What is this precious love and laughter
Budding in our hearts?
It is the glorious sound
Of a soul waking up!
The mystical path of the Islamic spiritual tradition is called Sufism and can be understood as a profound cosmology of inner metaphysics which functions as an internal roadmap, leading the traveler to a reunion with the divine. The writings of Ibn ‘Arabi which illuminate the esoteric teachings and philosophy of this mystical tradition were brought to the West through the work of the late Henry Corbin and Emanuel Swedenborg. In his philosophical writings, Ibn ‘Arabi replaces the idea of a personal god with a philosophical concept of oneness that he calls wahdat al-wujûd.
Through an initiation experience and a surrendering to the Beloved, the adept moves through various “stations” on the path to wahdat al-wujûd, or unity of existence.
The word Islam, which means “peace,” is a surrendering to the Beloved that initiates one
on the path of devotion. Devotion is a state described by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee in Sufism, Transformation of the Heart, as “an opening of the heart to the grace that flows through love”
This profound inner experience as part of the journey back “home” is “a living reality” that every traveler on the spiritual path seeks . Vaughan-Lee tells us that it is through this deep inner experience of spiritual awakening through the heart that “we come to know our connection with the Divine” .
This initial experience of unity then dissolves into a profound sense of shattering
which facilitates a movement into the journey back to (w)holiness. The shattering, described in depth psychological terms, is a fall from Grace, and requires an act of Grace to be restored. There is hardly any other way to wholeness except through this experience of profound shattering, which leads to a new sense of self/Self. To not experience a sense of shattering is to remain in what Carl Jung calls a state of undifferentiated consciousness, symbolized by the alchemical ourobouros, or
dragon eating its tail.
In the Sufi tradition, this deep inner experience of initiation is called Tauba, which is the
experience of Divine Love necessary for the hearts awakening. The “moment of tauba” often comes upon us as a wounding; a deep inner mystical experience which is both ecstatic and blissful, even as it is profoundly shattering. Vaughan-Lee calls the “state of oneness with God” (i) the unio mystica, and this complete awareness of oneness with the Divine, followed by the sense of profound separation, creates a deep longing to be reunited with God again.
In Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Annemarie Schimmel refers to the concept of Tauba as the “first station on the Path,” or the beginning, of the Wayfarer’s journey. Schimmel goes on to describe Tauba as an inner experience that “can be awakened in the soul by any outward event” (109). The world of the Sacred is not to be found in outer things, but in inner experience through the initiation of Tauba which brings about a ‘repentance,’ or a spontaneous “turning away from the concerns of the world’ in order to dance with the Divine alone in the deepest recesses of one’s being.
Vaughan-Lee describes ‘repentance’ as the “turning of the heart” where the seeker
becomes aware of the “divine consciousness of the Self that is found within the heart” .
The journey that the wayfarer, who is known as the salik or murid, takes, is a path through different “stations,” that Schimmel calls “maqams” (98). The journey through these maqams leads to an ever increasing experience of oneness with the Divine. The murid is defined as one who is committed to the path itself and needs the guidance of a master (sheikh) while journeying through the various maqams.
The sheikh offers instructions and guidelines on how to “behave in each mental state” and sometimes places the murid in necessary periods of seclusion of forty days
In The Garden of Truth, Seyyed Hossein Nasr describes the path of the journey as one that moves in a vertical ascension from outer to inner in a series of concentric circles, where the outer world (exoteric) and inner perception (esoteric) become a seamless unity. The Path, called altarîqah, begins as one which follows the outer circumference of the wheel, and eventually turns inward toward the hub at the center (104). Every person follows a different path to the center, which as Nasr tells us, “concerns our basic relation as human beings to God” (104).
The inner journey is reflected by outward experience, where the wayfarer prays to be guided on “the path of ascent and therefore to transcend ordinary human consciousness and life” (104). Described as a mystical path that symbolically ascends by means of a ladder (Schimmel, 105), the inner journey allows one to reach a “there” that is also simultaneously a “here” at the deepest center of one’s being, known as the Self.
Martin Lings, in What is Sufism? describes the idea of the mystical journey as “the inward deepening or ebbing of the finite self in the direction of its divine principle” (29) where outer meaning is contained within inner experience and meaning.
A deep sense of disconnect, or existential homelessness is a pervasive human condition that only finds the path out of exile by going within. Vaughan-Lee tells us that “The journey from the ego to the Self is the eternal journey of the soul, of the exile returning home” , while Lings describes man’s status as an exile as one that requires the spiritual center to be a more powerful symbolic home than any external home could ever be (37).
Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the thirteenth century mystical poet of Persia, often wrote about the sense of exile in human beings. In Islam, a Short History, Karen Armstrong describes Rūmī’s writings and experiences as being “suffused by a sense of cosmic homelessness and separation from God, the Divine Source” (101).
This sense of cosmic homelessness and separation that both Rūmī and Karen Armstrong refer to alludes to the inability of human beings to connect to their deepest origins, or their primal ground of being, and because of this primal disconnect, they are alienated from the Divine source of life itself.
The idea of the primal ground of being, where the roots of origin transcend the relative and reach the absolute, is defined by Karl KerŽnyi in Essays on a Science of Mythology as a field called the mundus. For Kerényi, this realm contains both the relative and the absolute origins of human experience and expression. The initiation experience of Tauba is the vehicle that opens one to the infinite realm of the mundus, called the ‘alam al-mithal in Sufism. Henry Corbin, in Alone with the Alone, calls this imaginal realm the mundus imaginalis, an intermediary world “between the
corporeal and the spiritual state and whose organ of perception is the active Imagination” (47). The mundus imaginalis or ‘alam al-mithal is the realm where visionary events occur, and a return to this imaginal center is symbolically re-enacted by the pilgrimage to Mecca and the circumambulation around the Ka’aba because it is believed that “communication with the ‘alam almithal is only possible at the ‘center of the world'” (53). Referred to as the imaginal eighth clime, or station, the ‘alam al-mithal is thought to be the middle realm between man and the Divine where
the Angels reside.
In Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, Henry Corbin describes, among other things, the
spatial philosophy of Avicenna’s cosmology which seeks to situate, or “orient” (hence “Oriental” philosophy) the traveler within the cosmos in a very precise way. The process of finding one’s orientation, or location within the universe, is based upon the premise that life is essentially a journey of the soul, where physical existence in a physical universe is the vehicle through which the soul experiences and witnesses its own processes within the journey itself.
Not only does Avicenna describe the horizontal directions of North, South, East, and West, he describes the vertical dimensions, held by the two opposing poles of North and South which constitute the poles of the center, or the axis mundi.
The resulting figure is the Ka’aba, or cube, symbolized by the sixpointed isometric star, known as the Solomon’s Seal. The total number of primary spheres, or climes in Sufist cosmology, is nine, which ascend in concentric circles from smallest to largest, moving like a spiral around the center pole. The first seven spheres are the material spheres, symbolized by the seven planets, and the eighth sphere is a celestial sphere associated with the “Fixed Stars,” or pole stars. A ninth sphere, also a celestial sphere, is the known as the “Ultimate” Sphere of Spheres, and was added by the ancient Egyptian
astronomer Ptolemy. The Ultimate sphere enveloped all of the other spheres and communicated the diurnal motion to the whole. Ptolemy’s Theory of Eccentrics and Epicylces acknowledged the motion of a precession by which the fixed stars of the equinoxes have a slow and continuous increase in vertical movement, or longitude. Ptolemy’s theories, which have largely been proven to be incredibly accurate, were the primary theories utilized by the Arab culture.
Avicenna’s cosmology paired each sphere with a designated mysterious mythical “city” that exhibited specific psychic symbolic qualities and characteristics. The eighth sphere, or clime, of the ‘alam al-mithal is the realm of the mystical emerald city called the Hurqualya, and is considered to be the gateway to the eternal and unknowable Divine. In the tradition of the Kaballah, this realm is also called the malakut, or the shekinah, and is the realm of the divine feminine, symbolized by the Black Stone in the Ka’aba.
This invisible realm is the realm of the Angels, and of the anima mundi, or world soul. The sufis communicated with the Angels through the process of active Imagination
which came through direct contact with the ‘alam al-mithal.
In Western consciousness, with the triumph of Aristotelian thought based upon the ideas of Averroes (over the Ptolemic/Platonic/Neo-Platonic thought based upon Avicenna), the
psychological dimension in consciousness where this type of mystical and non-ordinary experience can even be considered has fundamentally been lost.
Tom Cheetham, in Green Man, Earth Angel, calls this loss of consciousness The Great Disjunction, and reveals that Henry Corbin described the loss of this psychological realm in human consciousness as the great “metaphysical
For Cheetham, the prevalence of Averroe’s philosophy means the disappearance
of the anima mundi, and consequently a loss of soul. The imaginal realm of the Mundus Imaginalis is, for Corbin, the realm of the holy spirit, the realm of “being” from whence all visions and symbols arise. Corbin describes the Mundus Imaginalis as an imaginal realm rather than a purely imaginary, or fantasy, realm, and this critical distinction between imaginal and imaginary is the necessary piece that facilitates the creative ability within human beings necessary for living in a world that is constantly changing.
