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Mind Palaces: the art of psycho-technics, or soul-craft

42be11b56059d244f573bac445e722aaThis week, I’ve been researching an ancient mnemonic technique called ‘the mind palace’, where people imprint a real or imagined building onto their memory – a palace, a mansion, a church, even a whole street – and then fill it with striking images, to which they attach bits of information they want to remember.

The Greek poet Simonides is supposed to have come upon the technique in around 400 BC and used it to memorize poems. It became popular with Greek and Roman orators including Cicero, who used it to memorize speeches and to remember evidence for cases. It flourished in the Renaissance, when magi like Giordano Bruno and Ramon Lull memorized incredibly complex systems of words, symbols and hieroglyphs in an attempt to become a sort of World Wide Web of occult knowledge. And it survives today: Derren Brown and other memory-prodigies use it, as does Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series. [So does, er, Hannibal Lecter, a reader informs me!]

Daniel Levitin, in his new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, suggests that the technique works because our memory-system for images and places is older and more reliable than our memory-system for names and words. So if you want to remember something, convert it into an image and store it in a familiar place in your mind.

How does this memory-technique fit into my research into transcendence?

Well, in my research I’ve noticed certain metaphors of the mind re-appearing in the literature on transcendence. And one of the most persistent is the metaphor of the mind as a palace, castle, or ‘many-roomed mansion’. Explorers of transcendence, from St Augustine to St Teresa to Thomas Traherne to Keats, often use this image to suggest the awesome vastness of the soul, and to urge the reader to journey within.

The metaphor isn’t just suggestive, it’s also creative. As Julian Jaynes noted, we construct the soul through the metaphors we use to describe it – so the metaphor of the soul as mansion is a form of soul-craft or psycho-technics, a way of structuring and expanding the psyche.

So here’s the question: how did an ancient memory-technique become a mystical exercise?

The key is Pythagoras, the magician-philosopher of the sixth century BC. His followers believed that Memory was the mother of all the muses, including philosophy. They memorized maxims, incantations, poems and emblems or symbols as a way to fill their souls with wisdom and connect them to the Divine.

A similar idea appears in Plato and in the Stoics (although the Stoics tend to be more verbal than symbolic): the soul is malleable, or plastic, and we can train the memory by repeating certain ideas. In Plato, a more mystical note is introduced – the reincarnated soul already knows everything, if it could but wake up from its slumber, so new insights are really a form of recollection of Who We Really Are. If we wake up, he says in the Phaedo, then our soul will return to the mansion of its divinity.

commandingcosmosorigIt is Aristotle, however, who sees the imagination as key to soul-craft. In some elliptic remarks in De Anima, he says that it’s impossible to think without images. So the imagination, or phantasia, is crucial to all forms of thinking. The imagination is a two-way ladder – it takes sensory information from the material world and spiritualizes it into the ideas of the spiritual or intelligible world. It also takes ideas from the spiritual realm and materializes them into symbols and stories which rouse our emotions. Memory is central to this spiritual alchemy – it is the storehouse from which the imagination constructs its stories or movies. Aristotle’s conception of the imagination would be hugely influential on Christian and Sufi mysticism.

The mystical visualization of the Mind Palace

St Augustine, who’d studied the mind-palace memory technique when he was an orator, develops the mystic metaphor of the soul as mansion in his Confessions . ‘Narrow is the mansion of my soul, oh Lord’, he declares. ‘Enlarge it, that you may enter it.’ He is connecting, of course, the Greek tradition of soul-as-mansion with the beautiful image of Jesus: ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’ (John 14:2).

For Augustine, the interior journey into memory is central to this expansion of the soul-mansion. In Book X of his Confessions, which I think is one of the most beautiful things in all western culture, he writes this – it makes me think of Morpheus and Neo in their white room:

I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things perceived by the senses…When I enter there, I require what I will to be brought forth, and something instantly comes; others must be longer sought after, which are fetched, as it were, out of some inner receptacle; others rush out in troops, and while one thing is desired and required, they start forth, as if to say, “Is it perchance I?” These I drive away with the hand of my heart, from the face of my remembrance; until what I wish for is unveiled, and appears in sight, out of its secret place.

