Pathways into the Imaginal – Encountering animals.

Dear all
 Over the past few years I have written for and supported a magazine called “Unpsychology”   The last issues theme was about the more than human.  This issue brought forth some truly beautiful writing. Almost always, the beauty came from people giving quite simple testimony to what happens in the encounter with an animal, or a plant.  To this end, I want to share this recording of DH Lawrences’s poem “The Snake”

Writing as witnessing the invisable fire

The best writing is often a kind of witness to the glow of experience, rather than an attempt to kindle that fire from scratch.  Most frequently, these experiences happen when we are at the edge of what feels comfortable or normal. It’s then that we need to reach for something to make sense of it. Last time we spoke about how love dislodges yearning, sorrow and the search for the soul.  The experience of heartbreak is a time when the need to find precise images for our inner life takes hold . Ginette Paris writes of it:

“Stop asking why? and instead search for the right metaphor.  Is your heart rotting, rioting, burning, bursting?  Are you on the cross, in the pits, in prison, in cold hell, hot hell, purgatory, alone in the desert, thrown on a garbage heap?  Are you in a hostile county, in shackles, in a madhouse, on your knees begging to god?  Do you feel shunned, excluded, treated like a leper, a pauper, a criminal?  Are you awaiting execution, unfairly imprisoned, on the bench of the accused facing a hostile jury?  Do you feel your heart is being eaten by Ebola, the flesh eating virus?”

If the heart needs metaphors to know where it is and so to survive when it breaks, then surely, now more than ever then our relationship to Nature, which is also at breaking point, needs images too.  

However, as we have seen relationships are complicated.  We might go into love feeling selfless but our needs are right there, hidden in plain sight in the way we look at the beloved, what we want them to do for us and what we need to learn to do ourselves.

In the same way we go into Nature carrying all sorts of baggage – the industrialism and individualism that Kidner (2007) has shown dominates our culture fuse together into a lens that often mistakes projection for perception.  We easily assume that we can pull nature into it’s constituent parts.  We assume we can observe it from within the windows of our self.
To some extent we know this is not true and one reaction to this can be an attempt to imagine nature as a happy for our own personal transformation – as Martin Shaw says “stop expecting wilderness to be a backdrop to your personal transformation- you are not that important”
The attitude here is humility before forgotten majesty. Nature may well be a good place to transform, find depth and soul.  However, one of the greatest tasks of our age is to combat Titanism – the  swallowing of the world. 
Hillman tells us that this Titanism – making man the measure of all things, gigantic, powerful, alone,  hungry but unconscious of his hunger – is revealed most of all through projection.  We project of our own inner meaning onto the world and subsquently attempt to swallow it back.  Perhaps really we are hungry for soul meeting with not the flesh of animals.

Nature can tune our tongue

When we walk into nature, rather than transplanting our own need to become greater and better, we can tune our perceptions.  Nature can tune our ear, our eye and our tongue.  It can tune our nervous system, and our imagination too.   The need to form images of the outer world in the inner world shifts to a need to turn the feelings sense outward – to get a sense of the feel of how something is.  The question becomes ‘what is the feel of this place? Or what is the feel of that oak, that sloworm, that crow’  rather than how do I translate this feeling into an inner symbol.

We are in the strange position of never having had so much knowledge and yet less direct experience of nature.  Our needs seem to arrive from sanitised factories and supermarkets – we don’t need to sow or reap corn, or thresh wheat, to guard or shear sheep.

Nature can become a royal road into the imaginal, and so another place that we need to revise our assumptions and find precise images and the right metaphors for our encounter with it.

The basic premise of the imaginal is that the imaginal is the place where imagination is real, not just a thought, or fancy.    The imaginal belongs to nature, as nature is the ground and origin of all that is real. Nature is the place to seek the imaginal.  Nature makes clear the fundamental treachery with the modern way of seeing life and lays bare this deceit. 

The fundamental way this deceit reveals itself to us is through the unconscious belief that the world is inside us  As we walk into nature the truth becomes clear. We are in something.  We may act as a container for our memories and sensations, but no more so than a cup dipped into a stream. Does the cup contain the stream?

When we walk out into nature, we walk into it’s  largeness.  I walk into that field of bronze grass, caught by a glitter of Sun and a rake of wind. Past the thick matt of brambles that nurse the elders and hawthorns, the red berries, gold polish in the surface of a blue-grey sea.

