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Mythopoetic Cognition is the Engine of Mind
An intro to imaginal experience & practice
Even while trying to frame my explanation here, it confronts me: framing is itself an exercise in mythopoetic cognition. My sense of what metaphors to use, what imagery? What should be front-and-center and what can safely be left out? In other words: how to hone the seed of this story so that its implications take root in the soil of your psyche and unfurl their branches into the open sky of your mind?
Of course, imaginal practice (the art of navigating mythopoetic currents) is more than just picking metaphors and telling stories. It’s dismembering limiting beliefs, uprooting invasive psychoflora, rewilding the subjugated ecosystem of your bodymind. It’s… a whole thing. A vast wilderness of whole things, really.
But here, as with many things, it can be overwhelming and counterproductive to take too wide a scope from the beginning. What’s most important is the two or three steps right in front of you, so let’s spend our time together looking at those steps. What are the handful of things that can orient you, can help you understand where you’re going and why?
The best compasses I can offer today (and also a tl;dr, if you end up not reading the whole thing, or skipping to the end):
Mythopoetic currents are the root-level forces that shape and drive human energy
Mind, body, and heart are all shaped by mythopoetic currents
Imaginal practice is the art of navigating mythopoetic currents
The simplest useful categories to divide imaginal practice are Top-Down & Bottom-Up stances.
Imaginal practice is powerful and intuitive, but it carries the same dangers as any practice that enables root access to the core of your being.
it would be v mythopoetic of you to subscribe (and v generous of you to pay )
Every mind, every heart, every body, every life is pulled and shaped by currents we barely understand.
We grow up in a culture that tells us particular narratives of who we should be and what the world is.
We grow up in a family that draws lines around which narratives are the good ones and which ones are bad—which type of people it’s okay to be, and which ones are very much not.
We live among friends, books, newscasters, religions, politicians, lovers, infrastructure, teachers—all of which, implicitly and explicitly, stir particular currents in us, pulling us now toward X, now away from Y.
We live in a particular landscape, atop a particular history, amid particular financial and educational and cultural situations.
Every single one of these currents is woven into who we are. Every single one of them pulls at us in particular ways, shapes us in particular ways.
None of this is abstract or distant. It’s here, right now, within us and between us.
Your body is pulled into shapes by mythopoetic currents. An atmosphere of hopelessness slumps your shoulders forward. A sense of vision and drive straightens your spine. A sugar pill cures your upset stomach, and a compliment from the right woman unleashes bliss in your limbs. Your body is shaped by mythopoetic currents.
Your heart is moved into constellations by mythopoetic currents. You hear an impassioned speech about freeing yourself from cultural conditioning, and you reorient your life around psychological sovereignty. You see a cartoon animal being ripped away from his human, and you spend the rest of the day sad. You suffer a passing insult as a teen about how you walk, and for the next decade you feel a subtle background texture of threat when walking in public. Your heart is constellated by mythopoetic currents.
Your mind is coaxed into configurations by mythopoetic currents. Your slumped shoulders and hopeless atmosphere send you into anxious thought loops about failing an exam. A well-chosen metaphor strikes you in college and settles into the deep strata of your world-model, driving your thoughts into certain grooves for decades to come. A particular way of graphing data slams through your eyes and into your limbic system, and informs your idea of What Work Is Worth Doing just as you begin to decide on a career. Your mind is configured by mythopoetic currents.
Whether the currents are carried through culture, images, novels, advertising, environments, the body, or anything else in our direct experience—we are interwoven with them from before we’re born. Learning to navigate them is a core competency for being human.
And yet: this exact skillset is mostly denigrated and belittled. It’s hard to even talk about topics like myth, imagination, dream, lore, and stories without running up against the cultural connotations placed on each of them. Almost all these words are synonymous with lies, fakes, childishness, or general detachment from reality.
This is a very clever bit of mythopoetic engineering: if it’s verboten to even begin to examine this foundational layer of experience, how can we possibly change or navigate it? David Graeber said “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” A huge store of cultural energy goes into making sure that we don’t exercise our capacity to imagine things differently. Often, this is the first mythopoetic current we need to release ourselves from.
Two Stances for Imaginal Practice
I could imagine a dozen different typologies of imaginal practice—ways to classify our efforts by focus, result, method, any number of things.
But since I’m aiming this at beginners, people curious to simply dip their toes into the mythopoetic tides, I’ll stick with the simplest classification I know of: a division of practice into Top-Down and Bottom-Up approaches. (This division is a bit arbitrary and basically every possible practice combines elements of each, but still—the distinction is useful.)
Top-down practices tend to be the easiest to explain and practice. They are simple, accessible, and surprisingly effective. If I were to offer a single overarching summary of top-down approaches, it would be this: You choose the mythopoetic currents you’d like to engage with, and find ways to consciously hold them in your awareness.
Examples include things like deity yoga, prayer, invocation, affirmations, vision boards, even psychological methods like the Ideal Parent Figure Protocol and aspects of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Basically any practice where you decide “I am going to engage with x current,” and then you spend time doing it.
Meditating on a god, hero, character, or other figure who exemplifies characteristics you want to emulate
Praying to be graced with certain qualities or cultivations
Revisiting key traumatic memories, turning down the saturation on the traumatic parts and editing in more calm, happy, or empowering aspects
Carving a wooden figure that represents courage and carrying it with you through your days, using it to anchor a sense of confidence in yourself
All of these and a thousand thousand more examples count as top-down imaginal work. Every culture in every time has used some of these practices, and for good reason—they’re weirdly, suspiciously overpowered when it comes to conscious cultivation. Even people who really really don’t want something as lame-feeling as vision boards to work—one of the more common things you hear after they’ve tried it is some version of “that worked better than I expected, and now I’m annoyed that I’m gonna become one of those people who talks about this stuff.”
