I am slowly making my way through the course in the Imaginal, that Buddhist teacher Rob Burbea recorded at Gaia House from his bedroom as he coped with pancreatic cancer.
It’s a rich fusion of Buddhist ideas on emptiness and visualization with the Western tradition of the Imaginal, as found in James Hillman, Carl Jung, Frederic Myers, Henri Corbin, Keats, Coleridge, Blake and so on, all the way back to Plato and Aristotle.
At its heart is the idea that our ordinary sense of reality is fabricated. It’s a fiction, a dream, a story, what Buddhists call ‘a view’.
In the freaky week after I went on an ayahuasca retreat, in 2017, I thought I was dead or in a dream, and that I was perhaps imagining everything that was happening. I could only compare my experience to films like The Truman Show, Inception, Solaris or Twin Peaks.
The belief that you’re fabricating reality is quite a standard belief in psychotic breaks or spiritual emergencies.
Last week, the actor David Harewood bravely explored a psychotic episode he’d had two decades earlier, for a BBC documentary for mental health awareness week. He says: ‘The first time I saw the movie The Matrix I nearly fell out of my chair! It was exactly what it felt like when I was in the grip of my psychotic episode. I felt like the world was an artificial construct and I wasn’t real! Fun at the movies, not so much in the middle of London.’
Several of the contributors to the forthcoming book I’m co-editing on spiritual emergencies said they’d felt the same thing: this isn’t real, this is a dream or the afterlife.
There’s some wisdom in this madness. Cognitive scientists like Anil Seth tell us that our ordinary sense of reality really is constructed. He says: ‘We’re all halllucinating all the time. It’s just that when we agree on that hallucination, we call it reality.’
The canopy of our everyday reality is nailed in with the pegs of habitual expectations. We have deep automatic expectations that our self and the world today will be like they were yesterday. The sun will rise today just like yesterday. Our automatic mind runs a model which shapes our reality. That’s what the Buddhists call a ‘view’.
In moments of mystical or psychotic experience, the pegs of habitual expectation come out. Everything seems wonderfully or terrifyingly new. We are suddenly acutely aware of how fabricated ordinary reality is. Other myths can flood in from our subconscious. It can be a moment of dissolution and terror, but also of rebirth.
Advanced Buddhist practitioners can rest in the state of emptiness, observing the magic theatre calmly without reacting, even if wrathful deities come up and scream at them.
The Theravada / Vipassana tradition which Rob Burbea was trained in, for example, aims to see all stories as empty, and to rest in that emptiness.
But Rob has moved to more of a Tantric position — we can play with the emptiness, using visualizations, images, myths and metaphors. We can imagine new realities.
The 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico said: ‘Metaphors are myths in miniature’.
Our reality takes the shape of the metaphors we use to describe it.
We are ruled by our metaphors. Nature as brutal struggle. The selfish gene. The brain as computer.
If you think of the brain as a computer, your reality will take that shape. If you think of the mind as a mirror reflecting the divine, it will take that shape.
Mystical literature offers us metaphor-maps, imaginative scripts which we can use to expand our souls into many-roomed mansions. I’ve called this psycho-technics, or soul-craft.
Learning to play with the stories and images we use to shape reality is liberating, both for ourselves as individuals and as a society.
What causes suffering, according to Buddhism and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, is fixed, rigid views: ‘I am a loser. I must be liked by you. I mustn’t show weakness. I must always succeed. I’m no good at life. I will never find love.’ And so on. We tell ourselves very negative stories, have very negative images of ourselves, and we cling to our negative beliefs and defend them furiously. ‘No, seriously, I am no good!’
In another of the BBC mental health documentaries from last week, Nadiya Begum, the adorable winner of British Bake-Off, undertook a course of CBT for her chronic anxiety. She traced her panic attacks back to being bullied by racists at her school, and said she constantly had the image of her head being forced into a toilet by the bullies. She was stuck in that image, in her self-abusing self-talk, in the fixed beliefs ‘I am no good’, ‘I am not safe’.
