and Co
Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan : 1995: What is Life?: Orion