Towards an Imaginal Ecology

This essay, originally written in May 2013, has now been published in the inaugural issue of ReImagining Magazine, a publication created by the Chicago Wisdom Project.

“To speak, to ask to have audience today in the world, requires that we speak to the world, for the world is in the audience; it too is listening to what we say.”[1] With these words James Hillman opens his essay “Anima Mundi” in which he speaks of the return of soul to the world. Such is the task we face as a species, as human beings, as we learn to cultivate a different kind of relationship with our planet, the Earth which supports our very existence. But what eyes can we use to see the soul of the world? What languages can we speak to call out to the anima mundi? With what ears shall we listen to hear the Earth’s voices in reply?

To read the rest of this article please see: “Towards An Imaginal Ecology

Imaginal Ecology

[1] James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc., 2007), 91.

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From Waldorf to CIIS: Knowing Imagination

This short piece was written as a contribution to a longer essay written by Robert McDermott for the anthroposophical magazine Being Human, edited by John Beck. It appears alongside contributions from Matt Segall and Jeremy Strawn within the context of Robert’s article, Spirituality Affirmed By CIIS

Waldorf Painting of MountainWhy do Waldorf students learn to knit? Why are we introduced to the letter M through the story of a double-peaked mountain, or to V through a tale told in a steep valley? Why are numbers split by Prince Divide, but increased rapidly by Princess Multiply and her little companion butterfly named Of? Why is each classroom wall painted in the ascending order of the rainbow’s spectrum?

As a child in a Waldorf School, the reasoning behind the lessons we engaged in—whether of craftworks and art, bodily expression and poetic movement, of color, sound, and story—were not usually explained to us. In Rudolf Steiner’s pedagogy, the importance lies as much in how a subject is taught as it does in what is taught. Waldorf Schools create not only a unique curriculum, but a unique environment, an atmosphere that one inhales on a day to day basis. If one word could be chosen to capture what such an environment nurtures and develops, it is the capacity of the child’s imagination. If the portal of imagination is allowed to remain open, if it is nourished and kept safe, strengthened and tested through adolescence to maturity, then the reasons behind the teaching of every form of creative practice—from material arts, to etheric movement, from astral knowledge, to personal wisdom—become apparent on their own.

While the spiritual science of anthroposophy is not explicitly taught to Waldorf students, except sometimes as an optional course to graduating high school seniors, the place within the student’s soul in which spiritual science can come to be understood is nurtured through the long arc of the curriculum. When the time comes to leave the imaginative womb of Waldorf education, questions regarding the why of Steiner’s methods may come forth.

As a graduate student whose childhood was shaped by Steiner’s educational approach, I found that the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at CIIS felt like a mature extension of my Waldorf Schooling. Here I was invited not only to continue to keep the doorway to the imaginal open wide, unlike at many other universities and graduate institutions, but I could also begin to explore the reasons behind the form of education that shaped me. Not only is Steiner directly taught in PCC, but many of the graduate program’s other courses can engage with questions initially brought forth by some of my high school and even grade school classes. A continuity of ideas flows between these forms of education, which I feel stems  not only from a recognition of the body, soul, and spirit as channels of knowledge and wisdom, but also a profound respect for the power of the imaginative vision.

Towards An Imaginal Ecology: Presentation for PCC Integrative Seminar

As the final part of the Integrative Seminar, the capstone course of the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness master’s program, I gave this presentation as part of a day-long seminar with twelve of my fellow graduates in May 2013. The accompanying paper can be found here, and a shorter introduction is available here.

Integrative Seminar Symposium Flyer

To Travel to the Green Lake

Our minds felt as thick and hazy as the air of Ohio as we departed Cincinnati in the mid-day 104° heat. Our musical accompaniment thrummed out the rhythms of the road, syncopating to the rhythms of our thoughts and musings: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Jimmy Cliff, Rockapella, Benny Goodman, Johnny A. The journey from Cincinnati to West Bloomfield, Michigan, though by far the shortest of our adventure so far––totaling 282 miles––never really picked up the speedy ease of our previous drives. The roads had more lanes, more congestion, and weaving trucks. The landscape never opened out into expanses of nature as it had on other days, but stayed more stubbornly embroiled in suburb, city, and monocrop farm.

