Published:  12:45 AM, 13 February 2020

Borderlands of creative imagination

I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its wings, for something to love.
I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.
- Sylvia Plath

The dark, malignant thing Syvia Plath spoke of is the writer's creative imagination, the gift that sleeps in her and flaps about nightly,  searching for the inner eye  with which to express itself.   It beats its wings until it makes itself known and finds expression in the writer's words. Until the writer honours this dark thing, it keeps her restless and stuck in a state of despondency. The dark thing is the creative imagination, it is our gift, our creative spirit, and the ideas that lie buried in the unconscious--- ideas that yearn to be born---are given birth through this creative imagination.

Our creative imagination receives the slow-stirring, slow-arriving ideas from our unconscious mind and interprets them for the conscious mind. The medium of interpretation is language. Brenda Ueland considered 'moodling'  necessary for nurturing our imagination. In her book, If You Want to Write, a deeply-felt and intimately expressed reflection on art, independence and the spirituality of writing, she defined 'moodling' as an essential writerly pursuit.

Moodle for months if you must, she stressed,  and allow your mind slow, quiet, and unfettered periods of  'long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering."  Moodling or dreamy idleness is to be distinguished from the sterile, inertia-inducing, fretful and uncreative worrying that characterizes writer's block. Quiet, inward searching and reflecting allows a writer to enter the birthing room of her creative imagination.

It is a state of confident quietude. And when you've moodled quietly and confidently and long enough, you are likely to recognize the flapping of  the dark imaginal thing within you.  Ueland's practical advice to moodlers: "Take a long, dreamy time at dressing, or lie in bed at night and [let] thoughts come and go, or dig in the garden, or sew, or paint, ALONE; or sit with a pencil and paper or before a typewriter (she was writing in the 1930s), quietly putting down what you happen to be thinking....that is creative idleness." In the 21st century, you might dismiss such idling as useless. Who has so many hours to waste? 

But the modus operandi for awakening the creative imagination remains essentially unchanged. When you moodle earnestly, you enter the indistinct borderlands  of the imaginal world. This is a shimmering, easily vanishing and reappearing boundary world existing between the conscious and unconscious mind, a space marked by its indefinable in-betweenness.

I call it a birthing room because knowledge from the creative unconscious is given birth into the creative conscious in this imaginal room in the mind. Formless intuition assumes form here--ideas and images from the unconscious manifest as conscious knowledge.  It is here that ideas and images begin their transformation into words.

A note about the term imaginal coined by the Sufi scholar and professor of Islamic Studies, Henri Corbin, in his essay Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal.  He preferred it over the word imaginary, to distinguish the highly creative imaginal faculty from the pejorative connotations with which we associate the term imaginary. When people tell you 'it's all in your imagination' they are asking you to stop daydreaming and snap out of your fantasy world; to be more realistic, more pragmatic, more sensible.

But if you pay no heed to their advice, and roam in the imaginal world it delivers wonderful fruits that the world of common-sense driven rationality can't. In medieval times, knowledge acquired from the imaginal world, what we might today call intuitive cognition, was considered the highest form of knowledge. It was believed that intuitive knowledge from the imaginal world became externalized as art forms. But this intuitive knowledge arrived if divine intention or intervention willed it. Thus humility on the artist's part was an essential trait. The artist was not the doer, she was merely a waseela or means for producing expressions of divine beauty through art.

Ibn Arabi and the Barzakh
Ibn Arabi, a 13th century Andalusian mystic and one of the world's greatest spiritual teachers and poets, was convinced the greatest human endeavour was our search for self-knowledge and self-recognition. It is this knowledge that took us one step closer to God. The artist's quest for self-recognition is her quest for self-transcendence. The dark thing that flaps about in her is imaginal knowledge. Ibn Arabi believed that true self-knowledge descends into human consciousness through the faculty of the imagination or the alam-al-khayal.

According to Ibn Arabi, the spiritual heart has two eyes: imagination [khayal] and reason [aql]. Dominance of reason over imagination or the other way round distorts our perception of reality. The spiritual heart or qalb is the home of imaginal knowledge. The root meanings of the Arabic word qalb is that which is not fixed, that which is capable of undergoing continual transmutation.

It is the spiritual heart, and not aql or reason, that undergoes constant transmutation in accordance with our intuitive cognition. Ibn Arabi described the faculty of imagination as an in-between world, a world of rapidly changing forms, which can only be perceived by the heart. By heart he did not mean the physical organ. He was referring to the non-logical, wisdom centres of our consciousness. He defined the imagination as a barzakh or an isthmus, by which he meant:

"something separating what is knowable and unknowable, existent and non-existent, intelligible and unintelligible, affirmed and is intelligible in itself, yet it is nothing but the imagined-image (al-khayal.)" [quote is taken from James Morris's translation of Ibn Arabi's Futuhat-al-Makiya  or The Meccan Revelations].

The linear, rational intellect can't handle much ambiguity and in-between-ness so the receptacle of imaginal knowledge has to be the non-rational centre of the mind.  To Ibn Arabi, there was nothing fanciful or unreal about this alam-al-khayal, the faculty of creative imagination. His conceptualization of imagination as a barzakh, or that which is between two worlds bridging the corporeal and the non-corporeal world, a thin line separating the non-material world from the material world of phenomena, implied that entering the imaginal world could often lead one to a state of bewilderment or hairat.

