Pathways into the imaginal – On the power of masks and messages of the heart


Of mask wearing and the image of the heart  in creativity,  therapy and everyday life.


In the final chapter of his remarkable book on improvisation; called “Impro,”  Keith Johnstone addresses the subject of masks[1].  For Johnstone, masks and improvisation are intimately connected because both are connected with the possibility of entering quickly and completely into a trance state.  It is in this trance state, he suggests, that dimensions of creativity unknown even to the actor themselves emerge.   Characters arrive fully formed, deeply moving stories flow upwards as if a fountain had sprung up from the ground, humour, confidence, and spontaneity abound.  For Johnstone the dramatic possibilities of mask suggest all of this.  To illustrate his point he draws from reports of Haitian voodoo, European commedia dell arte,  ethnographies of African deities, and his own extensive experience of experimenting with masks in workshops and performances at the Royal Court in London in the 1960s and 70s.

The heart of his proposition is bold; that masks have characters that seem to exist independent of the person that wears them, and whose characters “appear” suddenly rather than being “built”.  The role of the actor is one more of yielding to the character of the mask than creating that character. To put it another way it is of letting the mask make use of him or her.  In this, Johnstone sees a metaphor for improvisation; suddenly and immediately allowing oneself to relinquish all habitual modes and patterns of behaviour and identity and giving oneself permission to act like a completely different person.  This possibility is there in the moment, a place where a knowledge  of  spontaneity, status differences and narrative can create captivating, perhaps even life changing theatre.

Such a concept is at once both disturbing and exciting.  It is disturbing and exciting in just the way that looking at a person wearing a mask is; a dissonance between the familiar – another human being; and the unreal – the worn mask invites recognition but is not quite human.  It’s expression is fixed, yet its eyes and movements are alive.    A new thing exists, human yet not human, that seems to defy categorisation.

Masks:  a form of possession or a type of psychological inflation?

Masks, therefore invite a variety of responses from the comic to the tragic, to the fearful.  Johnstone’s chapter on masks, although iconic has also been controversial within both improvisation and those that use mask in the theatre.  Some theatre makers have distanced themselves from Johnstone’s idea that when a mask is worn, a fully formed character instantly appears, and that this character has a character that is only to a small degree dependent on the actor that wears it. Such ideas are indeed deeply threatening to a culture in which a fixed and monolithic sense of individuality is prized.  Johnstone’s writing speaks quite directly to an ancient and deep rooted fear of possession, of being possessed by some external spirit, being or god who takes over the actor, making him or her essentially a channel for some other force.  Such ideas seem dangerous because they seem to invite madness and superstition.  This shows through in popular culture too –  Even in Jim Carreys’ breakthrough film “the Mask” the main question of the narrative was – now he has put the  Mask, is he able to take it off?   Jungians call this difficulty removing the mask “inflation” – the ego puffed up by the archetypal experience confuses itself for the god.  One of Jung’s wisest sayings was “do not identify with the archetype”  – in other words do not confuse yourself with the god.  The greatest and most recurrent theme in tragic drama is hubris and the lesson of tragedy is hammartas – the discovery of the tragic flaw, the unconscious hubris unknown to the tragic hero but revealed to the audience.

However, it is worth noting that this fear of possession holds an archetypal dimension, in as much as fear has a deep connection with religious experience.  Kierkegaard called his great exploration of religious experience in an age of rationality; “Fear and Trembling”.   Perhaps the most accurate word for  this is “awe” which combines a sense of wonder and terror.  From awe we can feel “awesome” as well as “awe-ful”

Some writers have made the point that we lack a cultural framework within which to make sense of masks.  Masks may be used in theatre, in comic or tragic form, but they no longer form part of ceremonial life.  They do, however live on within our imagination. They return each Halloween, that point in the year in which the Sun pivots over the equinox heads towards its winter death.  At such a time,  it seems natural that our memories of those we have lost may become sharper, even if this meaning gets blurred by sweet gathering and children dressed as witches and skeletons – both of which incidentally are ways of symbolising death in the popular imagination .

