Collective Psyche: The Imaginal, Luminous Epinoia, Archetypes

“Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images.” Gospel of Philip, The Other Bible

The imaginal realm, accessible to the collective in both personal and transpersonal ways,  is the land of symbols, deep imagination and archetype. The bridge place between the mundane and the ineffable, a realm through which humans create stories, myths, adventures, rituals, sacred iconography, deities. It is what permeates dreams, including this waking one. It’s possible, easy in fact, to get lost in this realm and become obsessed with increasingly esoteric and obscure practices, and think of it as Ultimate Truth. There’s nothing wrong with esoteric practices, yet one most hold them with the awareness that they are the proverbial fingers pointing at the moon, and not the moon.  One must hold to an ethical foundation.

Some assign the word “God” to an image in this realm; God becomes an uber-human and the Mystery is compressed into one little picture called ‘true,’ with the rest of the pictures and energies in this realm labeled ‘false,’ ‘heathen,’or ‘just your imagination’ (fantasy).

The Old Testament addresses the problem of the concept of “God” with the injunction against idolatry. Not only graven statues, but idols created in the mind, can trap human consciousness when humans fall in love with their own images and worship them: They lose the ability to reach for that which is beyond images and their cherished images are likely to enter into conflict with the cherished images of others.

The Luminous Epinoia

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luminous epinoia

The story of Adam and Eve has the first humans “falling” from paradise after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Any parent knows that you can’t keep a child from something by putting it in front of them and telling them to leave it alone, so it seems highly likely eating from that tree was a necessary part of the human journey. Nonetheless, the basic Adam and Eve story has God as the Good Guy, Adam as the kind of good guy who gets swayed by Eve who was a sort of bad guy pulled in by the Serpent who was the Really Bad Guy. Gnostic versions of the Garden of Eden story are 180 degrees different, with the serpent being Christ, the Good Guy, giving to Eve the “luminous epinoia” to help Adam and Eve find their way back to Divine Reality, because the god of Genesis is a bumbler.

Author Elaine Pagels, in her book  Beyond Belief, writes that when Adam and Eve discovered their nakedness, “they saw that they were naked of spiritual understanding [gnosis], “but then the luminous epinoia “appeared to them shining with light, and awakened their consciousness.”

Referring to the Secret Book of Thomas in The Other Bible, she writes, “To speak of various modes of consciousness susceptible to revelation, the author of the Secret Book invokes a cluster of words related to the Greek verb norin, which means “perceive,” “think,” or “be aware.” … But according to the Secret Book it’s, above all, the “luminous epinoia” that conveys genuine insight”

She avoids translating the word epinoia as”imagination,” because some “take this term as Iranaeus did, to refer to fantasy rather than conscious awareness.…epiinoia conveys hints and glimpses, images and stories, that imperfectly point beyond themselves toward what we can not now fully understand.”

Note the word “imperfectly” — the images imperfectly point beyond them, and the human ego imperfectly relates to them, which is why practices of purification, devotion, and a foundation of ethics is essential. In my explorations in the world I noted again and again how easy it is for people to get self-important and “special” when given a bit of imaginal insight.

Some translate epinoia as “insight” or “insight consciousness.” I like “imaginative insight.”  It’s high time we liberate the term “imagination” from the single definition of “fantasy ”  and let ourselves enter the luminous epinoia (the green circle in my simple image). Imagination, consciousness, the luminous epinoia : the bridge that exists between individual awareness and the Mystery of the Totality.

The Christian gnostic interest in the luminous epinoia is far from the only place you’ll find anything about this. Tibetan Buddhism revels in the power of the imaginal — the word translated as ’emptiness’ could also be translated as “luminous spaciousness” in which deities and other sacred forms arise and dissolve back into luminous emptiness. James Hillman, Jung, and all of that branch of Western thinkers are drawn to the alchemical imagination as part of human psychology. Henry Corbin wrote on gnostic imagination, especially on the writings of of Iranian Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi who himself wrote extensively and densely on the celestial, angelic, imaginal. All share the awareness of imagination as the bridge between our mundane human aspects and our divine humanity. In Western alchemy, this is the realm of the subtle body.  I often feel it like a fluid moving through me —  prana or chi taking shapes and images, now fire, now water, now something else — quite like the essence of the inscrutable Dragon.

