The Creative Process 4: Symbolic Photograph & Imaginal World

The Creative Process Chapter4
The Symbolic Photograph & The Imaginal World
Studies V  

The Symbolic Photograph  
The Imaginal World

I have written many times about the symbolic photograph and the creative process, and more frequently in the last few years for my online photography projects created for this website.  The present project chapter represents a summary and synthesis of past and present ideas and influences.  The very first time I wrote about the symbolic photograph was in 1972 in fulfillment of an MFA Dissertation requirement at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.  The 110 page thesis was based primarily in the ideas of depth psychologist CG Jung.  At the heart of the dissertation was Jung's definition of the symbol, his study of alchemy and finally his investigations into the phenomenon of correspondence which he termed synchronicity click here   

When I wrote the dissertation I had a strong feeling about the spiritual in art (for example I was attracted to the work and ideas of Kandinsky and the photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Minor White) but I was too identified with Jung's ideas to allow for the possibility of a westerner like myself getting experientially involved with eastern traditions such as Buddhism or Hindu forms of Yoga.  To my surprise, however, in 1987 my life led me to Siddha Yoga Meditation and Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, spiritual head of a linage of true yogic saints.  During a meditation program with Gurumayi I experienced a profound life-transforming initiation of her grace, or citi-sakti, and since then I've been practicing Siddha Yoga daily with an emphasis on meditation and the study of ancient yogic scriptural texts and the teachings of yogic saints.  

I have come to realize that my photography is an integral part of my yogic practices; indeed the making and contemplation of photographs is unquestionably a form of open eyed meditation, and a powerful way of maintaining awareness of, and aligning myself with the grace which is constantly flowing into my life.  Each photograph is like an affirmation of grace and a brief glimpse into the unitary nature of reality.  Swami Shantananda, one of the teachers of Siddha Yoga, wrote a book of commentaries on an ancient yogic text which has been tremendously helpful to me in understanding how the mysteries of perception and creation relate to my creative process in photography.   Chapter 3 of this project to dedicated to textual excerpts from his excellent book The Splendor of Recognition.   

While traveling in Turkey in 2011 I had several unexpected numinous experiences involving Islamic sacred art.  Upon my return home I began to research and contemplate the idea and the phenomenon of sacred art, and then more particularly the sacred art traditions of Islam and the esoteric or mystical aspect of Islam, which is Sufism.  These studies led me back to a preoccupation with the power of the visual symbol and the work of CG Jung; in fact most of the Islamic scholars I read, such as Henry Corbin, Tom Cheetham, Samer Akkach and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, all of whom I quote below, make frequent references to Jung's writings.  My experiences in Turkey and my studies of sacred art and the sacred art of Islam resulted in a large online photography project entitled  "An Imaginary Book."  

My many yogic experiences of grace, my contemplations of the ancient yogic scriptures, the sacred art of Islam, Sufism, and the writings of CG Jung have come together to help me see that all of life is a creative process, a journey of consciousness that is meant to take us through the transient world and back to our timeless Divine Origin, the Oneness of Being, the Self.  At the Heart of the Creative Process is the Symbol, and at the Heart of the Symbol is the mystery of grace, the divine creative energy which makes a symbol radiantly compelling and ultimately meaningful beyond words.

I have included below as a Prelude to my writings many scholarly text excerpts on the symbol.  You may also find it relevant and interesting to read about some of my personal experiences that relate to the major themes of my text.  I invite you to take a look at the Epilogue to my project "An Imaginary Book" which includes a collection of my personal stories of grace and synchronicity, including my initiation experience with Gurumayi, and the epiphany I experienced at age ten which awakened me to what would become my life's work in photography. 


Creation Story
My discussion of the Creative Process and the symbolic photograph must begin with a Creation Story, and all such stories must necessarily begin in the time without beginning or end, that is to say in the Pre-Eternal Uncreated Moment of the Oneness of Being.  This state of being would have to be a state of Perfection in every sense imaginable and unimaginable: perfect stillness, perfect silence, perfect illumination; a state in which nothing exists but Perfection, a state in which nothing exists but God, Siva, Tao . . . 

When we speak of Creation, or the Creator, or the Creative Process, these words . . . the very presence of language . . . signify the world of dualism, the divided imaginal-archetypal world of opposites, the world of illusion, maya.  

God created this world because He longed to be known.  From within Himself He manifested the Created World: two mirroring Imaginal Archetypal Worlds--the outer, Earthly, visible world below; and the interior, celestial, invisible world above.  He concealed Himself inside all that He created, including the hearts of every human being.  He becomes conscious of his Self by witnessing His creation through his creatures, through their eyes of the Heart 


Everything comes from the inside.  The Hidden Treasure we instinctually long for and search for is our own inner Self.  The Creative Process is a journey inward to find and consciously know our own Inner Treasure, our own hidden Self.  As we go deeper and deeper into the Imaginal World we finally return to our Origin, our Unity of being.  But the journey will have transformed us and so our re-union with The Creator, Our Own Inner Self, takes the new form of a sustained state of Conscious awareness.  

The return to the Self is through the created world and the symbolic image, for the symbol is that unifying principle of grace which unveils maya--by unifying the divided parts of the world--and gives us the revelatory experience of Self Knowledge. 