Small price to pay.
All that said, top-down practices do carry some trade-offs. Because they’re so connected with the choices and techniques of the conscious mind, they have a tendency towards more shallow effects, their ripples rarely reaching the depths of the unconscious mind.
To give an example: if you decide that you want to use deity yoga to be kinder to your coworkers, you can do that, and you’ll likely find it remarkably effective. However—your previous unkindness stemmed from deep-rooted insecurities and shadow material that are completely untouched by that practice. If you want to get to the root, you’ll need to modify the approach.1
Practices that arise from this stance tend to strain language a bit more. They’re hard to talk about, even with other people who practice them. I was having a conversation with Cheryl Hsu, another deep imaginal practitioner, and she phrased something about this very well: when we first drop into the unconscious, we find material that is “costumed in the mythopoetic.” The material there takes particular shapes for particular reasons—eg, a sense of guilt might manifest as a scene of a police officer chasing you. However, when we spend time letting go of the costume, letting ourselves be with the underlying pattern… we quickly find ourselves somewhere beneath language.
All of which is fine to say, but I’m here to introduce it to you with language, so what can I say that’s useful? First off, my one-line definition for bottom-up imaginal practice is: You notice the mythopoetic currents you’re already engaged with, clarify them, extricate yourself from unwholesome ones, and lean into wholesome ones.
E.L. Doctorow said “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The same is true of bottom-up imaginal practice. We lower ourselves into the deep unconscious, and from there, we notice the drives and infra-narratives that pull us, that urge us, that coax our lives into particular patterns. We can only see as far as what’s in front of us, can only untangle the knots we find ourselves tied up in—but we can make quite a journey that way.
There’s a braid of actions that we freestyle with from the unconscious, from the imaginal:
notice the mythopoetic currents we’re caught up in
notice where they came from, if they serve us or harm us
disentangle from and let go of the ones that don’t serve us
notice the ones that serve us wholesomely, and lean into them, put our energy and oomph into driving them and clearing blockages
This approach is as powerful as it is enigmatic. Our conscious minds don’t have the comfort—as they do in top-down practice—of deciding ahead of time what material we’re going to work with. The mythopoetic currents of the deep imaginal, of the unconscious mind, have a non-linear logic of their own. You may start by investigating a tightness in your chest, which leads to an imaginal scene of a bull-headed giant destroying a village. This scene falls apart bit by bit, leaving the core current behind it—a sense of solid doom, of inescapability. As this continues unfolding, moving through your body, soaking into your being, metabolizing through you, you feel a number of shifts, but nothing you can put words to. Over the next few weeks, you start to realize that a lifelong hypochondria and fear of death have softened, almost dissolved. You aren’t sure when or how this happened—but when you investigate it, what comes up is an image of a bull-headed giant calmly napping in the mountains.
These are the kinds of shifts that happen with bottom-up practice. They’re strange, labyrinthine, uncanny, and they can dissolve lifelong issues in a matter of weeks when the moment is right.
—You’ll notice I’m not giving particularly specific practice instructions. That’s fairly intentional. Bottom-up practices are pretty potent, and I’ve found that a solid foundation is needed if we’re going to be responsible.
The body is the best foundation for imaginal practice. From working with a lot of people to train imaginal skills, I’ve found that people are pretty limited in what we’re even capable of without somatic grounding. If you really want to dig in to bottom-up practices, you can check out my article on somatic meditation, or pick up my course on Somatic Resonance. There are other systems for grounding into the body (I talk about some in the article), but I’ve never found one that’s specifically aimed at being a foundation for imaginal deepening. So I built one.
How To Start
As you’ve probably picked up by now, a core quality of imaginal practice is that it is varied, vast, and has a strong ethos of freestyle agency. Any practices that I give you are just training wheels, trailheads to get you started moving deeper into these waters on your own.
This article has already gone quite long, so I’ll include most of the practice suggestions in a separate article, along with further reading on imaginal topics. (I’ll link here when it’s up.)
But for now, I’ll note a couple things.
Look back at the core definitions for top-down and bottom-up practices. Play with those prompts for yourself, what can you find in your experience that maps onto them?
Remember the core definition for imaginal practice in general: Navigate mythopoetic currents.
Somatic Meditation is by far the most critical foundation (I don’t want to say prerequisite, but it’s kinda a prerequisite). You can read my article or take my course to start grounding into somatic foundations.
One of the best middle grounds between top-down and bottom-up approaches is dreamwork. (We’ll discuss why in my practice addendum.) To start getting a feel for the specific type of dreamwork that builds skill with navigating mythopoetic currents, you can check out this article or pre-order the course in Mythosomatic Dreamwork I’m building. (You can sign up for updates here.)
This exercise is usually moderated, but you’re free to go through it alone: check out my Imaginal Freestyle site to guide yourself through a brief practice that looks to bridge top-down and bottom-up approaches. I recommend having at least 20-30 minutes to spare when you start.
Okay, that’s enough for today. I’ll see you soon in the addendum, and probably in a more-edited draft of this article in a few days when I have writing energy again.
It’s worth repeating that the top-down/bottom-up division is somewhat artificial—all practices contain elements of both, and a top-down deity yoga practice can certainly unfold into a deep practice that synergizes with bottom-up approaches and transforms the deep unconscious. But we can only do this if we’re aware of the dynamics at play and are able to adjust them. That’s what we’re getting at here, is an understanding of these dynamics.