This is a wonderful description of the mind-palace as used by Greek orators (Augustine was trained as an orator). Man is the curator of his soul-mansion, which he fills with priceless images. But this could lead to pride – we are the lords of our self-made mansions, we are the masters of interior design! But St Augustine warns us not to be proud – we didn’t make the mansion, we’re a guest in our own souls. We need to seek the Lord in our minds and memories, which is not easy, because He is transcendent to our human imagining.

And our soul-mansion is not in great shape, in Augustine’s imagination. It’s ruined, locked up, covered with cobwebs, filled with trash, crawling with vermin. In his memory-journey, Augustine goes back generations to Adam’s original fall, when humans were expelled from the Edenic central courtyard of the mansion. We need to repair the mansion and tidy it up to make it an abode fit for its maker once again. But attempts at DIY are not sufficient, says Augustine. We need Jesus to repair our wonky mansions.

Around this time, Jewish mystics begin to use the metaphor of a journey through mansions as a form of occult visualization. There’s a whole body of Jewish mystical literature from the first century AD (when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Roman Army), called hekhalot or mansions, in which the mystic imagines an inner temple, and journeys through seven mansions until they come to the throne-room, the deepest part of the soul. This method is passed down into the medieval tradition of Kabbalah – the Zohar, for example, is a visualized journey through the seven palaces of heaven and the seven palaces of hell.

A similar method appears in Sufi visualizations, in the mystical treatises of Ibn Arabi and others, who picture heaven as a garden with seven courtyards. Ibn Arabi, following Averroes and Aristotle, sees the imagination as a spiritualizing faculty which converts the memory of sensory data into ideas and symbols. Sometimes that alchemy happens passively and involuntarily, as in dreams (I don’t know about you, but I often find myself wandering through a dream-city in my sleep). But we can develop an ‘active imagination’, learn how to dream consciously, as it were, using visualization.

This technique and the metaphor of the mansion passes into Christian mysticism, where its most beautiful expression is St Teresa’s Interior Castle, in which the reader moves through seven mansions before meeting the Lord and uniting with Him in ecstasy. For a Renaissance magi like Giordano Bruno or Ramon Lull, meanwhile, the ‘mind palace’ is both a memory-technique and an occult method for connecting the soul to God (Frances Yates’ The Art Of Memory is a useful resource for this).

Soul-craft in the arts

Now, you recall that the ‘mind palace’ technique is first associated with a poet, Simonides. His genius, it was said, united the arts of philosophy, poetry and painting, because he painted the soul with poetic images, in a way that ethical philosophers would find useful as a means of character-building. From the Middle Ages onwards, we find the idea of crafting the soul with imagination and symbolism appearing in poetry, painting and architecture.

As the historian Frances Yates puts it, this idea is the key to so much of the greatest western culture. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, could be seen as a form of soul-craft – a visualized journey through the nine circles of Hell, the seven terraces of Purgatory and the nine circles of Heaven, with various striking emblems of vice and virtue to memorize along the way. To read it is to expand and encode one’s soul. The poem is what Ted Hughes called a ‘big dream’ – psycho-technics for the tribe.

The Divine Comedy is the greatest example of this sort of soul-craft, but there are many others, like the Pearl poem, where the poet, in a dream, travels to see the New Jerusalem, and connects his tribe to that vision.

Many of the greatest Medieval and Renaissance paintings can also be seen as a form of imaginative soul-craft. Raphael’s School of Athens, for example, is imprinted on my soul (through endless gawping at the poster of it on my wall). It’s a portal between the sensory and the spiritual world, connecting us to Raphael’s ideal city, where the philosophers stay in our memory as emblems of virtue. My favourite paintings of the Renaissance are pictures of ideal cities in which angels descend to communicate with us – this is a symbol of the imagination itself, the daemonic messenger between the sensory and the spiritual realms.

The Seven Virtues, from the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence

Medieval and Renaissance architecture is also a form of psycho-technics. The Venerable Bede speaks of how a saint travelled to Italy, sees a beautiful church filled with images, imprints it on her memory, and then gets masons to build a copy in England, painted with colorful images of the saints and Passion. ‘Thus all who entered the church, even those who could not read, were able to contemplate the dear face of Christ and His saints, even if only in a picture’. It’s not surprising there is an association between masons and magic: churches and cathedrals expand the souls of those who frequent them.