If we view the the Creative Process from a psychological perspective, one could say that the psyche's original state of being was a condition of unconscious identification with the shadows of the apparent world; we could not know ourselves as beings separate from anything else.  In order to become conscious of itself Creation necessarily had to become fragmented, divided into psyche and world.  The ego became the psychic mechanism by which the Self become aware of itself and at the same time the ego became the obstacle to achieving that goal.  The world of the psyche thus became essentially two parts: the conscious (the ego) and the unconscious.

With the birth of the ego--and thus the dual world of lowest and highest--the Creative Process (in psychological terms) became the journey back to its original state of Unity, but in the transformed state of conscious awareness, of Self-Knowledge.  The journey would necessarily have to include a means of re-uniting the two worlds: the symbol: 

According to a well-known Hermetic (alchemical) saying, "that which is lowest symbolizes that which is highest," material existence which is lowest symbolizes and reflects the Intellect or the archetypal essences which represent the highest level.  This is why an icon or a canvas [or a symbolic photograph]  can become the locus of Divine Presence and support for the contemplation of the formless.  Seyyed Hossein Nasr  Knowledge and the Sacred

Depth psychologist CG Jung modeled his theory of the psyche on his studies of medieval alchemy in which the alchemist's longing to unite feminine and masculine forms of matter was consummated in the alchemical marriage.  Jung understood that Alchemy was essentially a psychological process in which the alchemist projected archetypal psychic images into matter.  The alchemist united psyche and matter in the form of a living symbol,  the most perfect metal, Gold.  The alchemist named his symbolic creation The Philosopher's Stone, or the Corpus Subtile.  Jung named this imaginal re-union of the fragmented psyche back into wholeness the Self.  Jung named the creative process of uniting psyche and matter Active Imagination, and I'll be discussing this in more detail later


The saints of all religious and mystical traditions report to us of their experiences of union with God, but because their experiences transcended words they necessarily had to resort to symbolic expressions to utter the essentially unsayable.    

For a photographer the Creative Process involves re-uniting projected interior archetypal psychic images with their outer world counterparts.  The symbolic photograph is the means by which these two separated mirroring images are merged into one unified visual whole.  The symbolic photograph is a subtle, mysterious living thing.  Its image re-presents the pre-eternal unity of being; its image is pregnant with the numinous and palpable presence of the Hidden Treasure; its power of grace allows man as to come face to face with his divine counterpart, the Creator, God . . .  one's own Self.

When we contemplate a symbolic photograph and allow its unitary reality to penetrate our entire being with its creative energy, its siva-sakti . . . we are at least momentarily transformed, made whole by the experience.  The saints have called this revelatory moment the splendor of recognition, the conscious experience of the Inner Treasure, the Inner Self.  

Artists are not necessarily aware that their impulse to create poems, pictures, etc. comes from an internal longing to re-unite with their own transcendent Self.  However I believe that if this impulse is consciously, willfully directed with right understanding and a clear intention, and most importantly in alignment with grace, the making of symbolic photographs can become a true spiritual practice and thus a means to Self recognition, Self knowledge.  In this, the fourth chapter of my project, The Creative Process, I will elaborate on the power and the potential of the symbolic photograph to help us come to know the truth of who we really are.  

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Text Excerpts 

Frithjof  Schuon   Art from the Sacred to the Profane ~ East and West  
 Mystery is the essence of truth which cannot be adequately conveyed through language--the vehicle of discursive thought--but which may suddenly be made plain in an illuminating flash through a symbol, such as a key word, a mystic sound, or an image whose suggestive action may be scarcely graspable.  ~ ~  Objectively, the true function of sacred images is to represent symbolically and sacramentally a transcendent Reality, and subjectively, to permit the fixing of the mind upon this symbol. 

Emma Clark, The Art of the Islamic Garden 
. . . everything in the created world is a sign or symbol of God. . .  The world should be seen for what it is -- an illusion (maya in Hinduism) that both veils and reveals the archetypal heavenly world.  When a civilization is centered on the sacred, whether it be Islamic, North American Indian or medieval Christian, the practical is always an inextricable link to the spiritual.  This is the language of symbolism -- linking the everyday activities back to their heavenly archetype. . .

Seyyed Hossein Nasr  The Garden of Truth
The great mystery of existence is that it veils God by what is none other than Him.  As Ibn 'Arabi said, "Glory be unto Him who hides Himself by that which is none other than He."  This truth is explicitly stated in the Qur'an, where it is mentioned, "God is the First and the Last, and the Outward and the Inward and He knows infinitely all things."  ~~
The purpose of creation is knowledge, and therefore for us to know God, which means ultimately God within our hearts knowing Himself is to fulfill the purpose of creation.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr  Knowledge and the Sacred
According to a well-known Hermetic (alchemical) saying, "that which is lowest symbolizes that which is highest," material existence which is lowest symbolizes and reflects the Intellect or the archetypal essences which represent the highest level.  This is why an icon or a canvas [or a symbolic photograph]  can become the locus of Divine Presence and support for the contemplation of the formless.