Corbin states that all dualisms stem from the loss of the Mundus Imaginalis, where the paradox between the outer of material existence and the inner of our spiritual nature meets.
The experience of the mystic is not valued in Western culture. Vaughan-Lee tells us that
“the mystic seeks to have a direct inner relationship with the divine without the intercession of a priest” (52). For those in the West who have had an initiation experience of Tauba, the loss of the state of consciousness large enough to contain this psychological experience leads to a loss of soul.
For Ibn ‘Arabi, the mystical experience intensified his life, and with this increasing intensity, as Corbin states, “his circumambulations, real or imagined, of the Ka’aba internalized as a ‘cosmic center’ nourished a speculative effort to which inner visions and theophanic perceptions lent experimental confirmation” (Alone with the Alone, 52).
The increasing intensity can be visualized as the spiraling (like a spring) of inner energies moving faster, and is symbolized by the ecstatic dancing of the Whirling Dervishes who dance around the perceived still point of the turning world.
The orientation of the four cardinal points combined with the pole stars, symbolized by the Seal of Solomon, create the vehicle of ascension known as the Merkavah, which moves the traveler up through the spheres to the mythical eighth realm of Hurqualya, also known as the Hyperborea, the mystical land of the Northern Lights which arise from neither the East nor the West.
The late Italian writer Italo Calvino describes the mystical cities in his book Invisible Cities. A treatise on the complete book is an entirely different study, but I would like to mention one chapter here as it relates to the eighth clime, the Hurqualya, or Mundus Imaginalis. The chapter, called “Thin Cities,” tells the story of a city called Octavia, the spider-web city. From the name of the city, Octavia, which means eighth, one finds a direct symbolic reference to the eighth clime.
Because it is called the spider-web city, it points to what religious historian Wendy Doniger calls the “web” of the implied spider, with a hub at the center and spokes, or strands, moving outward to the circumference. In Calvino’s tale, Octavia is the city that spans across the precipice of a void between two steep mountains. In Sufism, the traveler is trying to reach the mythical Mount Qaf, which symbolically points to a bridging of psychic consciousness in depth psychological terms.
To arrive in the eighth clime, is, with the assistance of the hermetic character of Khidr, to arrive in Octavia which spans and bridges the precipice. Calvino calls the “web” the foundation of the city, “a net that serves as passage and as support” (75). In the telling of his tales about the invisible cities, Tom Cheetham in Green Man, Earth Angel, suggests that Calvino gives space to what does not belong in the earthly realm, to what is not visibly present but is sensed and felt in the nondiscrete space of inner experience (9).
The mystical experience of Tauba is similar to the idea that Plato expresses in The
Phaedrus in his story of Orethuia’s abduction by the Northwind, Boreas, while playing with the pharmakon. The pharmakon, (abduction by the Northwind) serves as both a poison and remedy, and is the necessary event that pulls one into the underworld experience which initiates the journey home.
Cheetham states that rationality works primarily by ignoring most of inner experience and focusing solely upon the externals. Mythic experience, especially an abduction or a fall into the underworld, demands a consciousness large enough and sensitive enough to navigate the deep inner experience, where the imaginal reveals an active principle of imagination that opens and reveals the depth and mystery of life itself, while placing the human in the context of the nonhuman (10). As Cheetham reveals, “we have found our way into a closed world and have mistaken it for the infinite universe. We do not know our place, and we do not know our peril” (11).
A movement of grounding, of finding “home” requires the ability to think with the heart verses thinking with the brain, relying on what the Sufi’s call the heart-mind. The concept of “home” finds its grounding in the Greek archetype of Hestia who tends the hearth, the place of the fire, and the oikos. Cheetham describes the power of Hestia as one that “creates a social place, but is not a public space, not indiscriminately laid bare” (16) where the balance between visible and invisible worlds can be held in consciousness both individually and collectively.
The necessary task, then is to bring a deepening awareness of the imaginal realm back into human consciousness, where experiences and perceptions that have been marginalized in Western thought and culture can be understood in a more thorough light.
An active engagement of the psyche through dreamwork and creative endeavors, along with a deepening of the intuitive capacity in the human psyche, can enable human consciousness to heal the psychic split brought about by the Great Disconnect of the psyche from its origins. Rethinking the role that the mundus Imaginalis and the active Imagination plays in the journey of the human spirit throughout time reveals how important the gift of being a conscious participant in the creation of the world really is.