The formless intuitions of the imaginal world may initially be dismissed as inchoate messages, and their contrariness  may baffle the person receiving them. This is where moodling comes in handy. Moodling acts as a catalyst, chanelling imaginal intuition into recognizable and images or words acceptable to the rational mind.

Ibn Arabi compared the imagined-image to a person's image in the mirror. So what is this image, and where is it reflected from?  Where is it actually located? For how can it be both affirmed and denied, existent and nonexistent, known and unknown? It is a paradoxical situation that the non-rational heart willingly accepts, but the rational intellect often rejects. The rational path of the intellect has to be complemented by the intuitive path of the heart.

For a writer, living with messages perceived by both the non-rational qalb and the rational aql means to be comfortable with dissimilar realities, to co-exist with rational and intuitive messages, to live with that which seems undefined yet is definite.  Trusting the intuitive guidance of the creative imagination is an act of faith, an important part of life as a writer. I remember walking home many years ago on an oozy, rained out-evening. It was a time of transitions, a boundary time, not quite day, and not quite night.

There was a power cut, the street lights were out, and I was feeling out of time, and in the wrong space. The aql counseled: the right thing was to not be out on the street, but at home.  I was feeling a deep anxiety. But as I picked my steps past puddles, the dark thing in the qalb/heart flapped about, whispering something incoherent: 'there's a story here.' Story? I asked. A story? In this unsafe street filled with foreboding, rain, staring men and vendors' carts? Or you mean in that white-washed, crumbling old house which I had just visited? The image of the dark street and that old, dilapidated house stayed with me.

I had no idea why this was such an enduring image but it wouldn't let me rest for the next few weeks till I jotted down notes for what later turned into the short story, Ghalib at Dusk. At the time when I was making my notes and later, when I was writing first of the many drafts,  my aql  was convinced no magazine would want to publish it. Yet, my heart thought of it as one of my most tender, most mature and well-crafted stories. But who would want to publish or read a story about an old, crumbling house in a small north Indian town, the mind questioned. About the vanishing ways of life of a once-distinguished Muslim family?

The heart won and I am glad I listened to its counsel and turned the images into words. I tuned in to the inchoate flapping of my imagination. Once the story was written, I put it away, and it remained unpublished for several years. A friend who really liked it, suggested I email it to the New Yorker magazine. I did. Three months later I  received an e-mail rejection, just as I had expected. Ghalib at Dusk eventually found its true home in my first collection of short stories by the same name.

Writing our deep, driving desires
The Brihadranyaka Upanishad says:  
We live in accordance with our deep, driving desires.
As our desire is, so is our will.
As our will is, so are our acts.
As we act, so we become.
A writer's desire is nurtured by her imagination. Moodling nurtures her imagination and ambition injures it. But moodling is hard to sustain because it appears unprofitable. We live in an era which is profit and competition-driven, an era in which a book is a product with a limited shelf-life, and the writer is a brand name which, if the writer is lucky, will generate brand loyalty.

There's pressure to become a brand name, to build brand loyalty. So whatever the formula, many a writer feels compelled to follow the formula. The writer's tender and tentative imagination, when placed under such pressure buckles into mediocrity. The pressure to be ceaselessly profitable can only end in mediocrity. Pressured writers can't moodle happily, at least not for long.  When you can't moodle,  you can't be at peace with your creative restlessness,  and when you can't be at peace, you end up surrendering your deep-driving creative desires at the altar of efficiency, popularity  and profitability.

Why doesn't competition make the writer a better writer? Pressure and competition are good but how much of a good thing is good?  We can't  dwell in our imaginal world saddled with fears of failure,  publishing anxieties, and  yearning to climb the bestseller list. Transmuting imaginal images into words requires discipline and ease that is inner-directed,  even though it is self-imposed. This discipline is sustained  despite occasional doubts and fears about success. I'll confess: the fear of not being good enough often numbs my psyche.

This modern fear is particularly crippling. It casts thick, impenetrable veils.   It is only when I transcend such fears that I unveil the riches of my imaginal world. Only then do I write fearlessly and write  beyond my gender, my ethnicity, beyond social, cultural and religious pigeonholes society loves to plug me into. Beyond all the conditioned envelopes that carry addresses defining and limiting me.  When fears of not making it vanish, veils drop.  This doesn't happen as often as I would like it to,  but when it does, it is state of the art! The ultimate unveiling, a most dazzling union of myself with my truest, imaginal self.

Philosopher and psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm believed personal well-being could not be achieved in the absence of essential personal truths, that is, without coming to know oneself well one could not hope to achieve psychological well-being. He discussed the concept of psychological well-being at length in the book Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, which he co-wrote with D. T. Suzuki and De Martino: "To become conscious of what is unconscious and thus to enlarge one's consciousness means to get in touch with reality, and--in this sense--with truth. To enlarge the consciousness means to wake up, to lift a veil, to leave the cave, to bring light into the darkness." And then Fromm posed an important question: "Could this be the same experience Zen Buddhists call enlightenment?

Yes!  Imaginal knowledge received from the alam-al-khayal in a writer's conscious mind become the words she writes,  making writing her source of creative enlightenment, which brings in its wake  a most profoundly felt, yet painfully arrived at sense of well-being. Fromm from the 20th century and Ibn Arbai from the 13th would agree.

Nighat Gandhi has lived in Bangladesh and Pakistan and now is based in India

---Nighat Gandhi

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