Samer Akkach  Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam
The significance of a symbol lies in revealing the unity and continuity between the different levels it reveals.  Symbols imbue human existence with significance by pointing to a more profound, more mysterious side of life, to the miraculous and sacramental dimensions of human existence. ~~  All created things are symbols, Ibn 'Arabi [Sufi saint] explains; they are "dwellings" that enable us to reflect upon such things as divine unity  ~~  Ibn 'Arabi says God founded the world for people to seek him, but they instead became preoccupied with the world itself, so they misunderstood the intention of the creation.  ~~  The Sufi viewed imagination as the creative cause of our existence and the powerful agency that enables us to remain in contact with the infinite and the Absolute. ~ ~  Imagination is the world where meaning and form marry, generating a new world that is at once uniting and separating its parental domains, just like the twilight zone, which unites and separates light and darkness.  ~~  "Know that you are an imagination," Ibn 'Arabi says, "and everything that you perceive, and of which you would say "this is not me," is also an imagination.  So the whole being is an imagination within an imagination." ~~  The Sufis associate art with knowledge.  Knowing they say is nothing but "the soul imagining the form of the known"; and "knowledge is nothing but the form of the known (retained) in the soul of the knower"; whereas "art is nothing but the bringing out of this form, which is in the soul of the artificer, the knower, and placing it in matter." ~~ Ephemeral, transient, and perishable, the seen derives meaning and subsistence from the unseen, and its real value lies in being the necessary pathway to the unseen.  The seen is the world of natural realities that can be known directly through sense perception, whereas the unseen is the world of spiritual realities that can only be grasped by imagination. To help human imagination gain in-sight into the unseen, religious teachings have resorted to analogy and metaphor.  

Mircea Eliade  Symbolism, the Sacred, the Arts  
It is necessary to not lose sight of one characteristic which is specific to a symbol: its multiplicity of meanings which it expresses simultaneously.  This is why it is sometimes so difficult to to explain a symbol, to exhaust its significations; it refers to a plurality of contexts and it is valuable on a number of levels.  ~~  Symbolic thought makes the immediate reality "shine," but without diminishing or devaluating it: in its perspective the Universe is not closed, no object is isolated in its own existentialness; everything holds together in a closed system of correspondences. 

Henry Corbin,  Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi
Imaginative vision becomes vision of the heart . . . the heart being the organ, the "eye" by which God sees Himself: the contemplant is the contemplated (my vision of Him is His vision of me).  

Tom Cheetham:   The World Turned Inside Out  Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism
The Event of the symbol is a stunning, unexpected moment when something in a text or in the world takes your breath away.  It is the annunciation of the Mystery. . .  Symbols erupt into the world from somewhere beyond.  The eruption of a symbol is irreducibly individual.  It is a call to consciousness.  ~~  Symbolic perception . . . gives birth to forms . . . out of the depths of the mysteries of the Heart.  ~  The world  of sensory perception becomes transparent.  It can be seen through.  But this is because what lies on the other side, what draws the world out of itself, and which has the power to turn it inside out, is more real, more true, more powerful than any of those realities, both autonomous and opaque, which make up the world of objects.  The only true autonomy is granted by the One, which lies in the direction of heaven.  ~~  The hermeneutic ability of the Creative Imagination to transmute all things into symbols destroys the distinction between psychology and cosmology and unites them in a psychocosmology in which Creator and the creature participate not as opposing terms with an unbridgeable gulf separating them, but as complementary poles of a divine drama.  ~~  God knows Himself in and through us. 

Tom Cheetham:  All the World an Icon
Jung's method of using the images that arise from the soul is what he called Active Imagination.  He said: "A fantasy is more or less your own invention and remains on the surface of personal things and conscious expectations.  But active imagination, as the terms denotes, means that the images have a life of their own and that the symbolic events develop according to their own logic." [Jung, 1935 Tavistock lectures] ~~  We have here perhaps the most central instance of that mediating function of the Imagination: it heals the split between psychology and physics, between mind and matter, and between the subjective and the objective.  . . .  ~~  Corbin shared Jung's conviction that a true symbol is an expression of something essentially unknown.  He [Corbin] wrote:  "The symbol announces a plane of consciousness distinct from rational evidence; it is a "cipher" of a mystery, the only means of saying something that cannot be apprehended in any other way; a symbol is never explained once and for all, but must be deciphered over and over again."  ~~  The symbol mediates between our world and the immensity of the worlds beyond.  We cannot know of that beyond in any other way--we are speechless in the presence of that darkness.  Corbin says, "the symbol is mediator because it is silence, it speaks and does not speak; and precisely thus, it states what it alone can speak."  ~~  The process of engaging with the unconscious psychologically is a two part synthetic process.  First, there is a movement from the unconscious to the conscious mind, a change of psychic level, an act of "releasing unconscious process and letting them come into the conscious mind."  Second, and crucially, comes the conscious elaboration and amplification of the original images.  It is a question of becoming an actor in a personal drama and not a spectator of the images that arise.  ~~  The image of reality so carefully and reasonably established is seen finally to be a product of the soul--the soul's own projection of its own inmost reality.  The world is our projection, and to become conscious of this and to realize the symbolic and "personal" nature of reality allows us to escape the bondage that so-called objective truths can impose.  ~~  [Corbin writes:] "Each of us carries in himself an Image that precedes all perception, an a-priori expressing the deepest being of the person, what depth psychology calls an Imago.  Each of us carries in himself the Image of his own world, his Imago mundi, and projects it into a more or less coherent universe, which become the stage on which his destiny is played out."  ~~  The nature of any artistic activity, if it's valuable, is a journey and is of value only in so far as the journey . . . goes somewhere, comes back and reports what it has found there.  Art is the report of a place, not an idea about something.

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The Symbolic Photograph

A photographic image can describe the world, it can give visual expression to personal ideas and feelings, but most importantly to me is its ability to function as a symbol.  The symbolic photograph is the imaginal embodiment of the Unity of Being.  