Psycho-technics in the modern era

In the early modern era, I’d suggest, we lost the ancient concept of phantasia as a key cognitive capacity. Fantasy became delusion, the enemy both of Scripture and the scientific method. But the idea of the soul as mansion survived in some poetry, in the Metaphysicals for example, like Thomas Traherne, who describes the soul as ‘a cabinet of infinite value’; or Keats, who compared the soul to a ‘mansion of many rooms’, and who suggested the universe is a ‘vale of soul-making’; or Blake, who spoke of cleansing the ‘doors of perception’, and who devised his own unique graphic poetry to engrave on his audience’s souls.

The idea of the close link between imagination and memory is particularly rich in Wordsworth’s Prelude. Where in the Middle Ages people would imprint the memory of palaces or cathedrals onto their soul, Wordsworth imprints the memory of peaks and vales, and creates an inner Lake District which he can visit.

743913More recently, Ted Hughes strived to preserve the ancient tradition. He wrote, in his essay Poetry in the Making, ‘In our brains there are many mansions, and most of the doors are locked, with the keys inside’. Imagination unlocks these doors, connecting the outer world of sense with the inner world of spirit. Hughes spoke (in an essay on Keats) of poetry as a form of medicine, a ‘healing energy’, which acts on the auto-immune system. He’s quite right – what science calls ‘the placebo response’ is really the imagination, it connects the mental or spiritual world with our nervous and auto-immune system, and it can cure or kill us.

Hughes also understood that myth, metaphor and symbolism are ways of organizing the psyche’s otherwise inchoate energy – psycho-technics, in other words. The Big Dreamers, like Dante and Shakespeare, are psycho-tects who expand human consciousness, creating vast mythical structures to give our souls shape. Yet we are losing the myths, Hughes warns, and our inner lives are becoming impoverished as a result. The doors are closing. We’ve become overly-reliant on empiricism and rationalism, we equate the material with the real, and the invisible with the unreal.

Perhaps, though, one still sees signs of the spiritual conception of phantasia in pop culture (intelligent culture is far too intellectual and contemptuous of the spiritual). I see glimmers of it in fantasy and comic book culture, particularly the work of Allan Moore, whose series Promethea is a comic book exploration of Kabbalah, in which stories, ideas and archetypes exist in a spiritual realm called the Immateria. When we read or imagine a story, Moore suggests, we connect to this realm and channel the archetypes. Art is a form of magic, bringing down ideas and symbols from the Immateria and actualizing them in the material realm.


I see the idea of the soul as a memory-mansion or memory-theatre in cinema too, particularly the films of Christopher Nolan like Inception, or Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Birdman, and particularly What Dreams May Come. I see it in some of the incredibly immersive virtual cities found in games like GTA V and Assassin’s Call, and the virtual palaces of Minecraft.  And in general, the internet seems to me an enormous virtual city,  a Psychopolis or Infopolis, in which we construct vast memory-palaces of information and dreams.

The Utopian Imaginary, or Castles in the Sky

Finally (well done for getting this far), let me just talk briefly about phantasia and politics. What we’ve been discussing, this art of mnemo-technics and psycho-technics, has a political dimension too. It’s not just an interior exercise – some magi attempt to bridge the interior and exterior, the spiritual and the political.

You remember how the mind palace technique was originally used by poets and orators to memorize poems and speeches? Well, a similar sort of visualization-technique is at the heart of Utopian rhetoric – the prophet visualizes an image of an ideal city, and then inspires people to build it. In this sense, rhetoric is a sort of mysticism turned outward. This is the Utopian Imaginary, the use of phantasia in politics.

There is a close connection between the mind palace memory technique, and Utopian political philosophy. The poet-philosopher imagines an ideal city, a ‘castle in the air’ as Ernst Bloch put it – Plato imagines the Republic, for example, or Jesus imagines his New Jerusalem, or St Augustine imagines his City of God, or Tomasso Campanella imagines his City of the Sun, or Martin Luther King imagines his multicultural future-city. And then they describe this city in speech, paint a picture of it, plant the seed of it in the febrile imaginations of their followers, so they sacrifice themselves to make it real. ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, as Christians put it.

