Updated: Sep 27, 2022
Craig Chalquist, PhD
What Is Worldreading?
When as a boy I saw three green flying saucers high overhead, a nearby lightning strike that left no blast mark, a ghostly flash in the window of an abandoned house, and a hidden realm interwoven with the roots of plants, I was told such things do not exist because they are imaginary. My dreams, my fantasies about futuristic societies, and the science fiction and fantasy tales I devoured belonged in the same category.
The split between real and imaginary hardened as I got older, as it does for so many of us, but the ideological wall between them showed uncanny holes. The pastor and youth teachers at the Lutheran church said that the miracles of Jesus belonged in the "real" category even though we had never seen them. But hard-headed people said they were as imaginary as sprouting wings and flying Rapturously skyward. Meanwhile, franchises like Disney, Star Wars, and Star Trek made real millions selling the imaginary. It was confusing.
Things began to clear when I came across the work of C. G. Jung, whose self-experiments with altered states revealed inner characters with opinions very different from his. Jung's findings confirmed a long, worldwide distinction between "imaginary," or things made up by the conscious mind, and "imaginal," Henry Corbin's word for a realm of being with rules and powers invisible by day but active in vision and dream. Every creative person knows this realm. All of us visit it at night.
Unlike the heaven of mainstream religion, the realm of the imaginal coexists with earthly life. We walk and breathe in it, usually without realizing it until it surprises us with an unexpected image or event. "A mere nothing suffices," wrote Hermann Hesse, "and the lightning strikes."
Worldreading involves partnering with the imaginal in order to interpret the symbols living all around us. Worldreading places us in a world of presences rather than objects; a world in which everything is speaking.
Worldreading is not a doctrine, an abstract philosophy, a religion, or a solely psychological approach. It is a loreway: a set of eco-connective imaginal practices playfully carried out in ways that harmonize us with ourselves, each other, and the sentient world filled with symbols that speak.
Here is a podcast that gives an overview of Worldread.
Worldreading versus Believing
Some years back while teaching terrapsychology at Schumacher College in England, I invited my class to stand in a circle near some large stones out on Dartmoor and entertain a reversal. Normally, we go through the world as its witnesses. Instead, I asked them to imagine that the place itself was watching us. How might it let us know that?
As we stood reflecting, a raven flew in. It circled us exactly once while cawing gently, then flew off. Everyone present, including the ecologist co-teaching the class that day, felt as though the place had said hello to us. The feeling was uncanny.
Jung would have called that a synchronicity: one of those meaningful coincidences that connect events acausally, as when you dream about a friend absent for years and they contact you the next day. The dream did not "cause" the call, nor vice versa. Yet the feel linked. Jung believed he had stumbled upon a new physical law.
However, we did not perceive the raven over Dartmoor as a law. It felt more like a symbol or a gesture that showed us how intimately we were held there. The ideological wall between nature and culture, self and world, came down for a moment.
Some would dismiss such events as coincidences. The problem is that they show up all the time to a sensitized interpretive consciousness. They occur so frequently that the reductive explanation of the human propensity for seeing patterns everywhere is unconvincing.
We can avoid the real-vs-imaginary dichotomy our cultures saddle us with by treating the things of the world - events, headlines, bridges, ravens, rainstorms, highways - as symbols to be imaginatively interpreted. Imagination then serves as a kind of gnosis, a direct knowing of meanings playing out on every side as bright and ephemeral as sudden moonlight.
Religion too deals with interpretable events, including mystical perceptions. The difference is that religion takes such events literally. Literal miracles instead of wisdom tales. Literal historical figures instead of interesting fictional characters with something to teach us. A symbol treated literally degenerates into a sign to be handled in only one way: by meaning pre-assigned to it by some authority.
Belief in these meanings is not playful. It is fixed in doctrine, privilege, and power. Belief then comes to be more important than experience, imagination, or exploration. Differences of belief have spilled blood.
Belief divides; play brings together. Worldreading is a form of play. Instead of taking myths literally and thereby flattening them into ideology, a playful eye looks upon them creatively, as open to many meanings. As such, worldreading can be a path of spirituality beyond belief.
A Tradition of Imaginal Knowing
The guidance of nature-honoring wisdom through powers of imagination enjoys a long history. All long-standing cultures have relied on this guidance from very early on.
One strand of this tradition reaches back to ancient Egyptian religion. By the time Alexandria rose to worldwide prominence, several cultural groups in this cosmopolitan city blended stories and practices into Hermeticism, the esoteric Way of the Mage, a path of contemplation, speech, ritual, and action that drew on Egyptian teachings of Heka - a web of cosmic correspondences - to bring forth symbol-tending imaginings of how humans might achieve our full statue in a cosmos of sentient powers.