Saints from all the great religious and mystical traditions say that Godthe Creator, Siva . . . dwells in all the things of the created world, including the Heart of every human being.  And yet because our psyche is hardwired to separate the spiritual from the physical we live in a world of duality.  The symbolic photograph conjoins in visual form the corresponding archetypal images of the inner and outer worlds; the spiritual and the earthly worlds; the worlds of psyche and matter.  The symbol re-unites the Creator and the created, the Self and the individual soul. The symbol is radiantly alive with divine creative energy (grace, citi-sakti, barakah) which can transform its contemplator by dissolving the illusionary psychic veils that separate us all from our own Hidden Inner Treasure.

The creation stories of many traditions say that God knows Himself through his creations, and that only grace can unveil the Creator's presence hidden within.  True symbols are a manifestation of grace, they are containers of grace, and they are radiant transmitters of grace.  Its grace which makes it possible for the photographer, and any other contemplator of a symbolic photograph, to come face-to-face in conscious awareness with one's own divine nature:  Imaginative vision becomes vision of the heart . . . the heart being the organ, the "eye" by which God sees Himself: the contemplant is the contemplated (my vision of Him is His vision of me).  Henry Corbin 

Synchronicity &  the Symbolic Photograph
Carl G. Jung said "at bottom, psyche and world are one."  He used the term 
synchronicity for the spontaneous perceptual experience of the a-causal alignment of corresponding inner and outer, psychic and physical archetypal images.  When this psycho-physical encounter is given it's proper visual expression, its equivalent visual form, Jung termed the image a symbol.  Thus a photograph that functions as a symbol is an articulate visual formulation of synchronicity; it holds together as a visual unity the corresponding archetypal images of the psyche and the material world.   

One can become practiced and skilled in giving photographic form to synchronistic events but great self effort is required.  It's essential to know the medium and one's equipment well; it's essential to be prepared conceptually with right understanding so that a clear intention in regards to the goals of his creative process can make one committed to the process of becoming constantly vigilant, watchful and intensely attuned to even the slightest hints of an unfolding synchronistic event.  In those brief spontaneous moments of   intuitive recognition when synchronicity opens the heart of the photographer and simultaneously initiates the opening of the shutter of the camera, the photographer must act gracefully to form the articulate image which will function as a true symbol.

The symbolic photograph is not a product of the rational intellect, nor is it a product of deliberate intention; rather, it's a spontaneous combination of self-effort and grace, preparation and inspiration, inner necessity and a developed aesthetic sense of photographic pictorial form.

Synchronicity is not always a dramatic experience, but it is almost always associated with at least some conscious awareness or feeling of the numinous, the presence of the sacred, the mystery of the unknown.  The symbolic image which then embodies the experience of synchronicity and its grace will attract those who are open and searching for images that are empowered to open the heart.  Some images are so palpably alive that they can spontaneously awaken the hearts of even unsuspecting viewers.  

A true symbol is pregnant with unknown potentialities and ineffable meanings, and to liberate its meaning within ourselves also requires self-effort.  The process is called contemplation.  Jung named the process active imagination.  He believed that synchronicity is a process involving the projection of unconscious archetypal psychic images into their corresponding archetypal earthly forms.  The important thing is to become conscious of the projected contents, and this requires the contemplation of the symbol, that is to say imaginatively absorbing oneself in the image and withdrawing its the projected unconscious content into a more conscious form of awareness.  I will be discussing this in more detail later.  Jung called the process Active Imagination.

Inspiration, Intuition & Surrender  
Intuition and Inspiration are essentially the same thing, a least as they pertain to the creative process and the manifestation of symbolic photographs.  They are both forms of grace, which Swami Shantananda (see below) defines as one of the five acts of Divine Will.  And so you have the transpersonal will of the creative process coming into alignment with the photographer's will to create.  At this juncture the most important thing the photographer can do is to place his will and his expertise with the photographic medium at the service of grace.  

To surrender means to open to something greater than one's own personal will.  To surrender is to efface one's ego and open one's mind and one's heart so that intuition, or inspiration, or grace can manifest freely and spontaneously through one's sensibilities and the photographic medium.  The making of symbolic photographs requires an extraordinary perceptual set in which one sees the world through the photographic medium and simultaneously through the "eyes of the open heart."  . . . the heart being the organ, the "eye" by which God sees Himself . . .  Henry Corbin 

When I am photographing, I roam the world in a state of rapt attention and receptivity.  I am aware of the space I am in, the light, the colors, the things around me . . . and simultaneously I am aware of an inward space, what Henry Corbin named The Imaginal World.  To surrender is to become still, to silence the mind.  A silent mind leads to an open heart, and an open heart leads to the kind of seeing that happens from the inside-out, seeing with the eyes and the intelligence of the Heart.

In moments of synchronicity I have observed that when my heart opens . . . time comes to a standstill and I am no longer seeing the world.  Rather, I am in a state of suspension in which I am seeing images, potential photographs within the Intermediary Imaginal World.  The images are subtle, more like possibilities, in which corresponding images from "above" and "below" or "inside" and "outside" coexist within each other, or as if superimposed on top of each other.  I can sense the Oneness of Being in what I am "seeing" or imagining or imaging, and I make the photograph in the hope that the resulting photographic image will help me to see more clearly, more consciously what I was experiencing intuitively, in the grace of inspiration.

