Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.
(The Master & his Emissary: page 115)
Right now I am deeply grateful to someone whom I had never heard of two weeks ago.
Alison Flood wrote in the Guardian in 2009:
Maitreyabandhu, who has been ordained into the Western Buddhist Order for 19 years, says his love of poetry began when a friend read him the first five verses of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy. “It was one of those moments when one discovers a new ecstasy, even a new calling. After that I read and re-read Shelley and Keats obsessively and used their poetry to explore ancient Buddhist themes,” he said. “WH Auden says, ‘The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us’. The same could be said of Buddhism. I approach poetry, in one sense as a distillation of peak experience, in another as finding meaning in the everyday – as such, poetry has become another strand of my spiritual practice.”
In the two years since then he has moved to a place from which he can write about poetry and spirituality with a degree of wisdom I have rarely encountered before. He is grappling with a set of interrelated issues that have preoccupied me for many years: the value of imagination, the nature of creativity and its relationship with compassion, the purpose and nature of poetry and the light all of this might shed on mind/brain processes. I have achieved some clarity about some of that but the angle that he views these issues from will be invaluable in moving my thinking forwards, I suspect. (For more on some of my own struggles so far see the links at the bottom of the page.)
I have long been aware that imagination, rather like fire, is a good friend but a dangerous enemy. I remember vaguely, from my days as a student of English Literature, Coleridge’s distinction between fancy and imagination. I have pondered on the dichotomy the Bahá’í scriptures point up. On the one hand we have imagination as a power of the human spirit as described by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:
Man has . . . spiritual powers: imagination, which conceives things; thought, which reflects upon realities; comprehension, which comprehends realities; memory, which retains whatever man imagines, thinks and comprehends.
(Some Answered Questions: page 210)
On the other hand, we have ‘vain imaginings’ that are not to be trusted.
People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.
So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges?
He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):
I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. 1 want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.
He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):
At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . . Fancy, to use the words of Iggy Pop, is just “The same old thing in brand new drag” ‑ the usual contents of experiences but put together in unusual, arbitrary combinations. It has all the impact of novelty, and is typified by the kind of poetry that juxtaposes a zebra, a hypodermic syringe, an orange and a stick of underarm deodorant. With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.
Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):
Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. In other words, imagination selects and transforms the data of experience, giving it new depth and purchase. … to illuminate meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.
Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.
He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):
In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?
Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.
Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end reminded me of a passage, in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which has remained with me ever since I read it more than 30 years ago. He makes a distinction between two types of stimuli (page 269):
What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. [Such stimuli invite you to become] actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your ‘object’ . . . by becoming more awake and more alive.
The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.
While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.
The rest of the article, to which I shall return later, concerns itself with the light which aspects of Buddhist philosophy shed on this whole problem. I shall do my best to convey what he is saying even though I’m not sure I understand it yet myself.
- The Experience of Poetry (1/2): dimming the glare of language
- The Experience of Poetry (2): edges of unease
- The Master & his Emissary
- Practising Compassion (2/2)