The colonisation of Nature by the inner world

Nature gets colonised by our thoughts of it when we translate it too strongly into inner figures, or aspects of the self.  If you meet  Coyote-Wolf as  Emily Paskovic describes in Unpsychology 6, you are not meeting a spirit animal or a representation of a part of your psyche, but something far more awe inspiring.   Paskovic describes in her wonderfully lucid essay how the process worked the other way – she began with a sense of the Coyote-Wolf, imagined it, trailed it and was rewarded not with a vision, but with a true encounter with a real Coywolf that was far more powerful than an inner fantasy.  She writes:

“I started to learn animal tracking after a series of incidents that made me feel as though my body wasn’t quite my own. I’m not sure why tracking was what I turned to, but heading home after that first day of tracing the jagged paths of various woodland creatures, I started to cry. The tears rose from a wild surge deep in my body, as though an innate part of my own animal nature was being fed by following scat and prints through the snow.

Learning to read the signs was akin to pulling a curtain aside, stepping beyond
the human world and into a wilder place and finding that it was legible, that I belonged there, too. I was not separate because of my humanness—in the woods, I was another animal, passing by. Through careful observation, I found myself moving more fully embodied through a world where other creatures are as vital characters as the human ones.” (Paskevics, Tracking the Coywolf, Unpsychology 6)

What she describes is not a fantasy Coywolf, this is what Martin Shaw calls the movement from village to forest – the shape shifting of the psyche that allows us to visit the wild yet return safely to the hearth, the inn and to human company.  In this sense we have disrespected the image of animals by insisting that we know what they mean and that they are a part of us.

James Hillman wrote of the images of animals that occur in our dreams or fantasy:

“generally animals are represented in depth psychology as representives of the animal, that is to say instinctual, bestial, sexual part of human nature.  Evolutionary theory and Christian prejudice are assumed by this interpretation.  I prefer  to consider animals in dreams as Gods, as divine, intelligent autocthonous powers demanding respect” (Hillman: The Dream and the Underworld: 1979: p 147)

Surely the real animal carries it’s imaginal counterpart with it – the real animal in some respects brings us closer to the idea of the Imaginal.  After all, if our fundmental conception of “inner” and “outer” are misconstrued then when the world might be turned inside out. – the real animal presence is precisely where the imaginal lies.

In this spirit I want to share with you this poem called “A Snake” by DH Lawrence.  In this poem, Lawrence does us an immense service.  He draws us so close not only to the threat and majesty of the snake- but the way that, as he does draw closer to this, the intense voices of his conditioning start to whisper in his ear,  getting louder and more insistent.

Lawrence’s  great service here in the way that he shows us his failure – he fails to follow the attitude towards the Snake that he so wishes to hold.  It is in this failure which dissolves the aura of the Snake and of what Lawrence might have received from it,  that this generous and powerful poem is born.  We know from Hillman and perhaps our own lives that it is in situations of failure and inferiority that soul starts to gleam.  After all, all of our mistakes in our relationships don’t tend to come from our places of weakness, but through the problems and maladaptations that get twisted into what we consider our strengths.  If you think you are intelligent, then that will be where things go wrong, likewise if you consider yourself empathic, sensitive, strong, autonomous, reflective, focused, disciplined, deep, creative  – what doesn’t work in these relational approaches will constellate within your life. Perhaps, if you are lucky it might constellate an encounter with an animal.  Paskevis’s shows us how powerful that encounter might be.

Lawrence’s  poem itself is an attempt to atone for his inferiority.  This makes the poem gleam as what was imaginal in that real Snake becomes visable in the poem.

In Bill Plotkin’s book on finding soul in nature “Soulcraft”, there are many wonderful vignettes of encounters with animals during solo wilderness quests, both successful and botched.  These are 4 day fasts in which the individual encounters both themself and nature and through both a sense of what is soulful in the world.

But who could match Lawrence’s wonderful spare and muscular evocation of Snake and what stops us from seeing Snake , his unsparing eye and honest imaginal tongue?  Who better could draw together from an experience of a snake the imaginal reality of Snake that coils within it, and the invisable voices that prevent us from crowning it?

You can read Emily Paskevics’s essay “Tracking the Coywolf” (and many other fine gems, poems, artwork, stories and essays,  including my essay about the origins of my poetic life in an encounter with a savage plant)  by downloading Unpsychology 6 here

The magazine is free to download.
James Hillman: The Dream and the Underworld
Bill Ploktin: Soulcraft
David Kidner: Nature and Psyche
Martin Shaw – From “Storyteller” online course
Ginette Paris:Heartbreak