Inspiration, the breathing-in of spirit, comes when it wants to come--it is not available on command.  Indeed, persistence is an important part of the creative process because self-effort attracts grace.  Once I am in the flow of inspiration I receive more than enough energy, desire and enthusiasm to move forward in my creative process in a way that feels almost effortless.  It's as if I am not the one doing the work.  I have in a way dissolved and become nothing but a facilitator of the process.  Not only am I content to surrender to this graceful unfolding of creativity, I experience in this mode of surrender an extraordinary sense of freedom and joy.  I trust that I am being taken on a magical journey to new and necessary places that will transform and expand me, and perhaps in ways I may never be able to understand . . . 

These brief moments of perceptual encounter, alignment, surrender and union are often accompanied by a resonant feeling of ecsatcy.  Swami Shantananda writes of such transcendent moments of vision as the descent of grace and the splendor of recognition. 

The Splendor of Recognition
In his book The Splendor of RecognitionSwami Shantananda explains that grace is an act of divine will, one of the traditional Five Acts of the Lord, which are: creation, maintenance, dissolution, concealment, and the bestowal of grace.  Grace is the decent of  citi-sakti, divine energy, into the heart and soul of an individual.  In the yogic tradition it is understood that grace is the means by which the Guru awakens the yogi to his or her own inner divinity, the Self, the Unity of Being. 

Swamiji explains that the Lord's act of manifesting the created world required that He conceal himself, and that the solution to His concealment is grace: "Concealment is the reason that grace exists . . .  By means of grace, the Lord ends the concealment He has imposed on Himself.  He comes to the recognition that His own Consciousness penetrates the cycles of the universe.  In other words, grace resolves--or dissolves--the illusion of duality inherent in the individual's universe."  (Sutra 10)  

"We ourselves perform the five acts of the Lord, including the bestowal of grace. . .   We can confer grace on ourselves through our efforts to pierce the shadow of appearances with the firm understanding I am Siva. . .  I am the one who performs the five acts of God. . ."   (Sutra 10)

"It is through our thoughts, our words, our own actions that we are drawn toward or propelled away from grace.  In order to receive the Lord's grace, we must bestow grace on the Lord. . . If we don't receive grace it's because we aren't open to it.  For without our explicit permission, neither God nor Guru can enter our soul. . .  We can confer grace on ourselves . . . with the firm understanding I am Siva."  

It is important to note here that Swami Shantananda's book The Splendor of Recognition,  which is a contemporary commentary of an 11th century yogic text entitled Pratyabhijna-hydayam, is an in-depth contemplation on the inward seeing of the grace-filled heart.  In fact the title of the book is often translated The Heart of Recognition.     

Visual artists, poetswriters and mystics are especially practiced and privileged in the ways of opening to grace and seeing with the eyes of the heart.  Grace transforms perception;  the world is experienced through their chosen mediums and through the opened Heart.  Symbols then spontaneously flower into being announcing something at once unknown and yet which cannot be expressed in any other way.  The true symbol, alive with the light of creative energy, has the power to transform and unify the contemplator.

The symbol . . . Henry Corbin writes . . . is the unique expression of the thing symbolized as of a reality that thus becomes transparent to the soul, but which in itself transcends all expression.  ~~  The soul discovers itself to be the earthly counterpart of another being with which it forms a totality that is dual in structure.  The two elements of this dualitude may be called the ego and the Self, or the transcendent celestial Self and the earthly Self.  It is from this transcendent Self that the soul originates in the past of metahistory.  Henry Corbin: Avicenna and the Visionary Recital 

We are living in the paradisal Eternal Moment right now, according to the saints of all traditions.  Artists experience this stilled moment in the fire of grace-filled creativity and in the images they create.  Most of us, however, experience time and the things of the world through our ordinary ego-dominated sensory apparatus.  We live in the dual world of maya.  The true living symbol, the container and transmitter of grace, provides the means by which our earthly
 self and the transcendent celestial Self can encounter each other face-to-face in the Intermediate Imaginal World. 

The Encounter & The Imaginal World
Henry Corbin:  Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi
Imaginative vision . . .  presupposes of course a basic visionary Imagination, a "presence of the heart" in the intermediate world . . . an intermediate world which is the encounter (the conjunction, the "conspiration") of the spiritual and the physical . . . 

Tom Cheetham:  Green Man, Earth Angel
The perception of any meaningful form is grounded in the encounter with a real presence, a transcendence, beyond the human.

An encounter is a rupture of the sacred into our ordinary veiled reality.  An encounter is a momentary glimpse into the Intermediate Imaginal World.  It is a transcendent experience, a moment of recognition of the Unity of Being, our own Divinity, the Self.  

Synchronicity is an encounter; the experience of a true symbol is an encounter; every moment of our lives is an encounter . . . if only we could see beyond the shadow of appearances.  The sustained practice of making photographs and contemplating symbolic images has helped me to see life through the intelligence of the heart and to recognize in subtle, silent ways: I am that which I perceive.   

Of course, not all photographs are symbols, and photographs which function as symbols for some people do not function as symbols for others.  An image that calls out to us, that insists on having our full attention, must be contemplated; it is our duty . . . and it is a way of gracing ourselves.  

