For several years, I have been considering the human heart from many perspectives: its physicality, its function as a center for the emotions and feelings, its relationship to the phenomena of love and justice, and in a more esoteric light: an imagination of the heart as a receptacle for or the vessel of the imagination or what may be called the imaginal realm of our existence.

In the following, I will present a view on the relationships between the heart, the soul and the imagination; sketch out a few of the qualities of image, the imagination and the soul, specifically how the ego may meaningfully interact with these; and offer some thoughts on the nature of wisdom and the heart.

Some may recognize the ideas of James Hillman, the founder of archetypal psychology, in this presentation and I am taking a rather psychological approach to the topic.

I want to be careful to say that the heart alone is not responsible for full engagement with the imagination. Full engagement with the imagination requires other faculties of knowing, as well—the intellect, somatic and kinesthetic awareness, intuition, and so on. But I am going to claim a special relationship between heart and imagination, and say that the heart is the seat of the soul, and the soul is a gateway to the imagination.

Of course, this is a poetic move away from literalism and an invitation to consider subtler realms beyond positivism’s purview. It’s an invitation to enter into a more playful or flexible relationship with the cosmos, and with oneself.

Why would we need to become more playful or flexible in order to enter into the realm of the imagination? I contend it is because images do not, possibly cannot, mean only one thing, or have only one interpretation. Following James Hillman and my own direct experience, I accord autonomy to the imagery issuing from the psyche or the soul, which is why I can learn something from a properly respectful engagement with it. Images have their own meaning independent of how I, the ego, may choose to interpret them, or try to fit them into some pre-existing framework of understanding. The image points to a reality far beyond the everyday, more ordinary world of the narrating ego, and if we accept, as Carl Jung proposes, that image is the primary data of the psyche, we must recognize that this has far-reaching implications. If the image is autonomous of the ego, if the soul has its own deep intelligence apart from the experiencing ego, then images cannot have only one interpretation—that is, the one that the ego may assign to it. To try to fix a single meaning to any image is an act of literalization—and to literalize something is to try to concretize it into a solid unit of meaning, a one-way street where the ego determines ultimate meaning. To authentically engage with the imagination, I must respect its autonomy and not treat it as a pet possession. To authentically engage with the imagination, I must be willing to listen deeply.

Similarly, the soul itself, which I envision as a gateway to the imaginal realm, is experienced as not-me, as something mysteriously Other and possessed of its own autonomy beyond my ego identity or sense of selfhood. As Hillman contends, the soul is not a substance, it’s not a thing, but perhaps better thought of as a viewpoint or a perspective. I like to say that soul is quicksilver shapen, such a mysterious phenomenon, being as a gateway to infinity, an eternal becoming, always a “not yet” and simultaneous “already is.” Maybe this is owing the multifaceted nature of image—its dynamic nature—opening, opening, and opening on itself—flowing in its existence, its depths never fully disclosed, its interior inexhaustible.

Owing this quality of “Otherness,” we receive images from the soul, and I find this so fascinating. I, the ego, cannot say that “I” create the raw image material and therefore I know exactly what it means. Image seems to appear spontaneously, as in dreams, and if I can respect the image, it can teach me something quite new and generate new possibilities for my living, for my being—because it is expressing an intelligence, a deep intelligence, as if it were another being, an imaginal being, reaching out to communicate with me.

This need for respecting the somewhat bewildering otherness of the soul and its imagery spills into wisdom…and I also claim the heart as the seat of wisdom.

In thinking about what “wisdom” means to me and how it may be defined, I conjured at least three varieties:

There is the wisdom born upon the emotions; there is the wisdom of experience, which relies upon memory, memory itself being an imaginative engagement; and there is the wisdom which issues from a stance of not-knowing, perhaps best illustrated by the idea of the innocent sage and exemplified by the fabled Chinese master, Lao Tzu. Whereas I see the connection of these three varieties of wisdom to the heart, I want to focus on this last one, because it so evokes for me the multivalent nature of our reality and its capacity to shatter our fixed notions of good and bad, right and wrong, all the easy value judgments that we can make as individuals and as whole societies.

Perhaps because of the heart’s acquaintance with the imagination and its images of multitudinous meanings, it can make room for multiple outcomes, or the unexpected positive consequence of what may have seemed like a bad turn. The heart eschews linear “if-then” statements of a goal-oriented stance and embraces the more complex realm of possibilities which emerges when one orients by an intention. Goals are important of course, and it’s not a matter of living either by a more linear goal or by setting an intention, like living a prayer—but to carry an intention is like accepting the Universe’s invitation to play, to co-create, to resist the temptation to a conqueror’s stance and to rather work with the circumstances that arise and in this way, not relinquish one’s power—that is, one’s ability to cause or prevent change which arises from the fact of communion—through too narrow a vision.

The Heart seems to me to lend a capacity to open to the whole, to cooperate with the whole, to be curious about life and consider its mystery to be just as important as its clarity. The English poet John Keats referred to this as “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (12/21/1817). To me “negative capability” speaks to a quality of open attention, of awareness of the limitations of one’s view and thus being willing to listen for and to the intelligence of the other, whether that other be a person, a rock, the ocean or the cosmos itself. Perhaps it could be said that the heart dissolves the perception of linearity with its assumption of known quantities into the acceptance of nonlinearity, where there is no simple proportional relation between cause and effect, where even effects can affect their cause. Because there is no absolute boundary between you and me, the flow of influence is not unidirectional, and I am ultimately not situated out of reach of your impact upon me.

And this is critical to the imaginal wisdom of the human heart: our radical relatedness to all which could be deemed “other” or “not-me.” As the appearance of image, the sudden intrusion of soul upon our ordinary lives with its beckoning to something greater, asks of us to learn how to relate with our own depths, so we may be educated by soul and by imagination in how to seek a right relation with the other autonomous beings surrounding us and begging for our audience.

The Intersubjectivity of Existence

My love for you is not one of possession.
You are not the Object
Of my Love
Of my Passion
I Love You, which means All of You
And All Our Relations
For my love, as my offering to you,
Should be received as a gift
Not as a burden under which to labor
Not as an unwelcome message of obligation
But one of participation
In a right relation
To the most mysterious Heart of Creation