Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Henry Corbin’s Mundus Imaginalis, Sufism, neurological damage, psychic opening, and imagination gone awry

by Barbara Croner & Sheila Joshi

A new map of new territory

This weekend we attended a lecture by San Francisco Jungian analyst Richard Stein, MD, who introduced us to a way of thinking about reality that helped illuminate some of the problems that come with a psychic opening that is brought about by neurological damage or is otherwise distressing.

Dr. Stein introduced us to the work of Henry Corbin (1903 – 1978), who was a professor of Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne, a Christian theologian, and an expert on 12th and 13th c. Sufism and Persian mysticism.

Corbin coined the term “Mundus Imaginalis” to explain to Westerners the Sufi account of a territory that exists between the physical, sensory world and the spirit world (which Plato saw as consisting of ideal forms, but which some conceptualize as formless).  This intermediate world has its own consistent topography, but is also constantly influenced and shaped by the physical and the spiritual worlds. 

The Mundus Imaginalis is something like the Christian heaven; it’s the part of reality where archetypes exist; it is peopled by beings, including angels.

We embodied humans both perceive this Mundus Imaginalis and we create in it.  It’s where synchronicities and creative leaps happen, where grace reaches us.  It’s where the experiences we call psychic happen, as well as dreams (Rossi, p. 4).

It’s a tricky term because Corbin seems to have had in mind a very real part of reality, but at least one of the ways it is accessed and influenced by us is via our imagination.  Yet, in some ways, the Mundus Imaginalis is more real than the physical, sensory world we call real.

Corbin also used the term “active imagination,” which he may have got from Jung, or may have developed simultaneously.  It is a method of perception and exploration that is supposed to straddle the physical world and the Mundus Imaginalis, allowing interplay between them (Voss, p. 5).

British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s concepts of “potential space” and “transitional phenomena” seem related.  Transitional phenomena are objects or artistic products or ideas that may be found or created by someone, which are both concretely real, yet also have innate or endowed magic – like a baby’s favorite blanket.

Potential space is Winnicott’s conceptualization of a state or field where transitional phenomena are found and / or created.  An example of being in potential space would be the composer who writes a piece of music, yet might also feel it was communicated to her by a Muse.

The use of transitional phenomena (like a comforting blanket or favorite piece of music) can also prop up the potential space, making further play, creativity, and discovery even more likely.

Getting lost and scared in the new territory

Now, what happens if you have a psychic opening that is brought about by neurological damage or is otherwise abrupt, distressing, and discontinuous with your previous weltanschauung?

Theoretically, you now have suddenly increased access to the Mundus Imaginalis.  This is supposed to be a desirable thing, expanding your capacity for creativity, grace, and mystical fun.  But, nooooooooo.  We seem to experience it as frightening and overwhelming.  And we imagine the worst.

In fact, it seems like most people going through an abrupt psychic opening (including  those of us in recovery from psych med neuro damage) have too much imagination.  And it all has a relentlessly negative bias.  To varying degrees, and with varying focuses, we all seem to start creating / finding bêtes noires. 

Richard Stein said that when you first encounter a repressed aspect of yourself or your culture, it almost always comes up first as dark -- almost as if it were angry or vengeful for awhile for having been neglected by you for so long.

Psychologist Kaye Rossi, Ph.D. made the very interesting claim that “hitting bottom” --when someone’s life falls apart due to addiction such that they finally become able to stop being as addicted -- occurs in the Mundus Imaginalis (p. 29).

According to one of the working hypotheses of this blog, distressing psychic openings happen for reasons analogous to hitting bottom (see 29 Feb 12 post).

Rossi said that, when hitting bottom, the addicted person unwittingly co-creates with other intelligences in the Mundus Imaginalis some kind of synchronicity or wake up call that makes it possible and necessary to start letting go of the addiction (pp. 216-223).

Clearly, it is better to be admitted to this level of awareness than not, even if admittance is initially frightening and requires painful purification and evolution.  But, for some of us, it is, at first, a perilous hero’s journey, fraught with terrors.  Like Orpheus, you have to be careful where you look.

English Religious Studies Lecturer Angela Voss, Ph.D. wrote that if active imagination “is solely directed downwards toward matter it can only produce images which are ‘fantastic, imaginary, unreal or even absurd’ whose attraction is surface-deep and which flutter on the walls of the cave in which men are fettered.  The task of human beings then is to purify and liberate the soul so that it may begin to pick up, as it were, the traces of divine meaning behind the appearances of things” (Voss, p. 5).

Finding and / or creating a wonderful home in the new territory

In other words, if we keep going, and purify ourselves neurologically, psychologically, and spiritually, we become more proficient in the Mundus Imaginalis.  Then, having a lot of imagination starts to become a gift.

According to the 12th c Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, it is our spiritual aspiration, or “himma” that facilitates the presence of the sought-after through the very act of desiring it.  Corbin says himma can concretely create that which it seeks (Voss, p. 9).

“The himma of a mystic can create changes in the world through an intensity of imagination that resonates on the plane of archetypal Ideas; he is thus himself a divine creator who establishes the patterns from which material forms derive.  What we call a miracle is the result of such a capacity to bring spiritual power to bear on matter and cut through the literal dimension of cause and effect” (Voss, p. 9).

Seth, the famous being channeled by medium Jane Roberts said something strikingly similar:  “Imagination and emotions are the most concentrated forms of energy that you possess as physical creatures.  Any strong emotion carries within it far more energy than, say, that required to send a rocket to the moon. Emotions, instead of propelling a physical rocket, for example, send thoughts from this interior reality through the barrier between nonphysical and physical into the objective world — no small feat, and one that is constantly repeated” (Seth, The Nature of Personal Reality, p. 95).

So, although at one point in the process we seem to have “too much” imagination, and it plagues us, the solution may lie in having even more imagination.  As we develop our relationship with the Mundus Imaginalis, our imagination begins to come from a deeper part of ourselves, so that what is found or created is more truly great for us, more individual, more apposite, than anything we could have imagined for ourselves before we tumbled into the opening.


Rossi, Kaye.  (2004).  Synchronicity and hitting bottom:  A Jungian perspective on the return of the return of the feminine through addiction and recovery.  Pacifica Graduate Institute dissertation.

Stein, Richard.  (2012).  The work of Henry Corbin:  Reflections on Persian Sufism and Jung’s psychology.  Lecture, 17 March 2012, The C.G. Jung Institute, San Francisco.

Voss, Angela.  (2007).  Becoming an angel:  The Mundus imaginalis of Henry Corbin and the Platonic path of self-knowledge.

Barbara Croner, M.F.T. is a psychotherapist in San Francisco, and a co-founder of the International Antidepressant Withdrawal Project.


  1. You know I'm going to ask to repost this. Stunning!

  2. Gosh, Barbara and I thank you so much, Nan! You've brought this blog to the attention of a lot of new people!