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The Event of the symbol is a stunning, unexpected moment when something in a text or in the world takes your breath away.  It is the annunciation of the Mystery. . .  Symbols erupt into the world from somewhere beyond.  The eruption of a symbol is irreducibly individual.  It is a call to consciousness.  Tom Cheetham:   The World Turned Inside Out  Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism

The great Sufi theosophist Ibn 'Arabi conveys to us . . . God has created for each soul a universe corresponding to that soul.  When the mystic contemplates this universe, it is himself that he is contemplating. Henry Corbin,  Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth

It is the deepest purpose of human existence to journey from the outward to the inward and so “return creation to its origin.”  Tom Cheetham: The World Turned Inside Out:  Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism

Unity is, in addition to a metaphysical assertion about the nature of the Absolute, a method of integration, a means of becoming whole and realizing the profound oneness of all existence . . . its fullness in the human being in his inner and outer life.  Seyyed Hossein Nasr:  Ideals and Realities of Islam  

The symbol has an ontological reality that lies above any mental constructions.  Man cannot create symbols.  Rather, he is transformed by them.  . . . the worlds of meaning that lie hidden in [a symbol] transforms and remakes the soul of man.  Seyyed Hossein Nasr:  Ideals and Realities of Islam  

In sutra 19 [the Saivite sage] Kshemaraja tells us . . . to attain permanent absorption in the experience of the Self (samadhi) we must contemplate again and again the impressions left on our consciousness in the state following meditation by the glimpses we've had of samadhi.  Swami Shantananda
The Splendor of Recognition

When a seeker hears the Truth and contemplates it,

the fire of knowledge is kindled within.
Then, freed from impurities, he shines like gold.
Shankaracharya, 8th century yogic sage

Perception,  Projection & Contemplation
Everything comes from the inside.  The exterior world is a projection of our Imaginal World onto the screen of conscious awareness.  That is to say, our perceptions create the world.  This concept, though difficult to comprehend, is the essential key to what must be understood in regard to synchronicity, the making of photographic symbols, and the contemplation of symbols.  I encourage you to read the text excerpts for Sutra 3 from my webpage The Splendor of Recognition, and my essay Seeing the Grand Canyon which is a personal story regarding my own experience of perception as projection.

If the making of symbolic photographs is a process of projecting unconscious psychic contents into their corresponding outer world forms, then the contemplation of these images is a process of withdrawing the projected content into our conscious awareness and integrating the symbol's grace and ineffable, unknown meanings into the entirety of our being.  

Contemplation is an active participation and absorption in a symbolic image.  Because a symbol is not only a manifestation of grace, but as well a container of grace and a transmitter of grace, by absorbing oneself in the image and assimilating its sacred golden energy, we become purified by it's "fire" of transcendent knowledge and thus are able to come face to face with the inner divine Self


There are multiple layers of meaning in any symbol just as there multiple layers of meaning in the universe, in the Imaginal World and in the psyche.  For example, CG Jung wrote extensively about the fragmented nature of the psyche and its various parts: the conscious psyche, the ego; the personal unconscious, the shadow; the collective unconscious and its archetypes; the psychoid aspect of the psyche; and the unitary reality of the psyche which he named the Self.  

Contemplation can give us access to many levels of meaning within a symbol, and there is a certain kind of satisfaction in discovering and integrating the archetypal contents and structures within a symbol.  However the greater goal of contemplation must not get lost in the ego's satisfaction in the lower forms of mental intellection.  The transforming grace of Self-knowledge contained in the symbol is the higher "meaning" that is beyond the collective historic record, beyond the limitations of  words and the intellect.  Symbols truly speaking are gifts of grace, and it is our duty to receive this divine offering by taking it into ourselves as completely as possible. 


Active Imagination
Contemplation is an imaginative journey into the various levels of meaning within a symbolic image and integrating its contents into our conscious awareness.  C G Jung called the process Active Imagination, and it can take many forms.  If one is interested in exploring the symbol in relation to the contents of the personal or collective unconscious it would be advisable and most efficient to work with a trained psychotherapist.  It is possible to interpret photographs in the same way that one would therapeutically explore the imagery in dreams.    

For one who is interested in the the transcendent nature of the visual symbol, the primary goal of contemplation is absorbing one's self in the image and integrating its grace into one's being.  This requires total concentration; focusing of one's attention completely into the image; seeing deeply into the image through the eyes of the heart.  This intensity of seeing allows us to experience the image from the inside, which in a sense returns us to the origin of the image.  

Contemplation of an image requires a mode of perception very similar to the one that manifested the image itself: the mind must become stilled and silenced so that the heart can open.  It's essential to see the symbol from inside the image, that is to say with the eyes of the heart.  Eventually as one gets deeper and deeper into the image a silent dialogue can then begin to unfold between the contemplator and the image.  At a critical turning point in the process, the "dialogue" becomes pure feeling, and imagination transcends language.  

The repeated contemplation of the same symbol will yield new and deeper levels of insight and meaning.  Finally the greatest fruit of the image and the contemplative process will be unveiled: we come face to face in conscious awareness with the Inner Treasure, the Unity of being, the Absolute Intelligence of the heart, the Self. 

