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Ecological connectedness, imaginal intelligence and the incomplete promise of psychedelic therapies

We all know our biosphere is in trouble and that something about humanity needs to change. But what? Can psychedelic therapies and journeys help?

Perhaps. But only if we strengthen a faculty we all possess but which is underdeveloped in non-animist cultures.

Let me explain.

Animism and the Anima Mundi

We don't automatically pay attention to what the environment needs in post-industrial society. It is not built into our thinking. There are no deeply internal checks and balances guiding the way we design our cities. Our consciousness is not synced with the systems of the planet. If we make "environmentally-friendly" decisions, they are choices, not inevitabilities.

To heal the rift between humans and the planet, we have to restore the intersection of two systems: the system of the natural world and the system of human consciousness.

So, as Micheal Pollan put it, we have to change our minds. And psychedelic experiences seem to offer a systemic "reboot". So why not?

What does this changed mind look like?

It might look like animism. Animism sees "personhood" in all aspects of the non-human world. So all animals are people and objects have souls. Actions are loaded with complex meanings and all of this has ecological implications.

"Personhood" demands ethical or ritualised relationships. Destructive actions such as war, or murder are weighed against a delicate balance of invisible forces. These forces must be appeased and compensated. And when, before spring, the earth is pregnant, wearing shoes when walking on her seed-filled belly is prohibited.

So, tearing down a rainforest for large-scale mining operations would be impossible.

Why don't we see things this way?

Well, some do. It is part of our culture in very obscure ways. The personhood of the world is what C.G. Jung called the Anima Mundi. It has been spoken about in different ways, in different cultures for millennia. And while it cannot be measured scientifically, it is a recognised imaginal phenomenon. People experience it, write about it, dream about it and create art and poetry about it.

We can only experience this phenomenon with the imagination. It requires imagination to see the earth with a pregnant belly. It is not a metaphor, it is an experience. Something obvious to some people who might be surprised that anyone could see it any other way.

But there is the rub. Outside of animist cultures, "imagination" means "imaginary". For us imagining means thinking about what isn't there. We might use imagination as a creative or recreational tool. But what is seen in the imagination is not "real" enough to guide social, environmental and political thinking.

This is the broken link, the reason why we are no longer synchronised. We have lost all sophisticated skills with the faculty that connects us: imaginal intelligence.

Enter the psychedelic movement with its powerful ability to reactivate the imagination of post-industrial, post-capitalist society. How easy to assume this is the answer and the healing we need.

The promise of psychedelics

Many of us outside of animist cultures feel the lost connection strongly. The experience comes in many forms. At its most basic is a longing to "return to nature".

The word "rewilding" has become very popular to describe this process. But what it means is not always clear. It can involve anything from Sunday strolls by the lake to organic farming to taking Ayahuasca in a rainforest. But let's go to the last one.

The world comes alive when we take psychedelics. We see and experience animism in its most intense and raw form. They offer an immediate, visceral encounter with psychic reality and the "wilderness within". In short, they are reintroducing us to the imaginal faculty that can experience the Anima Mundi internally. It is a powerful return of something long repressed. Many feel that this is the solution to healing the deep split between humans and nature.

What is missing?

Indigenous, animist cultures have been using psychedelic plants for thousands of years. The practice is rooted in culture and there are mythical technologies that guide the process.

These cultural technologies are maps and recordings of many generations' experiences of the psychedelic (or imaginal) realm. It is a wilderness with specific landscapes and territories, recognised allies and enemies, and correct and incorrect behaviours - all coded in an imagistic vocabulary we would simply classify as "myth".

Practitioners rely on these myths to navigate subtleties and experiences that belong to a shared communicable reality. It is "sharable" because the same mythological roots are encoded into the experiences of everyday life.

You might meet Shakti in an altered state and learn about the places, animals and plants that are under her protection. In your normal state, you will recognise her in the cooking vessel on the stove, in the greeting of a stranger in the street, and the style of a business contracting ritual.

When we westerners (or members of post-industrial, post-capitalist societies) lost our own traditional use of these substances, we also lost the complex web of imaginal connections in which they belong.

And while we might celebrate the opportunity to reclaim our own relationship to plant medicines, we have a lot of work to do to revalue our lost mythologies.

In their absence, we tend to make three different compensating moves, when we encounter the wild, deep psyche.

Compensating move #1: Psychologising

The first move is to turn to psychology to make "sense" of the experience. This is our tendency to psychologise the mythic. We see archetypal figures in psychedelic and dream experiences as reflections of our personal psychology, or we literalise them as guides for our personal development.

Images and visions "represent" things in our personal history. They "offer personal guidance" for our ambitions and personal development. They heal our individual wounds.

