Monday, November 2, 2015

Imagination in Community

There are three experiences that stood at the cradle of the Delphi Project:


I had the first experience many years ago when I conducted a workshop near Margaret Rivera in Western Australia. There were about twelve participants and the topic was biography and story.
In the first round participants told their biography with enough detail to admit to their deeper struggles. In the second round I asked each participant about his or her favourite book or tale. We then looked at the relationship between their biography and their favourite tale. The relationship seemed obvious. The favourite tale articulated in metaphoric form the very struggles that the participant faced in their life.
What surprised me more was the fact that the link between biography and favourite tale was immediately clear to everyone in the room, except the individual concerned. They could not see the link. It took time and effort to bring to his or her attention what was perfectly obvious to others.
At his point I had an epiphany. I realised that their conscious, intellectual understanding was unable or unwilling to recognise the connection that their emotional understanding had long since made by means of story.
The metaphors provided by their favourite tale were recognised by the imagination. A deeper layer identified their own life story with the story they loved. Some of the stories had even been chosen in childhood long before biographical topics had emerged.
This immediate, in depth recognition remained emotional only. Their metaphoric mind knew what their intellectual mind did not know, and in fact, did not want to know. The surface self, the personality, resisted the insight provided by another, deeper, more encompassing self.
This self knows in different ways and its knowledge is no less accurate or essential. It is an immediate and emotional kind of knowing that can be accessed by means of metaphor. When fully developed this knowing is in touch with the very wholeness from which our intellectuality habitually separates us. It is knowing that exceeds the cognitive scope of the head by involving the heart.  
To ignore or suppress this knowing can be detrimental to inner growth. The persona then becomes a prison. One way out of this confinement is to develop imaginal literacy, our ability to make sense of the images and metaphors we already have or are attracted to.
The fact that everyone saw the link between biography and story proves that this ability is within our reach. The fact that that it eludes the person concerned shows there is work to do.
The first step in this work is to develop our individual ability to read metaphor. The next is to involve community in instances that concern us most directly, for often this is where we are blind. Where we cannot help ourselves, others can. They can recognise what eludes us. And we can do the same for them.


The second experience came years later when I explored the concept of Story Medicine. Again I encountered the same phenomenon, this time in relation to the creation of images. Participants who could easily create metaphors found it difficult to create appropriate images for their own problems.
I applied what I had learnt through my previous experience, and it worked. Students provided each other with the metaphors they could not create for themselves.
I became convinced that our capacity to help each other with accurate metaphors could be used for personal as well as collective questions.
Groups, institutions, corporations, whole nations and even cultures are in need of metaphors that are able facilitate new ways of seeing, bring new imaginations and insights to inform their conduct. Our rational insights need pre-rational imaging.


The third insight arrived in an experimental writing group I conducted some years ago. My aim was to explore the imagination as a cognitive tool and I was lucky to have a group of courageous writers willing to enter unknown territory.
We explored products of nature such as copper, citrine, silica, sunflower, Eucalyptus caesia, elephants, mice and bees. We did this in a very systematic way, using methods I had learnt from my study of Goethe’s participatory science. I made sure to employ the imagination only at the last stage of the process to avoid personal fancy.
In each instance we began with clear, detailed, objective observation and its documentation in words. This was followed by the contemplation and description of gestural qualities, overall pattern and context. The third task was to distinguish personal, subjective feeling from feeling that informed us about the object. In the fourth and last stage the writers had to entirely trust their poetic imagination and speak for the object, using the ‘I’ form. They became silica; spoke as silica, revealed what silica had to say about itself.
The responses were remarkably consistent. Writers expressed identical ideas and came up with insights that in some instances were later verified by studying the matter more scientifically. The participants were surprised about their own ability to express the essential nature of substances and plants they had never considered before. It was obvious that their imagination knew more than their intellect.
During this year I experienced first hand how artistic imagination mediates our intuitive knowing. It strengthened my conviction in the tacit knowledge we all posses and in the ability of our imagination to contact and articulate this knowledge. It gave me hope that the partiality of the intellect could be supplemented by disciplined imagination and that art can be employed in science.


I realised that our imagination is able to draw knowledge across thresholds that our intellect habitually avoids. Looking further into the matter I discovered that ancient cultures were well aware of this possibility and put it to good use through highly organised collective rituals. They called these rituals oracles. When I learnt that Delphi, the most famous of ancient oracles, delivered its pronouncement in poetic and often in metaphoric form I immediately saw the link between old oracular practices and what I had experienced through my work. I have no wish to revive rituals out of time and context. But I am interested in new and appropriate ways to tap into tacit knowledge and use it in constructive ways. I believe that they may be a good deal more reliable than today’s accepted oracular conventions which are based on statistics and computer simulation.
To sum it all up: we need imaginal capability to translate tacit knowing into explicit insights. As far as our most important personal and collective questions are concerned, we need the capacities of others to complement our own. The Delphi Project grew out of experiences that affirmed the importance of creative community. Hence it needs community to be realised.
To attempt this work in a place that historically served a similar purpose seemed important. When the opportunity presented itself to rent the Annex of the Athens School of Fine Arts next to the Sanctuary of Delphi and in sight of Mt Parnassus, the ancient residence of Muses and poets, the project literally fell into place.

Click on The Delphi Project to learn more 

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