Though imagination in the mainstream is often seen as escapist fantasy,  one can see mythopoetic bridges even in pop culture: books, music and films that stir the collective myth-making, epinoic capacity. Elements in some stories touch some people in a much deeper way than mere entertainment. When I saw the film “Mad Max: Fury Road” (three times) I wept during the feral blood transfusion scene (every time). I felt my own deep longing as an apprentice universal donor during this time of contaminated life force — not in such a physical way, of course, but in a more mystical way. Mystery speaks to us through everything if we unblock the conditioning of literalism, and listen.


Jungian Edward Edinger defines the word ‘archetype’ as a living organism that inhabits the collective psyche. It’s both a pattern “composed of a network of inter-related images” and a “dynamic agency” — a “primordial psychic pattern of the collective unconscious that is at the same time a dynamic agency with intentionality.”

It’s possible to encounter an archetype and call it God. It’s also possible to dismiss the power of archetypes as they manifest in the invisible aspects of the visible world and become possessed by them unconsciously.

Edinger writes of the “disintegration of social and psychic structures and values which have been the architecture of the collective psyche no longer ‘contained’ by an operative religious myth” which is part of the ‘archetype of the apocalypse.” You could say we are currently contained by the uncontained.  Fundamentalism and rigid beliefs can be intensely appealing during times such as ours because it gives a sense of security and structure as protection from the very real chaos of disintegrating social structures

Times of Apocalypse are cyclical in nature, though at this time in history human beings do have the capacity to create the end of the world in a definitive way. Perhaps we can slow down this seemingly casual directive towards planetary destruction and consider how to cooperate with cycles and endings. All things come into being, stay for a time, and  end. The Buddha knew this. The Hindu trinity of Creator,  Preserver,  Destroyer knows this. The cycle of the seasons in nature knows this.

Empires must follow this pattern, like it or not. I see us in America as walking in the debris of a shattered culture and a dead empire, the end of the American dream. Is there a way to accept and cooperate with this without complete systemic collapse of the basics, that is to say, with minimum suffering? This is our current challenge.

The picture-making aspect of humans

I once heard a photographer speak about “pictures made with light.” The human psyche generates pictures made with the light of consciousness. Author Salman Rushdie writes:

Our response to the world is essentially imaginative: that is, picture-making. We live in our pictures, our ideas. I mean this literally. we first construct pictures of the world and then we step inside the frames. we come to equate the picture with the world, so that, in certain circumstances, we will even go to war because we find someone’s picture less pleasing than our own.

Ignorance of the fact that the psyche works in picture- making fashion isn’t limited to conflict with others. Note how much trouble people have with changing habits — drinking, smoking, overeating, etc. People tell themselves not to do the thing they don’t want to do, usually creating a greater desire for the troublesome substance. What they don’t realize is when they go through their day telling themselves to not do it, what they are actually doing is constantly showing themselves a picture of what they don’t want to do, thereby keeping it forefront (and thereby perping the self/other war in themselves — you don’t need an external “other” to practice the self/other war with verve and dedication). Pictures don’t come with a red slash through them in the international “no” symbol. A lot of mental activity is about translating internal pictures into words.

This could be the simplest explanation of Apocalypse as Doomsday: people visualized it over time, in much the same way as people visualize success in their chosen field as part of their attaining mastery. With our collective visualizations, we are attaining mastery of self-, other- and planetary destruction: a great power within us used unconsciously to feed an addiction to conflict, violence and destruction.

Belief, creativity, cultures and traditions all require the use of imagination. If one considers belief, culture, and conflict to arise from the use and misuse of imagination, then the popular bumpersticker “Don’t believe everything you think” reveals a certain wisdom, though it can be depressing to consider looking to bumperstickers for education on how to live within our minds.  Collectively, we have become the victims of conditioned images.

Home is where the heart is. Identity is at its best a fluid state.  Why is it people are unable to wake up in the morning reborn? Belief becomes a burden. Personal history becomes a burden. In a culture that’s afraid of death, it’s difficult to cultivate death as an ally, to let go of what isn’t useful, so one clings ever tighter to, and identifies with, pictures that are a small piece of an imaginative interaction with life that ought to be fluid and ever-deepening our understanding not just of our humanity, but of all the forms of Creation that express the many aspects of Mystery.


next up: Individual Psyche

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