Imagination As a Tool for Compassion

The blog post “Imagining Other Worlds” considered the challenge of gaining insight into the worlds that animals, birds and insects inhabit. As the recently published book An Immense World—How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around us by Ed Yong explains, each species dwells within an umwelt or environment that cannot be penetrated by the normal resources of the human mind. If we were to extend this recognition to the human kingdom, it might help to explain why understanding even our own species can be so challenging. Modern technology and the ease of travel have put us in touch with people, societies, and worldviews far distant and different from our own, revealing tremendous potential for expanding relationships, but If we are to deepen our recognition of the one Humanity, more than the informational resources of technology and the lower mind will be needed.

The reasoning mind is a vital resource, but it isn’t enough to span the gap between ourselves and others. The mind easily makes classifications and forms theories and opinions, but these actions don’t help us to enter into the world, the umwelt, of another human being. Taking the time to understand human behavior by looking beyond the outer effects to possible subjective causes demands patience and compassion as well as humility. To make this leap towards true understanding, the imagination is far more useful than objective analysis. The mind craves settled conclusions and strives to make judgments that free it to move on to the next thing calling for its attention. What, then, should be our response in relationships that confound our understanding or, worse, evoke our antipathy? Some advice offered in The Four Agreements teaching can be helpful here: Don’t make assumptions. Don’t conclude too quickly that you understand another human being in all his or her complexity, and don’t attempt—when understanding eludes one—to “fill in the blanks” with assumptions or easy analyses.

This guidance helps to clarify why criticism is such a poison in human relationships. Criticism fails to see people as they really are, for it focuses on only a narrow part of their being and even then does so without accuracy because it distorts the completed point of view which is the true definition of harmlessness in esoteric teaching. This is also why esoteric teaching places such an emphasis on impersonality. This is not the maintaining of a psychological distance from others but, rather, the ability to look above and beyond the visible outer form, the personality, which clears a path to perceive the soul, the Christ principle, deeply hidden in some but present within every human being.

To enter into the world of another human being, seemingly separate from oneself, which is such a keen aspect of the developing lower mind, the cultivation of compassion not as pity but as shared identity is essential. Compassion, which means literally “to suffer with”, draws upon the imagination’s capacity to put oneself in another’s place and to perceive what might motivate or condition that individual. Esoterically, the imagination is the highest aspect of the emotional or astral level of human existence and the bridge to the intuition. The heart is the custodian of the power of the imagination, the Ageless Wisdom tells us, and this provides a means to penetrate into the essential mystery that is another human being.

This attribute is found in the most intuitive psychologists. It was said of the philosopher and psychologist William James that he “liked everyone and everything too well.” But this ‘liking’ was not mere friendliness; it was an act of imagination. As an observer noted of him, “James saw others and their actions from within and for the time being felt the same partiality for their world as they themselves did.” As one beneficiary of James’s compassionate insight said, “In all my life I found scarce a soul that seemed to comprehend naturally…the mainspring of my life better than he did.”

William James seemed to grasp intuitively an esoteric technique which can be likened to spiritual radioactivity. When a seeker’s life begins to radiate, we’re told, it can have a magnetic effect on others which evokes from within them the deeply buried spiritual resources which must come to the surface of life. As this radioactive capacity develops, it’s said, the seeker will begin to influence that which is imprisoned in others—the hidden centre in each individual which is an effect of the awakened heart. Such a server is one who can reach others “heart to heart”, at their innermost and truest core.

This goal may seem to lie far ahead, but it can serve as a beacon to keep us on our truest course. It can also be a reminder of how little we know or understand about another human being, or even about ourselves. Esoteric teaching uses the image of the iceberg to symbolize how much of the life even of a spiritual seeker remains below the surface, hidden for a very long part of the spiritual path from recognition by the world as well as by the individual self. This the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa seemed to recognize when he wrote “I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist. I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me…That’s me.”

The recognition of this “gap” can be a powerful source of spiritual stimulation when it becomes a lens through which we view human living—the outer apparent “reality” of the personality-form, and the hidden inner depths that await manifestation. The writer George Saunders gave us an infallible key to measure the accuracy of our perception of another human being when he wrote. “Kindness is the only non-delusional response to the human condition.” Kindness renders the mind positive and receptive, freeing it from the endless analysis of the lower mind and its focus on the outermost attributes, the “iceberg” rather than the ocean of being which sustains all human evolution.



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