In an episode of The Emerald podcast entitled, "The revolution will not be psychologized" (attached below), Josh Schrei points out that psychedelics are magnifiers. When psychedelic experiences are approached as only psychological, they magnify the sense that "everything is in my head" and can lead to a feeling that "I am the most important thing in the universe".

"In individual psychedelic therapy sessions, things may arise that the modern psychotherapeutic practitioner doesn't have the vocabulary to recognise," without access to mythologies that translate them for human minds.

It is easy to see how reverence and respect for an encounter with something completely "other" is lost in this way. However, be careful to veer to the other extreme. Let's look at the second move.

Compensating move #2: Materialising

In this move, we enter the psychedelic encounter ready to meet entities, deities and demons. We either want to explore worlds as "psychonauts", mining those planes for knowledge and power, or we want to be cushioned in a sense of greater wisdom, cradled by giant mothering and fathering figures to whom we can surrender the struggle of being human in a messy complicated world.

There may be appreciation for the objective "other" encountered in the journey. But that appreciation is frequently coloured by a longing to be rescued from the mess of the daily grind. To be "given" something valuable which is not available elsewhere.

Essentially, with this move, the Anima Mundi remains locked in the psychedelic encounter, shrouded in mystical veils, and styled in exotic costumes.

The sense of an empty, meaningless, de-souled immediate world is simply reinforced.

Compensating move #3: Spiritualising

If the psychedelic experience is spiritualised, we might desire a temporary "ego-death" - a key moment where my sense of self dissolves, and I experience a merging with a greater consciousness. Many find solace in this experience as they return, reporting that they no longer fear death. (See some of the findings from studies at John Hopkins).

However, while this transcendent spiritual approach is valuable, it remains unclear whether the experience changes the way a person lives in relation to the ordinary world around them - or whether an ecological consciousness is restored.

Each of these three moves maintains the split between the human psyche and the world psyche.

What we need: Imaginal intelligence

These moves might be perfectly adequate if all we want is individual development. But they fall short of fostering deep-rooted ecological connectedness.

The missing link between our post-industrial consciousness and older animist cultures is not access to the psychedelic experience. On its own, this encounter cannot restore the skills that animist cultures have practised for millennia.

I would follow the suggestion of James Hillman. Instead of psychologising mythology (and the psychedelic realm), let's practice remythologising our psychology - and our modern world.

Animist cultures mythologise the world around them. Not just "nature" as a distinct separate sphere. This was the example I gave earlier of Shakti informing the way a culture will cook, socialise and conduct business.

So, the "missing link" for us lies neither in psychedelics nor in "getting back to nature" but in developing a sophisticated relationship between the mythic and the everyday.

Let me put it more simply: we need to "rewild" our psyches, not by returning to nature but by bringing a wilder more natural faculty of perception back into our everyday consciousness.

It's easy to feel "connected" when we see a beautiful sunset, or when experiencing ego-death in a rainforest. It is not so easy to remember that feeling when we get home to our dirty dishes. It takes imaginal muscles to experience the Anima Mundi and rewild the actual, daily life we are living - whether it is by the lake, on the farm or sitting in a high-rise apartment. And if we don't do this work, we remain disconnected and unresponsive to the crisis around us.

When an imaginal sense of the anima mundi guides our micro-decisions in personal, social, political and environmental disciplines, it is not so easy to destroy the planet with a series of unconscious micro-aggressions. It allows the human psyche to be more closely involved and invested in the rhythms, processes and well-being of the worlds we occupy.

A case for Imaginal Therapy

"Therapy" that makes this possible looks very different from what most of us are used to. Practices such as dream and image tending restore the links between the imaginal (psychedelic or dream) realm and the everyday world. It starts with bringing imagination back to individual experiences, afflictions and desires, as well as the relationships with people spaces, and objects around us. We need to see them with the same eyes that are opened through a psychedelic (or dream) encounter. ​

So, just like a good martial artist, we practice our imaginal moves in the kitchen, in busy traffic, while watching Netflix and planning our careers.

Then, when this imaginal perception becomes second nature, when we are skilled enough to maintain it as simple background noise in ordinary states, we find ourselves back in dialogue with the living consciousness of the world. What is isolated and personal, begins to connect meaningfully to the deep collective. Good for our injured psyches and good for the planet.

This is the restoration work that C.G. Jung started. It has been kept alive in dusty libraries, exclusive institutions and expensive analysts' offices. Now it is time to move it out into the streets.


The following podcast captures some of these ideas. It is many years old but still relevant. I particularly enjoy the wrestle between James Hillman and the interviewer in the clash of paradigms for understanding what therapy is.

And here is Josh Schrei's insightful podcast on the dangers of over-psychologizing.


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