Masks as gateways to archaic depths and deeper meaning

Masks disturb us because they force us to look at them, and have an uncanny force.   They reveal the limits of our personalities and the extent to which they may be far less stable than we would like.  They also act as portals to the gods, because of course the reason that masks have such an old provenance, the reason that there has been such a revivial of interest in masks and the reason they scare and excite them is because they seem to provide a gateway to the gods.   One theme that unites experimental and avant garde theatre in the the last 150 years – the theatre of Stravinsky, Artaud, Grotowski, Brook, Malina, Schechner –  is a yearning for numinous experience and an intuition that theatre is a place where this can become real.  It is an excavation of the archaic, not limited to theatre, but within which theatre, with its ancient and primal roots as well as it’s tendency towards innovation and creativity,  seems to have much to offer.

When Johnstone quotes ethnographic accounts of masks, these accounts situate the mask as the god.  The mask is sacred because it is the portal to the god.   This tradition is present in European theatre as well; the ancient Greek Theatre from which all our forms of theatre and cinema can be traced back to used masks.  The word mask was “persona” – from per sona – per meaning throuhg and sona meaning sound – that which the sound comes through.  The sound which comes through the mask is that of the god.  Chanting, singing, all ancient ways of accessing a trance state in which the ego may briefly dissolve it’s boundaries into the archetypal.

The great theatre director and teacher Jacques LeCoq, at the centre of the great revival of interest in the European mask forms of Commedia Dell Arte, taught mask as a form of initiation into his method of acting.  He gave his students neutral masks, not in order to wear them in performance, but in order to give them the experience of stepping outside of their habitual ways of being and acting.  The neutral mask was a way of becoming neutral, of finding a stepping stone between the ego and the character to be explored.

The Neutral Mask as a psychological container and groundstate for awareness

Such considerations are also key to the success of any form of therapy, or programme of self improvement and change. The first thing that therapy does is to begin the process of reflection.  Depth psychology calls what is reflected upon “the ego”- the small I of identity.  Just as Lecoq’s actors learn to wear the neutral mask, so someone in therapy or undergoing a therapeutic process learns to find a neutral place within which to examine their life.     This process of reflection is not without it’s challenges, mostly because reflections rarely arrive without judgements.  In fact, one of the easiest things of all in any reflective conversation is to mistake self punishment for rigorous reflexivity.   The “Neutral Mask” encourages a person to find a place of being without judgement or blame, within which they may review their thoughts, feelings and action.  Other disciplines have this as well, in meditation it may be called “groundedness; ” the Buddist writer and teacher Jack Kornfield calls it “taking the one seat[2].”

In the alchemical terms favoured by many Jungian because of their imaginal  structure,  the process might be analogous to making the “Alembic” – the egg shaped glass vessel that the process takes place in.  Psychotherapists talk  of creating a good “working alliance” or of “building a container” and this is an analogous process.   As every relationship with another person finds it’s mirror in our relationship with our self, what we find here is a place of neutrality – a zero place within which to be aware of the potency of the narratives and thoughts we are in.  It’s not the same as “being yourself” in the same way that an experience of awareness of the moment is not the same as flicking through your phone whilst waiting for a bus – both occur in the moment, but they are different dimensions of that moment.

Beyond empathy – towards the heart as a place of imaginative  intentionality

At the same time, a containing relationship, a neutral mask or a egg shaped glass vessel in the soul whilst necessary may not be sufficient to achieve the process of self actualisation, individuation, alchemical transformation or whatever the goal of the process is.  The important thing here is that there is a process, that it is active and that it has an aim. One of the greatest shadows of the human potential movement, of the rise in credibility of attachment theory with it’s concommitant movement towards deeper and greater empathy as a therapeutic  tool is that empathy alone creates the distinct possibility of stagnation, passivity and a miserable non attainment of the Self.  Here lies the place where concealed narcissim, dependency, and concealed shame lie, hidden by a cloak of empathy.  When empathy is over valued, intention and drive suffer, because empathy is also a partial fusion of the self with the other, and so runs the risk of loss of self and dissolution of boundaries and drive.