Active Imagination and The  Silent Conversation
The perception of meaning in art, and we can extend this to the world as a whole, is based upon the "axiom of dialogue."  We are always, when we are truly paying attention, in communion with what lies beyond us. . . .  As we begin to read and write [and photograph] the world, to hear the news of the universe, we would do well to hear these words.  Tom Cheetham: Green Man, Earth Angel

The contemplative experience of a symbol is necessarily beyond language precisely because symbols are the embodiment of 
Silence.  Silence is the "language" of the Heart, the "language" of the Absolute, the "language" of the pre-eternal Unity of Being.  Silence is the sacred presence that envelopes and pervades a true symbol; silence gives the symbol its radiant mysterious aliveness and unknown attractiveness; silence often pervades our experience of a symbol because its numinous grace "takes one's breath away" and stops the mind, silences the mind.  The contemplation of a symbol transforms our being as we become absorbed in its grace and merge into the silence that pervades the image.  

The symbol must be engaged on its own terms--with a silent mind.  Contemplation is an imaginative silent conversation with a symbol.  We enter into the image with an open, receptive heart, and then we simply "listen" in silence.  In this open mode of being we receive what the symbol needs to give us, and what we are capable of receiving from the symbol in that moment.  Again, repeated contemplations are essential to the creative process because our mode of being and thus our needs and capacities to receive different aspects of the symbol will vary from one contemplation to the next.  As we are transformed by our experience of a symbol, we attain new levels of receptiveness to its unfathomable depths of potential meaning.  

Active Imagination and The Visual Conversation    
In a dynamic creative process, one image often inspires the making of another image, and then another and another.  In this regard Active Imagination can take the form of a visual conversation which involves the making of additional photographic images in response to the one being contemplated, or to an image which has inspired new work.  This visual form of contemplation could manifest, for example, as a series of variations on one particular aspect of the image being contemplated.  The goal is to amplify, extend and thus more clearly and deeply understand particular attractive visual aspects of the symbol being contemplated.    


The creative process in photography typically involves the manifestation of many related images within a given project.  There may be particular images that stand out as being of key importance to the body of work as a whole, and these individual images will of course be of primary interest to the contemplator.  However, the creative process in not only a private activity.  At some point in time the fruits of the creative process should be shared with others.  Its the dharma or duty of an artist to make his or her work available to his community in some way.  The preparation for an exhibition, a book, or an online publication provides us with another opportunity to actively participate in the creative process and the images with which we have been graced.   

When we prepare a body of related photographs for public presentation we see our work in a new perspective: we imagine how others will see our work; and we see and learn new things about our work as we edit, select and sequence the images for presentation.  Indeed, when two images are carefully chosen and placed next to each other on a wall, in a book, on a webpage, a third, subtle image can spontaneously manifest in the space between them.  The subtle image is a manifestation of active imagination and the Intermediary Imaginal World.   This in-between image can and should be contemplated, and in doing so its fruits will yield deeper insights and understandings of the two juxtaposed images.

The space between is a powerful concept for me.  This is a major theme in the photographs I have been making for the present project.  In Siddha Yoga meditation we are instructed to focus on the space between the in-breath and the out-breath.  Swami Shantananda writes that any space between can be an entrance point into the vast realm of Consciousness.  For example, in the Qur'an there is a well known Sura, number 55, known as the Sura of the Compassionate, which contains four of the most mystical verses in the book which relate directly to the theory of manifestation discussed by Swami Shantananda in his book The Splendor of Recognition (see sutra 3).   Both address the idea of creation as a pulsation of divine energy that alternates between creation and destruction, manifestation and dissolution, annihilation (fana) and re-creation.  Michael Sells, in his book Approaching the Qur'an writes about these four verses:  Theologians saw them as affirming that God creates the world anew every moment. . .  Poets read the verses as indicating that in every moment the divine beloved approaches the human lover and in every moment departs, leaving the lover in a constant state of longing, caught between the joy of union and the sorrow of separation.  (See my section below entitled "The Longing for Return.")


A silent conversation can also take place between the two juxtaposed photographs.  If the contemplator can silence her mind and open her heart she can imaginatively enter into that space between the images and listen to the "conversation."  Its possible to go even deeper into this process of active imagination and "join" in the "conversation."  The dialogue between contemplator and the two juxtaposed images is a silent imaginative dialogue that transcends language.  The heart of the contemplator and the Inner Treasure within the two images meet in the space of Intermediate Imaginal World, where Self-Knowledge manifests in the experience of pure silence. 


A collection of related photographs can spontaneously generate an image field or aura of atmospheric meaning in a contemplator's intuitive, imaginative awareness.  After seeing the body of work and experiencing its cumulative impact of creative energy, the contemplator can enter into a process of active imagination with the subtle, unitary reality of the image field.  Once again, the heart of the contemplator and the heart of the image field meet in the Intermediary Imaginal World where Self-Knowledge manifests in the experience of pure silence. 

The phrase "Vision of the heart" is of course a metaphor, a way of trying to say something ineffable.  Truly speaking the vision we are trying to talk about refers to the "eye" by which God sees Himself.  Through our longings, our self-efforts and the grace of the Creative Process, God, The Creator, becomes conscious of Himself through His creations, His creatures and the images we create through His grace.  Correspondingly the photographer becomes conscious of him or her self through the making and contemplation of symbolic photographs.  At bottom, the seer is the seen and the seen is the seer, and through active imagination there can be a profound merging of this apparent duality into the Unity of Being.     

The creative process transforms the maker of symbolic photographs, and the contemplator of symbolic images is transformed by the symbols, by returning him or her to the primordial, creative source of all images: the Creative Imagination.  This awesome experience of unitary consciousness is named in many traditions Self Knowledge.