The Upanishads say: ‘We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream.’
We weave the cocoon of our habitual ego-construction with threads of rumination, charged with extraordinary amounts of emotion. We weave a dream-image of ourselves and of the world, which is constantly playing, while we dream and while we wake. And we scream and cry and shout in our sleep. How heavy the dream feels. How solid and inescapable.
I hope Nadiya is finally following the thread out of the labyrinth, bless her.
My friend, who developed paranoid schizophrenia when he was 16, is absolutely sure everyone is trying to kill him. He’s believed this for years. He is also certain I am Lucifer. When he trusts me, he can begin to let go of this belief a little, and say ‘but maybe that’s just my projection’. But he’s still certain everyone is trying to kill him. He refuses to countenance any alternative hypothesis. And he thinks he is the most rational person alive. We are all like him, to some extent, all clinging to very toxic beliefs, all convinced we are right.
I wrote earlier this year about the myths and stories that imprison us as a society. ‘More is good.’ ‘More for you means less for me.’ ‘GDP must grow’. ‘Nature is an inanimate resource for us to exploit.’
Can we loosen our grip on these myths, and open ourselves to other stories, as New Zealand did this week with its first ‘well-being budget’?
In our personal lives, can we become aware of the myths, the fixed beliefs, the views, which shape us and perhaps imprison us? Can we play with other views — the view we more than ‘no good’, that we are perhaps luminous Buddhas or reflections of Divine Love?
We have to be subtle and careful here. Our alternative myths can collapse into fixed views as well. We can grasp onto the view: ‘I am God!’ We can fall into the trap of specialness. We can become lost in our fictions, like the poor Theosophists wrapped up in their absurd myths like some teenage fantasy nerd in his bedroom.
We need to hold everything lightly, and open up the possibility that my ordinary ego-centric reality, which feels so heavy on my shoulders sometimes, is just a fabrication, a web weaved of light and energy and story and attention.
I am talking to you in my sleep, and you are asleep as well, but something within us hears this and smiles.
Now I want to talk about one more thing.
This week I woke up from a difficult dream, and I found I was saying ‘this is the vale of ambiguity’.
In my dream I had a sense of all the challenging things in my life (and our lives) at the moment.
I felt a desire to run away to a cave somewhere and become a hermit-monk. Wouldn’t that tidy things up nicely?
But I woke up feeling, here is where the work is, in the painful messiness of everyday life.
This is the vale of soul-making, according to John Keats, where our souls grow through painful, messy, wonderful experiences.
And it’s also the vale of ambiguity.
Things are not clear in this dimension. That’s part of the agony and excitement.
It’s like the early stage of a romance, when it’s not clear if it’s a serious relationship or not, or is it perhaps the relationship…or is it just a rush?
There’s an unbearable ambiguity. And if you’re like me, you want to collapse the possibilities into fixed certainties, to peer into the box to see if Schrodinger’s cat is definitely dead or definitely alive.
Even if that means killing the cat. Better a definitely dead cat than this unbearable ambiguity.
Part of the work of this life (for me) is to learn how to breathe and tolerate ambiguity, without rushing into fixed, rigid views.
Can I develop my tolerance for uncomfortable ambiguity, resisting the easy consolation of rigid certainties? Can I do that now, in a time of growing crisis, at precisely the moment others harden their grip on dogmas and flags?
Can we bear not knowing… if a relationship will work or not, if a project will succeed or not, if there’s a future for humanity, if there’s an afterlife or not?
I think we can. We can straighten our shoulders, slow our breathing, gather our attention and energy, focus on our physical sensations and thoughts, and just observe, without reacting, without identifying with the story we weave around us.
We can learn to rest in our awareness and enjoy it, and we can even learn to enjoy the ambiguity. Enjoy not knowing. Enjoy the gaps in the webs you weave, that’s how the light shines through.