frozen “water of life” like the hardened heart
A big step for me (and I suppose for most everyone) involves personal embodiment of “career,” a term whose etymology appropriately points toward “road,” “racecourse,” or “wheeled vehicle.” Today’s “true life,” for better and worse, comes not just in walking, but in riding and racing.
My teaching career culminated in a course, Good Stories: Teaching Narratives for Peace & Justice. I loved teaching it, the class limit of 60 persons always filled, and it usually had a wait list of over a hundred. After teaching the course about fifteen times over the past six years, I’m still pondering the essence, the primary aim, and the secret.
As 2017 wanes down to its close, while in my first year of retirement, I’m walking my way into more understanding and appreciation of Good Stories and True Life. This week, “the way appears,” in part, through a Christmas gift book from the top of my wish list, Hafiz and the Religion of Love. Leonard Lewisohn (who edited the book) articulates “the language of the invisible” and the almost impossible, although crucially vital, task of integrating “mythopoesis” into the “mental furniture of modern man.” His explanation of this aim resonates so tellingly with my experience of Good Stories.
“Albeit immanent in popular consciousness, most of Hafiz’s mythopoesis—his language of analogy and capacity for thinking in symbols—is no longer part of the mental furniture of modern man. The aesthetic premises of his poetry are incomprehensible within the conceptual framework of modern anti-art movements such as surealism, minimalism, abstract expressionism or ‘pop’ art, for the principles of his spiritual vision, being heart-based and focused on presential knowledge (‘ilm-i hudhuri), are completely alien to the presuppositions of the modern materialist society of the West. . . The central aim of the chapters in this volume is to enable contemporary Western students of classical Persian poetry to reconnect with that lost symbolic universe and hopefully re-initiate themselves into the mundus imaginalis of Hafiz and the entire galaxy of Persian poets who spoke his ‘language of the invisible’. . . In modern literary studies and critical theory, especially in the contemporary West, the vertical purport and spiritual import of his symbolic imagery by and large are deliberately neglected, and the esoteric doctrines and metaphysical teachings inspiring his verse are treated as irrelevancies.” pp. xxi-xxiii
About the same time (around 2007) when Lewisohn and colleagues were drafting and presenting their conference papers that turned into Hafiz and the Religion of Love, I was developing the Good Stories course. If I had been able to articulate it, my central aim could have been worded as Lewisohn powerfully phrases it: “to reconnect with that lost symbolic universe and hopefully re-initiate themselves into the mundus imaginalis.” Perhaps it’s just as well, because if I had included those words on my course proposal the chances are pretty good that it would have been rejected by the university’s course approval process, “treated as irrelevancies.”
Recent political events prove to me the consequence of our failure to nurture spiritual vision, heart-based knowing and caring. The sober intellectual lacks the capacity to counteract the ego-centered dystopia because cold rationalism fails to offer sufficient attraction against sensual materialism. In a strange way, the tavern and the house of love (primary images in Hafiz and other classical Persian poets) show closer affinity for the path to God than the strict legalistic rigidity cut by fundamentalist religions. Because approaching God surpasses human mind and body, the metaphysical stretch found in symbolic expression has to be called forth.
Without this nurturing, the imaginal world disappears. Without mundus imaginalis* we lose the courage, vision, and strength to engage in social justice; these qualities are essential if we are to repel the self-centered tyrannies from within ourselves and from others. In language carried by the scriptures and prophets of our major religions, this loss can be related to the “hardening of the heart.” Teachings on this topic are abundant and a few samples follow:
* In the Judeo-Christian scriptures, statements about God hardening the heart occur at least fourteen times. The prime case involves Pharaoh dealing with the plagues.
If it’s God who hardens the heart, we wonder: Are humans absolved of moral responsibility? What if we do not wake up and “walk out on the way”? Are we freed from responsibility to teach the discernment between good and evil?
* Persons who are exploring the “hardened heart” explain the human part:
“When it says that the Lord made Pharaoh’s heart hard, the meaning in the internal sense is that Pharaoh himself made his heart hard. . . The evil that is attributed in the Bible to the Lord actually has its origin in human beings.”
* From an Islamic perspective, we find the responsibility to “soften our hearts.”
In my view, the hardened heart relates to the failure to compose and engage the mundus imaginalis.* A person with a hardened heart has limited or no access to the eye of the heart and sees instead through the rational mind with a consciousness dominated by ego, the power drive, and materialism. The capacity for imagination (for a person having the hardened heart) has been corroded by sensationalism featured in media that are driven by gratuitous sex and violence. Imagination has been polluted. The higher calling demands that we continue to purify, resurrect, and re-create.
Spiritual teachings have hardly been remiss in stating clearly that humans are wrong to place too much value on material possessions. “The love of money is the root of all evil.” How could it be put more plainly?
When persons have hardened hearts and do not feel the problem in accumulating money in order to buy bigger houses, faster cars and phones, and other forms of instant gratification, a wake-up call may be in order. If “love” has deteriorated to getting applause, being admired for display of wealth, and feeling better than others (sexism, racism, superior-religionism, etc.), perhaps God has to harden the heart so that it can break before death ends the opportunity to bow before the Divine. If persons cannot see discrimination, hate, and ego-centered acts as opposed to God’s will, then the mirror of their heart might be shown in a ruler dominated by ungodliness. That seems to be the classic Pharaoh story, timeless, acted out once more.
* For elaboration on mundus imaginalis, see Henry Corbin.
For example, he says:
"At the beginning of each narrative, the visionary finds himself in the presence of a supernatural being of great beauty, whom he asks who he is and whence he comes. Essentially, these tales illustrate the Gnostic's experience, lived as the personal history of the Stranger, the captive aspiring to return home. (from p. 2)
As a result of internalization, one has moved out of external reality. Henceforth, spiritual reality envelops, surrounds, contains so-called material reality (from p. 4)
We realize immediately that we are no longer confined to the dilemma of thought and extension, to the schema of a cosmology and a gnoseology restricted to the empirical world and the world of abstract intellect. Between them there is a world that is both intermediary and intermediate, described by our authors as the 'alam al-mithal, the world of the image, the mundus imaginalis: a world that is ontologically as real as the world of the senses and that of the intellect. This world requires its own faculty of perception, namely, imaginative power, a faculty with a cognitive function, a noetic value which is as real as that of sense perception or intellectual intuition. We must be careful not to confuse it with the imagination identified by so-called modern man with "fantasy", and which, according to him, is nothing but an outpour of "imaginings". " (from p. 5)