It can have beautiful results, but it can also be horrific – because people get so entranced by their vision of the future, they lose all reason, and all compassion for those in their way. We only have to look to Syria to see how murderous the Utopian Imaginary can be.



Here’s my newsletter round-up of interesting links (you can sign up in the box on the top right of the homepage)

Last newsletter I moaned that the BBC never has any programmes about religious ecstasy. Well, the cosmos loves to laugh at us – two days later, radio 4 broadcast this excellent programme on, yes,  ecstatic experiences. It was made by John McCarthy, the journalist who spent several years in captivity in Lebanon, and who had an ecstatic experience while imprisoned. He interviews psychiatrists, ecstatic joggers, and considers the near-death experience of the lead-singer of Spiritualized. Fantastic stuff.
Last week’s guest on Desert Island Discs was the incredibly gifted actor Mark Rylance, who turns out to be a Jungian animist with a fondness for the I-Ching.
John Gray is speaking on freedom at the LSE on Wednesday, if you’re in London.
Poignant article from Oliver Sacks, facing terminal cancer, and still working on ‘several books’. He’s written five since he was diaognosed. What a lovely, lovely human being. Here he is as a wild young biker.
Should first-world humanitarian agencies bring in therapy services for crisis-hit populations in developing countries who might be suffering from PTSD, or is that an inappropriate export of a western medical construct? The Guardian considers.
Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, considers the avant garde influences on Bjork.
Also on the music tip, here’s a marvellous documentary about Carole King.
Here is a Radio 3 Free Thinking programme about mindfulness and Zen, with Mark Vernon and Chris Harding among the guests.

Has psychiatry silenced God? Here’s a discussion from Edinburgh’s book festival, including members of the ‘Hearing the Voice’ research project at Durham’s Centre for the Medical Humanities.

Adult suicides in the UK in 2013 were their highest level for 10 years.  And a new report looks at hundreds of suicides by mentally ill people confined in prisons or mental health facilities, and concludes most were easily avoidable if staff were better trained in mental health.
And finally, best moment of the Oscars last night – Graham Moore, who won best adapted screenplay for the Imitation Game, used his speech to talk about how he tried to kill himself when he was 16, and to reassure those teenagers watching, if they also feel weird and like they don’t belong, that they do.
See you next time,


What can we recover from medieval contemplative culture?

10881517_10152445224901286_9127784824635687208_nEarlier this week, my girlfriend and I toured around Yorkshire and Northumberland, once the stronghold of English medieval monasticism. We visited the beautiful ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, which once boasted the biggest church in England. As we wandered around the ruins, I wondered what we lost, when Henry VIII dissolved more than 1000 monasteries in five years.

We lost our indigenous contemplative tradition. If you mention meditation to westerners, they assume you are talking about something from Asia. Last year, I went to an ‘International Symposium on Contemplative Studies’ in Boston, attended by over 1600 people. Of the 200 or so presentations, there was just one on Christian contemplation, by a sociologist who had not actually tried it.

The common view, expressed recently by Sam Harris, is that Christianity does not have a contemplative tradition. It has a few rare mystics, like Meister Eckhart and St Teresa of Avila, who operated as lone beacons of wisdom within a religion that was quick to suppress them. The very word ‘mystic’ makes contemplation seem something hidden and occult. Even contemporary Christians tend to view contemplation as something either Buddhist or New Age, and therefore deeply suspect.

This is a huge historical error. My research in this area is very raw, but from my initial reading it seems clear that from the 10th century until the Reformation, medieval culture was centred around contemplation. It was a visionary culture, ‘an age of the imagination’ as Michelle Karnes puts it. And contemplation was not an activity confined to the 2% of the population in monastic orders. Similar to today, the affluent laity were hungry for contemplative practices which they could carry out within their busy secular lives.

