By Anna Rehleder
March 26, 2019
When the mirror
of your heart becomes clear and pure,
images which are outside this world.
You will see the
image and the image-Maker,
both the carpet
of the spiritual expanse
and the One who
Spiritual perception is a recurrent theme
in our tradition; prominent in Rumi’s Masnavi, it also emerges in the work of
other Sufi poets and philosophers such as Yunus Emre. And it’s a theme that has
been opening up for me lately, both in some of my own reading as well as in a
recent retreat where we focused on writing as a spiritual practice.
Earlier I had understood spiritual
perception as the capacity to become aware of finer and higher levels of being.
I had thought of it as developing a special kind of intuition. One part
spotlight and one part touchstone, it could illuminate what is hidden, as well
as evaluate the truth of things.
I still believe those capacities are
important aspects of spiritual perception. But now I am coming to think there
is more to it than internal processes; something larger even than a single
person’s consciousness. The key to extending spiritual perception beyond the
confines of the ego self, to the spaciousness of true self, seems to lie in the
Henry Corbin, the French philosopher and
Islamic theologian, writes in his essay, “Mundus Imaginalis, or the Imaginary
and the Imaginal”:
It is quite commonplace to refer to our
present day civilization as the “civilization of the image” (to wit our
magazines, motion pictures, and television). But one wonders whether — like all
commonplaces — this one does not also harbor a radical misunderstanding, a
complete misapprehension. For, instead of the image being raised to the level
of the world to which it belongs, instead of being invested with a symbolic
function that would lead to inner meaning, the image tends to be reduced simply
to the level of sensible perception and thus to be definitely degraded.
The English poet Kathleen Raine, who like
Corbin was also influenced by Sufism, makes a similar observation in her essay
on “The use of the beautiful”:
The present decadence of the arts and all
the more or less ineffectual attempts to find other foundations upon which to
rebuild them than those of tradition, arises quite simply from the
disappearance of the idea of an intelligible world (to use Plato’s phrase), a
spiritual order, a world of the soul, whose existence is not that of the
fleeting images of nature.
What Raine means by “fleeting images of
nature” is not the green, pristine realm of Mother Nature but rather the
material domain, i.e. the world of things to which our society devotes almost
all its attention.
Both Raine and Corbin are contrasting the
impoverished fictions of our present-day materialist culture – which so often
only seem to project the anxieties or dull routines of waking life onto a
different screen – with the art and poetry of traditional cultures that draw on
symbolic images with a wide range of psychological and spiritual resonance. The
poets and mystics of such cultures do not use art as a means to satisfy or promote
their nafs. Instead they use images to convey the truths of a higher order
which we are called to recognize on the spiritual path. For example, consider
these verses from Maulana that suggest so much in a few metaphors:
Weep like the
that green herbs
may spring up
courtyard of your soul.
The imagination in Sufism is different from
the fantasies or daydreams with which it is associated in our culture. It is
rather the ability to access a dimension of higher consciousness (what Rumi calls
Universal Intellect) where archetypes, Platonic Forms and the quintessences of
the things we experience in the material world reside.
Maulana writes in Discourse #38 of Fihi ma
Fihi: “The Universal Intellect is the giver of all things. Those who have united
the partial [intellect] with the Universal Intellect and become one are
prophets and saints.”
He explains: “The Prophet is not called
‘unlettered’ because he was unable to write. He was called that because his
‘letters,’ his knowledge and wisdom, were innate, not acquired.”
In other words, the Prophet’s heart was a
clear mirror of Haqq, allowing the images of the Universal Intellect to be
reflected there as inspiration, revelation and knowledge.
Such are the gifts of the imaginal realm,
which Corbin insists is just as real as the material realm we know through our
senses as well as realm of ideas we access through the partial intellect. The
imaginal realm is “both intermediary and intermediate,” according to Corbin; a
category of experience that falls somewhere between the sensory and the mental,
and which also translates between the two. He explains:
Imagination is the cognitive function of
this world. Ontologically, it ranks higher than the world of the senses and
lower than the purely intelligible world; it is more immaterial than the former
and less immaterial than the latter. This approach to imagination, which had
always been of prime importance for our mystical theosophers, provided them
with a basis for demonstrating the validity of dreams and of the visionary
reports describing and relating “events in Heaven” as well as the validity of
The prophetic imagination does not pertain
only to religion or times long past. Even in recent history, it has been a
catalyst of social change. How is it that one person’s vision of a different
world can inspire so many others – people like Martin Luther King and Nelson
Mandela, Simone Weil and Dorothy Day? Only the imagination has the power to
pierce the veils of conditioning and complacency that lull us into accepting
injustice and the suffering of our fellow beings as “just the way things are”.
Prophets and visionaries develop their
spiritual imagination to an especially high degree, yet it is a capacity that
all of us can awaken. And I feel increasingly that it is even a duty for us as
spiritual seekers at this time, when the stakes for humanity and the planet are
so high. Imagining solutions to climate change, overpopulation and an imploding
food system isn’t running away from those issues but the first step toward
Shaikh Kabir often reminds us that as human
beings, we are here in this world to be The Witness for God: al Shahid, which
is the same word in Arabic for martyr. I certainly feel that when I try to see
things as they really are, it challenges me to give up those parts of my Nafs
that would rather remain asleep, in thrall to the dunya’s empty reassurances.
Acts of the imagination, then, are also
acts of courage. And I believe that as we summon the will to awaken from the sleep
of complacency and face what is painful and difficult, Insha Allah we will also
start to perceive more of what is beautiful and true. As Maulana tells us:
spiritual senses are all connected.
from one root.
As one grows
strong, the others strengthen, too:
each one becomes
a cupbearer to the rest.
Seeing with the
eye increases speech;
discernment in the eye.
deepens, it awakens every sense,
perception of the spiritual
to them all.