About halfway there, while massive military planes flew overhead to their local air force bases, we suddenly realized the gas tank was nearly spent! It was the first time we had not filled up before departing our starting location. As we awaited a gas station to announce itself on the roadside signs, I fell back to thinking about the greatest difficulty I have with undertaking this particular road trip: burning the gallons upon gallons of gas it takes to drive over 6,000 miles across the country and back. Yes it is expensive, but in the long run such a trip is far more expensive when counted not solely in monetary terms. The cost to the environment, from extraction and refinement, to the releasing of CO2 from our exhaust pipe, to the cost in human lives from war and corrupt politics, spreads a dark stain across our more simple desire to view the country from the ground level while visiting friends and family. How do I justify being able to take this road trip? The costs are no better had I flown; the use of petroleum is just more hidden when one is not filling up the tank oneself at least once a day. The correlation between the burning oil and the burning weather we drove through could not seem more apparent.

I love to travel. It is a major part of who I am, no matter where it is I am exploring. Meeting new people, having deep conversations in different accents, sampling new food, smelling new lands, hearing new cities, delving further into familiar haunts of years past. A different side of myself is able to come out in such situations. But it seems that traveling as it has been thus far in my lifetime may be rapidly becoming an activity of a bygone era. Flights and long car trips will become less feasible, or at least less justifiable to people like myself who are beginning to consider the greater costs of such privilege. Will it ever be possible to reconcile my passionate love of travel with my deep love for the Earth? It is an issue with which I struggle greatly. Yet I think with such joy on my own past adventures, and long for so many more as I hear the stories of those who have gone further than I.

After what felt like a longer drive than usual (although much shorter in reality), we pulled into the familiar driveway of my aunt and uncle’s home on Green Lake in Michigan, just outside Detroit. The shape of the house, the lawn, the trees, the dock, all had a familiar resonance that pulled forward archives of summers spent here. My cousin, who is becoming increasingly similar to my uncle in looks and mannerisms as he gets older, greeted us with a smile at the door. It was like coming back to a distant home away from home.

The weather, still oppressively hot despite the descending sun, sent us into the teal waters of Green Lake. My childhood fear of the lake weeds growing in the deepening waters off the shore led us to take the paddle boat––the same one I had played on as a little girl––out onto the deeper waters surrounding the diving board raft. Cannonballs off the raft into the sixty-foot deep waters quickly erased the weary of the road and the heat of the day. We paddled around for about an hour, resting on the step that protrudes off the raft just below the water’s surface, the three of us discussing the last few years of our lives, biodynamic farming, California vineyards, Rudolf Steiner, hitchhiking, crossing international borders, and many other topics. I enjoy seeing how similar threads of interest run between all my cousins, but also how we each weave those threads into our own tapestry.

The following day, the seventh of the trip, we spent relaxing at Green Lake, my cousin and I going for a wind-deprived sail in the neighbor’s little Sunfish boat, while Matt kept pace with us in a bright red kayak. Upon our return I convinced myself that if I could not get over my fear of lake weeds and swim to the raft at this point in my life I would never be able to and would wallow in shame until the next opportunity. So while no one watched I took a deep breath and left the safe sandy shallows and began to swim out over the dark green weeds. I jumped more than once as one or two tickled my stomach, and my imagination exploded with images of snapping turtles, eels, giant catfish, and demonic leeches all with a particular hunger to eat free-range Becca. But before long I reached the deep open water where I was safe (theoretically), and I floated along peacefully on my back until I persuaded myself to make the return journey. Eventually, of course, I did and arrived thoroughly out of breath (from outpacing the monsters) but also proud of myself for taking on my childhood fear.