This contemplative culture gave rise to a rich treasury of contemplative practices. There was the contemplative lyric – visionary or dream poems like The Pearl or Piers Ploughman, designed to teach the reader virtues and guide them to transcendent experiences. There were contemplative miracle plays, which were a sort of mass visualization exercise for the laity. There was contemplative architecture – the abbey and cathedral, vivified with candles, incense, stained glass windows, statues and relics, were walk-through contemplative exercises in awe and piety. There were contemplative maps and travel accounts, designed to take the reader on mental journeys to wondrous lands. There were actual pilgrimages as walking contemplative exercises. There were contemplative objects – relics, prayer-beads, even contemplative needlework.

Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen, having an episode

Above all, there were contemplative books. ‘The prosperous literate laity wanted guidebooks to the mount of contemplation (or at least usable maps to its foothills)’, writes Oxford’s Vincent Gillespie. The monasteries helped to translate, copy and distribute contemplative classics by visionaries like Julian of Norwich, St Bonaventure, St Richard of Victor, the Cloud of Unknowing author, and Richard Rolle. The laity could also access these writings through ‘contemplative compilations’.

These books offered people meditative and devotional programmes. Like self-help books today, they were not always shy about trumpeting their miraculous benefits. The author of the 14th century Meditations on the Life of Christ declares that Christ Himself could appear to the reader ‘on any day…if you would prepare yourself for it with an uncompromised mind with meditations on the Lord’s passion every Friday and Saturday.’

The imagination as a bridge to God

At the heart of medieval contemplative culture was a belief in the power of the imagination to connect us to God. The exalted role of the imagination was built on the philosophy of Aristotle, for whom imagination was a key cognitive capacity that connects the sensory data of the material world to the emotions and the spiritual world of the intellect. For St Augustine, St Bernard, St Richard of Victor, St Bonaventure and others, the affective imagination takes us places where reason alone cannot go, lifting us from the material to the spiritual.

Reading was the main way the aspiring contemplative trained their imagination and guided their emotions to God. The key contemplative technique was called lectio divina, or ‘divine reading’. Guigo II, a 12th century Carthusian monk, outlines the four stages of the practice in his Scala Claustralium: first comes lectio, or a reading of a holy text; then meditatio, thinking about it and perhaps imagining oneself into its scenes; then oratio, or prayer to God; and finally contemplatio, when the mind is no longer striving, no longer imagining, but is rather taken up in rapture by God into the apex mentis, the throne-room, the Holy of Holies within one’s own mind.

Richard of the Abbey of St Victor (a school and contemplative centre in Paris), writes: “If the mind after a long time of searching finally finds the truth, then it usually happens that it receives the new insight with appetite, gazes at it with wonder and jubilation and stays in this amazement for a longer time.’

Fra Angelico's Annunciation, from a prayer-room in San Marco, Florence - each room has a different scene from Christ's life, to aid imaginative meditation
Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, from a prayer-room in San Marco, Florence – each room has a different scene from Christ’s life, to aid imaginative meditation

Many popular medieval contemplative works were guided imaginative meditations, particularly on the life and sufferings of Christ (a technique later adapted by St Ignatius for his Spiritual Exercises). By imagining oneself into Christ’s life, one actually went there, and could connect to Christ, and receive healing, wisdom and grace from him. Christ is God drawn close and made imaginable, palpable, embraceable. From the 11th century on, contemplative practices try to make him more and more real and present, to connect to him in love and sensual imagery.

The more vivid your imagining of Christ, the better – the author of Meditations on the Life of Christ has no worries about meditators basically inventing their own details to add to the Gospels. Christ’s life becomes a sort of fan-fiction universe – you don’t just passively consume the scenes, you enter them, see them, touch them, embellish them. Christ comes to life through such exercises and speaks to you, perhaps literally – it’s fairly common in medieval culture for Christ to appear to people and speak to them, in dreams, visions, trances.

Meditations on Christ, or Mary, or God, or a particular saint, were exercises in ‘affective meditation’ – they took the contemplative beyond mere reason, and connected them to God through love. Medieval contemplative texts are far from the cold rationality of Plato or the Stoics. They burn with love and sensuality. They often use the Song of Songs as inspiration, and the soul’s ecstatic union with Christ or God is described in startlingly sensual terms – the contemplative kisses Christ, enters his wounds, feels Christ within her, feels penetrated by the darts of his love. The word rapture comes from the Latin raptus, which also meant rape – God’s union with the soul is a ravishing, a quasi-sexual union, and the sweetness one feels is comparable to orgasm (and perhaps actually was, on occasion, an orgasm).

