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A Matter of Spirit- An Imaginal Perspective on the Paranormal - Angela Voss

A Matter of Spirit- An Imaginal Perspective on the Paranormal - Angela Voss

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Published by Jack Hunter
"A Matter of Spirit - An Imaginal Perspective on the Paranormal" by Angela Voss

Voss, A. (2011). "A Matter of Spirit - An Imaginal Perspective on the Paranormal." Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 37-45.
"A Matter of Spirit - An Imaginal Perspective on the Paranormal" by Angela Voss

Voss, A. (2011). "A Matter of Spirit - An Imaginal Perspective on the Paranormal." Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 37-45.

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Published by: Jack Hunter on Dec 18, 2011
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05/25/2013

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 A 
t the recent conference ‘Breaking Convention’ atthe University of Kent, there was much discussionabout the therapeutic and consciousnessness-expanding properties of psychedelics and psycho-active plants. Scientific methods of quantitative dataanalysis and statistical research together with thephysiology of non-ordinary states of consciousnessare being employed to challenge negative andprohibitive attitudes and contribute to a general re-evaluation of legal constraints regarding the uses of such substances. However, despite the undoubtedimportance of such research, there is one dimensionof ASCs which remains outside the epistemologicalframework of conventional science, namely the
ontological reality
or authenticity of the visionaryexperiences undergone by those under the effects of consciousness-enhancing agents. When research isbound to a materialist scientific paradigm, thenuminous and revelatory content of non-rationalstates of consciousness is inevitably marginalised, asquestions regarding their purpose, religious orspiritual import and ‘truth’ cannot be addressedwithin the limits of its discourse. The problem ispartly due to the polarity between rational andmetaphysical modes of understanding which hasbecome intrinsic to post-enlightenment thinking, withthe emerging dominance of the critical and analyticalmodel for etic researchers in the modern academy.
1
 Often, the only thing that can be said of theoverwhelming experiences of the subjects is that theyare personal, mystical, transcendent, ortransformative. Individuals may speak of their visionary experience through vivid narrative,describing enhanced colours, strange beings andsituations experienced via depths of perception thatare impossible to articulate; but for those firmlyanchored in the sense perceptible reality of thisworld, it is easier to focus on ‘how’ such visions areachieved in physiological, neurological or mechanicalterms than ‘what’ is being revealed , and why – whether in a particular circumstance, or generally, toall who encounter the numinous liminality of otherworlds.Nor is this to deny the value of phenomenological approaches by writers andresearchers who are open to the possibilities of multiple levels of consciousness and the existence of spiritual entities,
2
but often their accounts arepresented with a matter of factness which belies theontological chasm between this world and the ‘otherplace’ they are describing. Unless it is acknowledgedthat our normal ways of knowing may be inadequatefor shedding light on the true nature of thesedimensions there is always the danger of the
reductioad absurdum
 —for example the identification of theother-than-human as the all too familiar alien orUFO from outer (physical) space. The attempt toexplain other-worldly events in the terms of our ownoften makes them seem just plain ridiculous, andeasily dismissed as either hoaxes or hallucinations bythose firmly governed by their rational minds.I would like to suggest a way of redeeming theauthenticity of visionary experience from both thescepticism of a literalist, physicalist mentality and thereductionism—or concretisation—of ‘new age’credulity. As scientific discourse reaches its limits,another mode of speaking is required to illuminaterealms that lie beyond those limits and to do justice tothe lived experience of encounters with other worlds;one which does not attempt to explain or subsumethem to its own interpretations, but which engageswith their ontological ground on its own terms. Toillustrate such a mode, I will draw on the acuteobservations of the Sufi mystic Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi(1165-1240), who speaks from the tradition of Islamic mysticism, which is infused withneoplatonism. Neoplatonic epistemology arises out of a holistic metaphor which places humanconsciousness in a vast scale of cosmic intelligence, a variegated and hierarchical whole which ischaracterised by degrees of quality of 
being 
, allemanating from a primordial energy source termedthe One. Most importantly, it differentiates between various subtle conditions of ‘knowing’ which link thehuman soul with corresponding realms or dimensionsof existence, from the most material and earthy to themost rarefied and ‘spiritual’. Each condition of being (or degree of consciousness) has a mode of perception appropriate to it, and indeed humanbeings are seen as the most material manifestations of a panoply of intelligences ranging from elemental
Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal Vol. 2. No.3 37
 A Matter of Spirit: An Imaginal Perspective on the Paranormal
 Angela Voss
 