How to re-establish  drive without repeating the grabbing and selfish mistakes of the ego that were the cause of the need for the neutral mask in the first place?  Here, we can turn to the work of James Hillman, and his source of inspiration Henri Corbin.  Corbin makes use of the sufi idea of Himma[3].  Himma is “Intense Spiritual Resolve. This is the most powerful force contained within man. It is the sincere and dedicated application of all of one’s efforts and strivings towards attaining the desired Object – Allah”.

For Corbin and Hillman, in his essay “the thought of the heart[4]”, Himma is one way of re-imagining the intelligent heart . However, this heart is not only the empathic, christian heart that feels and confesses its sins.  The heart of the himma is  the seat of both imagination and desire, located in the centre of the body.  It is what Marcus Aurelius the  Roman emperor-philosopher might call “the citadel” of the self[5].  For Hillman and Corbin, it is crucially a place where imagination combines with desire, like oxygen fuels fire.  The heart or himma is what fills the vessel – what fills the neutral mask, heats up the alembic, restores the meditator’ s heart with a renewed sense of purpose and wonder.  For Hillman and Corbin, the Himma is a place where imagination takes on a reality of its own, through intense desire.  Psychologist Mary Watkins speaks of this Sufi approach to prayer, where the concept of prayer and imagination are almost interchangeable.

I remember in a therapist peer support group discussing the difference between wishing for something and wanting it – the language of motivation.   Many in the discussion felt wishing to have a lack of agency.  However, in these terms of this essay,   wishing is closer to imagination as  praying here, as it is the heart fixing on something that it wants.  It may seems to have less agency that wanting – yet it refers to a creative power that connects the heart to something beyond it.  This is what Hillman finds attractive in the concept of Himma – it connects a person to a different kind of reality, one that he calls the imaginal.  In the imaginal, the intermediary between the self and world is formed.  Hillman, following Corbin, says that this intermediary is daimonic – it is filled with the soul, which is an intermingling of the human and the worlds beyond it.  It is in this area that the world itself opens up, filled with it’s own stories and meaning.

The Himma and Imaginal reality – layers of the real

One of the great challenges of modern times has been to find a way of making sense of realities that are not perceptible.  Positivism, materialism, reductionism are all words that point to our common assumption of matter as flat inert and having only the properties that are exerted on them.  This is the default position of modern science, a so called empirical reality the thought of which shapes the landscapes of our thoughts and actions.   We, as partial human creatures clearly need aims and intentions in order to make our way through life effectively.  Intentions, however, are closely linked to meaning; we move towards that which we consider meaningful. T he most meaningful things of all are those that describe the world, the complex networks of sky, earth and water, the  things that connect the gardens and streets we walk through to the landscapes, and the people and animals that make up our immediate relationships.

If we accept, with Hillman that the mind imagines before anything else, then we have a sense of how fundamental our sense of what reality is may be to everything that follows.  It’s hard to destroy or despoil a world that is living, sentient and filled with life that stretches out beyond the perceptible.  Spiritual practices tend to follow a Christian perspective and aim at transcendence; the spiritual sits above the material guiding it.  This seems a reflection of the way we see the mind as sitting above the body, guiding it.  Within this is a continuation of the Cartesian split that leads that strange sense of isolation from the world and others and that allows matter to be violated, extracted, figured as a resource.  Rather, Hillman says, soul lies down, in descent into the Earth, in the matter below our feet, and the underworlds of imagination that link us to nature.

DLC – seeking grace through masks and rock and roll.