That kind of meditation might seem a bit weird to a modern secular audience (it does to me). But there were other imaginative exercises – meditating on the tree of life, for example, on the ‘mystical ark’, or Jacob’s ladder, or a visionary poem like The Pearl. A particularly popular technique, similar to the ancient ‘memory palace’ technique, guided the contemplative through an imaginary palace or cathedral, with each room representing a deeper level of consciousness (this is the technique used by St Teresa of Avila in her Interior Citadel, after a crystal castle appeared to her in a vision).

I think there was a profound connection between the inner architecture of contemplative practice, and the outer architecture of cathedrals and abbeys – in this sense it doesn’t surprise me that freemasonry was considered a sacred and occult culture. The visionary has an idea of a perfect building, which expresses the grandeur of God and the mansion of our soul. They then turn that idea into a reality, with the help of masons. Then others come to worship there, and the idea is impressed onto their souls too. And some of them go elsewhere and pass the idea on.

Durham Cathedral

And it wasn’t just buildings filled with murals and stained glass windows that were contemplative and imaginative aids. Contemplative books likewise combined words and images – the bestsellers of medieval literature were the Books of Hours, which were beautifully illuminated compendiums of prayers and meditations.

Books of Hours were 'the bestsellers' of the Middle Ages
Books of Hours were ‘the bestsellers’ of the Middle Ages

The aim of all this guided imagination was a sort of inner architecture. ‘To think’, wrote Aristotle, ‘is necessarily to use images’. Imagination is at the heart of much of our cognition. The inner stream of our consciousness and memory is filled with images, usually involuntary and unconscious. An image of a beer comes to our mind, for example, and we are helplessly drawn to the pub. Luckily, we can consciously guide our imagination and impress our memory with images of the good, the beautiful, the divine. We can open the doors of the mansion of our mind (as Augustine put it) and fill it with good images. This will affect what we think, what we do, how we suffer adversity, how we treat others. It will connect us to God, who will shine through our imagination like sun through a stained-glass window. It will help us in the after-life too – contemplation is a preparation for death and purgatory, just as it was for Plato. Indeed, supposedly-true accounts of near-death experiences became popular in the 14th century.

The forgotten city of Atlantis

And then, in five years, Henry VIII and his enforcer, Thomas Cromwell, pulled the plug on that imaginative culture. It dissolved like a rainbow in the mist. Over 1000 monasteries, nunneries and abbeys were closed. Countless contemplative books were lost and destroyed. Abbeys were deserted, statues and relics vandalized. A centuries-old contemplative tradition disappeared, like Atlantis, and western society turned away from the vita contemplativa and embraces the vita activa.

The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation both became deeply suspicious of ‘enthusiasm’, of people ‘who boast that they have the spirit apart from and before contact with the word’, as Martin Luther put it. For Protestants, there is the authority of Scripture, for Catholics, the authority of the church. Women, in particular, should know their place. Many of the greatest medieval visionaries were women – St Brigitte, St Edith, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Margary Kempe. They made huge contributions to medieval culture, but are dismissed as ‘fond women’ by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

The Enlightenment continued this attack on the ‘enthusiasm’ of the contemplative life.  The monastic life is a life of idleness, nuttiness, hypocrisy and sexual deviancy. Imagination falls from its exalted position as a bridge between God and man. It becomes ‘phantasy’, something that misleads and deludes.

The English contemplative tradition passes from monasteries to poetry. It’s no accident, perhaps, that the decades and centuries after the Dissolution lead to the great flowering of metaphysical poetry, to the contemplative wonders of Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, Traherne, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Blake (no women however). But the English poets are imagining within a culture that is losing its religious faith, that increasingly doubts the value of what cannot be scientifically proven. By the late 20th century, Ted Hughes worries that we are losing our capacity to dream dreams – he suggests we need to train our imagination using imaginative meditations like St Loyola’s exercises.

