The Journey from Icy Corporeality through Liquid Imagination to Vaporous Spirit (1/16/13)

Ramana Maharshi taught that ‘desirelessness is wisdom.’ It is further alleged that in the state of desirelessness we enjoy the happiness that is native to the Self. From this angle, meditation entails a conscious recognition of those desires and attachments to which our consciousness is most imprisoned, tracing them back to their source, and then attempting to ‘see through’ them in an effort to find release. In the course of my reflections, I have observed that my thoughts have chiefly served as spies, articulators, and enablers of my various desires and interests. As an ‘intellectual’ type person, I often engage in a kind of play with ideas and thoughts in lieu of physically acting out the promptings of my desires and fears, which would probably involve a more significant expenditure of energy. These thoughts and ideas serve as proxies or winged emissaries for the desires and passions that they ‘stand for.’ In fact, they may be said to be masks of the desires, attachments, and passions that they stand for—insofar as they simultaneously reveal and conceal what lies behind the mask.

A far more artfully and splendidly developed example of this process (of invoking and substituting words, concepts, and images for underlying, visceral passions—and then playing with these incorporeal masks and metaphorical forms) is provided by the marvelous tragedies, comedies, and histories of William Shakespeare. In these extraordinary plays—which hold a mirror, as it were, up to (human) nature—we are presented with a ‘virtual’ reality that bears an uncanny resemblance to actual human reality at the concrete, lived level. Shakespeare’s characters—Falstaff, Rosalind, Iago, Bottom the weaver, Hamlet, and so forth—are certainly lifelike, but being fictional, imaginative creations, they are obviously not flesh and blood persons like you and me. Shakespeare’s characters appear to be driven, inspired, dejected, compelled, and buffeted by desires, fears, and longings that are intimately familiar to us—but there is a crucial distinction (that all sane persons immediately acknowledge) between actually killing someone and pretending to kill another actor on a stage—or between truly falling in love with someone and starting an actual family, on the one hand, and empathetically watching television actors pretend to do the same thing, on the other.

Now, I suspect most will agree that we are less likely to produce dramatic disturbances in our own and other persons’ lives when we manage to keep our powerful desires, fears, jealousies, and other passions safely restricted to the realm of imaginative activity and private reflection—rather than acting out all these impulses and emotions on the stage of real life human affairs. By keeping this imaginative enactment of our desires confined to our ‘heads’—and, if we are artistic, to the page, the piano, the canvas, etc.—we are likely to live longer and more stable lives safely beyond the thick and sound-proof walls of prison or the insane asylum.

As we know, there is something deeply satisfying about the experience of watching an excellent film or theatrical production where the writer and the performers have presented us with a compelling depiction of human drama. When reading or viewing the plays of a supreme artist like Shakespeare, much of that satisfaction comes from the fact that a complex array of powerful human drives, desires, inhibitions, illusions, beliefs, and ambitions have been theatrically rendered for us in a manner that is both highly credible and beautifully organized. Because the greatest artists are often blessed with a genius for distilling the essence of the ‘raw’ materials they draw upon—and for intelligently displaying and inter-relating those distilled elements in a way that few of us can duplicate—their works provide a window into the usually concealed motors and circuitry within the human soul. As audience members, we may not be conscious of the fact that we are being granted a glimpse into depths we would scarcely be able to enter and to explore if we were relying solely upon our own less developed powers. Nevertheless, such imaginative experiences mysteriously produce a grounding and anchoring effect upon us. Aristotle famously wrote of the cathartic (purging) effect that tragedy has upon the soul of the viewer—and there is a link between his notion of catharsis and this idea of grounding that I invoke here. Before exploring this idea in greater depth, let us note that an additional benefit we enjoy while watching a play like Hamlet or Oedipus Tyrannos: in vicariously and imaginatively undergoing the trials and sufferings of the protagonists, we are spared the actual ordeal of having to avenge our father’s murder, accidentally slay Polonius, contribute to poor Ophelia’s suicide, kill Laius—our father—and breed children with Jocasta, our mother, before stabbing out our own eyes with her hair clips.

When noble and worthy art achieves its intended aim, the actions it vividly depicts spur us to contemplation.[1] To be sure, there will always be a handful of lunatics who, after watching Hamlet or Macbeth (or The Dark Knight), will feel a strange compulsion to become Hamlet or Macbeth (or the Joker)—to act out instead of act in, as is salutary and proper. The way I approach great works of art—from Homer and the Bible to Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky—is to view these works as invitations and time-tested guidebooks to the life of the imagination. As such, it is my belief that rather than aiming to strengthen and reinforce our attachment (a softer word than ‘bondage’) to the actual concrete world they depict and try to illumine, such works are intended by their authors to loosen and perhaps even to critique those bonds of attachment. They aim, that is, to liberate our souls from literal-mindedness, to nourish and ignite our imaginations, which operate in accordance with very different laws than those that we meet with in the more confined and constricted arena of mundane affairs. Induction or initiation into the world of imaginative experience may be thought of as a stage along the way that leads to the rarefied spiritual condition of desirelessness recommended by Ramana Maharshi—or to the ‘peace that surpasses understanding’ referred to in Christianity.

