Theosophy Northwest View

The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society

May 2013 – Vol. 16 Issue 3

News and Views

On the Wings of Imagination

I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination. – William Blake, Jerusalem

William Blake (1757-1827), a largely self-educated mystic gifted equally in the graphic arts and poetry, gave the term imagination a new and wider meaning. He had stepped into the stream of ideas that flowed down into Europe's dark centuries from Plato, the Neoplatonists, and those few mystics who had immersed themselves in the life-giving waters. Through the murk of contemporary dogma and illiteracy, Blake discerned gleams of spiritual light that came from a very ancient wisdom tradition. Taking from his various sources phrasings about the ensoulment of the universe and composite human nature, he created his own language of which the most important term is perhaps his distinctive use of the word imagination.

Blake envisioned humans as spiritual beings drawn into the smoky fires of material life ages ago and unaware of their true identity. The souls "fallen from heaven" or their state of pristine purity remain captivated by the false glitter of the pleasures offered by the physical side of earthly existence. Their appetite for possessions and delights that feed the ego and its lower qualities increases as each gratification grows stale. The increase brings in its train further stupefaction:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

The one savior is the imagination which, he points out, is really the creative soul of the universe. In his writings, illustrations, drawings, and etchings, he contrasts the imagination with the dry, mechanical aspects of the reasoning mind. The mythology that he invented symbolizes this process. For example, his term "satanic mills" warns against the worst features of the industrial revolution: the reduction of human entities from being spiritual individuals into merely material creatures functioning as cogs turning the wheels of machines. The names of Newton and Locke represent in his poetry the rationalizing elements in human nature, excessive dependence upon the mechanical aspect of the mind at the expense of the finer qualities of the human being. The creator of the physical world, the "Workman," could produce only a machine-like universe that is a shadow-image of the superior realm where the truly creative aspects of divinity are allowed fuller play.

We humans are but semblances of the spiritual beings we were in the beginning of the world and are still intrinsically today, even though we may not realize this. By beholding glimpses of our true nature, aspiring and striving toward the ideal, we rebecome the Logos of which we were (and still are!) vital parts. This Logos, the Divine Reason of the Greek philosophers and the Gnostics, the "Word" of the New Testament, Blake called "Jesus the Imagination." The term does not refer to the individual of 2,000 years ago, but to the universal "Divine Humanity" of which the earthly mankind is an imperfect vehicle.

Blake felt the tremendous responsibility of the artist to mediate for people between the material and the more refined realms of the spirit. Biographer Alexander Gilchrist writes that Blake himself “saw spiritual appearances by the exercise of a special faculty – that of imagination – using the word in the then unusual, but true sense, of a faculty which busies itself with the subtler realities, not with fictions . . . the things the imagination saw were as much realities as were gross and tangible facts. . . . His advice to a young painter was ‘You have only to work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done.’"

For Jacob Boehme, the German mystic who was one of Blake's favorite sources, Adam ate with his "outward mouth" and so saw only the bodily tree of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. He must learn again to eat, this time with his "inward mouth," interpreted by Blake as meaning "a cleansing of the doors of perception." Kathleen Raine comments suggestively that the tree of life in the garden of Eden represents "the world of Imagination," whereas the tree of the knowledge of good and evil relates to the material side of creation – the "error" of the "tree of Creation." She sees the tree of life as Adam's "tree of Mystery," and that nature perceived as the "magia" or "wonders of God" no longer wields over humanity its "destructive power" as represented by the allurements of material life. However, the original act of immersion in matter symbolized by the fall of the angels was not an error in the creative process. Its purpose was to call out of potentiality the qualities of spiritual individuality within all entities. The error lies in the deliberate choice of continued absorption in embodied physical life instead of rising with the cycle of refinement that is now in process. Imagination envisions what existed before the creation of the cosmos with its heavenly bodies and our present home, the earth. For the universe is a nascent god and Blake's "Imagination" is the divine aspect of mankind, upon whose wings we may fly and thus realize all our finest possibilities. – I. M. Oderberg