Photo by Paul Tarnas

Photo by Paul Tarnas

As dusk came on more Tarnases came over to visit and Matt was able to meet another uncle and aunt, plus my grandfather. We all talked until the sun sank below the horizon and the candles, mosquitoes, and fireflies came out. Green Lake puts on their Independence Day firework show the weekend after July 4th, so we were treated to a second showing this year. As the colored rockets exploded in the night sky, I sat with my grandfather who was thrilled with the spectacle. I appreciated having the time to speak with him; he is almost 89, and is a gem mine of stories, of which I was able to hear several, sometimes interwoven with each other in a creative narrative. It was wonderful to hear him say he is happy.

Today we leave early for Bennington, Vermont to see more of the Tarnas family, and also to achieve the main objective of this road trip: to retrieve my belongings that I have not seen since my college graduation.

At the Cosmic Midnight Hour: Karma and Rebirth in Rudolf Steiner and Sri Aurobindo

When one has an encounter in the world, be it a deep sense of familiarity or peace in an unknown landscape, an attraction to an area of study, or a strong desire to make a connection with a newly met individual, that experience of novelty can often be intermingled with a quality of memory. Yet, while this remembering may have no connection to one’s present life, it still has an inexplicable air of destiny; this may be no memory of the mind, but of the spirit. It is a reencountering of the result of one’s own actions, but the actions of a previous lifetime. It is a lesson learned by a former self, a fruit nourished and watered by one’s prior being, to be plucked and savored in this lifetime. It is a seed of the past, a representation of one’s karma.

The spiritual understanding of karma and reincarnation has been central to numerous cultures worldwide, and still flourishes in many religious and spiritual communities. Interpretations of both rebirth and karma differ greatly from tradition to tradition, and even person to person, as the fundamental questions of human existence are repeatedly asked by each generation. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is the purpose of the universe? Are there spiritual realms? Who, or what, is divine? While many answers have been given, those of two of the great spiritual and philosophical thinkers of the turn of the 20th century, Sri Aurobindo and Rudolf Steiner, speak not only to the unity of the divine in the universe, but also of the reality of the seeking and striving human individual.

For Steiner and Aurobindo the roles of karma and rebirth are central to their philosophies and spiritual practices. Although Steiner hailed from Europe, Aurobindo from India, their views of reincarnation were either contrary to or differentiated from the prevalent beliefs established in their regions, but also deeply resonant with each other’s perspectives. Aurobindo brought to India a more Western view of the reality of the individual, and Steiner was given the weighty task of reintroducing the ideas of karma and rebirth to the West, from which they had been absent following the widespread establishment of Christianity (NES, 6). They both saw the cycles of human reincarnation as an evolutionary process, an evolution of the individual and of the whole of humanity, the universe, and the divine.

Rebirth, for Steiner and Aurobindo, could be defined as the joining of spirit to life and matter (EA, 92). Steiner called the moment when one karmic life ends and the new karmic life begins the “cosmic midnight hour” (NES, 47). Rebirth is a joining of the old with the new, the eternal spirit with a newly formed body, mind, and personality (EA, 265). Sculpting each life is one’s karma, one’s self-created destiny, which is formed by the prior actions of one’s spirit inhabiting other bodies during previous lifetimes (NES, 197). Our karma shapes not only the bodies, families, and cultures we are born into, but the road we travel and the obstacles and turns we will meet. How we will journey down this road, and interact with what and whom we meet upon it, is within our own freedom to choose, yet will lay the foundations for our future life’s karma as well. Both Aurobindo and Steiner emphasized the importance of one’s personal experience, how we choose to travel our path; it was through their own personal experiences that they each came to their spiritual understandings of karma and rebirth.

Aurobindo writes that “if the soul enters this life with a certain development of personality, it must have prepared it in other precedent lives here [on Earth] or elsewhere” (EA, 95). Each human comes into the world with a fully unique personality, which cannot be reduced merely to physical heredity or one’s familial upbringing. Such a materialist perspective implies that the only part of us that persists beyond death would be our genes in our descendents, and possibly the fading memory of our actions in the minds of others (EA, 93). While we inherit the shape of our physical bodies from our parents, according to Steiner we inherit the shape of our spirits from ourselves. Although Homo sapiens is one biological species of which we are a part, each human individual is a spiritual species of which we are the whole (NES, 186). For Steiner this spirit is called the “I,” for Aurobindo the “psychic being” and it is this part of us alone which reincarnates (NES, 48, EA, 265).