Self Knowledge  
At this very moment, which is also the eternal moment, everything is nonexistent and has perished in itself save the Face of God, and right now in whichever direction one turns there is His Face, if one could only see.  To understand this reality is to realize the meaning of the oneness of Being.  Seyyed Hossein Nasr  The Garden of Truth

Self Knowledge is the Intelligence of the Heart, the Consciousness of the Divine Self.  This sacred knowledge can only be experienced . . . felt as images, and integrated back into the the pre-eternal Origin and Oneness of Being.

"Know that you are an imagination," Ibn 'Arabi says, "and everything that you perceive, and of which you would say "this is not me," is also an imagination.  So the whole being is an imagination within an imagination."  Samer Akkach  Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam  

An intellectual awareness of the trans-cultural history of archetypal imagery is relatively useful in the contemplative process, especially as a point of departure, for this knowledge throws light on particular levels of meaning of the symbol.  But the most profound meaning of a symbolic photograph can never be pinned down through some rational process dependent upon historical agreed upon meanings.  The ultimate goal of the creative process is the splendor of recognition--the direct face to face experience and conscious absorption in one's own Inner Treasure, the Self, the Oneness of Being.  In the grace, in the silence, in the conscious open hearted absorption in a symbol, the contemplator will discover and be transformed by the purifying fire of Self knowledge, the truth of who we really are.

*          *          *
The Longing for Return
Images Searching for One Another 

It is the deepest purpose of human existence to journey from the outward to the inward and so “return creation to its origin.”  Tom Cheetham: The World Turned Inside Out:  Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism

I am continually searching for images.  I have a constant yearning to make photographs which can silence my mind and plunge me into the sacred world of the Unity of Being

But I have discovered that images are also seeking me!  Images within me and outside of me long to re-unite with their corresponding archetypal counterparts and thus become whole again.  Images long to be recognized, engaged, experienced, felt and integrated back into a unified mode of being.  These images are depending on me . . . all of us . . .  to re-unite them through the vision of our hearts.  The making and contemplation of symbolic photographs is an inward journey through the world, through the heart, through the Imaginal World to the Self, the Creative Source of all images. 

The longing for re-union is an archetypal phenomenon which exists in practically all creation stories throughout the world.  I have written above about the poet's longing for the beloved who in every moment of creation which consists of an oscillation between annihilation and re-creation approaches the human lover and in every moment departs, leaving the lover in a constant state of longing, caught between the joy of union and the sorrow of separation.  And there is the longing which manifests the Alchemical Marriage, a projection of psyche into matter, the conjunction of male and female base metals into a living substance named the Corpus Subtile, or the unitary reality Jung named the Self

Similarly, according to Seyyed Hossein Nasr the spiritual anthropology of Islam as stated in the Qur'an begins with the creation of Adam and Eve in the timeless realm of Paradise.  ~  When they experienced the "fall" (in Islam this is not due to original sin) and became separated from each other on earth, Adam and Eve longed to be re-united; they searched the entire world for each.  According to traditional sources, Adam finally encountered Eve and they re-united at the plain of Arafat, a place which has become central to the rite of the annual hajj pilgrimage for Muslims to this day.  Of course this creation story becomes the origin point of the human family.  [Mecca the Blessed, Medina the Radiant, Aperture publication] 

The Creative Process in photography is an inward imaginal journey.  Our self-effort and the grace of the symbolic photograph transforms us and transports us back to our Creative Origin, the Unity of Being.  The journey is completed in a new state of conscious awareness, and in the splendor of recognition: "I Am That which I was longing and searching for; I Am the Origin and the Creator of All; I Am the Self; I Am Siva."

*          *          *

It is the morning of June 27, 2014.  In full disclosure of my creative process I must admit that yesterday I revised the above text one last time.  I promised myself this would be the very last revision.  I must move on.  Last night I also added new photographs to my Chapter 2 collection of images, in part to celebrate completion of this text and in part to reassure myself that I could still make photographs after spending such a long time writing about the symbolic photograph.  This text has truly been challenging for me.  I am more than ready to begin working on other things.

Earlier this morning, however, I read--as I usually do before meditation--a few pages from a yogic text which I have decided to share with you here because the words were particularly poignant for me and because I think the timing of their appearance in my life serves as a good example of synchronicity.  

I will be quoting from the book Enthusiasm by Swami Chidvilasananda.  Gurumayi is my meditation teacher.  The words are from the conclusion of her chapter entitled "Freedom of Speech."  It feels most auspicious to conclude my chapter on the symbolic photograph with her words.  Just as a true symbol is a container of grace, the embodiment of silence, and an image of praise--an image that "sings God's glory"--so the words of saints carry the the blessings of their attainment . . .       

"An Indian poet-saint named Bholenath describes how the perception of God in this world allows you to be filled with enthusiasm and gives you the freedom to sing God's glory:

This entire universe is the garden of Siva, the great Lord.
It is meant for you to roam in.
This universe is a mansion containing the mirror of Lord Siva.
Whoever looks in it with the feeling of being one with the great Lord
sees his own divine image everywhere, sees the great Lord everywhere.

Allow your entire being to be filled with enthusiasm.  Be thankful that you can truly sing God's glory as you recognize God in each moment, as you offer kindness to others, as you are able to sit in silence and experience the power of silence within.  Contemplate the power of silence and the freedom of speech.

To let your words flow freely from the deepest level of your being is to be filled with enthusiasm and sing Gods's glory.

With great respect, with great love, I welcome you all with all my heart."


Sacred knowledge

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