spirits to angels. The faculty which enables humansto apprehend the ‘higher’ planes of existence istermed by Plato himself the intellect, but this is notintellect as disembodied rational speculation. It israther an intuitive
connection
of understanding, aresonance of the deepest stratum of the human soulwith its original ground of being. As such, it exceedsthe possibilities of rational thinking.
3
For the later neoplatonists the imagination cameto play a distinctive role as a mediating functionbetween the sense perception and intellectualunderstanding. Such an imagination was not to beconfused with mere ‘fantasy’ or impressions andimages that were merely distortions of sense-impressions of ‘this’ world, but a faculty whichproduced mirror images of archetypal or spiritualrealities.
4
I suggest that the study of visionary andparanormal phenomena would greatly benefit from ametaphysical perspective that acknowledges thepower of this ‘higher’ imagination to reveal a truththat is of another order entirely from sense-perception or reason alone. Such a perspective wouldprovide an integrative model for both mystical andrational epistemologies, through reinstating the‘active’ imagination as the mode of perception whichmediates between the two, and facilitating insight intothe truth of visions whose origin is non-sensible. Of course one could argue that this is also a function of the arts, which deliberately use symbolic images toopen up depths inaccessible to the rational mind— and indeed it is precisely this power of the symbolicwhich needs to be reinstated in any methodologyharnessed to the deeper understanding of ‘paranormal’ visionary experience. I hope the reasonsfor this will become clear.Let us now approach the question of theontology of ‘altered states’ with Ibn ‘Arabi. In his
 Meccan Illuminations
al-Fut 
!
h
"
t al-Makk 
 ya
 ), hedescribes and theorises about his own encounterswith spirits or jinn:One embodied himself to me in the earth,another in the air:One embodied himself wherever I was, Another embodied himself in heaven.They gave knowledge to me, and I to them,Though we were not equal,For I was unchanging in my entity,But they were not able to keep still.They assume the form of every shape,Like water taking on the colour of the cup.
5
These spiritual intelligences are mobile, changeableentities which may appear as embodied in both outer‘objective’ reality and ‘internal’ visions, but whoseautonomous existence is unquestioned. Thecosmology within which Ibn Arabi locates thisexistence is essentially threefold, following thefundamental Platonic distinction between thematerial and spiritual worlds and placing a middlerealm between the two, a realm corresponding to the visible cosmos which links heaven and earth. Here weare presented with a symbolic image that expressesthrough analogy a ‘one world’ cosmology in whichthe tripartite, harmonious structure is mirrored in thehuman soul as a microcosm, and can be known viathe corresponding cognitive faculty. Thus thematerial world can only be known through senseperception, the intermediate world—the world wheresense-perception and spiritual reality meet—can onlybe known through the imagination, and the spiritualworld is ‘unveiled’ to the intuitive intellect. This iswhat leads Ibn ‘Arabi to place such emphasis on theidea that the soul has two eyes: the eye of reason,which deals with ‘human’ affairs and empirical/rational knowledge, and the eye of revelation whichsees into the divine world through its images, giving us access to it via visible forms.
6
Post enlightenmentepistemology has firmly separated these two forms of  vision, exalting the former to the status of indisputable truth and the latter to mere ‘subjectivity’or ‘belief’, but in neoplatonic thinking revelationprecedes and informs both sense-perception andreason and is therefore primary, disclosing truthfulness and meaning for the individual throughan image, which is then subjected to interpretation:Revelation is a meaning. When God wantsmeaning to descend to sense-perception, it has to passthrough the Presence of Imagination before itreaches sense-perception. The reality of imaginationdemands that it gives sensory form to everything thatbecomes actualised within it .. If the [revelation]arrives at the time of wakefulness, it is called‘imaginalisation’ ... that is why revelation begins withimagination.
7
 The imagination then, is able to conceiveimmaterial, spiritual meaning through clothing itwith an image: “the degree of imagination embracesthat of sense perception and meaning. Hence itsubtilises the sensory object and densifies meaning”.
8
 Perhaps the nearest most people can come toappreciating this is through the kind of dream whichis startling in its sense of heightened reality, wherepeople and objects manifest as fully embodied and
Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the ParanormalVol. 2. No.3
 
