The Heart as an Organ of Imaginal Perception
Meeting the Heart…newly
The heart was once revered as the seat of the soul and the locus of wisdom. However, over the course of many hundreds of years, knowledge that arises through the heart – which many people understand as our organ of imaginal perception – has been systematically separated from, and rendered subservient to, knowledge about the world as generated through the brain; understood in modern times as the seat of knowledge and rational thinking. While the heart’s wisdom, arising from its direct connection with the living world as it speaks to us in images, and benevolent qualities such as love, kindness, non-judgement, compassion, are often alluded to within everyday conversation in relation to life’s challenges, the practical role that the heart could play is consistently, and frustratingly, left unaddressed in contemporary society. Sadly, since the Scientific Revolution, a narrative has been created within which the heart has only been able to live in our perceptions as a biological organ. Through this lens any other heart that wishes to live in our lives, and speak its wisdom, is perceived as irrational, irrelevant or merely sentimental. This, however, is only a perspective.
As well as keeping us alive, our hearts love, sense and feel in participation with the living world within which we are embedded; a world that speaks to us constantly in multiple, often subtle, ways. Religious philosopher Henry Corbin (1903-1978), drawing on the extensive works of Muslim scholar and mystic Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240) stated that the heart is the seat of the imagination and the mode through which one has the possibility of connecting with a transcendent reality. In this framework, the heart offers access to a region and reality of being that would otherwise remain closed and forbidden to us. Inspired by Corbin, Archetypal Psychologist James Hillman (1926-2011) adopted the understanding that the heart is an organ of imaginal perception and links the conscious and unconscious realms of the psyche. In Corbin and Hillman’s view, it is only through the imagination (and its organ of perception – the heart) that one has the ability to access a more expanded sense of the world itself, or to collaborate in its creation. The imagination is therefore a deeply important, valid way of knowing and receiving the world.
In this sense, as the world presents itself to us through living, breathing images, the imagination supports us to bring the fullest possibility of the world into expression and enables us to participate fully with it. Indeed, it is the heart as our organ of imaginal perception that gently, lovingly, and courageously invites us to break free from the rational ties that bind us, risk ourselves, and step openly into the dance of life with all of its beauty and pain, harmony and conflict. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Louise Livingstone is an author, lecturer, teacher, Director of the Heart Sense Research Institute, and Co-Founder of The Centre for Myth, Cosmology and the Sacred, whose work aims to re-imagine the long-forgotten wise and intelligent heart for contemporary times.