Does the imagination play a role in spiritual experience, I asked. How about in religious experience?
On a Thursday morning late in the semester, a dozen undergraduates–honors students–and I gathered in a circle in the Laurel Forum, a room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves along one wall, another wall all windows opening onto the campus quad. A gas fireplace, unlit now. Upholstered arm chairs. Not a traditional classroom.
Part One of Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm was assigned for that day. Just before class began, students asked if we could hold class outdoors. It was a deliciously warm spring morning. No. How about if we were to go outside, catch a moth, light it on fire, and watch it burn, asked another. A few students chuckled. They had done their reading.
One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. . . . I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second, writes Dillard. She was reading at night by candlelight. Moths kept flying into the candles.
In this class, The Heart and the Matter: Poetry and Spirituality, we begin each session with a few minutes of mindfulness practice. On this day, to introduce the practice, I invited the students to try to pay closer attention to the physical sensations of breathing than they had been up to this point in the semester, to refine their attention, to notice sensations they hadn’t noticed before.
[The moth’s] moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and created out of the darkness the sudden blue leaves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire.
Notice the difference between the first, comparatively spare description—a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held—and the detailed description that follows. Imagine you are Annie Dillard, I said, paying attention to every physical sensation, no matter how subtle and certainly not as dramatic as Dillard’s moth, of the breath coming and going. With Dillard as your guide, notice sensations that had gone unobserved until now.
Imagination: use it to attend to your own experience the way someone else attends to hers.
Thus: the Chinese pictograph for the word “thus” consists of several elements. One means “meat” or “skin.” A second represents a dog. The third, fire. We learned this from David Hinton’s Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, the text we read before Dillard. When Lao Tzu “wanted a philosophical term to describe the thusness of things in perpetual transformation, an ontological process both grizzly and ablaze with itself,” writes Hinton, he chose the pictograph that represents “dog meat roasting over a blazing fire.”
Life: grizzly and ablaze with itself. A moth’s heaving mouth parts crackling like pistol fire; dog meat roasting over a fire. How we can open and open again and again to the awareness of that? How can we live with the fullness of our being in contact with that? Can the imagination help us make that kind of contact? When we come into such contact, is that experience one we could call spiritual? Is the imagination a faculty we can use to awaken spiritual experience?
Inspired by Hinton and the Chinese system of pictographic writing, I asked the students, for their most recent writing assignment, also due that day, to look at the letters of one of the short poems they had written earlier in the semester. What images (concrete nouns or verbs) are suggested by the shapes of the letters? Translate one of your earlier poems, letter by letter, into these images.
T = temple
h = horse
u = well
s = river
Now use these words in a few lines of a poem.
In the temple, the river of well-being
Flows from worshipper to worshipper
While outside a horse tears grass from the pasture.
Imagination: use it to bring one word into contact with another. To create connections— to discover connections that hadn’t been known until we came along to discover and reveal them.
We long to connect, to stumble on, discover, create connections with others, humans and non-human beings and entities, said one student as we talked that morning about the imagination and spirituality. The experience of connection, connecting to beings and things equal to ourselves, to beings and things other than ourselves, to beings and things greater than ourselves—that’s a spiritual experience, she said. Empathy, feeling what another is feeling, grizzly and ablaze, or at least an approximation of that feeling, is one aspect of the experience of connecting. Empathy is made possible, in part, said another student, by the imagination. It’s also, as we have come to learn in recent years, a neurobiological response to what another is feeling.
Imagination is generative. Even scientists, a chemistry major said, use imagination informed by knowledge to generate new models of the physical universe. What could be deeper, more fundamental, essential, and spiritual than drawing on our generative capacities, our desire, our need to create and create and create again? We are created in the image of, those who practice Western monotheistic religions believe. Like the One—the ultimate Creator, Let there be light, and there was light!—in whose image we are created, we create. What could be more spiritual than that? And for those who don’t believe in a Creator outside of nature who called the universe into being? If they follow or practice Taoism or Ch’an Buddhism, they see themselves as part of the inherently generative nature of the universe itself, the ten thousand things—Presence—endlessly arising out of, returning to, and arising again out of Absence. In either system, exercising the imagination is a way of participating in the spiritual process of Being.
That morning, for the ten thousandth time in my career as an educator, I listened and responded, responded and listened and learned together with the students. When we began the class, I didn’t know where the conversation would lead—how and if we could connect what we’d been reading and writing to our lived and longed for experience. Somehow, connections, surprising and revealing connections were made. Somehow, over the course of that 75 minutes, with the help of the imagination, we created and discovered a sense of connection to each other and to something greater than the sum of the individuals present in that room. I can’t speak for the students, but I know that I left that class feeling spiritually awake and alive. The classroom had been transformed into a temple, and those of us gathered there—in body, mind, and spirit, with all of our intelligences and all of our imaginations—were the fire that provided illumination and that one day, we knew—may it not be any day soon!—would consume us.
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Written by: Richard Chess
Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost (University of Tampa Press 2017), Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. His work has been included in Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. Find more at www.richardchess.com.