Unlike the Advaita Vedantist and Buddhist beliefs prevalent in India, Aurobindo held the understanding that the human individual spirit was truly real, just as Brahman, also called Satchitananda, the divinity that is everything, is also real. In Advaita Vedanta, while all is Brahman, the human self is merely an illusion created by Maya (EA, 101). Similarly, the ultimate truth in Buddhism is that there is no self; therefore rebirth, and also the karma that drives rebirth, must also be an illusion. A soul which is merely an illusion cannot be eternal (EA, 96). Yet, if all is Brahman and Brahman is real, how is it that each human being also can have an eternal soul that is real? Aurobindo writes, “If the soul is real and immortal, not a constructed being or figure of being, it must also be eternal, beginningless in the past even as endless in the future…” (EA, 95). Brahman and the individual self can both be real because all of existence is in a process of evolution. According to Aurobindo, Brahman, or Satchitananda, involved itself in Matter, and has been in evolution through the levels of Life, Mind and Spirit, a process that is only possible because of the reality of each individual who is evolving (EA, 109, 258). While the involution of Satchitananda may be regarded as the beginning of existence, it seems to be a beginning outside of time, therefore all souls can be “beginningless in the past” of time and “endless in the future.”

The reality of the individual spirit is as central to Steiner’s philosophy as it is to Aurobindo’s. The levels of Aurobindo––Matter, Life, Mind, and Spirit––have many similarities to the four bodies of Steiner: the physical body; the etheric, or life, body; the astral, or soul, body; and the “I,” or spirit body (EA, 109, NES, 129). The bodies Steiner describes also relate to the levels of minerals, plants, animals, and humans. For both Steiner and Aurobindo each level carries with it the characteristics of the prior level, which are all ultimately divine. Each human being has a spirit body, or an “I,” which participates in a greater “I;” this greater “I” could be called the divine, God, Brahman, Satchitananda, or the universe, and it too is in a process of evolution, in part because of the evolution of the individual human “I”s.

Reincarnation of the human spirit is key to both Steiner’s and Aurobindo’s understanding of evolution. The spirit is shaped by not only its life between birth and death, but between death and new birth as well. Steiner described the period between death and new life as like the period of sleep we enter into each night. During sleep the astral and “I” bodies depart the physical and etheric bodies to spend time in the spiritual realm (NES, 44). After death a similar departure from the physical takes place and, according to both Steiner and Aurobindo, the human spirit enters the spiritual world (EA, 100).

In his writings Steiner goes into far greater detail than Aurobindo on the journey of the human spirit, or the three non-physical bodies, after death occurs in the physical realm. The etheric body remains with the astral body and the “I” for three days after death to present the life that has just been lived to the astral body (NES, 44). The astral and “I” subsequently undergo the two-fold experience of kamaloca, in which first the astral body is purified by moving through the frustration of no longer experiencing the pleasures of earthly existence. Upon full purification, which takes up to one third the length of the life just ended, the astral body is able to dissolve (NES, 45). The second stage of kamaloca is the period in which only the “I,” or psychic being, remains, and relives its entire life in reverse from the perspectives of the recipients of all its actions (NES, 45). It is during this stage that the karma for the following life is laid, the final moments before the “cosmic midnight hour.”

The “I” relives its life in the presence of the greater spiritual beings of the universe. It is with the help of these beings that our lives are guided, as they whisper wisdom to us during sleep, and help us shape the karma of our future lives after death (NES, 46). “We first become aware of what our last evil or good deeds signify for the world. Our experience of them while on Earth is now eliminated; what we now experience is their significance for the world” (NES, 45). Although in some passages Steiner writes of the effect of our deeds only upon other human beings, in the previously quoted sentence he broadens that view to encompass the world. This holds particular significance for the karmic structures being laid down by humanity today, as the destruction many human beings have been unleashing upon the earth becomes rapidly more apparent.