tangible. Ibn ‘Arabi suggests that such visions doindeed partake of two realities, as William Chittick explains:[Imagination]
brings spiritual entities into relationship withcorporeal entities ... By giving incorporeal realities the attributesof corporeal things ... imagination allows unseen realities to bedescribed as possessing attributes that pertain to the visibleworld... Unseen things actually take on visible form in theimaginal realms.
9
 And what are these ‘unseen things’? They arediscarnate intelligences, which may exist at manylevels of non-material being. Whilst human beingswith complex material bodies inhabit the earth, thespiritual world is inhabited by angels whose essence issimple and luminous, and the intermediate world bythe spirits or jinn, which are paradoxically perceivedto be both simple and compound simultaneously. Inthis medial place, spirits may appear as embodiedand bodies may appear as spiritualised, as in dreamsand apparitions. Ibn ‘Arabi also uses the metaphor of a mirror-image to describe the ambiguity of theimaginal realm, for material things seen in a mirrorare paradoxically both fully real yet fully unreal at thesame time.
10
The most important thing to rememberhowever is that although spiritual presences mayappear to humans as having somehow ‘brokenthrough’ into sense-perceptible reality, in fact theypartake of a fundamentally different ontologicalreality and are therefore immune to the laws whichgovern our material world.Ibn ‘Arabi explains that these imaginal beings canin fact be seen through two different ‘eyes’; the eye of sense-perception which sees during a wakeful state,and the eye of the imagination which, in most people,sees during sleep and other altered states. However, itappears that certain individuals may also see with theimaginal eye during wakefulness and in this case the veil between the two worlds falls away: “the personwho undergoes unveiling sees while he is awake whatthe dreamer sees while he is asleep.”
11
Such refinedsouls will be able to distinguish between embodiedspirits and human beings through recognising a‘mark’ of identification, on which Ibn’ Arabi does notelaborate further. Presumably such a mark would beobvious to those able to discern it, but as WilliamChittick points out, “the Shaykh could live joyfully inthe knowledge that he recognised the mark of everyapparition. The rest of us, lacking in marks, had bestbe careful”.
12
The ability to distinguish ‘higher’ souls fromthose spirits still attached to the material world is of utmost importance, because often the ‘lower’ jinn willplay tricks with the observer and convince him or herthat they know more than they do:
 Because of what [the jinn] report to their human sitting companion, he has imaginings about the occurrence of eventsand what is happening in the cosmos, for they acquire that through listening to the Higher Plenum by stealth. Then their sitting companion supposes that God has honoured him! 
13
How seriously are we to take this advice? It wouldseem relatively easy to deliberately create situations inwhich autonomous beings may be encountered,whether through psychedelics, mediumship, hypnosisor meditation techniques. But we have lost a sense of what medieval scholastics called
adaequatio
: that theintellect of the knower must be adequate to the thing known to perceive its truth.
14
Through a sympatheticresonance, spirit phenomena will reveal themselvesto the participant, whose desire, intention and faithare central to the process of attraction. The moreearth-bound the consciousness, the more earth-bound the spirit, hence the importance of spiritualtraining and specific ritual contexts to cultivate apurity and refinement of soul that would attract thewisdom of higher beings. This was the central aim of neoplatonic theurgy, whose rites culminated in the‘divinisation’ of the human soul as it fully realised itsidentity as an embodied deity.
15
In
 Imaginal Worlds
Chittick delineates fourconstituents of the spiritual vision: the consciousnessof the observing subject, the reality-status of theobject or person that is seen, the form it takes, andthe location of its actualisation. Firstly, the observermay be either awake or in a trance or dream state. If he or she is awake, it is important to note that the eyeof imagination may see an apparition which is not visible at all to anyone else whilst possessing fullmaterial form to the observer. But this does not meanthat it is a hallucination in the reductive sense, rather,the neoplatonic understanding would be that theobserver is seeing into a dimension whose ontologicalstatus as ‘real’ supercedes our notions of reality. This‘ontological inversion’ as it has been called
16
isimpossible for the physicalist mentality to grasp as itrequires a radical shift of orientation. It also meansthat any attempt to apply the methods of empiricalscientific research to ascertain the ‘reality’ of suchapparitions will be doomed to failure, despite theirapparent concreteness and tangibility, because they
Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal Vol. 2. No.3 39

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