The medieval marriage of sacred words and imagery also declines after the Reformation, with the exception of William Blake’s illuminated poems, or the engravings of Gustave Dore. The word is sundered from the image. The image becomes ever more colonized by the word – look, today, at conceptual art. The ‘sacred marriage’ of word and image survives in a somewhat bastardized form perhaps in comic book culture – tales of marvels and wonders somewhat comparable to the medieval lives of saints, though not always with much ethical purpose.

Comic book culture, like Allan Moore's Promethea, still marries words and images, and still has an idea of the magical power of the imagination
Comic book culture, like Allan Moore’s Promethea (pictured), still marries words and images, and still has an idea of the magical power of the imagination

Guided imaginative meditation is not really a mainstream practice today. It’s used in a very simple manner by professional sportspeople – imagine the goal-posts, that sort of thing. And it is quite popular in self-help, ever since Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, described how he imagined a counsel of ‘Invisible Counselors’, including Emerson, Darwin and Napoleon, who would appear to him each night and offer him advice on how to grow richer. The New Age, and particularly shamanism, also draws heavily on guided imaginative journeys – although medieval contemplatives would warn that imagination unconnected to reason can easily end up in delusion, and even in demonic possession.

While Buddhist contemplation is hugely popular in the West today, it tends to be a very Protestant ‘imageless meditation’ – concentrate on your breath, or a word – although there is of course also a rich tradition of Buddhist, Hindu and Daoist visualization practices, including meditations in which one imagines walking through a palace or being pierced by the loving rays of a God or spiritual being.

What should we imagine?

I wonder if, slowly, we are returning to a more positive idea of the imagination. Perhaps fantasy literature – the capacity to imagine other cities, other worlds, other beings – is becoming more respectable and mainstream. It’s not just escapism – it’s a profoundly human activity, to imagine something ideal, to bring back one’s imagination repeatedly to that ideal, and to draw energy and power from it. Imagination is prophetic – uniquely among animals, we can imagine reality to be other than it is, and then make our dream real.

Today, however, we no longer have a common imaginative storehouse of images which we can visit. Europeans don’t typically believe Christ was the only son of God, and so that image, that bridge to the Divine, has lost much of its sacred power for us skeptics. After two centuries of imagining, we still haven’t really come up with much to replace Him – not Gandalf or Luke Skywalker or Batman or Aslan or Mickey Mouse, as interesting and rich as these figures are.


Speaking personally, I am not sure that Christ was quite such an exalted figure as the Bible claims he was. I don’t think he was God, though he may have connected to the God we all have within us more than anyone before or since. I think many of the details in the Gospels, particularly the Nativity, were fan-fiction rather than accurate history. Given my skepticism, I wonder if meditating on Christ can still connect me to God? Why would I meditate on his wounds, if I don’t think his death actually redeemed the human race? Then again, perhaps meditating on his suffering and his love is still redemptive, even if you don’t think it was the cosmic lynchpin that Christians say it was?

Well, these are questions for me to work out. Let’s imagine ahead. As the laity’s appetite for contemplation grows, is it possible that we create new contemplative centres in our society, that new contemplative orders start to appear? Over the coming centuries, will contemplation and the imagination once again assume a more central place in our outward-focused culture?

A key part of any potential contemplative revival, it seems to me, involves building a contemplative culture within universities. In the Middle Ages, universities and monastic orders supported each other. But eventually, it became more of a zero-sum tussle for power and money. When Henry dissolved the monasteries, many of their assets ended up being grabbed by universities. The universities gradually put forward an instrumental model of knowledge which was sadly divorced from the ideals of contemplation, virtue and wisdom. That’s partly why universities are in crisis today, in my opinion.

But things are beginning to change – the mindfulness movement in the US is being spear-headed by some contemplative centres, particularly at medical schools but also at places like Brown and Virginia. There are also mindfulness centres here in Oxford, Exeter and Bangor. I wonder if there could be contemplative centres which also explore and research the west’s own contemplative practices, to see what we can recover for our post-religious age. Because personally, I think it would be a great pity if we cast aside so many centuries of indigenous contemplative culture and all became secular Buddhists.