The spiritual beings in whose presence we re-experience our lives “rain down their sympathies and antipathies” upon our actions. We release our good deeds into the universe to further its evolution, but we retain our evil deeds as the new work for our future life (NES, 46). Thus it is that we take our progressive steps from one lifetime to the next, building upon the lessons we learned that will guide us toward new ones.

The new life begins with the formation of our astral and etheric bodies, which are created with the help of spiritual beings and planetary forces. These bodies are formed as the “I” passes the spheres of the Sun and the stars, and are determined by the limitations and attainments of the former life (NES, 47). These three bodies join the physical body, which, like the parents, has also been karmically chosen, in the womb a few weeks after conception. Similar to Steiner, Aurobindo writes, “The human birth in this world is on its spiritual side a complex of two elements, a spiritual Person and a soul of personality; the former is man’s eternal being, the latter is his cosmic and mutable being” (EA, 109). For Aurobindo, even the form of the physical body is dependent on the condition of the human soul, and Steiner writes that what is unique about our physical bodies––rather than what is inherited from our ancestors––is shaped by our soul body (EA, 92, NES, 189).

Upon emerging once again into earthly existence we find it is much like awakening from a long night’s sleep. The results of our previous life actions have the effect of memory upon us, unrolling our karmic destiny before us (NES, 187). We even reencounter the same human individuals from one life to the next, as our actions throughout our lives connect us to each other (NES, 196). We do not do our work upon the earth alone. During the life between birth and death the astral body, which is the carrier of memory, “receives impressions from the outer world and carries them to the spirit, which extracts and preserves their fruits” (NES, 193). It is the spirit that carries the attainments of these fruits from lifetime to lifetime, which furthers not only the evolution of the individual but the evolution of humanity and the universe (NES, 191).

This work is far beyond the span of a single lifetime, which is the reason that many human lives on earth are needed for this process (EA, 112). However, although the spirit of the individual is real and eternal, the complete human born each lifetime is unique, and work done in one life cannot be achieved in the same way in another. The imminence of death is as real as the eternal spirit, and can serve as a powerful impetus to do the work and learn the lessons this particular life has to offer.

Because the divine involved itself in matter and is in a process of evolution, every rebirth is a unique expression of the divine (EA, 259). In each human being the divine is born with the inner qualities of that person. Therefore, every action is an action of both the human and the divine, and it is those divine actions which forge our karma. For karma to be real, the individual, and the divine that is the individual, must both be real as well. Through the individual the divine is thus able to come to consciousness (EA, 105). Aurobindo writes that “A spiritual evolution of which our universe is the scene and earth its ground and stage, though its plan is still kept back above from our yet limited knowledge––this way of seeing existence is a luminous key which we can fit into many doors of obscurity” (EA, 259). Existence has a true purpose if reincarnation is seen as an evolutionary process, in which the human spirit and the world evolve together toward consciousness, and ultimately, toward bliss (EA, 267, 268).

Aurobindo and Steiner both developed spiritual practices with which to accomplish our tasks during our lifetimes; for Aurobindo this was Integral Yoga, for Steiner it was Spiritual Science, also called Anthroposophy. Steiner said that our task was to connect to our life before birth through free thinking; for Aurobindo our task was to know our previous lives and to connect to the unity of which we are a part (NES, 48, EA, 265). Both of them are offering spiritual practices that can connect us as individuals to the spirit realm in which we exist between lifetimes, the realm in which we can understand our unity with the whole. The spiritual practices of both these great thinkers are ultimately actions of love through freedom, and love can only be real when it emerges between entities that are real beings. As such, the evolution of the divine through the evolution of the universe is a process of love, as the real individuals that are each unique expressions of the divine are reborn again and again, and learn to come into true loving relationship with the whole.

Works Cited

McDermott, Robert A, ed., The Essential Aurobindo. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1987.

McDermott, Robert A, ed., The New Essential Steiner. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2009.