In a film I made for an experimental rock band DLC, I  wanted to explore this further.  My approach to creativity, so far as writing songs and singing has been concerned, has been to do it and see what happens.  If I sing or speak without knowing what I am going to say, and listen to myself without stopping myself, words, images and feelings emerge.   There is a sweet spot if you sing in a rock and roll band that links the karaoke singer to David Bowie; the world seems to be made out of the inspirations you express. They seem to not describe but create the world.  This is not a narcissistic projection of the self onto the world; rather it is the action of the world on the self, the participation of the self with the inspiration of the world.   Nor is it the exploration and expression of the mind – what is expressed by the mind is not found within it, just as water cannot be found in either hydrogen or oxygen.  The himma gives expression to  this sense that the heart is the place where the world acts upon a person and that activation is purposeful and towards a goal of self improvement.  This self improvement is intersubjective and interdependent; it is more like Self in the Jungian sense than self improvement in the humanistic ideal of just becoming better at functioning.

Philosophies that seek to go beyond the narrow focus on inanimate matter, and the reification of the human mind, such as critical realism and phenomenology, in writers like David Abram[6] and David Kidner[7], they seek the intuition that matter itself is far more complex than we have given it credit for.  Perhaps matter itself teems with narratives, sequences.  The ancient Greek philosopher Thales said “everything is full of gods.”  With the concept of the himma, the imagination of the world is seen as part of its reality, a  felt and embodied reality that goes  his generative of a vision and that allows that vision to become autonomous, to take the person onward in a service to the world.

Each 20 minute improvisations was a journey beginning with the donning of a mask wearing  into how to move from a relatively everyday state  into the kind of state of mind in which I not only did not care how I moved and what I said, but might do so unselfconsciously and in a way that might become both meaningful and soulful.

At a certain point in the improvisation, I began to spontaneously improvise and recite a spoken word poem:

“Don’t be too fast
To quick to discriminate or change
those states of mind you think you can rearrange
Being Breathing Living  Deceiving

Don’t be too smart too clever too soon
to rise above the very things in this room
In which you participate
your mineral self and rock stone heart and soul

I urge and summon the craving for it all
I urge I summon the craving for it all

this diverse web, split apart by imagination and heart
The himma

Like the himma itself, much of the meaning  of this seems reserved for mostly myself.    I appear to be talking to myself, telling myself to slow down, not transcend the world.  Of course I know I am performing, so also seem to be addressing anyone who may listen or hear the video  Which part of myself is talking to me and you  – a “higher”  part? A “lower part”?  Such questions seem somewhat beside the point.   Analysing an experience or a part of the self as “archetypal” or “egoic” would in itself be part of a further activity to either inflate or alienate the self.

All I know is that I value such states for their creative potential, but also realise that whilst they may generate strong feelings, they are not ends in themselves and also invite greater elaboration and explanation.  The film takes on a spiritual tone with it’s invocation of deep feeling, of masks, of Everything coming from Nothing.  Perhaps this is nothing more or less than a reminder to keep the heart alive, to keep the heart as a part of matter.    This would keep the heart involved in the weeds, concrete, wastelands and parks and people that surround the body encased heart.  It would   sharpen desire for the himma, that investment in imagination that seeks to find in experience that aperture within which one’s own life may be transformed into something that approximates the meaning of the heart itself – compassionate, fiery, filled with both empathy and desire, and flowing with imaginal waters that connect the alienated ego to deeper, more open and more alive sense of reality.

Perhaps, to engage this himma, we need to be able to both put on and remove the masks we wear- personas – but also be able to put, enter into and engage with more archetypal masks – the tricksters, gods and daimons.   The  meanings and creative transformation we seek may  come  not just from the mask itself, but from this process of putting on, entering into and coming out from  the deep and ancient trance states that masks represent that are the inheritance of our deep psyche.

Within this process of mask wearing and mask removal, what we are really doing is activating the himma – the intelligent heart that reaches out to touch and be recieved by animate Earth










[1] Johnstone K Impro

[2] Kornfield J A Path With Heart

[3] Cheetham T The World Turned Upside Down

[4] Hillman J The thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World

[5] Aurelius M Meditations

[6] Abram D The Spell of the Sensous

[7] Kidner D Nature and Psyche