From Hermeticism came Gnosticism, which told stories of Sophia as a key cosmic power, and then alchemy: not merely a quest for gold from lead, but a sophianic bridge between sacred experience and matter held as ensouled.
In these approaches to deep knowledge, in the Islamic gnosticism of Suhrawardi and Ibn 'Arabi, in Renaissance natural magic, European Romantic poetry and philosophy, depth psychology, spiritual ecology, and terrapsychology, the imaginal links human consciousness with the sacred depths of the universe. Little wonder so many scientists have been influenced by Hermeticism. From it Copernicus inherited the image of a central sun. Newton was a practicing alchemist. Jung wore a Hermetic signet ring.
Hermeticism is one strand of a Silver Chain of Earth-appreciating knowledge through the medium of imaginal consciousness. Other examples include the Book of Nature motif in Christianity, Transcendentalism, Taoism, and Shinto.
We see this triad of the imaginal, love of the sacred, and care of each other glimmering in all the world religions despite their ossification. Although they have grown increasingly monolithic and authoritarian over time, the core teachings from which they grew remain as vital as ever. Some examples:
Zoroastrianism: Walk a Threefold Path of Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds.
Buddhism: Freedom from attachments that do not serve diminishes suffering.
Hinduism: Enlightenment unites the personal soul with its Source.
Jainism: Do no harm and respect all living things.
Taoism: Align with the ever-changing flux of the natural order.
Judaism: We form a covenant with the Divine that is binding on both sides.
Christianity: Love God and your neighbor as yourself.
Islam: Signs of the Divine appearing across the universe await appreciation.
Shinto: Honor one another and the holy powers of nature.
Sikh Dharma: Be devoted to the Creator, live truthfully, serve humanity.
Bahai: Humanity is one.
Freed of authority, literalism, and absolutist belief, Worldreading may go its way as a playful path of story, heart, and soul.
Worldreading in Practice
Above is an example of interpreting an event - courtesy of the raven - symbolically, as part of a continuing conversation which humans too are involved in. Thomas Berry, Victoria Loorz, David Abram, and many others have suggested we learn to speak deer, meadow, leaf, rain: nonverbal languages - "strange sympathies" (Emerson) - of image, presence, and feeling.
Since we want to feel more at home where we are, terrapsychological tools for knowing one's place might be helpful. Basics include learning what bioregion surrounds us, what the seasons and star patterns here are like, which insects, plants, and animals live here, where our electricity and water come from, the history of settlement, what the original inhabitants told stories about, who among them are still here, what harms and aids the local ecology, where your food is grown and how. Then we make the terrapsychological move: Where does all this show up in my moods, goals, relationships, fantasies, symptoms, and dreams?
Speaking of seasons, I try to take the hint from them and slow down in winter. Also, I get up at dawn and start winding down the day at dusk. I have not always had the privilege of doing this, or of rising when my body awakens rather than when a clock gets me up. But I've worked to position myself to more closely align how I live with seasonal patterns. What you eat can be part of this too.
Some celebrate solstices and equinoxes and other times of seasonal transition. Behind Christmas and Hanukkah, for example, abides the annual return of light to the world. Worldreading tends the symbolism of these events while embracing the spirit of play and experimentation. Making rituals that leave room for improvising and telling inspiring tales is a creative act that affirms our relationship with the cycles of the natural world.
Finding private contemplative time is also important. Meditation upon awakening and reflection before bedtime offers a discipline even the busy can squeeze in. The meditation need not be formalized. Watching one's breath is a common mindfulness practice; I extend it to awareness of heart and lungs pulsing together, with "heart" not only the pump in the chest, but a chamber of imaginings and emotional responses, where inwardness and outwardness alternate like heartbeats. In the evening I might take a meditative walk so I can listen to the imaginal sound of the world, a sound sensed more in the heart than through the ears. Sensory awareness practice is important and keeps us in touch with our surroundings.
A creative practice enlivens the soul and calms and grounds the mind and body. Some people collage or simply collect images online. I write hopeful fiction, sketch, and create graphic art. I also listen to music. Creative acts tend to put us in touch with what is about to emerge from the zone between our inner life and the world around us. By the way, I could use some help with the fiction. Have you got any stories, images, etc. to contribute?
Community practices might include a weekly ritual of gratitude, rest, and celebration (Judaism and Christianity observe the sabbath, for example), service projects to make resources available for people in need, and circles for deep study, support, discussing Ten Lamps philosophy, and dreaming together to imagine and express the kinds of community we would most like to belong to. Heartsteads are small-group gatherings that provide safe space for problem-solving, imagining, worldreading, loreologizing, enchantivism, and trying out the new. Connecting heartsteads would weave a web of possibility, cultural experimentation, and practical dreaming wherever it extended.
Imagine a worldwide network of worldreaders bringing the magic and the hope. Sometimes it's the story told well that carries us to the next phase of fuller humanness.