Imagining Infinite Play

One of my favorite thinkers, the writer, activist, occultist, and now podcaster Conner Habib, writes and talks a lot about the importance of imagining and creating a new world. A self-described utopianist, Conner uses a really brilliant and helpful image to represent this bold vision of possibility: Bugs Bunny, chased into an alley until he reaches a brick wall, then pulling a marker out of his pocket and drawing a door which he can open and enter just before his pursuer reached him. This is also reminiscent of one of my favorite childhood books, Harold and the Purple Crayon, in which the protagonist literally creates his world as moves through it. There is a key for us embedded in these images. At this point, it appears there is only one way out; our backs are against the wall. And that doorway contains infinite possibility.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we are indeed on the edge of a collective precipice. What has led us to this point is a web of causes and conditions too vast to explore here, but important that they should be named. They include, but are not limited to, the interconnected web of: Neoliberalism, capitalism, our pillaging and raping of the planet, the culture of imperialism, settler colonialism and white supremacy, patriarchal culture, and rampant materialism that breeds greed and fosters an utter misunderstanding of the nature of what it is to be alive on the Earth. The problems we face globally are complex beyond measure.

In an article called “How to make enemies and influence people: anatomy of the anti-bugsbunnysoursepluralist, totalitarian mindset” that grows ever-increasingly significant by the day, creativity researcher Alfonso Montuori discusses how the ability to handle complexity and ambiguity is one of the marks of creative people.[1] What we see from those who cannot handle complexity is a fixed, black-and-white line of thinking that seeks oversimplified answers for the sake of a false sense of certainty. This is what attracts people to authoritarian leaders and to scapegoating[2], both of which—obviously—are widely prevalent today. More than ever, we need people who are able to think creatively, rather than succumb to authoritarianism or conformity. Quite literally, any future we may have depends on it.

Of course, it is so much easier to just blame immigrants, or Muslims, or name-an-oppressed-peoples-or-ethnic-scapegoat-here than to actually be willing to look at a complex, interconnected web and attempt to think outside the box for creative solutions. In fact, that task seems quite impossible. I know that when I try to think about creative possibilities for society, I often become quickly overwhelmed and feel like it has just all gone too far—we’re cornered—and there is nothing to be done. And maybe there is nothing to be done.

Regardless of whether there is anything to be done at this point, this is a time for creativity, imagination, and infinite play.

We need to learn to use our imaginations. Really use them. In using the word “imagination,” I am talking about a faculty of knowing—a way of exploring unseen worlds and possibilities by using a very ordinary human superpower that has largely become dismissed as the stuff of child’s play. I go into more depth about this in this essay. I am talking about Bugs’s and Harold’s moves as real, as ontologically valid. His method worked, right? Is it not worth a try for us as well?

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What does this look like? It is tapping into something beyond our conceptual mind. Something beyond rational thought. Something beyond “thinking” altogether. It is seeing, feeling, directly experiencing. This can take a variety of forms: shamanic journeying, art, writing, music, forms of meditation, Jungian active imagination, dreaming; occult and magickal practices. The key is that it arises from a source beyond conceptuality, beyond ego. Does that mean we will receive messages from another realm? Possibly; I don’t know. The whole point is that we don’t know. Somehow we have to be willing to go to this place of not-knowing and see what emerges

Going to this place of not-knowing and using the faculty of our imagination is drawing the door. Once we enter the doorway, we are in the realm of infinite play, a concept framed by James Carse in his brilliant must-read Finite and Infinite Games. There is vast openness. There is possibility.

Infinite play cannot occur, however, if our minds remain fixed. “Finite play,” for Carse is life led within socially constructed boundaries. Finite play is about control: trying to control what will happen in the future, trying to prevent what we do not want to happen from happening and trying to make what we do want to happen occur. Infinite play, however, is life lived in connection with primordial vastness and possibility. “Infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future” and because of this they “play in complete openness.”[3]

In order to be surprised by the future, I think we first need to be surprised by our past. We all need to be constantly challenging ourselves to see where our minds are stuck in seeing things the way we were taught to see them, to see where our perspective is based on unexamined assumptions, to see where we’re seeking comfort and security. Most of us have been indoctrinated into a variety of ways of thinking and seeing the world based on our familiar and cultural upbringing. This matrix can be very hard to penetrate, even for the most insightful people.

In order to open up to actual infinite play, we first need to go through a process of deconstructing how we see the world and questioning our beliefs at a core level. What have we normalized as part of our worldview? Some of these unexamined assumptions and normalizations are personal, others cultural—ultimately, that’s a difficult distinction to make anyway. They can include beliefs such as, “I am fundamentally flawed,” “War is inevitable,” “We are moving slowly but surely in the direction of ‘progress,’” “My favorite source of media is the most accurate,” or “Science is real, magic is not.”

In order to be able to think outside the box, we first need to be able to fully see the extent of the box we’re in. We need to dig deep and think critically. We need to tease apart what thoughts and beliefs we have that came from other people. Let us understand what led us to this cliff, and not try to claw our way back to the death trap. Let us let go of what we think to know, and open to something we couldn’t have even thought of. Then we can leap into the unknown, using both our imaginal capacity and our ability to think beyond the confines of the known, into the vast space of openness and possibility.