Just as ice typically passes through a liquid state before it proceeds to a vaporous state, evolving consciousness passes from concretistic, literalistic ego-consciousness through mercurial and imaginative soul-consciousness on its long pilgrimage to formless, serenely detached spiritual consciousness. Great artists, then, may be viewed, from one angle, as crucial ‘middle-men’ who, by helping the ego to dissolve its literalisms in the solvent of the imagination, provide a way-station or bridge between the material, sensual realm and the immaterial, spiritual one. Fittingly, then, soul—or imagination—partakes of both: it employs forms (images), just as sensory perception entails, but these forms ultimately point, as Plato and others have taught, to the formless Source, or Self, that is the ground of all.

Very well: we now have a traditional model before us, a threefold division of the whole human being into spirit, soul, and body. Great art—including the ‘pagan’ art of Sophocles and the secular dramas of Shakespeare—can be of considerable assistance (for those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear) to our liberation from that crudest form of human consciousness, literal-mindedness, which is founded upon and ultimately answerable to the testimony of the senses. Because literal-mindedness is naturally inclined either to reduce everything to causes that are material and therefore presumably apprehensible by one or more of the five senses, it is also inclined, if not compelled, by its own criteria and methods to deny the reality of anything it cannot touch, taste, hear, smell, or see with its own eyes.

Human beings are susceptible to conceiving of many different sorts of imaginary entities, possibilities, fantasies, and so forth, but our shared senses are in general agreement about the phenomena they apprehend. Therefore, the senses—and not the imagination—perhaps understandably provide the basis for ‘commonsense.’ The very word betrays the meaning of what I have just labored to explain: common + sense = shared trust in the evidence of shared senses. I have written elsewhere of the interesting fact that modern empirical science is, from a certain angle, a kind of glorified version of this commonsense[2], so I will limit what I say here about this connection to a few comments. It is precisely because of the almost universal respect accorded to sensory evidence (among members of our species) that science is not one thing in the U.S. and an entirely different practice in India or China. But we are dealing with a very different kettle of fish as soon as we begin to consider cultural, religious, or artistic practices in the U.S., India, and China. And the reason for this should be obvious. Culture, religion, and art all allow large—if not decisively large—doses of imagination to determine their content, while sensory data and brute facts are occasionally ‘consulted,’ but seldom rigorously adhered to (as would be expected from any reputable scientist). On the other hand, precisely because empirical science is strictly limited in what it can legitimately and effectively work with (compared with that stupendous totality of imaginative and/or speculative phenomena that we, as humans, are capable of experiencing), its value as a general guide for us is extremely limited, as well. Science is utterly incapable—not simply by ‘choice’ but in accordance with its own criteria and strict methodological constraints—of making any sort of ethical or moral judgment, or of authoritatively responding to our spiritual needs and quandaries. This should caution us against expecting more from it than it can deliver. Only a fool would be ungrateful for the marvelous material benefits and conveniences that empirical science and technology have blessed us with. But it would be just as foolish to assume that science and its fruits are, by themselves, sufficient to satisfy our greater human needs. I’m referring, of course, to those ‘immaterial,’ spiritual and psychological needs against which all the material comforts and powers of the world can provide no remedy. There are some persons, now as ever, who recognize no needs beyond those that can be answered by material means. I have nothing further to say to such persons except to be careful that, in placing all your hopes in the basket of materialism, you don’t wind up learning that the more you consume, the emptier and more insatiable your neglected soul becomes.


[1] The implicit trajectory, then, leads from the realm of action to that of contemplation, or reflection—not the other way around. In other words, we are meant to think about what we see and hear, not imitate it (mimesis). As a spur to reflective thought, the art, say, of Shakespeare, is not overtly didactic or even morally exhortatory. Like good psychotherapy, it provides us with clues to potentially profound insights that we arrive at on our own, and in our own way. In great art—and I am thinking here of Plato’s dialogues, as well—comparatively little is spelled out explicitly. Rather, alluring ‘gaps’ are carefully engineered by the writer—gaps that are to be ‘arced’ or filled in by the creative intelligence of the reader or viewer.

[2] In other ways, science is radically divergent from—one might almost say antithetical to—commonsense, as Goethe astutely understood in his ardent and carefully executed campaign against Newtonian physics/optics, so this issue is far from a simple one.


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