11. Dec, 2017

Drinking from the Source: Mysticism, Stories and Imagination

Religious faiths are like layers of a huge cosmic onion. On the outside you have the historical and institutional aspects: temple, priests, religious laws, properties, customs and traditions. As you peel yet another layer, you come closer and closer to the inner core through the experiences and accounts of the mystics of all spiritual traditions, till you reach the very centre, the cosmic heart and you are left with an Inner Space. Yet, contrary to what may seem, this Space is not empty: it contains the innermost fragrance, invisible and intangible, yet vividly sharp and alive for whoever has mystical or metaphysical leanings, or an unspoiled sense of wonder for the riddles of the universe. All great teachers of world religions agree that the pulsating inner sanctum, where cosmic creative power dwells, can only be pointed at, all words ultimately fail to convey its experience appropriately.

Down here, in the narrow valleys of human interest, suffering, excitement, greed and respite, we are still arguing and making war to one another: individual against individual, groups against groups, nations against nations, individuals against corporations, on and on, day in, day out.

We watch, half dazed, half resigned, occasionally with disdain, more often with a shrug.

But how can we get along with our neighbours, starting from our own daily circumstances?

My suggestion is to drink from the Source, where the eternal stream of all wisdom traditions originates, and not where the stream turns into a big river, crossing cities and countries and getting polluted in the process: let us go back to the mystical teachings of our respective faiths and let us change our static view of religious faith.

There is a tension inherent in the realm of religion.

On one hand, religions are an endeavour of inspired human imagination and creativity, our yearning for truth, peace, love, meaningfulness and our search for wholeness. On the other, religions are also a product of historical factors and are embedded in institutions enforced by power relations, through rules, customs and legal binds of various sorts.

My best guess is that if we stopped considering religion as an immutable set of rules, principles and beliefs, we would be on our way to building a peaceful world. The problem is that we mistake the map for the land. An evolutionary view of religion would be really useful to humanity’s spiritual quest: true religion is always evolving, the way human ethics, knowledge and understanding evolve.

It is often said that if we followed the golden rule of all religions -- treat others as you would like others to treat you –- our cohabitation would be informed by tolerance. Yet, tolerance is not enough, when based on moral rules and precepts only; we need an imaginative spark to lead us through the gate of empathy and respect. This can be achieved only if we bring the imagination in the religious realm and feed our spirit with reinterpreted and new stories, myths, legends pertaining the spiritual quest. We still need the old stories, but with an imaginative spin.

The imagination is our most underrated faculty when it comes to faith. If we only stopped considering faith as something fixed, an arrival point, and realized that it is a starting point, a map of uncharted or tentatively sketched territories, we could not only tolerate one another for our diversity, but actually love such diversity and feel all the richer for it.

It is hard to go beyond the literalness of tenets, creeds and precepts because we have been raised in them and they have become second-nature to us. Yet, the effort is worthwhile. Spiritual storytelling is a great resource for fostering interreligious dialogue and peace. This is so because the metaphors of story speak to our heart and intuition, before they reach the intellect, and bypass our prejudices and defences, in order to bring about a felt realization of our common humanity. In other words, story can go beyond abstraction.

On a practical level, spiritual storytelling can be implemented in schools, community libraries, and other public and private spaces. We could give the gift of story to one another, each from our own standpoint, and be grateful for such an enrichment. We need both roots and wings: to be grounded and to soar beyond what is given in our own lives, in order to explore new dimensions and be able to see new horizons.

Imagination is an enlivening faculty. It can be used for good or for evil. Why not harness its enormous potential for the good and let its powers inform all human endeavours, including ethics? Indeed, spiritual storytelling is such an imaginative heuristic tool: as we tell and listen to stories, our intuition and ability to think and find new solutions to old problems are stimulated. Thus, storytelling can be much more than a tool for instilling moral rules in the young. It can be a research tool for working towards a shared ethics, a practice of continual dialogue and close listening to one another and to the vast imaginative realm beyond our little selves.

Henry Corbin, the great scholar of Islamic theology, used the expression “mundus imaginalis” to designate the realm of cognitive Imagination, a faculty that leads to perceiving what is intangible and invisible to ordinary sense perception and yet is real.

Traditional religion is stuck in the literal and in a sense of self-righteous exclusivity.

If people of good will following different spiritual traditions developed their sense of the symbolical and imaginal reality of their own faiths, religion and life on earth would evolve. Truth pertains to the imaginal even more than to “hard facts”. The imaginal realm is not imaginary, it has to do with a kind of truth which is not literal, yet is altogether real: invisible and intangible, yet essential like the breath of life.

The mystics of all times and spiritual traditions developed their ability to attune to the imaginal dimension, and often risked, and still risk, being considered heretics for it. Institutionalised religion often forges psychological chains to keep us bound and in subjection, to keep us separate from one another.

Let us drink from the Source, let us go to the mystic teachings of all religions and bring them out of esoteric practice, let them be accessible to all who seek in earnest.

Let our spiritual traditions cross-pollinate and bring about new understandings and beauty.


Picture by courtesy of pexels.com