Our backs are against the wall. The only choice is to draw the door. Let’s invoke our inner Bugs and Harold and see what we can do.

[1] Montuori, A. (2005). How to make enemies and influence people: anatomy of the anti-pluralist, totalitarian mindset. Futures37(1), 18-38.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Carse, J. (2011). Finite and infinite games.

 

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The Imaginal World

In this complex and bizarre world, getting in touch with a trustworthy inner compass is both increasingly challenging and essential. One way that we can access that compass, our personal daimon—our inner creative urge, or guiding spirit that drives us toward purpose and who we really are (introduced in more depth here)—is through the imaginal world. This article will provide an introductory overview of the concept, which has relevance and applicability in not only connecting with our daimon, but for many other esoteric and even secular pursuits as well.

While imagination is commonly regarded in today’s rational materialist world as mere “child’s play,” for practitioners in many different esoteric traditions the imagination is a faculty that can be used to explore actual existing realms. Scholar of esotericism Henri Corbin called this the “mundus imaginalis,” or the “imaginal world.”[1] Corbin, whose work elucidates the visionary experiences of Suhrawardi, the twelfth century Iranian esotericist, stresses as he describes this visionary realm that this is “no utopia, but a real country and a real space…which has neither location nor climate in the world perceived by the outer senses.”[2]

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From The Secret Tradition of the Soul by Patrick Harpur

In discussing a recurrent theme in the work of Mullah Sadra Shirazi, Corbin highlights another key point: “that the Imagination is a spiritual faculty which does not perish along with the physical organism, because it is independent of it.”[3] This sheds particular light for us on the importance of the imaginal world for the Gnostics, whose ontological perspective regarded this material world as a “false” world; if this faculty exists independently of the physical world of matter, it would follow that it would be a key to transcending the world of matter. However, this exploration of the Gnostic perspective is one that I will leave for another time (in the meantime, the podcast Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio is a great resource on Gnosticism).

William Blake was another explorer of the imaginal world and advocate for the necessity of doing so in order to awaken. Kathleen Raine, a poet and scholar of Blake, helps elucidate why, for Blake, Corbin, and many others, a “world” which is invisible to the naked eye can nevertheless be more “real” than our ordinary world of matter: “We must remember at all times that a ‘world’ for Blake is situated not in Cartesian space but in consciousness; therefore every change of consciousness changes the world.”[4] She deals a further blow to the viewpoint that only the world of matter and the senses is worth experiencing when she writes, “By banishing the phenomena from the Imagination— the ‘faculty which experiences’ — they are emptied of all significance, retaining only a quantitative existence.”[5]

These two statements denote the way in which the Imagination opens the door to an entire world that is ontologically significant. First, we see how a “world” can be considered to exist outside of the realm of physical space: worlds exist within consciousness. Raine then drives home the significance of this statement by pointing out that every change of consciousness changes a world we experience. This highlights the importance of cultivating clarity of consciousness and developing the inner faculties to be able to experience the imaginal world—but also reminds us that we are not simply passive players within our “everyday” lives, but rather that we create that world and how we experience it depends on the state of our consciousness. This makes sense, given how vastly varied different people’s experiences of “the world” are.

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Raine then goes on to say that the Imagination is the “faculty which experiences,” and that our Cartesian materialist/dualist worldview has actually rejected Imagination altogether. What this means is that we are actually stripped of our ability to experience. Raine and Blake would question whether a materialist who believes only in this visible world actually sees or experiences anything at all. These two ideas together reveal the hollowness of the materialist experience worldview, painting an image of a flat, two-dimensional skeletal world, contrasted with the vivid, colorful, 3D realm of the Imagination.

C.G. Jung and many depth psychologists teach a method of engaging with inner figures called “active imagination” which enables the practitioner to travel inward and explore the realm of the Imagination. Active imagination can be explored by choosing a figure such as a dream figure, or an inner voice or aspect of ourselves, and dialoguing with it through imagery and writing. We can specifically choose to enter into a dialogue with our personal daimon or other imaginal allies; Jungian analyst Jeffrey Raff offers great practical exercises on this in his book Ally Work. Likewise, the practice of shamanic journeying, as well as certain visualization practices across a variety of esoteric traditions, can be way of using the faculty of the Imagination to enter into realms unseen.

These methods offer the possibility of accessing worlds beyond the one made of matter that is most immediately accessible through the human sense faculties. Though not limited to personal daimon work, many of these techniques can be valuable for accessing our inner guides. The possibility of being able to access a world beyond the one we know through our senses also has significant societal implications. Particularly at a time when our world is in dire need of some serious re-imagining, being able to not only think outside the box but also literally conjure up something new using the power of our imaginal faculties may be our only hope in turning the proverbial ship around. Perhaps we can think of that as a bit of a “to be continued…”
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[1] Corbin, H. (1998). The Voyage and the Messenger. (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books). p. 125.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. p. 132.

[4] Raine, K. (1991). Golgonooza: City of Imagination. (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne 1991). p. 18.

[5] Ibid. p. 19