Theosophical Views

Studies in Animal Consciousness

By Sally Dougherty

Do animals have mental and emotional lives? People recognize that their pets aren’t mindless machines or mere bundles of reflexes. Darwin agreed, and from experiments and observations concluded that even earthworms showed intelligence. The cognitive revolution that rejected the separation of thought and feeling, as well as behaviorists’ denial of both (even in humans!), has revitalized animal cognition research since the 1990s. In Animal Wise (2013) Virginia Morell reports on research that is confirming neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinas’s assertion: “Consciousness does not belong only to humans; it belongs to probably all forms of life that have a nervous system.” While her book also covers chimps, elephants, and dolphins, the findings on those animals whose mentality is less often discussed are particularly fascinating.

She begins with insects, whose abilities may surprise. Insects have brains with up to 100,000 neurons, and social insects in particular have evolved complex skills. Social wasps recognize each other’s faces, while honeybees can learn to categorize things as same or different and distinguish human faces, besides their communication and navigation skills. Even fruit flies have memories and some modicum of free will and can learn, for example to dunk their feet in water for a sugar treat. The research of Nigel Franks concerns problem solving in ants. Franks captures whole colonies of a small species and uniquely marks each ant with paint dots so he can follow the 200 or so individuals, not just the colony. These ants are good problem solvers and, remarkably, teach each other. Franks says that ants “have taught me that very sophisticated behaviors don’t necessarily need to involve thought or language or theory of mind” (the ability to understand what another is thinking or feeling).

Turning to vertebrates, both fish and birds were held incapable of thought or feeling because their brains were misinterpreted. Unlike our brains which grow inwards, their brains grow outward, so their specialized structures are found on the outside of the brain instead of the interior. Structures corresponding to those in the human brain have now been found. One line of research on fish has shown that they feel pain, can suffer, and have a measure of self-awareness and consciousness. Another line involves archer fish which shoot a stream of water at prey above water. This behavior is not instinctive; the fish must learn to shoot accurately, copying other fish and improving with practice. They can also learn a new behavior, such as hitting a moving target, simply by watching another fish learn to do so. This requires the ability to picture themselves taking the viewpoint of the other fish.

Birds have some remarkable mental abilities. Clark’s nutcrackers hide up to 30,000 seeds and then find them six months later. Magpies recognize themselves in a mirror, which suggests self-awareness. They and parrots realize that an object that has gone behind a curtain hasn’t disappeared, an ability developed by human toddlers. Crows show sophisticated tool making and using abilities. Parrots, along with hummingbirds and some songbirds, are among the few vocal learners besides humans, and may provide insight into human language learning. Irene Pepperberg’s parrot Alex among other things could count to six, add and subtract, and arrived at the concept of zero by himself. He labeled objects and distinguished shapes, materials and colors.

Research on rats shows that they are self-aware, capable of something like introspection, and brain monitoring reveals that they relive the day’s challenges in cinematic dreams. Jaak Panksepp, who investigates emotion in several species, found that rats love to play and laugh, though at a frequency we can’t hear. The great apes laugh, as do dogs, and Panksepp says, “The great lesson of 20th-century molecular biology is the abundance of evolutionary continuities across species, just as Darwin taught. Laughter and play didn’t appear out of no-where. They have evolutionary roots.” Studies indicate that the fundamental emotions of humans and all mammals emerge from deep, ancient brain structures.

At a 2012 University of Cambridge conference several leading neuroscientists wrote a declaration that asserted that all mammals and birds, and many other creatures including octopuses, also have the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Realizing the extent to which animals think and feel will in time change the way people view and treat them. As Ms. Morell writes, “knowing more about the minds and emotions of other animals may help us do a better job of sharing the earth with our fellow creatures and may even open our minds to new ways of perceiving and thinking about our world.”

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